Once he'd done well in business, he indulged himself. He played golf, bridge, was a long-time member of the Wanderers Club, went on overseas trips, ate at good restaurants, and pursued his hobby of photography. (Grandpa had several enlargers, did his own B&W and colour developing, and also had a large collection of very good cameras built up over a lifetime. Some of his old plate cameras he eventually donated to the Ben Susan museum of photography.) But he always worked extremely hard, still putting in a long, full day in his late seventies.
He was born in Graaf Reinet, a small town in the Cape Province, between Beaufort West and Somerset East. The third of five children, he outlived all but the youngest. His father Israel (born around 1872) had come from Shebilin, a village outside Riga in Latvia, and arrived in South Africa about 1890. There is a picture of Israel in a red coat doing something for the British during the Boer war. Israel started out as a smous, an itinerant peddler who sold goods to farmers. He married Rose Levinthal, who had came out to Port Elizabeth with some of her family - there were five sisters - from Middlesborough, Yorkshire. It seems he prospered, because by the time grandpa was born the Suttners had an Ostrich farm outside Graaf Reinet, and a furniture shop inside the town. They were prosperous. Israel brought one of the first cars to Graaf Reinet and Lou, the eldest brother, would drive it. But the ostrich industry collapsed, and the furniture shop burnt down. They left Graaf Reinet for Bethlehem where Israel bought a hotel with the remaining funds he had salvaged from the shop and farm. But he knew nothing of hotels, and lost the rest of his money, whereupon the family came to Johannesburg, the centre of economic opportunity. They lived in Doomfontein, where Israel opened up a grocery shop, which was also not particularly successful. Hence Grandpa's leaving school, and his apprenticeship to Metropolitan Vickers at age 14.
He learnt the considerable amount he knew about things mechanical and electrical on the job. As a young man, raced motorbikes, when the sport was in its infancy in South Africa. He also courted Lily Langstein - as Jacob did - for seven years, and then married hel. At that stage, as she told the slightly embarrassed young rabbi who came to see her immediately after Grandpa's death, she was still a virgin. Lily Langstein's father was born in Prague. Her mother, Isabel Cohen came from England. Her parents too, were unsuccessful in business, and ended up owning a boarding house, Villa Georgetta, in Louis Botha. Before that they had variously owned a hotel, a fruit shop, something in the Tattersalls (7). Lily said her father liked good living, bridge, entertaining, more than working. She says her parents were a very harmonious couple, and when her father had money he was good to his wife by "buying her lots of jewellery.
Theirs was an Anglo-Jewish home. No yiddishisms, samovars or recollections of the old country. They had both been born in South Africa, shaped by British culture as it was represented in South Africa, spoke English without accents, (or with the South African version of upper crust English in my Gran's case), carried no hint of the ghetto. Granny and Grandpa had two children, a daughter, June, who ran away (partly from them) to Rhodesia after marrying a goy who became a Judge which redeemed him in status conscious granny's eyes, and a son, Ron, who stayed close, very close, perhaps too close and never separated from them until his fifties. Neither Ralph or Lily were what I would consider good parents in the modem sense of connected and nurturing. They could be unfair. June didn't continue her music lessons so Dad was not allowed to learn the saxophone, something he desperately wanted to do. They were limited, almost stunted, it seems to me, in their capacity to empathise. In 1937 when their children were 5 years old (Ron, my Dad) and 9 (Aunty June) they were both put into a boarding house run by a Mrs Rudd, while Ralph and Lily went off for a trip to America. They motored across the States from New York to San Francisco. The children, by the way, were rescued by Rose Suttner, who took them to her house in Doris Street, Yeoville.
