Until a couple of months ago, I never knew that my late grandfather had once worked in a banana field. That piece of ancestral trivia rolled off my father’s tongue while we were en route, driving from Montreal to Toronto, as if it were common family lore. I was asking him about his own life – and his father’s.
“Huh? Ticu planted banana trees and picked bananas?”
“Well, yes. He couldn’t find work as an architect when they escaped from Romania to Israel, so he took whatever jobs he could find.”
That is how I learned, many years after his death, more details about my grandfather’s life. When my dad was still young, his father would return home with dirt under his fingernails, with soiled clothes, exhausted from tilling the earth in the midday sun. These bits of my grandfather’s life were all so surprising and alien, so unlike the history of the man I thought I had known about; the bourgeois-reared polymath, adventurous traveler and proud pioneer of modernist architecture in Romania.
But there it was. New stories, slowly revealing themselves to me, about my Bucharest-born grandfather. A man who, though bred in a family of wealth, distinction and status, was blessed with an abundance of personal traits that belied his background, and values that stood him in good stead throughout the most tumultuous periods of his life.
A man who, for reasons still unknown to me, purchased (or was gifted) an intricately carved 18th-century Italian gun ‘flintlock’ and kept it among his cherished possessions – without telling any of his immediate family about its origins… or his interest in antique firearms.
A man who not only read each issue of LIFE magazine from cover to cover when it appeared, but so valued its images and stories, that he himself bound many years’ worth into heavy volumes.
A man whose head bore a perpetually-tilted beret over all the winters that I knew him (a comforting nod to his European roots), and sported a weathered winter scarf because its warmth far outweighed any desire for a more bespoke or contemporary accessory.
A man who laid on the bacon – onto freshly-baked baguettes, dripping with butter; who tucked us into bed during sleepovers with a glass of ginger ale at our bedsides; who sat on the ground to play toy trains with us.
My grandfather, Jules – we called him Ticu – couldn’t care less about self-indulgence, vanity, the need to impress. He was impervious to opulence and flattery; utterly focused and attentive to all that he did and said. That which mattered above all else: family.
Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Ticu, together with his (much) more renowned brother, built some of the finest, spacious and most innovative modernist homes in Bucharest. As time passed, his brother’s fame and reputation escalated, eclipsing – if not completely stamping out – my grandfather’s contributions to their combined omnibus of sleekly designed edifices, homes and complexes. (Included in this pantheon of Romanian architectural heritage, is one of the largest pool and activity centers in Bucharest that still stands today – though the Strandul has undergone extensive renovations since its opening in the early 1930s. If not preserved by his family, my grandfather’s extensive collection of sketches, drawings and photographs of his work, would have fallen into oblivion.)
Earlier still, while they both studied architecture in Zurich, the brothers (and their friends) participated in the inaugural evening of the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. Although Ticu’s brother, Marcel, would go on to become known as a co-founder of Dadaism, my grandfather’s sketches and costumes for their nightly stage productions were barely acknowledged.
After the banana field phase, my grandfather eventually resurrected his architectural career – both in Israel, and later in Montreal. Ticu designed, erected or renovated hospitals, hotels, office buildings and homes; and in the early 1970s, he and my father spent untold evenings poring over their finely tweaked architectural plans for our future family home.
He was a fine man, my grandfather. A learned, loving man. One who imparted knowledge together with a love of distant lands and cultures; never once pining for the lost grandeur and glamour of his youth, nor expressing any bitterness over his forgotten legacy.
Well into his late 80s, Ticu continued to drive to work, dropping my sister and I off at college along the way. Occasionally, I’d wonder if his rickety Oldsmobile was safe for him, for any of us.
Once in awhile, during my university years, a break in my schedule permitted me to walk a few blocks to visit Ticu in his small office – in a building he had designed. We’d sit while he gently unpacked a lunch that my grandmother had prepared; each item individually and meticulously wrapped up in a recycled patch of wax paper, then tightly wound up with an elastic band. While my grandfather nibbled away, he asked me about my studies.
His entire meal would be stuffed into a dented cookie tin, a memento that (I seem to recall) might have been imported from the old country. I never tired of watching him patiently remove each elastic, unwrap, unfold, eat and refold all the bits. His movements were so slow and graceful; as if each gesture mirrored the gratitude he felt for his wife’s efforts.
I can still picture his hands, with fingers, so creased and nubby, yet soft to the touch.
He’d be ready for dessert, which more often than not meant unwrapping one more piece of wax paper – or unfurling a paper bag. There it was, almost every time: a not-so-perfect, slightly brown, slightly dented banana.
My late grandfather was born 120 years ago today. As grateful as I am for all the love he gave so freely, all the goodness he shared, some days I still find myself aching to see him again, ask him questions: What do you make of our world today: technology, humanity, the environment, Tadao Ando‘s work.
Ticu passed away on a most auspicious day: February 14th, 1985 – his delicate, modest, subtle way of confirming that he was with us still, loving us from here to eternity.