Orange Juice, Melons, and Tea Parties: A Tribute to Michael

(My daughter, Melissa, a writer who has her own site, flyingnotscreaming, will be a guest contributor to my blog for the next two weeks. Last Thursday, I lost my husband Michael. In this post, Melissa shares some of her memories of her stepfather that happen to revolve around food. –Mary)

by Melissa Myers Place

I first met Michael Hirsch when he was courting my mother. I was a sophomore in college and back in Des Moines for a winter break. Just after I’d awakened my first morning home, Michael pulled into my mom’s driveway.  He was on his way to his OB/GYN practice, and was looking dapper in his suit and bow tie (few men can pull off that combo). He rolled down his window and handed my mother a heavy crystal glass full of fresh-squeezed orange juice. My mother explained to me with a blush that this was their morning routine since meeting several months previously. It was enough to gross out the nineteen-year-old I was back then, but still, I couldn’t ignore the obvious: Michael was crazy about my mother and she was pretty smitten with him.

Several months later, my mother married her handsome doctor. Since I had pretty much left the nest and already had a close relationship with my biological father, Michael wisely suggested that we just be friends. Soon after, we settled into an easy and comfortable relationship.

 

Mary and Michael Hirsch

 

Since my mother’s call last Thursday morning to tell me that Michael died peacefully in his sleep after his decade-long struggle with Alzheimer’s, I have been thinking about our twenty-six year friendship and the memories he and I made together. As I have, it occurred to me that many of our shared experiences revolved around food. In no way, shape, or form was Michael a gourmet, but he had specific food preferences that tickled us and irked us, occasionally at the same time.

As I learned that first day in my mother’s driveway, he insisted on fresh-squeezed orange juice each and every morning. He was borderline rude to any wait staff who tried to serve him “that fake stuff from a concentrate.”  Each winter, Michael had cases of Honeybell oranges shipped to Aspen, Colorado, where he and my mother relocated after his retirement from medicine. Honeybells, which are called the “diamond of the citrus world,” are only grown in Florida and their availability is limited to the month of January. The other months of the year, Michael had to make do with ordinary oranges, but nevertheless, morning juice was always fresh-squeezed and always served in a crystal glass.

Other than juicing oranges, Michael didn’t do much in the kitchen, but he was a master when standing out on the deck beside his Weber. He even used his grilling savvy to bolster my love life. When I brought home my new boyfriend midway through my senior year of college, Michael, with his typical generosity, packed us into his Jeep Cherokee, stuffed my wallet with money, gave us a key to his condo in Aspen, and sent us on our way. Before we pulled out of the driveway, he handed us a huge tupperware container of barbequed chicken that he’d spent the afternoon grilling (after clearing the deck of snow: it was January in Iowa). My boyfriend ate that chicken as we drove through the night towards Colorado. The white shirt he was wearing was never the same again, but he loved every bite. And I loved Michael for his matchmaking efforts. That boyfriend and I have been married for twenty-three years now.

 

“The Boyfriend,” Melissa, Mary, and Michael

 

But where Michael really shone was as a grandfather.  He came to grandparenthood late, at seventy-two, but he enjoyed every moment of the the years he had with my children before the disease took too much of his mind. He would watch their every move as newborns, toddlers, and then preschoolers, his eyes shining with pride. Grinning from ear to ear, he’d say, “Aren’t they wonderful? They’re just wonderful. Aren’t they wonderful?”

 

Grandpa Hirsch with his youngest granddaughter Clara

 

“Yes, Michael,” we’d all groan, teasing him for sounding like a broken record, but his appreciation and adoration of his grandchildren was wonderfully endearing.  And I learned early on that when it came to my girls, there was nothing he wouldn’t do. Even if it meant driving twenty-six hours round trip to pick up me and my newborn who was wearing me out from her constant crying.

“I’m so tired,” I sobbed during a call to my mom and Michael six weeks after my oldest daughter was born. “I need help. She cries all the time and I don’t know why.”

 

Michael and Mary as proud new grandparents with Emma.

 

 

My mom and Michael were at my doorstep in Bishop, California the very next day. Without a single complaint, Michael settled my new baby and myself in the backseat and we headed back to Aspen. It was a long, long drive with a nursing newborn, but as always, Michael was a good sport. And he needed to be because my mom and I together are a force to be reckoned with. We are quick-witted and quick-tongued, a tad bossy, and uproariously funny (or so we think). Often, especially during that visit, our humor was at Michael’s expense.

