I float in the pewter-grey, silent world of my childhood, down a wide, empty street, past the blank windows of tall row houses. Dark-hatted figures glide past, ghostly strangers with no faces. I approach the old house near the alley warily, afraid, and climb the front steps.
Inside, there is hammering, dust, workmen who don’t see me. They have opened a wall to more rooms. New people are moving in.
My house was big and all the things in it shone. The buffed wood floors, deep velvety sofa and chairs, the satiny gold drapes on the tall windows in the sunny parlor. There I twirled in the sun to symphonies in my head, long braids flapping, plaid school dresses melting into sapphire gowns, the oriental rug beneath my feet a trail of jeweled footlights.
My grandpa was mine too, big and gentle, his occasional gruffness melting into softness toward me. Once when I peed in the pot holding the tall palm in the parlor, my lumbering grandpa tried to chase me, pulling off his belt in mock anger. I slid out of his reach under the dining table, and the charade dissolved in laughter. Even my unhappy grandmother, joining the chase, began to laugh.
But when I yelled “shut up,” to my grandmother one day, my grandpa’s response was as swift as a slap. My name, the name he gave me, came off his tongue sharply, his face scarlet, his words in harsh staccato. With trembling hands, he reached into his desk for a bottle of little pills and put one under his tongue. But I wanted to help you, grandpa, I thought. I wanted to stop her complaining. There were no smiles or laughter from my grandmother after that.
My grandpa guided me to wash my hands and face each morning, sat with me at breakfast, walked me to school. But on one cool April morning in the somber kitchen he is silent, gazing past my grandmother’s tall bottles of pickled herring glistening on a shelf, to a distant world. At the stove, my sharp-tongued grandmother’s complaints are suspended, her veiny hand holding onto the kettle, as though it might escape before the water boiled.
“Ach,” my grandfather said heavily. He raised his silver-rimmed eyeglasses to his forehead and dabbed his eyes with a white handkerchief.
“Eat,” he said, looking over his glasses as though startled at finding me across the table from him. He poured some of the heavy cream glistening on top of a sweating glass bottle of milk left by the milkman that morning. He placed it on the red-checkered oilcloth.
I wanted my grandpa back. I wanted to hear again about the toy stove with cold fire he planned to buy me. I believed in that stove. I wanted him to tell me again about the fish that leaped from his arms and flapped around in the streetcar on the way home from the Seventh Street wharves.
But a deep sadness had seeped into the airy rooms, funneled in from the radio a few days before. That afternoon, in the sunlit bedroom over the parlor, I sat close to my grandpa at his wide desk (the one where I sit now, over 70 years later), repeating after him the names of Hebrew letters, puzzling them together in words as he trailed a swollen finger right to left under each line. Beside us, his blue and white prayer shawl sat folded tightly in its velvet case, the gold-embroidered Star of David glinting in the bright sunlight.
At last, my grandpa closed the study book and rose to turn on the wood-paneled radio. He bent close to it listening intently for news of the war, news from a world he had escaped decades before, where rampaging mobs killed Jews in their homes, and his little sister lay murdered in a muddy lane. Through the static, urgent men’s voices spoke of Allies, Axis, Nazis, bombs. Immune to their meanings, I twirled on the glossy floors of the large bedroom, my feet buried deep inside pink satin ballet shoes abandoned by my mother.
Later, I went downstairs to find Olive and trail her around the house as she mopped and dusted and ironed. Beautiful dark-skinned Olive had love in her eyes.
The room at the base of the stairs was cool and dim, a cocoon of burnished oak. It smelled like furniture polish and my grandmother’s chicken and onions stewing in the kitchen. Olive was polishing a cabinet filled with my grandfather’s heavy dark books, humming softly to herself. The light from the window made soft blue highlights on her smooth skin and wavy black hair.
Above us on the stairs, my grandfather suddenly cried out, lumbering heavily down the stairs. For one numbed moment, Olive and I stood like stones, dumbly absorbing shock waves. Many decades later, I see him there, a dark-suited image frozen on the stairs, holding tight to the banister and the wall with swollen hands, crying out the Yiddish words.
“Roosevelt es geshtorben.”
“What is he saying?” Olive asked, her eyes wide with alarm. My grandfather was a proud man and spoke with dignity.
President Roosevelt died, I told her.
I saw then that a part of my world could disappear forever, that the solid brick walls of our house were like paper against the power of unknown forces, that even my grandfather’s prayers couldn’t fight them. In my whole life, all my seven years, President Roosevelt had been president, my president. My grandpa loved him almost like he loved God it seemed. But death came only to famous, far-away people, I reasoned, through the droning voices of newsmen. Death came through the radio.
In the steamy kitchen on that bright spring morning, my grandpa wiped his mouth and his trimmed white mustache with a napkin and leaned back in his chair. He snapped open the gold watch that hung across his broad chest on a chain. “Time for school,” he said, encouraging me to finish my cereal.
Outside, I looked for changes in the street, in the tall row houses, the people. But buses still spewed dark smoke along the road, streetcars seared the metal tracks, tender young leaves glowed on the tall maple trees. A grey-suited man tipped his hat to greet my grandfather. A woman rushed by, high heels clattering, pulling on white gloves.
