Prologue.–Circa 1950, age 7
Tomorrow night, sixty-six years later, 2016.
From the time I was a toddler, perhaps even from my birth in 1943, I have enjoyed the exalted status of “Our Grandmother’s Favorite.” My cousins never fail to dwell upon my relationship with my mother’s mother whenever we reminisce. “You always, always were Grandma’s favorite,” one will offer; another will wonder, “What can you even say about it?” and hear in response, “Why even try?”
They might not know what to say, but I do. It’s simple. As some might imagine an angel would have done, for the remainder of her life, my grandmother provided the protection and unconditional love she must have sensed I needed. She must have been aware of my young sorrow. I felt this from the touch of her hand, from her smile when she held me, from how pleased she was as I devoured as many as I could of her sweet, cheese-filled blintzes made with golden raisins and sprinkled with just the right amount of cinnamon and sugar. These delicacies were food for my soul, long before I could have understood what that means, but not before I felt it.
The tradition of Sabbath and other holiday dinners at our grandparents’ apartment began even before their three children had made them grandparents. The first two grandchildren arrived in 1940; by 1955, we were a group of eight, “the cousins.” At or near the end of a meal or prayers, any of us old enough to walk, sometimes would leave the table and watch television on the living room Philco. Housed within a mahogany-colored, wooden cabinet with two doors that swung to either side, its small screen was shaped like the icon still used when an advertisement announces, “As seen on TV!” On some of the Friday evenings, we watched prize fights sponsored by Gillette, the company that could make a man “look sharp, feel sharp, be sharp.” When the fight was an important one, some of the adults would wander from the dining table and through the wide arch into the living room.
My grandmother’s favorite chair was positioned a few feet from the Philco. The prize fights were not her top show. That spot was reserved for professional wrestling. All of us who watched with her, were ardent fans of the Champion, Lou Thesz. We reviled the perennial challenger, Gorgeous George, who, in fact, had not been very gorgeous with his bleached blond hair and little, white swimming suit. We grandchildren tried to convince our grandmother that the matches were rigged. By her reaction, you would have thought we had told her that Jews observe Sabbath on Sunday, heaven forefend.
These meals and celebrations continued, but on a less frequent basis as the cousins became interested in other things, like boyfriends, girlfriends, parties, and sporting events. When our grandfather died in February, 1960, what had been known as “being at our grandparents’ apartment” did not take long to end.
By the following fall and early winter, our grandmother’s physical and mental health had deteriorated enough that she had begun to find it very difficult to live alone. At my parents’ insistence, she moved into our apartment. I was in my first year of college, not close enough to home for me to visit other than during summer or other school breaks.
My parents had moved the Philco, along with her favorite chair, into Grandma’s new bedroom. Failing eyesight now required her to be close enough to the television screen to touch it. Whenever I was at home, I would pull up a chair and watch with her and Iris Banks, now Grandma’s caregiver, who would sit at her side. Divorce Court had replaced professional wrestling as Grandma’s top show. If the plaintiff or defendant–whichever was Iris’s and Grandma’s favorite that day–experienced a setback, Iris would shake her head and say things like, “That judge!” and “They lied.” Grandma would put her hand to her cheek, and use Yiddish expressions like, “Oy,” when the situation was bad, “Oy vey,” when it was worse, and “Vey ist mir! Woe is me!” when it threatened to be a disaster. I had learned from years of enjoying professional wrestling, not to say, “Grandma, don’t worry. This isn’t real.” On the rare occasion when my impulse control failed, it was difficult to determine who was more irritated with me–Grandma or Iris.
But, it wasn’t difficult to know that Grandma was upset and worried when she thought I might do something she believed would have dire consequences. In the summer of 1961, I was hired by a construction company in St. Louis. I sat with Grandma in her room and told her about the job. Not more than a couple of seconds passed, when she said, in a soft, almost conspiratorial voice, “Listen, my shepsela. My dear one. Come close.” She rested her hand on my arm. “You must not take this job.”