Grandpa admired America and all things American. He went to America at least five or six times. He once, when we were discussing the situation in South Africa (before 1990), much to my surprise, because, as I said, Grandpa was not much interested in philosophical statements (if he read, he read detective novels), suddenly threw out something Benjamin Franklin had said. He imported big American cars to South Africa, for his own use. He bought out a Buick Rivera in 1968, then a mid-engined Chev Corvair Coupe, a Pontiac Firebird, and after he sold that, a Chev Monte Carlo with a monster five litre engine and a bonnet that seemed to me, as a kid, to stretch for ever. I remember the smell of the interior of those cars, a leather and car polish smell, and his hands on the steering wheel in leather driving gloves. He kept on driving till 91, when he could hardly hear and was very weak. Dad took the key away from him - it was now a little old white Toyota corolla he was driving - how age humbles us - because he was a danger to himself and others. He was quite remote from us grandchildren. When I was a child he called me by some affectionate nickname Sam Bedeegs or Sam Bedoodle, from a movie or something, a name which had nothing to do with me or him, and we never progressed much beyond that level. There was no attempt to ever really get to know us, in the sense of exploring the nooks and crannies of our beings (I doubt he knew anyone, including himself, in that way) yet at the same time there was an acceptance of us as a simple fact of life which is a different - and perhaps even more profound - kind of knowing. I think everything was like that for him. Simple and uncomplicated. Not one to get tied up in knots of the mind.
He learnt on the job, at Metropolitan Vickers. He was a pioneer of radio manufacturing, making some of the first radios in the country in the back of their house in Muller Street, in Yeoville, in 1933. Crystal Radio sets, which he gave or sold to friends. One of the first went to the mayor of Benoni, George Rennie. In 1937 he became an Associate Member of the American Institute of Radio Engineers, quite an honour at the time for a non-American.
He founded Teleoptic after leaving Metro Vickers, and in 1944 established one of the first perhaps the first - production line making radios here. He was also chairman of the South African manufacturers association for a while, and well respected in the industry. Grandpa, as I have already indicated, felt at home with mechanical things. He used to buy smashed up cars and fix them to make extra money - this when they were starting out. He was wonderfully adept with his hands, whether fabricating a part on a lathe or putting a braai together that had stumped his grandson in law - also an engineer. In his eighties he'd still make a part he needed on a lathe at work. He was always putting things together, or taking them apart. The latter propensity kept him occupied, and Granny furious, at the end of his life. He'd take the bedroom lamp apart and have it spread across their bed in a thousand springs and screws and cords. He'd fiddle with the washing machine or heater, and Dad would sometimes have to make good the damage. Near the end he had bouts of senility. Would wonder around the flat at 2:00 am turning on all the lights and shouting "Mary" for the maids because he wanted his meal. Though the lamp cords were snakes, and cut one of them, luckily not electrocuting himself in the process. He was still largely lucid three months before the end, but withdrawing more and more. And there were all the attendant problems of old age - incontinence for one, which shorted the electric blanket and had him banned from a neighbour's bridge game because he 'stained the furniture.' Grandpa dribbled. Special nappies eventually solved that, and restored some dignity, and some relief for those around him.
His prejudices and loyalties - to his 'own way' , to his family, to his wife - reflected his white South Africaness and his Jewishness. I imagine they were all put in place early on in his life. Adult blacks were boys and girls, workers in his factory or domestic servants in his home. He had none of the guilt of grandchildren born into affluence. As a 'self made man' he expected others to make good as he had done (irrespective of whether they had the same opportunities as he had had.) They simply knew their place and did their work or he'd boot them out. But I never heard him say something that was pointedly racist, that went beyond the unthinking and crass pueralisation and caricaturisation of blacks which was normative across white South African society. For he was never a mean or cruel or petty or vindictive man. Afrikaners, as he told me his father had told him 'were not to be trusted further than they could be thrown.' Yet he spoke Afrikaans quite fluently, and reverted to it frequently at the end of his life. He conversed with Mary Nakedi, the black domestic worker who looked after him, and her sister Martha in Afrikaans.
I don't think he thought much of rabbis as a professional class. He wouldn't buy German cars or products after the second World War. (Although he became the agent for Becker, a major German car radio manufacturer.) When his daughter June married Tony Smith, a young advocate who was not Jewish, he was upset and angry about the divergence from something he held terribly important at the ground floor of his being, if not in the upper stories where he lived his daily life. Years later Andy Q'Dowd, the boyfriend of June's daughter Mandy was tragically killed in a car collision, as he and Mandy were driving back to university (son of Michael of Anglo American and Kathy of Mt Everest) Mandy came back to Johannesburg and spent the night with the grandparents. Grandpa gave the young woman, obviously in a state of enormous shock, a lecture about how the rot had started with June marrying a Gentile, and that she Mandy should not repeat the mistake. Supremely insensitive, but loyal to what he understood was his. Hurtful, but an innocent (as we all are) who hurt in blindness.
