First published in the Jewish Literary Journal (Feb. 2017), this slightly revised version includes a short paragraph concerning an unpleasant incident with a tray of gauze-wrapped capsules.
In the last week of September 1955, my Uncle Hymie’s two daughters were told that twenty minutes before the fatal shot was fired, their father had called home to ask if he should bring anything from the market where he worked. Anything, that is, in addition to the pistol he had been cleaning in the office.
The explanation to children in the extended family was that there had been a robbery near where my uncle and his family lived. Elders offered the timing and content of the phone call as evidence that the death had been accidental.
In an attempt to have this interpretation become official, my father hired an attorney whose influence with the coroner could be helpful at the inquest. The reputation of my uncle’s family made it desirable for the coroner to rule the death an accident. He did. The report stated the pistol was defective and had backfired.
At the age of twelve, I harbored thoughts too uncomfortable to ask out loud. Were the elders protecting us? Had there been a phone call? Would my uncle have been cleaning a loaded pistol? Did he shoot himself in the chest, as we were told?
Neither the assurances by family members, nor the coroner’s report, could prevent rumors from surfacing in the community, as I learned the hard way when a grade school classmate approached me on the playground after the funeral.
“My parents said your uncle committed suicide because of some kind of money problem.”
“I don’t…I don’t think so,” I said, not knowing what to believe.
More than sixty years later, I still don’t know what to believe. The cloud of uncertainty that had formed in the first minutes after my dying uncle had been discovered, quickly descended as fog. The decades that followed were marked by silence, faded or repressed memories, and then the deaths of two generations of elders–our grandparents and parents.
My uncle’s death and its profound effect, is a central part of a family story that begins early in the twentieth century.
As did thousands of Polish Jews, Isadore and Tillie Faier immigrated to America, Isadore in 1911, Tillie following a year later. Destined to become my grandparents, they settled in a neighborhood of St. Louis that had become home to European Jews. There they established
I. Faier’s Kosher Delicatessen. Impoverished scholars, poets, and others sheltered there, some writing at the small tables, and many relying upon my grandmother to slip them sandwiches.
Their son Hyman (Hymie) was born in 1914, my mother Sylvia (Surelah) in 1916, and Anita (Butsie) in 1924. As the three children became old enough, each had special jobs to do, among sundry other chores. This became the focus of conversation when my wife and I enjoyed one of our last visits with Aunt Butsie before she died in 2011.
When we finished breakfast, my aunt walked to the kitchen; we heard a drawer open and close, and then she returned to the table.
“I have something for you,” she said to me. “This was your grandfather’s, and now you and Catherine should have it.”
She unwrapped two layers of newspaper that had been protecting a fifteen inch butcher’s knife. Holding it flat in both hands, she presented it. The knife felt crafted for my hand. Its wood handle was marked with small abrasions and dings from years of use. The blade, fashioned for slicing, had a gentle curve, and widened from handle to tip.
“It’s still sharp. Did I ever tell you the story about the knives?” Aunt Butsie said. “No? Well, now I will. Even when we were very young, your mother, Hymie, and I had jobs in the delicatessen. Hymie, of course, continued working there as an adult, until your grandparents retired and closed the delicatessen. My job was to make sure the knives that needed it got to the sharpener. You remember electric streetcars, don’t you? One of them ran down the center of the avenue, and there was a stop near the delicatessen. I’d wrap the knives in paper, and wait to give the package to the conductor; Pop would call the sharpener to let him know the knives were on their way; the sharpener would wait at his stop, and the conductor would give him the knives. When he finished sharpening them, he’d call your grandfather. That’s how I would know when to meet the streetcar again at our stop. That’s how we did it. That was my job.”
She looked so proud, so happy to share with us this memory of childhood. Perhaps it was because I knew Aunt Butsie didn’t have long to live, perhaps it was because her face had a beautiful serenity, that this story about life in the delicatessen was so haunting. Butsie’s story brought to life the delicatessen and the early years of our family more than any other family story I could remember. And it added another layer of poignancy to a particular photograph I had seen many times before, in an album my mother had given me shortly before she died in 2001.