“Why, Grandma?” I said, moving even closer to her.
“You must not.”
“But why not?”
“It isn’t good for you.”
“Grandma…it’s not the kind of construction job you think it is. I’ll be in the office most of the time, keeping records for the foreman.” Certain that her concern was for my safety, I reassured her. “Don’t worry, Grandma. I promise it won’t be dangerous.”
“No, you must not.” She accompanied this with a gentle squeeze of her hand where it had rested on my arm. “Vat vill happen ven people vill drive down the highvay and they vill see you and say, ‘Oy vey. Look. It’s Sylvia Hopper’s son vorking now on the highvay!’”
Her hand still on my arm, I said something–and knew the moment I had said it–that would have the same persuasive power for Grandma as would a villainous, Divorce Court attorney arguing with the judge, or Gorgeous George arguing with the referee. “Grandma, I promise you have nothing to worry about. I won’t be on the highway. I’ll be in an office.”
“Sha. Listen to me,” she said, emphasizing it with another squeeze of my arm, this time a bit tighter than the first. “You don’t know. I know. It vill happen.”
I did keep my job. Had “it” happened, my grandmother wouldn’t have blamed me. The driver would have been blamed for spying on other people's family members, instead of paying attention to the road. Nevertheless, at the construction site, I was careful not to stand anywhere where people driving by might recognize me as Sylvia Hopper's son.
The following winter, when I was nineteen, during the holiday break from college, it snowed in St. Louis. One evening, my fifteen-year-old brother and I threw snowballs at lampposts, parked cars, an occasional moving car, and anything else that seemed, at least to me, like an appropriate target, such as my brother. When I did nothing more than hit him in the head with a perfect shot, he was infuriated. Perhaps in some pain, as well, he rushed up the front steps to our apartment. I followed him, but didn't rush.
Our mother stood in the dining room, hovering, as she often did, at the periphery of an unfolding scene that had potential for conflict between my father and me. Grandma was at the Formica and aluminum kitchen table, and motioned to me to sit across from her. No doubt, as a means of coping with of my own anxiety, I admired the ingenious way this table could store a wing underneath each side of the table top, and extend them to make the table larger. That evening, I noticed that toast crumbs had searched for and settled in their favorite place: the narrow gaps between the wings and table top.
My father walked down the hall with quick, heavy footsteps. Wearing his comfortable khakis and a white t-shirt, he arrived at the kitchen and stood with his hands pressed against both sides of the door frame, his feet planted in a wide stance. His stance was not unlike Samson's as he was about to dislodge the two main pillars and collapse the temple.
“What did you do?” my father said.
“I threw a snowball and it hit him in the head.”
“I already know that.”
“Well, if you already know it, why are you asking me?” I said, taunting him.
Grandma was sitting between my father and me, and had turned in her chair to look straight at him. I felt safe. All three of us understood that Grandma, my protector, was there to shield me. Though I was confident that my father would never want to do anything to upset her, I was afraid he would not be able to control his anger. I was afraid he would not remember a promise I had made to him three years earlier, in this same kitchen.
• • •
The father was yelling at the once-little boy, now a young man of sixteen, frightened because that is what he always had been when his father was angry. But this time, the young man yelled, “I don’t give a shit how you feel about it,” and stood where he stood, unafraid, at least not terrified as he had been when he was the little boy. He spoke in a measured tone and pace unfamiliar to himself and to the father. “You will never hit me again. If you try, it won’t be the same.” And it was the last time. The fear would subside year by year, until it was able to be put back into its box, though it sometimes forced its way out, into the light.
• • •
“Why would you do that to your brother?” my father said.
“All I did was bean him, but he’s not hurt.”
“Can’t we have peace around here?” This was less a question than a demand. “Okay. That’s it,” he said, removing his hands from both sides of the door frame. “Stop the damned grinning. You sit here grinning like you don’t even care.”
