In the evening when he got home from work it was my grandfather’s habit to pause at the sight of his little family gathered in the kitchen to greet him, a bitter confusion emptying his face as if once again he had blundered into the wrong apartment. “Lyussen!” Lice! he would hiss at us in Yiddish. “P’yaviken!” Leeches! Parasites! Bloodsuckers!
This was Papa, our patriarch, our immigrant success story, a house-painter and small-time real estate operator.
Hollow-eyed, spattered as a Pollock, with a slow lifting of his jaw he would scatter us like poultry and then lurch to the sink where he scrubbed himself with naphtha and then a paste of Boraxo, glycerin and laundry detergent. Surfacing between rinses his curses at this point were barely distinguishable from the coughing and spitting, but then he would clear his throat with half a tumbler of raisin jack and as my grandmother served his soup, suitably accompanied perhaps by a quarter of a chicken or a ladle or two of steamed barley and mushrooms, Papa would call down the wrath of Sinai, pleading his case as if he were advocating for some desolate, desperate third party.
“They tore him in pieces!” my grandfather cried. “They fed on him like maggots!”
Judgment as a consequence was biblical, merciless. Every night in that flat was a reckoning.
“Let them be scorched by their own breath! Let them bear each other’s children!”
His voice, a hoarse and guttural muttering without timbre, seemed inappropriate for expressing sentiments like these, but his stamina was the product of thirty years in the building trades, he could go on for half an hour that way, and consume at the same time more food than I ever thought a human being could absorb at a sitting. Serving platters of braised beef and carrots, beans and potatoes would vanish into this ferocious man, loaves of bread, tureens of steamed buckwheat with fried onions.
“Let them erupt with tumors! Let them be dragged by strangers to a common grave!”
At times his rasp would feather to a hoarse whisper so you thought at last he might be running down, but a moment later he would launch a tirade that would make his prior curses feel like a mother’s kisses, as if the feathering was merely the whirr of the flywheel winding up to renew him.
“Let their eyes burst with mourning each other! Let the murderers use their back-teeth for shpanken!”
At my neighborhood library the next day I would learn that shpanken were cufflinks; also that strashidlin were scarecrows, as in “Let them hang like strashidlin from poles in the fields!” and that the tzorres my grandfather wished on my uncle were not the mundane cares of quotidian experience−true tzorres was leprosy. “Let him turn white with it,” my grandfather said.
How could he say such things and not mean them, I wondered. Even his pauses seemed to bristle with spines. But my grandmother, apparently inured to these tantrums, would sigh and recharge his plates. “Yankele, more bread? Applesauce, Yankel?” until finally stupefied with food he would drag himself to bed, and at that point with a sense of declamatory timing that was almost musical my mother would lace into my grandmother. “You had to start with him?” and then all four of them would be going at it — my grandmother, my mother, her sister Rochelle, my Aunt Rukhie, known as Rukhele since she was the youngest, and my uncle Gerry, Gedahlia, known as Uncle Dolly. Doors slammed. Aluminum pots crashed and clanged in the sink. Eyes welled with tears but the voices sang like sheering sheet-metal.
“Big-mouth! Genius! Come eat already!” someone hollered. “Look at this, cold as ice!”
Our house in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section was one of those nineteenth century four-decker rental properties with a flat on each floor, three-and-a-half stories high, three windows wide, and you wouldn’t have thought a building so narrow could have accommodated so much anger, but everyone in our family felt cheated and it was everyone else’s fault. As a child I had lived on the top floor with my mother while she waited with a hopeless but Penelopean fidelity for General Clark to send my father home to us from Anzio; below us my aunt Rukhie lived with her husband Leo until they began producing children of their own; then came my grandparents’ flat on the parlor floor, where my uncle Dolly had a room; and on the ground floor, or “the downstairs” as they called it, four feet below grade, Mrs. Greenberg-Schulweiss-Pellitzer-Lewinter stoically worked her way through her succession of consorts. I liked Mr. Lewinter best I think. Though frugal he seemed stylish to me, snipping his king-sized Pall Mall cigarettes into economical halves but then smoking them like Franklin Roosevelt in a holder of amber tortoise shell. He also seemed as astonished by his wife’s vitality as I was, and I assume it was this sense of humor that preserved him because he lasted about two years longer than any of his predecessors. Then her family moved this serial widow to a condominium in Boca and the downstairs was occupied by a parade of transient downstairsikkes until my grandfather was dispatched to it when he was expelled from the nursing home.