His was not a delicate soul, blown over by other people's like or dislike for him. When he got older Gran or my father would yell at him and he would smile gently as if a pleasant wind had just fanned him. (Sometimes my Dad's anger and frustration did get through, and then he showed pain). There was a sense of him being chiefly tuned in to some internal voice, a voice so loud and clear in him it seemed to effortlessly block outside voices, sometimes to the point of making it frustrating to work with him, and difficult for those close to him to be with. Hence the yelling. Of course the yelling was also a function of his increasing deafness, and his ongoing refusal to use a hearing aid. Stubborn. Stubborn as hell.Even when he was old and very infirm he wouldn't give in. We went shopping for meat for the maid one day, in Killarney, at Checkers, and he insisted, although he could only walk very short distances, he come with, "to show you where the meat is". I said hold on I'll go and get the meat and he said no the meat's over there and headed off down the wrong aisle. In exasperation I yanked him back to where I was going and he had to come with - he was too weak to do otherwise - but as soon as I let him go he was back of down the wrong aisle, like a guided missile on its fixed trajectory. Sure of himself in his Ralphness. He wrote to me once "You still have more to learn than Granny and I have forgotten."
My Gran was a tough woman who in her prime could be very demanding and confrontational, and was good at intimidating and bullying those less assertive than herself, but she beat helplessly against the wall of his indifference to her anger, and perhaps also to some of her other needs. I can't imagine him as a particularly sensitive lover ... He wasn't easily hurt in daily quarrels and tiffs, and seemed to be practically immune in his thickskinedness. But he cried easily at funerals and at weddings, and could become very sentimental on occasions, as when talking on the telephone to grandchildren living overseas. He cried at my mother's funeral, while my Gran remained stony faced and patted her hair style. That stubbornness had what I see as a very positive side, a gutsiness. Grandpa was unafraid of life and people. Or, if he was afraid, he'd buried it so deep no one, especially himself, saw any sign of it. Perhaps he was unafraid because he was uncomplicated.
When he was already well into his seventies he was mugged outside Teleoptic, which was in Main Street, Jeppestown. Two black men attacked him, but Grandpa wasn't one to let people take his hard earned property. He fought them off, kicking one in the groin. The other managed to snatch his wristwatch and made off. The next day Grandpa went back with his gun and waited for them but of course they didn't show. His loyalties were strange and limited as they were strong. Grandpa was a reliable breadwinner, and viewed himself as the 'titular head' of the Suttner family. His loyalty to his wife expressed itself in many ways. When I fought with Granny and did not have anything to do with her for several years he gave me an ultimatum - I must make up with her or break off contact with both of them. He would also consult with her on major issues. He asked her, for example, if it was OK with her that he leave Metro Vickers and start up his own company: "I told him" recalls Gran, "that I had every confidence in his ability to make a success of it." He acknowledged that "she had stood by him through thick and thin, with never a word of complaint." Yet he had girlfriends, relationships or affairs he pursued outside his marriage. He was fussy about food. Granny had to cater for a long list of things he wouldn't eat. He couldn't stand onions - even the smell of them (although if they were cooked with something else and he wasn't told they were in the food he'd eat them quite happily.) Garlic. Gravies. Pickles. Anything spicy. He liked starches, but wasn't a great fan of greens. Wouldn't eat squid, or prawns(?) And he had a very sweet tooth. Granny would hide the chocolates from him so that he wouldn't eat them all. In the last few years he kept lemon creams next to his bed, ready for midnight devouring.
