We Should Be Kind

Robbie Vogel
8 min readOct 28, 2018


A tall, middle-aged man stood up to speak today at my grandmother’s memorial service. His name is Radovan, and he was born in a place that he called “the former Yugoslavia.”

My grandmother’s three children — my mother, her older sister, and her younger brother — had each spoken at some length from the raised pulpit at the front of our church, and the minister had then opened the service up for anyone to share their memories of my grandmother, Dene White, born Rubydene Hudgins.

Radovan waited for my cousin Andy to talk, and then for my dad to speak briefly, and then he stood up from his seat in the center of the congregation. At 6'3, he was easy to spot, and his story filled the vaulted interior of First Trinitarian Congregational Church, which has stood in the center of Scituate since 1826. Radovan spoke in a strong, clear voice, his fluent English flavored by a moderate Eastern European accent.

In 1997, Radovan brought his wife Melita and his six-year-old son Dino to live in America. He said his reason for moving here was that he was working in basketball, and at the time Yugoslavia’s basketball team was eclipsed only by that of the United States, so he came over to observe our basketball culture. I have a feeling the move had more to do with the political upheaval arising from the fall of the USSR several years prior, but the point was that Radovan and his family showed up in Boston with $6,000 and a green card.

At that time, my grandparents, Dene and Jim, rented out a few apartments in the city. After being turned down several times during a daylong apartment hunt, the family showed up at a unit in the city owned by my grandparents. Jim was there, and without a second thought, he slung his arm around Dino’s young shoulders and led the family around on a tour of the place that would become their first home in America.

In the ensuing weeks, Radovan said, he managed to find a job. But even 20 years ago, $6,000 didn’t stretch far in Boston. He was barely able to pay rent and feed his family. A few weeks after their first meeting, Dene and Jim showed up to see how the young European family was settling in. Upon entering the apartment, they were dismayed. There wasn’t a stick of furniture in the place, and piles of blankets on the floor served as beds.

Dene and Jim knocked $100 per month off the rent before leaving that day, and assured Radovan and his family that they would be back soon. A few days later, a moving truck arrived loaded with an entire apartment’s worth of furniture. Couches, tables, chairs, beds, mattresses — you know, the stuff that all of us take for granted every day. My septuagenarian grandparents oversaw the furnishing of the apartment, with Dene likely lending her discerning homemaker’s eye to the efforts. When the movers packed up and left, Dene and Jim stayed to make sure Radovan and his family were comfortable, and to offer an open-ended invitation. They were invited to any party hosted by our family going forward — Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, or any other time that the Whites, Vogels, and Smolletts got together.

Context is important here. Dene was born on a peanut farm in Sycamore, Georgia. She married Jim White at 22 and moved up to his native Boston, but always kept her Southern roots. Hence the warm, inviting accent; the tendency towards adding just a little more butter into pretty much any recipe; and the notion that she was duty-bound to stuff family members and near perfect strangers alike full of delicious food at least five times a year.

My grandparents’ house on Ann Vinal Road near my elementary school feels like something out of the first act of a fairy tale, before things go awry for the little heroes and heroines. An array of fascinatingly shaped spaces spread across three levels, with never-before-seen furnishings and exotically textured accent pieces shipped back from Dene’s jaunts around the globe. A built-in Jacuzzi bathtub in the plushly carpeted master bedroom, golden swans serving as water spigots. A peninsular dining room set off the back of the house with wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows, the table always piled with mountains of ham, potatoes, turkey, stuffing, gravy, pie, cookies, biscuits, or whatever the occasion called for. A glass cube of a room at the other end of the house, always cold, with a tiled floor and an intricately wrought metal cart containing brilliantly translucent glassware and sparkling bottles of colorful liquids. The adults seemed to pass through this room frequently. An endless green backyard rolling away from the fifty-foot-wide back porch and staircase, punctuated by islands of trees and natural stone and bookended with a fascinating and well-tended garden beyond a split-rail fence, complete with bridges, a river, walking paths, hideaways, and a cement plaque with my and my cousins’ child-sized handprints and initials.

My grandfather was a lifelong Republican. My uncle, his son, said so, right there in the eulogy for my grandmother. Right before Radovan stood up to speak his piece. Dene came from the heart of the South, country redder than road dust and old barns, and held so closely to her beliefs and her devotion to her husband that she couldn’t even vote for Democrat Jimmy Carter, who was born not an hour from her hometown in Georgia.