Papa had been seriously ill for two years by then, an ordeal that had begun as a blood clot in his left leg, which the doctors treated with anti-coagulants, then two operations, and finally by removing the leg altogether to reduce the chance of a disabling stroke. A stroke might have been better though. Papa really needed that leg. He had come here alone in 1905, a young greenhorn from some medieval mud-hole in Belarus, then three or four years later sent for his sisters, Breindel and Fegel, whiners as I remember them, long-jawed and mannish. It was the girls who had the bones in that clan, big women with tall, oddly Celtic upper lips and the sloping shoulders of water-carriers, but it was Papa who was the worker. Within two years of their arrival his precocious labors saw them married to brothers from Newark in the linoleum business.
How could he not work, I asked, yet everyone was certain that Papa would adjust. He was fitted with a prosthetic limb and all of us showered him with praise when he demonstrated his ability to clump around. It was late spring by then and Papa would take short, humiliating walks to a plaza not far from the house where he tried to interest himself in conversation. He didn’t care for it, however, nor did he read newspapers, or play cards, and television bored him, so he sat by himself with nothing to do until it became clear that his only hope was to recover his amputated leg. But for the life of him he could not remember where he had left it, and the more elusive it became, the more obsessed he became with finding it.
Soon nothing else engaged his attention. “Yankel,” my grandmother would ask him, “Yankele—applesauce?”
This sudden distaste for her applesauce was a serious problem for my grandmother. Since Papa was unwilling to swallow his meds with water, the applesauce had been Mama’s delivery system. He was also prone at this time to bursts of unmotivated activity. Like a cat he would suddenly take it in his head to bolt, galoomphing, from the room, or to furiously demand things of people. He hadn’t smoked tobacco for ten or fifteen years but now he wanted cigarettes, Lucky Strikes, or breakfast-money for coffee and a kaiser roll. He would make appointments with people to have the truck pick him up promptly the next morning at half-past five, since they had to stop at the paint store first for materials. Somewhere he had a valuable contract in jeopardy, a build-out to supervise, a floor of dentists’ offices to paint. Small kindnesses would move him to a tearful, strangely juvenile gratitude, yet he was unable to sustain these shifts for more than the duration of their expression and just as suddenly he would lapse to his prior disconnectedness, passive and unfocused.
My grandmother, observing these antics, was convinced he was behaving that way deliberately to provoke her.
“He wants to go here! He wants to go there!” the old lady muttered. “In this place, in that place! He doesn’t know what he wants!”
Keeping his prescriptions straight in these circumstances was something of a challenge for the old girl, but the situation assumed real urgency when Papa took to using her like a wrecking ball to bust up the furniture, and at his internist’s insistence the siblings shipped him off to a nursing home in Forest Hills.
Only, the nursing home wouldn’t have him. His first day there he totally disrupted the jazzercise class and within two days had become the terror of the game room. He refused to eat, he assaulted a nurse, he would not suffer himself to be bathed, medicated, or engaged in discussion, and the orderlies categorically refused to be responsible for anything that might happen to him. All the staff could do, we were told, was strap him in restraints and maintain him in a state of induced catatonia, which we could do just as easily at home, they said, and at half the cost.
Home he came then, back to the downstairs, and for my grandmother’s protection a nurse was hired as a scapegoat, Delores Bannister, an Antiguan with a pleasantly no-nonsense manner and a lilting, singing way of speaking, who did not know what a monster Papa was. From Delores Papa took his pills like treats, and the injections had their place in an assuasive daily regimen of meals, personal hygiene, visitors and naps. The television was left on at a low volume and for hours at a time Papa and Delores would watch it together, side by side at the electric window. Occasionally, Delores said, she would give him the remote-control device, but before long he would turn the screen to snow and have to give it back to her.
I was watching him roll the empty left leg of his pajamas into a little bundle. “He gives it back to you?” I said.
It was too complicated for him, Delores explained.
At Delores’s insistence the apartment was illuminated now by high-wattage lamps, and bright white gauze curtains were hung on the windows. By the fragrances of mace and cinnamon you might have imagined she was selling the place. Often there were flowers. Mango and bananas were on the menu. As it turned out my grandfather preferred the bananas to applesauce. He liked papaya juice, too, it seemed. He called it papa. He would ask for it that way, “Papa? Papa?” and Delores would roar, “Oh you like dat, ah? Oh you bad man!”