As we made our way home, Michael, despite our protests, made a stop at a melon stand in Green River, Utah to buy several (FIVE!) huge melons. This stand was known for its casaba melons and Michael loved melons almost as much as he loved fresh-squeezed orange juice. But my mom, my newborn, and I were tired and cranky, and we did not appreciate the delay.  We were impatient and annoyed as he squeezed the melons into the already full trunk, and kept talking on and on about how these were the best melons in the whole world and how we were going to love them.

Shortly after leaving Utah, Michael, as usual, was driving too fast. (Michael was skilled at many things, but driving was not one of them.) He was unable to slow in time to avoid a construction bump in the road, and he hit it hard, jarring us all.  Both my mom and I started upbraiding him about the newborn in the backseat and demanded that he slow down and pay more careful attention.

In the midst of our verbal tirade, I noticed that the whole car started to smell like melons.  My exhaustion got the best of me, and I started to laugh. “It smells like melons,” I shrieked with near hysteria. “I think the melons broke.” Soon my mom was helpless with laughter as well. Michael was not amused. He didn’t talk to us the rest of the way home even though we would sporadically break into uncontrollable giggles and the scent of melon lingered in the air.

Whether or not any melons actually broke in the trunk, I don’t know. He never told us. And with uncharacteristic selfishness, he ate every bit of those melons without offering us a single slice. My mom and I brought up “the melon incident” at every family gathering, and each time Michael looked at us as if he’d just tasted something sour, never cracking a smile, which, of course, made us laugh even harder.

He was a good guy like that. He let us laugh and be who we were, and secretly he relished every moment of it. The last joyful memory I have of Michael, before the light went out in his eyes and he became someone I couldn’t recognize, was during his final visit to Bishop. The night before he and my mother were scheduled to leave, he lay down on the floor where my girls were playing. He was exhausted from the busy weekend (he was probably seventy-seven years old at the time and we’d kept him hopping.)  As he lay there on his back, my daughters setup a tea party on his belly–little cups filled with water that inevitably spilled on his shirt and bits of cookies that he’d periodically snitch from their plates. “GRANDPA HIRSCH!” the girls would shout. “No stealing the cookies!” He’d feign innocence and chuckle at their outrage.

At one point, as they played, he turned his head towards where I was sitting, careful not to disturb the set up on his belly, and said, “This is the happiest moment of my life. Aren’t they wonderful?”

Yes, Michael. They are wonderful and so were you in many, many ways.

 

Grandpa Hirsch with Emma and Clara

 

No one knows what happens in the afterlife, but I hope with all my heart, that Michael, my friend for over half of my life, is somehow reliving the memory of that happy tea party with his grandchildren. And that he is being served fresh-squeezed orange juice and slightly damaged melons.

 

Comments

  1. Renee Deutsch says

    What fabulous and memorable pictures of Mikcy. Great story. Brings tears to my eyes.
    Good Job, ReNEe

  2. Lynn Burgoyne says

    I feel like I’ve known Michael for years even though I’ve never met him. Melissa, this is such a lovely, endearing tribute to honor him. Hugs to you, Mary and the girls.

  3. says

    What a beautiful memory. It takes a very special person to figure out how to fit into a family – it sounds like Michael was that type of person.

  4. Jane Carey says

    Melissa, I can hear Michael say “aren’t they wonderful”. He also used wonderful to describe
    you, Mary and particularly Mary’s cooking and entertaining skills. This usually occurred before an event while he was stuffing himself with as many shrimp as possible before Mary
    busted him. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Jan Sarpa says

    John and I loved Michael so very much. He was always smiling and had the best twinkel in his eye of anyone I ever knew. We have such great memories of wonderful dinner parties at Mary’s and Michael’s home in Aspen. He loved his daughter’s and Mary so much as well..it was very evident. Rest with the angels dear, sweet, handsome man! Jan and John Sarpa

  6. Mary says

    From: Harriet
    Subject: Michael – My birthday brother

    Melissa, I just read your beautiful reflection of your ” friend” Michael.

    Michael and I shared a birthday, 18th November and even though there are a few years between our birth year I felt as though he was a brother.
    We shared a special understanding knowing that we were both ” Scorpios” both born under the same intense star.

    Mary and Michael were always the most handsome of couples and I rarely saw one without the other in the later years of knowing THE HIRSCHs. Their marriage and commitment to one another was an inspiration.

    With so many lovely memories of a dignified, funny, sweet and delightful
    big ” brother” I too wish he is the land of ‘FRESH JUICE AND MELONS.’

    Sending all my condolences to all your family.

    Sincerely,
    Harriet Spalding.