Of course, she couldn’t vote against her hometown favorite either, so Jim White received one vote for president in 1976.

Radovan is a proud man, and I can’t imagine it was easy for him to accept my grandparents’ offer of holiday hospitality. Then again, knowing Dene White, I’m sure she made it nearly impossible to refuse. A tough Southern farm girl who grew into a world-traveling family matriarch, she spoke with directness and authority, which bordered on intimidating yet was sweetened with that Southern twang.

I didn’t really understand who this giant kid was that had started showing up at our family parties when I was seven (spoiler alert — it was Dino, and he grew up to be something like 6'7), but my mom said that Grandma Dene invited him and his family, and that was enough for me. Radovan and his family were fixtures at many of our holidays, though again, Radovan’s proud nature and desire to make his own connections in America likely prevented them from attending more often.

These days, Radovan is a successful personal trainer, and he and Melita live in Brookline. I haven’t seen Dino in a few years, but from a quick perusal of Facebook, it looks like he’s got a girlfriend and is doing well. As he closed his remarks at Dene’s funeral, Radovan made it clear that his family owed their life in America to my grandparents, his voice quavering just a touch as he said, “If it wasn’t for Dene and Jim, we would have had to move back to Yugoslavia.”

I know it’s not tasteful to discuss politics. I also know that I’m not qualified to discuss politics. But I know two more things as well.

First, I know that after hearing my mom, aunt, and uncle speak about my grandmother’s unceasing generosity, and my cousin Andy use his time to impress upon the grandchildren and great-grandchildren present the importance of helping people who can’t help themselves, and Radovan tell his story, I was filled with hope. If two die-hard Republicans in their seventies could give a family from a former Communist nation such wonderful and long-lasting support, especially so soon after the close of the Cold War, surely the kind of spiteful, angry rhetoric flying between the two parties in 2018 is only a passing storm.

And secondly, I know Grandma Dene wouldn’t have let something like this pass without making her voice heard.

On the same morning that we gathered in our old wooden church outside of Boston to celebrate the 93 years that my grandmother had lived, a gunman walked into the Tree of Life Congregation, a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, and murdered 11 people.

He murdered people who had lived long lives in their own right; the youngest victim was David Rosenthal, 54, and the oldest was Rose Mallinger, 97. But while the memorial service for Grandma Dene was equal parts remembrance, reunion, grief, music, and love, the funerals for these 11 slain worshipers, no matter their age, will overflow with anger, pain, fear, and hopelessness.

I don’t know the political leanings of the shooter in Pittsburgh. But his heinous actions stand in direct contrast to the ideals that my grandparents displayed 20 years ago, and indeed, throughout their lives. While this man murdered innocent American civilians because their religious beliefs differed from his, Grandma Dene and Pop took a family from a recently Communist country into their very home and gave them love, food, warmth, companionship, and a sense of community.

Maybe these two events — my grandmother’s memorial service and this awful tragedy — have no business being discussed together. Maybe they just happened to occur in houses of worship on the same morning some 600 miles apart.

After the post-service reception, where so many people stopped me to mention what a kind, outgoing, funny, and compassionate woman my grandmother had been, I was filled with a bubble of positive energy. It seemed to say that yes, life must end one day. But during your life, you have so many chances to give yourself to others, to inject their lives with a current of love and companionship. To just reach out and help someone who needs it, and to bring the world a little bit closer together.

Driving past Wollaston Beach on the way home, I asked my wife Sarah why the American flag stood at half mast. As the words left my mouth, I realized I was asking it in a resigned tone, the same way a parent might say, “Oh, I wonder what that could be” after hearing another crash of blocks from their child’s play room. When I learned the reason for the lowered flag, I can’t say I was surprised. I also don’t really know how to prevent these things from happening, other than to emulate the spirit of my grandparents, who radiated love and inclusiveness to everyone they met.

I don’t read poetry, but I listen to podcasts (AKA the millennial’s poetry). On Men in Blazers, a soccer podcast where two Brits discuss world soccer, one of the hosts has an affinity for World War I-era poetry. He ends each newsletter the same way, with a snatch of verse from British poet Philip Larkin. It’s a blanket statement that says in three lines what I’ve been trying to explain this entire piece.

We should be careful

of each other, we should be kind

while there is still time.



Robbie Vogel

Bought a hat once. Did not receive a free bowl of soup with it.