He napped and had his meals and snacks and medications, between television shows he would watch Delores freshen the apartment, and at intervals people, vaguely familiar to him, would arrive to visit. Friends of Delores? Although often these quarrelsome strangers seemed upset with her. That Papa didn’t like. The tears, the raised voices, the broad gestures, spasmodic and theatrical. My aunt Rukhie, for example, decided one evening that Papa wasn’t getting enough exercise. “Nurse Number Two!” my mother said, which Uncle Dolly found unaccountably hilarious, and soon all three of them were obliged to take it outside.
“Who does that schvartzeh think she is?” Mama protested; not that she questioned the nurse’s authority, but it hurt her feelings that everyone seemed to find the woman’s elevation so acceptable. Relatives might come by on the pretext of visiting with my grandmother, but after kissing Mama hello they would sit downstairs with Papa and Delores. Mama’s phone would ring and people would ask how that nurse was doing. How were they getting along together, was he happy with her?
Convinced that Delores was up to something, Mama would go downstairs and sit with them. Papa, though, would look strangely apprehensive at these times and dart worried glances in Delores’ direction. The silence would persist, thickening, and finally Mama would get up without a word and slowly climb the stairs, convinced that as soon as she left they would resume their plotting. She could see this, Mama said. Downstairs shimmered in her imagination. She could see them listening as her footsteps receded on the stairs and smiling in collusion at the sound of the floorboards creaking overhead. Delores had to go, she said, a decision everyone dismissed out of hand.
Yet even as the children accepted Delores’s necessity, her advent raised their rivalries to another level, and though Aunt Rukhie and Uncle Dolly had homes and families of their own by now, when they visited on Friday nights the wrangling would resume like the roar of a prison. Downstairs, watching TV with Papa and Delores, I would hear them through the ceiling. The minutiae of three lifetimes were getting threshed up there, the good intentions gone awry, the meddling cousins, the swallowed assaults, the wrong sizes, the bad advice, the insulting seating arrangements at family functions, the unilateral, insensitive and feckless decisions, the casual slurs, the unanswered calls, and above all, the omissions, the slights, those unforgettable instances of unforgivable neglect, too distant by now to recall with precision but nevertheless too necessary to surrender.
“And that’s why I couldn’t go to college?” my mother cried. “No, excuse me, that’s not good enough!”
“We had their promises, Oh sure,” Uncle Dolly yelled at the moon, “but we never saw a nickel!”
Obvious, too, by now was that each of them had had a different father, since they also argued about which of their Papas had been the genuine article.
He could have been a Helmsley, a Zeckendorf, to hear my uncle talk. The few shabby apartment buildings Papa owned had been acquired as settlements when their owners had defaulted on their contracting debts, but there were also foreclosures back then he might have picked up for peanuts, major rental properties at Grand Army Plaza, storefronts on Pitkin Avenue. In our own Williamsburg neighborhood a vacant streetcar-barn on Harrison Avenue could have been ours for the taxes due. But my grandmother had panicked at accepting these obligations, and my grandfather had foolishly deferred to her anxiety.
But whose fault was that, my mother snapped. All Mama did was give him the excuse. The truth was that Papa, too, had hesitated. It was himself he hated, my mother said.
Was any of this true? You felt as though it might have been true. But I don’t know if anyone in that household had ever been permitted to finish a sentence. Questions were forbidden. Calm was considered indifference. Love me or else! they seemed to be hollering. Pay attention or I’ll kill you!
“Children! Children!” my grandmother cried.
“You jackass,” my mother said to my uncle, “Why did you let him treat you like that! Look at you! Why couldn’t you stand up to him!”
That night my mother settled with everyone by resorting to her personal version of the Sermon on the Mount, a beatitude of despair that might have been entitled, “Curséd Are The Strong.” It was a punishment from God, stamina like hers, an engraved invitation to be exploited. Everyone without exception had taken advantage of her—her mother the suffering manipulator, her baby sister the spoiled and ungrateful parasite, and her brother the gutless sissy who had never once stood up for himself. What a burden it had been to love such trash. Every one of them, she said, had abused her with impunity, never thanking her or even acknowledging her contributions. At last the dust settled, gradually the windowpanes stopped buzzing in their frames, my grandmother went to sleep, and it was then that my aunt and uncle double-teamed my mother.
“The martyr!” Aunt Rukhie laughed. “Liar! Hypocrite! You enjoyed it! You thought he would appreciate you for it!”
“Who asked you to do those things?” Uncle Dolly asked her.
“Papa did! Papa told her!” Aunt Rukhie crowed.
They reminded me of those neighborhood characters I used to know who would beat lumps into each other and then argue about which of them had sustained the most gruesome injuries.