Grandpa was also something of a hypochondriac, a pill consumer and frequent doctor consulter, who liked to be reassured that all was in good shape. "Doctor Gritsman says my hearts strong as anything," he'd tell me proudly. His cupboard and chest side drawer were filled with medicines - antihistamines, analgesics, sleeping tablets (ranging from over the counter stuff to Welconal), laxitives, decongestants, Voltarin, powders for heartburn and to assist digestion (he'd had his gall bladder removed), bandages, anaesthetic pastes for mouth sores, all sorts of vitamins, and denture cleaner (he'd long since lost his teeth, and didn't like the false ones. So he mostly didn't use them, and 'chewed' his food with his gums.) He'd doctor himself with these medicines, sometimes with inappropriately strong ones, and also dish out his own prescriptions to Granny, and to the maids. But the up side of that fussiness was a scrupulousness in business, in never owing anyone money, in paying promptly for things ordered or bought. And because he was honest, he saw other people that way as well. He told me that in his business dealings he had found most people to be honest. Grandpa understood bartering in business and getting a fair price for his goods, and he was far from being a sucker. He understood cars and machinery and photographic equipment and radio technology, and he was quick to grasp the implications of the new medium. He also understood hard work and the value of a good business reputation. But he was unwilling to take the kind of calculated risks which make businesses really happen. Because of having had to support his and Lily's broke parents, the young couple vowed together never to have their children support them. So Grandpa never invested in stocks, never borrowed big capital in order to really expand, and in the end the business ran at a loss, shrank and became non-viable. It also meant my father had years of frustration in this family business, Teleoptic, because his ideas and creativity were quashed by Grandpas's insistence on doing it "his" way, or perhaps because Dad never stood up for his own way.
Grandpa didn't know much intellectually about Jewishness as religion or history or culture, could hardly read Hebrew or understand Yiddish, and related to synagogue chiefly as a social function and duty (like all of his contemporaries) - something which maintained a sense of identity, community, and his location in that community. He didn't keep kosher (he never touched pork, on religious grounds, but he would occasionally eat oysters) or observe other structures and strictures, and nor was he knowledgeable about, or emotionally identified with Zionism. But he knew he was a Jew, and that was enough. He was a believer, no convoluted atheism or agnosticism for him, and no complicated codes of behaviour resulting from belief either. He knew the orthodoxy cum traditionalism he had encountered was the proper Judaism, and was happy for it to be there. Granny and Grandpa had a little bedtime prayer on a card given to them by some synagogue union; Krias Shema Al HaMita - the reading of the Shema upon retiring. In the last few weeks of his life he would often say Shemo Yisroayl Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echod, Hear 0 Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One, to himself before going to sleep. Before this he's already taken to saying little prayers for the family, asking that they be kept safe and well. Apparently he especially mentioned Rosemary, of whom he was very fond, and whom he had seen more of than the other grandchildren.
When we were going through his cupboard after his death I found a little card with Psalm 23 printed on it in English: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, He lies me down in green pastures, and leads me besides the still waters, He restoreth my soul... Unlike me, his existence was chiefly in the world of actions - maasim -and practical thought. Not that he didn't respect learning in general. He said his dad had been a Hebrew scholar, and seemed proud of it. He certainly admired professional people (I think he would have said professional men), particularly medical doctors. Having left school himself at age 14, a university degree probably represented a strange and elite world. But he himself vanished leaving behind no notes to himself, no record of his inner life (other than perhaps a letter or two) - just pill bottles, laundry tickets, old voltmeters, guns, golfballs, pictures of him in America, Japan, Hong Kong, a standard 8mm film of him throwing snowball at someone else in Germany, tools, a grease gun, micro calipers, several fountain pens (he loved them), boxes and boxes of bills, receipts and invoices (he never threw old paperwork out, never know when you might have need of them, he said), old adding machines, bullets, and a bottle of developer - a flat full of the physical artefacts of a life lived fully in the physical world. He was more of a warrior than a worrier, and there seemed to have a deep acceptance of life as it is. Selfish on occasion, but a free spirit in essence. I always respected him, with the respect of one who does not fully trust himself for one who seemingly did.
One day, about three or so years before his death, when he was well into his retirement, we were discussing making money, or talking about the state of his dwindling savings. "That's how life is," he said to me, "one day you're up, one day you're down." And he smiled. He told Doctor Gritsman that he had worked his whole life so that at least he could die in his own bed in his own flat, not in some old age home. And what he wanted - he got.
When my grandfather grew very old
he also grew so deaf
he could not hear his footsteps
or the creaking of his joints
As a boy he rode bareback
on the ostrich farm near Graaff Reinet
no horizons weighed on the fence of his days
and time was not a necklace in the safe deposit box
But at ninety the fields of his youth had shrunk
too small for even his toes
and colours which dyed his being for years
floated or melted away
the world which once held him easily
rolled beyond his gasp
the planet became a sea blue pea
the size of a bead in a baby's rattle
which grandpa watched though a telescope
or breathed hoarsely down the phone at
and when he couldn't see it at all