“Sha!” my grandmother said. “What are you saying? He’s not grinning. Leave him alone. I’m sitting vith him, and you yell at him to stop grinning and he isn’t grinning. You should not say this.”
My father lifted his hands to heaven–an act that had been perfected by everyone in our family–and retreated down the hallway.
When she was sure my father was too far from us to hear what she was about to say, my grandmother leaned across the kitchen table and took my hand in both of hers.
“Nu? Well? she said, almost in a whisper. “So vat means grinning?”
In the months that followed, it had become more apparent that Grandma was losing her strength, even her will to live. She had become depressed. One of the last times I was with her, early in the summer of 1963, eighteen months after the kitchen scene. She sat at the dining room table with my mother, father, younger brother and me. Despondent, she would not eat.
“Grandma, you have to eat,” I said.
She looked down as she shook her head, “No, I can’t.”
She lifted her fork a few inches, then let her hand fall to the table. “I can’t lift the fork.”
“It’s okay, Grandma. I won’t eat, either.”
“Eat. You must. Don’t wait for me.”
“If you don’t eat, I don’t eat.” I lowered my fork onto the plate.
She reached for her fork, took some food from her plate, and began to eat. My status of favorite grandchild would remain secure, no doubt forever…and everyone at the table knew it.
Later that year, our family had become pushpins on a map of the world. My older brother and his wife and daughter already were living in England, where he was teaching and completing graduate school; my younger brother had begun a year as a high school exchange student in South Africa; and I was in Israel, living in a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley. Our parents and our grandmother remained in St. Louis.
In that year when all three boys were gone, there were occasions to grieve; my father grieved that his sons had left, and nothing would ever be the same; my mother grieved for the same reasons; Grandma grieved over the loss of so many of her family, first in Poland and then in America; and I grieved over saying what I thought would be a final farewell to Grandma.
In February, 1964, at the end of a long workday in the kibbutz fish ponds, I walked toward the wooden cabin I called home. The community mailman sped down the path on his bicycle–his preferred method of delivering the mail–and handed me a very thin envelope from my father. I had a premonition that something bad had happened, because the other letters I had received from him or my mother had been much thicker than this one. I sat on the cabin porch and read the few simple and kind paragraphs he had written. More times than I can remember, I reread, “Your grandmother died peacefully, among family, having lived a good and happy life.”
As I held my father’s letter, somehow I was able to go beyond myself, to feel as much sorrow for his loss as for my own. I understood that he had just lost a woman he loved, much as he had loved his own mother, who had died from cancer in 1937. When that happened, he was only three years older than I was when he mailed me the letter about Grandma’s death. I have no doubt that as he wrote, he thought about saying Kaddish–the prayer in memory of the departed– for his mother as well as for his mother-in-law.
More than fifty, annual calendars have been removed and replaced since I was that young man on the cabin porch. My father has been gone for thirty years. I have needed all of that time to understand that the moments of reading his letter had been a critical part of a long emergence from having felt suspended like a bead threaded on a string stretched taught between two poles, represented by “Grandma” and “Father.” I knew beyond doubt that one was safe, tender, and clarifying. I knew beyond doubt that unexpectedly, the other could be dangerous, harsh, and confusing.
If I were to write to that young man sitting on the porch after his hard day of labor, I would try to find my own simple and kind words to tell him that one day he will know how he had been able to become a gentle and loving father. He will know that in spite of what is his permanent struggle with all that had been damaging, he also carries within himself all that had been good in his own father.
Every time I think about Grandma and her soul-nourishing, sweet blintzes, about my father’s many acts of kindness that far outnumbered his moments of rage, and about myself, both as that young man and what he has become, the same thing happens. I hear myself saying, “Don’t worry, Grandma. I’m safe. Dad, you were right–I was grinning. I was frightened. But that was oh so long ago.”