“You were always his little favorite,” my mother reminded my aunt, and this was true, but now that punishment was the measure Aunt Rukhie seemed to resent that she had gotten a pass, as though she had missed an essential attention.
Listening to them downstairs through the floor, I shrugged at Delores as if to apologize for them, but Delores smiled and shrugged back at me. Who didn’t live in a haunted house? They just missed him, she explained, but since no one was there to be found, they searched for him in each other, sifting through their memories to be with him somehow.
“Poor t’ings, it hard for them,” she sighed. “All a dem wanting to do somet’ing you know.”
No argument there, for I too searched for Papa in the ruins. There were questions I would have asked that bitter, secret man, to know, for example, whether any of it had been sweet for him. Surely not all of it had been loss and deceit, and if so, was there anything that mattered to him now, or that felt unfinished? What was it about, if he thought of things that way—did any of it come together in the end, like a puzzle, or a joke, or was it all pretty much as I had begun to suspect, frantic and desperate and finally rather stupid?
More than any of these, however, I needed to know why on earth he had been so angry at these people. How had they disappointed him? Why had he never been at peace in that house?
My mother, the senior child and therefore in all things the world’s greatest authority, had tried to persuade me that it was hard times that had done this to him, in particular the Great Depression of the 1930s; which sounded glib enough at first but upon reflection instantly collapsed. As if austerity had ever been a problem for these people. If anything my family was made for want, deprivation was their chosen lifestyle, to the point where I might have been eleven or twelve years old before I realized we weren’t poor. It was the Depression in fact that had transformed my grandfather from a common tradesman to an owner of income-producing real estate. His son was his property manager. My mother did his tax work.
My imagination turned then to sentimental conjectures, impossible to prove but easier to grasp, of losses he might have suffered in his youth before he came here, the sort that left permanent holes in the world. A career gone south? It was not implausible. A life of the mind? A first love perhaps, the gal he left behind? Or, maybe he, too, missed his papa. Emotional connection back then was even more attractive to me than romantic speculation.
But while my grandfather had become for me an unquestionable mystery, for his children his detachment, witless though it was, seemed to comprise some final, inconsolable injustice. True, as a father he had been infernal, but now they didn’t even have that. For all they knew he might have been convalescing. Why was he living except for spite? His eyes, though opaque, were bright as dimes, the whites unstained as milk. He had the appetite of a brick mason, less body fat than a gymnast. What was the point, they asked.
My aunt Rukhie was very outspoken on this subject and you could see that she had given the issue as much thought as possible. It was a matter of dignity for her. More than anything else, she said, the old man had the right to control his own life; though how this concerned my grandfather she couldn’t say. Had he been dying, perhaps things might have been different, but strictly speaking he wasn’t even sick in any critical sense. He was older than dirt and his mind was shot, but given the manageability of his ailments, he was healthier than most doctors.
“But was he a person?” Aunt Rukhie asked. Except for his health he probably wanted to be dead. In his place it’s what she would have wanted. “It stood to reason,” Aunt Rukhie said.
“So kill him,” my mother suggested, and my aunt made a face. “Don’t be so dramatic,” Aunt Rukhie said. “You’re always trying to be dramatic.”
“Who’s being dramatic?” my mother said. “Do it. Be the good one. Put his head in a bag.”
But it was only that he was unconscious, my aunt explained. “Look at him, he was helpless. What pleasure could it give him?”
“All of us should be so helpless,” my mother said, since it was also clear that everyone was ready now to say yes to anything they imagined he wanted. My mother in her seniority continued to be the responsible one, and kept expecting her father to be grateful for it; Aunt Rukhie would bring her children to visit, which confused the old man and scared the kids; and Uncle Dolly would neglect his work—Uncle Dolly had a degree in civil engineering from City College and was a facilities inspector for the Port Authority—in order to sit at Papa’s bedside each afternoon and report on the occupancy rates of the family’s surviving rental properties, their states of repair, the current tax assessments, and the vicissitudes of pending litigations, since in addition to the other changes in my grandfather’s status he had also become a slumlord recently, something you had to expect, Uncle Dolly explained, when buildings cost more to maintain than the law permitted you to recover in rents.
It was as if their suffering should have earned them something. Weeks and then months of this pointlessness went by, yet there was never any lack of questions without answers. Childhood’s ancient enmities were dredged up, grudges and resentments that creaked with sciatica.
Why had Uncle Dolly enlisted in the Army? How could he have left them at a time like that?
“At a time like what?” Uncle Dolly asked, but my mother wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. He knew what, he knew very well what.
