Monthly Archives: June 2011

for Josh’s grandpa

Josh’s grandfather died last week, yesterday was his memorial service. His uncle asked me to repeat a story I told him about his father/Josh’s grandpa. I just thought I’d post it here, because he has had such an influence on my life. To understand this post, you have to know he was an expert in lab design and public health.

I am so fortunate to have known Mel, who is my husband’s Josh’s grandfather. My life is absolutely the better for it, just as the whole world is better for his having been in it. I hope he knew that—because as everyone who knew him knows, he never gave himself or anyone else a break. He always wanted you to be better, because he always knew you could be.

Since I met my husband 9 years ago, there hasn’t been a moment of my life where Mel’s influence isn’t apparent whether I knew it or not. Mel and Julia were particularly involved in Josh’s life, and their memories remain a constant presence emotionally and intellectually. Mel let me live with him while I did my dissertation research and even though he was a scientist, he has been a model for me, intellectually. He’s in the first line of my dissertation’s acknowledgements, although I never told him that because he told me I should only thank my adviser. Our son Samuel shares Mel’s grandfather’s name. I look to Mel’s and Julia’s relationship as an example to follow. I am honored to have their wedding ring as my own. We were able to travel out here every summer after Samuel was born, and Mel took such pleasure in his great-grandson. I was afraid, last year especially when Samuel was a two year old and having some difficult moods, that a little chaos in his house would be stressful for Mel, who liked order. But no, it was in fact Mel who was telling me that Samuel was just where he should be, and to enjoy the two year old madness. Last summer, Samuel could talk and Mel would sit and listen intently to this little boy babbling as if Samuel were telling him the solution to an impossible equation or solving the world’s political problems.

But then there are other examples, from outside the family, that always remind you when you weren’t even thinking about it, that Melvin First was here, thankfully.

I spent a lot of time sitting on the stairs in Mel’s office, while he sat at his desk. Those of you who’ve been to his house know that he had this huge TV on his desk (or at least it was huge 8 years ago, when this story took place). He used it in combination with this magnifying device to read his mail and his newspapers in the last years of his life. He also used it to watch football. One evening, early in my relationship with Josh, we were in his office and he was flipping through channels, and landed on PBS. Right there on the screen was a Michigan professor with whom I was taking a course at the time, Readings in American Women’s History. The professor was talking about Doctor Gregory Pincus, one of the developers of the birth control pill, and it turned out the show was about his development of it. So Mel tells us, “I was in that man’s lab once. He was a sloppy scientist. I told him if he didn’t learn to close his chemicals properly, I was going to shut his lab down.” I’m sitting there thinking, uha uha, here we are talking about one of the most important medical developments of the 20th century, and what Mel said registered a little bit, but I, as an historian, was far more interested in hearing about the cultural history of the pill, and the various other political and ethical problems it raised for society. Anyway, Mel’s comment floated through my ears kind of like my mom’s complaint that I never shut pretzel bags tightly and they go stale. Now the show goes on and on for awhile, lauding some of the sacrifices Pincus made, lamenting others. It finally comes to a conclusion. Josh and I are still sitting on the steps, and Mel’s still in his chair. The voice over talks about what the pill meant for American women and then concludes, “Gregory Pincus died…from over-exposure to toxic chemicals in the lab.” If I hadn’t already been sitting, I would have fallen down. Amazing. No matter what you’re doing, Mel wants you do it better. And he’s always right: you can. We’ll miss you, Grandpa Mel.