In that 1916 photograph, Isadore Faier stands in the delicatessen doorway, dressed in his dark suit pants, vest, white shirt and tie. His sleeves are rolled to just below the elbow. Next to him stands his first-born, his son, two-year-old Hyman, whose head does not reach the top of his father’s thigh. They pose holding hands, as my Grandmother Tillie watches over them from a second floor window. The proud parents would not have imagined their son would precede them in death.
Several years after the end of World War II, my grandparents retired, but I. Faier’s remained a gold standard for the next generation of St. Louis kosher delicatessens. Whenever a new proprietor asked for my grandfather’s advice, he gave it. Several of these men told me how much they appreciated my grandfather’s assistance, and how much they owed him for his generosity and wisdom.
To this day, I feel a grandson’s pride when I recall these stories. But, I also have a deep sense of regret, and a measure of resentment, that these men had enjoyed what I had wanted, but never received: the attention of my grandfather. He and I didn’t have what could be called a “relationship,” though we often were in each other’s company. He remained remote to me throughout his life; I can’t remember having a conversation with him, even when I was a teenager, no longer the little boy at the dinner table.
Nevertheless, I do have indelible memories of him seated at the head of the table, flanked by family, as he presides over Sabbath and other holiday meals. I remember being with him a few times as our family worshipped together in the synagogue. In a photo album given to me by my mother, I see my grandfather in conservative suits, often double-breasted, well tailored for his medium height and slender physique. When he appears in his topcoat, it sometimes is accented by one of several silk scarves, also given to me by my mother. My grandfather’s black mustache, graying as he ages, is always neatly trimmed. His face has a certain delicacy that speaks of sensitivity and thoughtfulness. I see him holding a granddaughter on his lap, and his loving smile conveys an unmistakable softness and sweetness.
On many Sundays, when I was a young boy, my father took my grandfather on drives through the countryside outside of St. Louis. I don’t recall that my grandmother or my mother joined those excursions, but one or both of my brothers and I did. From my usual place in the back seat, I could see my grandfather’s shoulders and the side of his face. Years later, we would take our same places, but not in an automobile.
On a day in the last week of September 1955, when I was twelve, I walked into our apartment and my fifteen-year-old brother met me in the hallway.
“Uncle Hymie had an accident,” he said with a somber voice and face. “And he died. All we know right now is he shot himself.”
Shot himself.What does that mean? I didn’t know what to do but lie face down on my bed and cry, a bewildered twelve year old with little comprehension of how profound this event was, and would remain.
At the time of Uncle Hymie’s death in 1955, I. Faier’s Kosher Delicatessenhad been closed for at least seven years, during which my uncle had taken the opportunity to join his father-in-law’s seafood business. Soon thereafter, my grandfather arranged to use a small space in their business to sell traditional delicatessen items…and once again to work near his son.
The business was located in a public market on the first floor of a multi-story, brick building in downtown St. Louis. The market provided offices in the basement, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary that my uncle had gone downstairs; but when he didn’t return, his relatives became concerned. Large masonry pillars, thick walls, and the commotion of a busy market, made it impossible for anyone upstairs to have heard the shot. I never was told who was the first to descend the steps and discover Uncle Hymie, mortally wounded. The two people still alive, who might have known, can’t remember…or, perhaps, never knew.
Several years after her brother died, my mother told me that as he lay dying on the office floor, he said to their father, “Pop, help me.” As she told me this, she tilted her head, and gave a tender smile...either to me, as I hoped, or to someone in the distance where her gaze seemed to rest. I wanted to console her, but didn’t have the words.
What I think of as “Death in the Market” remains for me as two scenes on a split screen. There is the 1916 photograph of my proud grandfather holding the hand of his two-year-old son as they pose in the doorway of the delicatessen. And there is the other scene of my helpless grandfather holding the hand of the forty-one year old son whose life ebbs as he bleeds in a basement office of a public market, while the crowd upstairs continues to buy and sell, unaware of the drama unfolding below them.
The funeral was the first I had attended. Trying to fathom what was happening around me, I wandered through the unfamiliar environment of the funeral home, watching and listening. I moved closer to a small group and heard a mourner say, “It’s a terrible thing when a son buries his father, but when a father has to bury his son…” She raised her hands, palms open, as if she were hoping to find in the very air around her a tolerable way to finish the awful thought. At a number of places in the funeral home and chapel, I heard muffled weeping and unsettling sobs from more than one mourner. One woman slumped against another to keep from collapsing.
