Martin Wekselman, R.I.P.

March 1, 2015

A week ago, my grandfather, Martin Wekselman, died while in an assisted living facility in Pittsburgh. He was 87. He had been living with cancer for several years, and it will probably turn out that that’s what killed him. He was given the option, while he was still able to communicate, to do something to treat the cancer, but he turned it down. Probably he just didn’t want to deal with it. That was his way of coping with certain things. He outlived my grandmother, his wife, Selma, by thirteen years, which is amazing to me. I figured he’d be dead within a couple of years of her passing. They were extremely devoted to each other, and had been married for fifty-three years. Probably it was the intervention of my mother and my aunt that kept him alive. They left him to his own devices for some years, but when it became clear that he could no longer take care of himself, they got power of attorney over him, and had him put in the facility. He was furious about it, but if it hadn’t been for that, he probably would have fallen in the shower or something, and that would have been the end of it. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing that he stayed alive the extra years or not. I guess it’s all about quality of living when you get to that age, and it’s hard to say just what exactly his quality of life was toward the end. The last couple of years, he wasn’t able or willing to talk, so he couldn’t have said. He seemed to be in some discomfort last week; they ran some tests, and discovered a mass in his abdomen. They gave him some morphine for the pain, and he just stopped breathing. They say it was pretty peaceful. I’m glad for that, at least. It sounds like all things considered, it could have been worse.

I didn’t like my grandfather much. Few people did. He had Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a kind of autism. It can manifest itself different ways, but in the case of Martin, it was as though he was able to feel things himself, but he wasn’t able to conceive of anybody else having feelings. It was as though he had no empathy for anyone at all. He was abusive to my mom and my aunt and uncle growing up, not physically, but more psychologically and verbally. When you consider what it must have been like, it’s remarkable that my mom came out of that household as loving and well adjusted as she did. She told me that at some point she made a conscious decision that her life, the one that she made for herself away from her father, was going to be different than the one she had endured. It’s a very brave thing, breaking the cycle, and I admire and love her always for that. As far as my grandfather goes, I’ll never be able to understand why Selma, who I always thought was a wonderful and funny person, was married to someone like that. She always maintained that there was a part of him that most people didn’t see, or that he was just misunderstood, and maybe that was the case. If so, I never got to see it. The man once screamed at me for holding a spoon the wrong way. My sister remembers him as a scary, brooding presence in the apartment where we used to visit them in Pittsburgh, and I agree. We looked forward to those road trips when my parents were still together so we could see Selma, not so much Martin.

Martin was a judge during his professional life, which makes perfect sense to me, since he was, in fact, so judgmental. He must have been a stern presence on the bench, and an intimidating one. He lost an eye in a car crash, and the glass one only made him seem more inhuman to me. One eye would be looking at you, the other one would be off tracking a fly in a corner somewhere. But as inhuman as he seemed to me, it would have been a mistake to consider him an outright monster. He was capable of love; I know that he loved Selma, and probably his children too, in his own warped way. He was a staunch supporter of equal and civil rights for all, and he and my grandmother took part in the March on Washington with Dr. King. We are none of us one thing, and while he wasn’t much of a father, anyone who instilled good values in his children, which he unquestionably did, can’t have been all bad.

Martin, my Zada, is the last of my grandparents, and, as such, he’s kind of the last of the old guard. I eulogized David Gresky, my fraternal grandmother’s second husband, here on the site in 2009, and Dora, my fraternal grandmother, in the summer of 2012. Now there’s no one from that generation left, not that has real connection to me. Martin smoked for the early part of his adulthood, he was an alcoholic who loved his whiskey sours and martinis, he ate unhealthy foods, and he seldom exercised. Despite all that, he lived to 87. My fraternal grandmother, Dora, lived to 98. This probably means that if I take decent care of myself, and don’t get hit by a bus, or something, I have a better than average chance of living a good long life. I can’t say that I’m going to miss Zada, exactly. We didn’t have a special relationship, or a close one, or even much of one at all. I have few good memories of him. The only one that springs readily to mind is when he and Selma took my sister and me to a Pirates game at the old Three Rivers Stadium. It was the first time that I tried a piece of pizza. I remember him as being happy then…he loved sports, and I remember us being happy too, me and Ann. It was one of those things that good grandparents do with their grandchildren. But that was an isolated incident, and unfortunately, most of the other memories I can dredge up involving me and the judge are unpleasant, uncomfortable, and strained. He was of a different generation, true, but there was something about him that separated the two of us in a meaningful way; there was a gulf between us that could not be crossed. Maybe it was the Asperger’s, or maybe it was something more. I always thought, the disease explains how he is to some extent, but where does the disease end, and the man begin? Can you even begin to fairly ask such a thing? I’ll never know the answer, and this man, of my direct blood line, died without my having made a significant connection to him. That’s disappointing, but I guess we can’t pick who we’re related to. If such a thing is possible, I hope he and Selma are reunited, as I know the way they felt about each other. Martin Wekselman, a difficult man, but a member of my family, one I’d known all my life, rest in peace.

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1 Comment

  • Reply David March 20, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    When I was a young trial attorney in Allegheny County I had to appear in front of your grandfather on many occasions. They were all frightful experiences with much yelling, even though I was always prepared. The Allegheny County Bar breathed a collective sigh of relief when he retired.

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