  7. says

    Got here through the tuesdays with dorie website. What a beautiful post. as we say, “may his memory be for a blessing…”

  8. Bernie Grauer says

    I knew Michael for just a few years in Aspen. In that time I discovered a real “soul brother.” We shared many interests, values and attitudes in life, except he’s a natural optimist, I’m not. Seeing Michael and Mary at their house our ours for dinner was always a pleasure to anticipate. A very real, good, kind, caring man is who I’ll always remember. Here’s to you Michael. Bernie

  9. Dotty Jacobs says

    We have wonderful memories of Michael. We’ve missed him terribly. We love you Mary with all our hearts. Dotty and Buddy

  10. says

    What a lovely and touching tribute. Michael sounds like he was the most amazing man, but then I would expect nothing less than that for your mom because from just the little bit I have come to know her through this blog and her comments on mine, I think she is pretty amazing as well. Thank gou so mich for sharing your memories and photos with us. My thoughts and prayers are with all of you.

  11. Mary says

    Mary & Melissa,
    Loved the terrific pictures and tribute Melissa did. Thanks for helping us remember him at his some of his finest moments! Jim and I had not known Michael until we met him in Aspen with you, Mary….a surprise encounter at Lee & Joanne Lyon’s house. I can’t even recall the year but we immediately fell in love with Michael and his warm, wonderful personality. What a charmer he was! And we so treasure the times we spent with Michael and our special friend, Mary. Dinner at the Hirsch household was always a great treat. Other Iowa friends (all the Des Moines ladies) always reminded us that he was probably the most popular doctor in town and that every one of his OB/GYN patients was madly in love with him!!

    And speaking of Michael and food: Mary, I know you weren’t thrilled when Michael went through his phase of flipping burgers over at Highlands (or was it Buttermilk??) in the winter but we always thought it was typical of his warmth and love of people that he wanted to be busy and right in the middle of things. It has been too many years that we have missed him…now it will be forever. But he is just a thought away….

    Much love to all of your family,
    Your Iowa buddies, Mary & Jim

  12. Mary says

    Hi Mary. I just saw your post, and I wanted to send my sincere condolences on your loss. Your daughter’s tribute is just beautiful. Please take your time, and come back when you feel ready.

    Many many many hugs from your TWD family.

    Jules

  13. Leslie and Robert Freimuth says

    Aloha Mary and Melissa and ‘boyfriend’,

    Thank you so much for a wonderful and heartfelt blog! Bob and I enjoyed this with our coffee this morning. We remembered Michael coming into the store and buying his Sancere. We also giggle about the dinner at Amy’s with the fun banter between Jack and Michael. Michael always made everyone feel so happy! We now know the happiest moments with our little grand boys!

    With love and hope to see you in Aspen,

    Bob and Leslie Freimuth

  14. Anita Daly says

    We are truely sorry for your loss Mary,
    thank you for sharing those special memories with all of us, they are priceless!
    I will make sure to toast Michael while drinking my next glass of OJ .. God Bless Anita

  15. says

    Melissa, I met your mother Mary through her wonderful blog and I always tremendously enjoy reading her posts. And I was very touched when I read your loving tribute to Michael.

    Please accept out heartfelt sympathies for your and your family´s loss!

  16. says

    Such an amazing tribute to your dear stepfather, Melissa…your words brought tears to my eyes. The world has obviously lost a gem of a man.

  17. Donna says

    Melissa…I knew Michael and I know your Mom….how fabulous of you to give us your perspective on both your Mom & Michael. What a tribute to both. The melon story was probably top secret until you spilled the seeds so to speak.
    Donna G.

  18. Jacqueline O'Leary says

    What a beautiful tribute to a clearly special person. I did not know him but met your Mom in France and I could tell he was something special by the way she spoke of him. What a lovely memory you describe.

  19. says

    Not exactly sure how I came to your site, but I stayed to read as my last name is Hirsch and I lived in Aspen too. I’m so glad I did. Michael sounds like the most darling man in the world. Thank you for sharing his story. May he rest in peace and may your wonderful memories comfort you.
    Lori Lynn

    • Mary says

      Why thank you, Lori. I sent this on to my daughter, Melissa, who wrote this lovely tribute and she was touched. I think you connected to me through Liz (how does that woman cook so beautifully and stay so skinny – that’s in the “not fair” department”). I took a look at your Site and subscribed immediately and even am now following all your Boards. Insta-Fan rather than Insta-Gram.

  20. Nancy & Al Siwak says

    What wonderful memories and such a beautiful tribute to Michael. What a special guy to leave all of us with our own fond memories! He will be missed. We send our love, Nancy & Al

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