In the chapel, the funeral directors had placed a tray of small, glass capsules wrapped in a tight layer of white gauze. Perhaps to find something that might help a twelve year old to fathom what was happening in that chapel and to my family, I imitated the few older mourners who crushed the capsules and held them to their noses. The gauze wrapping protected my fingers, as it was intended to do, but when I held the capsule under my nose and breathed in, as I saw others doing, it released shocking fumes of ammonia that penetrated through my nostrils and deep into my sinuses. It felt like the fumes filled my entire skull, and I shook my head rapidly from side to side to clear it. For a long, few seconds, I gasped for air.
I was relieved when the service began. My grandfather sat in the first-row pew with my grandmother, my mother and Butsie, and Hymie’s widow and two fatherless daughters. Just as I had done in the car on our Sunday excursions, I sat behind my grandfather. Every few moments, his shoulders raised and lowered; a soft and rhythmic sound emanated from what seemed to be his entire body, an instrument that played but one mournful chord.
Then, he would compose himself, until, once again, he could not contain his wordless grief. Each time I saw his shoulders move and heard that rhythmic sound, for an instant I thought he was laughing. Each time, I felt ashamed to have misunderstood, and thankful no one could have read my thoughts.
In spite of the tragedy,in the months that followed, there was a measure of healing. I. Faier’s kosher delicatessen, made a curtain call in 1956, a year after Hymie’s death. His widow, my Aunt Edith, opened a new establishment, Faier’s Delicatessen, which would serve its customers for the next twelve years. My grandfather again had the opportunity to share his wealth of knowledge and, on many days, to assist behind the counter. On numerous visits, I watched him operate the slicing machine with a swift precision that came from years of practice.
His working there might have been comforting to him, but it also would have required
great strength. But that strength would not last much longer. In February 1960, Isadore Faier’s heart stopped beating. In truth, it had begun to fail on that day in the market.
When I learned that my grandfather had died, I was standing in the same place in our apartment where I had learned of his son’s death. I was waiting in the hallway for my father to come home from the hospital. When he arrived, his eyes were red and watery.
“Grandpa died,” were his kind words. And they were enough.
At my grandfather’s funeral,prayers were intoned and eulogies delivered in the chapel where they had been intoned and delivered for his son. This time, at age seventeen, I was a pallbearer. Compared to Uncle Hymie’s death, my Grandfather’s felt more “normal” and understandable. But much about it still eluded me, a proud young adult only approaching manhood. In my still young eyes, when my grandfather died he was an old man. I smile now at my naiveté. He had lived but seventy-three years, the same age I am as I write these words.
When the funeral procession arrived at the cemetery, on a February day that seemed without a breath of wind, cotton snowflakes began their gentle fall, and melted as they touched the ground. The brief snowfall imparted a softness to bare trees, and row after row of chiseled granite headstones.
The graveside service began under the canopy where mourners had gathered to be led in prayer by the rabbi. A long-handled shovel stood in the mound of fresh earth as an unavoidable reminder of the coming, final ritual. When it was time, each mourner scooped a shovelful of earth and allowed it to fall upon my grandfather’s coffin, now resting near the grave of his son.
During the sixty-two yearsthat have passed since my uncle died, I have become the father of two children, now adults, whom I love with boundless joy and devotion. For that reason, far more than any other, the disruption caused by Uncle Hymie’s death has acquired a magnitude that I only thought I had understood. I empathize with my grandfather’s anguish in ways I could not have before. How my uncle died, and that his death preceded his father’s, had violated the natural order. Children are not to die before their parents.
No longer is my grandfather merely the remote elder, two generations removed. He also is a father, as I am. He and I have at least this part of a “relationship.” I do wish we were able to meet again, now that we have something to build upon…something far more important to me than silk scarves and a knife from I. Faier’s Kosher Delicatessen.
I can only imagine the pain my grandfather must have been keeping silent in the depth of his heart, as he sat in the funeral chapel pew. It is a wonder he did not release that pain as a cry to heaven itself. Knowing his son would be interred that day, Isadore Faier perchance remembered the lamentation of King David, thousands of years earlier. “O my son Absalom, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
Because my grandfather had not been so blessed, it is said by family members that only rarely, if at all, did they ever again see his special, soft and sweet smile.