It all seemed so wasteful to me. Shouldn’t they know that they had done their duty? Yet in their plunges of grief and contention you would have thought it was the children who were passing.
With hindsight’s assistance of course it’s obvious that this desire for them to be gentle with each other was only my own futile wish to feel safe with them, but nevertheless it seemed possible they might offer the praise to one another that they had never received from that unhappy man. There was never any doubt they had loved him after all, their misery was the proof of that. Why then couldn’t they be proud of each other? What possible consolation could they derive from their service if they were constantly at each others’ throats?
But negotiating those broken hearts was like stumbling through a minefield. Attempts to intercede were rebuffed out of hand. Conciliators were dismissed as busybodies.
“Oh shut up, what do you know about it!” my mother said. “Everybody needs to know your business.”
“You weren’t there,” Aunt Rukhie explained, “You don’t know what happened.”
“So what happened?” I asked. If I was of them, then how could it not be my history, too? But Aunt Rukhie sighed beneath the burden of the inexplicable, and Uncle Dolly frowned as well. “It’s a long story,” my mother said. “It’s complicated. You wouldn’t understand.”
You’d have thought they were trying to protect me, their bright, freshly-minted little Yankee Doodle, perhaps ignorant as Adam but sound as a dollar.
They left me no choice, I would go to the source, and a week later, at our regular Friday night festival of recrimination, I made my way downstairs. Not that I truly expected anything, but among the lessons I learned that night was that we find whatever we’re looking for.
Papa was in his wheelchair, sitting in front of the television set, dressed in a strap undershirt and a pair of freshly laundered cotton pajama pants, and the crimped veins in his arms conveyed a sense of somnolent power. Without his dentures, however, his face had settled, and when he turned to me as if I might have been a lamp it struck me that, absent the rage, which tended to blur everything it touched, the uncomprehending vacancy in my grandfather’s face was not that different from the ferocious confusion that would come over him each night when he came home to find us gathered in the kitchen. “Who are these people?” he seemed to be asking. “What are they doing in my house?”
A blank face of course is a paper doll, you can make whatever you want of it, but on the other hand, what had changed? How in this lamentable state was he any more detached than he’d been with his presumed sanity intact? Had dementia set this man adrift, or had it merely rendered his displacement visible?
Not a word had passed between us, yet even now I remember that exchange as the most illuminating conversation of my life. I felt not only that I absolutely knew these things but that I had always known them. It explained why he had taken no satisfaction from his success, why it was only his day-to-day labor that mattered. Certainly he lost himself when work became impossible. But could losing himself have been prevented, or was it only the culmination of a process that had begun when he arrived here? When had he ever known a floor beneath his feet? Anyone, I thought, would have been inconsolable.
But when I tried to share these notions with my mother, you’d have thought I was asking for a Delores of my own. Not that she was unkind.
“I think you’re spending too much time downstairs.”
I was furious. Finally with the means to put their enmities aside, their instinctive response was to resent the intrusion. Rage was their legacy. Suffering exalted these people. They had vocabularies then, they maneuvered their griefs like orders of battle. Which of them had endured him most, sacrificed most, benefited least—my mother who had withstood him longest, my uncle who had needed him most, or my Aunt Rukhie who, by mere luck of the draw, had done everything right?
Even when the old man died they continued to claw at each other.
I was downstairs with Delores, watching her put fresh linen on the bed. Papa had taken his nap that morning after breakfast as usual and as lunchtime approached he was still sleeping.
But often he slept that way, Delores said. If he could not be awakened easily, she would cath him and let him sleep.
“Dey do dat you know, so quiet?” She smiled now to recall it. “Like a fallin’ inside a dem dey go.”
She had washed and dressed him in fresh pajamas and combed his hair, then aired the room and at last went upstairs to tell my grandmother, who ran downstairs at once to wake Papa up.
“What did you do!” Mama shrieked at her in Yiddish. “Yankel! Yankele!”
Well, she had always known no good would come of this. But would anyone ever listen to her? “Yankele! Yankel, what’s the matter with you—wake up,” she wept, pounding her temples with her wrists. “How could a man sleep this way!”
Meanwhile Delores placed calls to my mother and the doctor, and later that afternoon the mortuary sent a van.
It was past five now and Delores was clearing out the refrigerator, while upstairs my mother was screaming at my aunt. They were quarreling about the funeral arrangements, whether the coffin should be open or closed and where they should conduct the seven days of mourning.
*As “Displaced Persons,” this was published by Confrontation in Issue 121, Spring 2017.