Grandpa swung his cane ahead of him every two steps as we walked slowly down the sidewalk, his heavy body erect. In the street, an impatient driver honked his horn, switched gears noisily. I stayed close to my grandpa, even when he stopped to lean with both hands on his cane, panting quietly. I wanted to make sure he, too, didn’t disappear. He was my protector, but I tried to be his protector too.
Through the school day, during reading, arithmetic and snack time when we folded our straws in a V for victory before throwing them away, I watched the hands of the clock, waiting for three so I could run out to my grandpa who waited daily, sitting on a low wall, his hands cupped on the handle of his cane upright in front of him.
We took a bus home that afternoon. “I’m tired,” my grandpa said.
The old wooden porch slanted away from the house and needed some paint. Off the second floor back bedroom, it overlooked a patch of woods where neighborhood boys skirmished on dusty trails, the hunters and the hunted, the good guys shooting the Nazis and Japs. They loved the drama, not like their brothers, cousins and fathers who were fighting and dying on Okinawa or in France or North Africa. No red blood stained the soil when these boys fell splayed on the ground, only to rise again. Their battles ended when their mothers called them in for dinner.
Above the shrieks and groans of war, my grandpa and I swayed on a rusty metal rocker that squeaked as he pushed it back and forth with his foot. The ashy tip of his cigar flared in the failing light as he inhaled the fragrant smoke.
To the west, above the low hills of Rock Creek Park, the flat roof of a hotel, silhouetted by the late sun, looked rimmed by a picket fence.
“Those are soldiers with guns,” grandpa explained, “watching for enemy planes.”
Earlier, bent over the newspaper spread across his desk, he pointed to a photo of a man with a stumpy dark mustache and black hair across his forehead.
“This is Hitler,” he said. “He is dead now. He was a very bad man. Very bad.”
“Is the war over, grandpa?” I asked.
“Now we fight the Japanese. But we will win. This is a great country.”
But what was war to me? Stern radio voices. Foreign words and far-off places. Boys collapsing in the dirt and getting up again. A sideshow. I had my grandpa’s warm body next to me on the porch. Together we shared minutes that I would try to recapture for the rest of my life, straining for forgotten fragments–a word, a smell, a glance, a gesture. Decades later I struggle to picture his face, but all I find is his image in a photograph.
The sun dipped into the hills of the city and a fiery brilliance took over the world. I waited for flames to leap over the over the hillsides, to light the trees, our little porch, our feet. But the sky faded into a rosy luminescence. The shrieks of war melted into bedtime. A lion roared at the zoo, just beyond the scarred battlefield.
Cool shadows slid across our faces and I moved closer to my grandpa, felt the mound of his belly rising and falling. The rhythmic screak screak of the metal rocker echoed the quiet rhythm of our lives, school day to school day, prayer to prayer, Sabbath to Sabbath, each day, each week predictable, ours.
“Do you believe in God?” my grandpa asked me suddenly.
I felt my heart thump. He had taught me never to lie, but how could I tell my grandpa that the God he loved and prayed to was just another word to me, empty of any meaning. I liked to say the Hebrew prayers he taught me, but I didn’t understand most of them. I wanted to please him, but I didn’t understand the Shma, the foundation of Jewish beliefs, which I heard as, “Here, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is won.” How did we win God? Inexplicably, I pictured a head on a plate.
As the night air chilled deeper, and the rocker stilled, I told my grandpa I believed in God. And one day I learned the real meaning of the Shma, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
The siren began as a low familiar groan and rose quickly to a piercing wail. My grandpa and I felt our way through the dark hallway and down the steps to the parlor. My grandmother reached high to the tops of the tall windows to pull down the special darkening shades. A small lamp far from the windows, drew lurking shadows on the silk-papered walls.
On the dark streets outside, air-raid wardens patrolled, watching that not a sliver of light beaconed to an enemy plane. I laid my head against my grandpa’s shoulder, smelled his aftershave, the remnants of cigar smoke, listened to the soft whistle with each intake of his breath. And together we waited in the quiet dark for the all-clear signal.
Later, as I lay in bed, my grandpa listened to my prayers and kissed me on the forehead before going to his own room. And from the darkness of my room, his room down the hall pulsed with warm light and I watched him slowly remove his tie. I closed my eyes with this vision of my grandpa.
Raised suddenly from the warmth of my bed covers, I fought to lie back down, to return to dreams. In the dark, a woman with perfume in her hair pulled on my arms, forced me upright, whispering that I must get up. I felt heavy, confused, and tried to push her away. My aunt, who only visited on Sundays, hovered over me in the night, forcing my arms into my winter coat over my pajamas.
Your grandpa is sick. You’re coming to stay with us, she whispered.
A low bulb strained to light the hallway. My grandpa’s door was closed. The house was silent, dark. I fell back to sleep in the warm car.
It was a raw November afternoon when I returned to the house. A white sheet covered the gilt-framed mirror in the hallway. In the parlor my grandmother moaned, striking her knee again and again with a balled-up handkerchief in her fist. Around her, somber men and women sat on hard-backed chairs, murmuring what a good man my grandpa was. The women shook their heads and dabbed their eyes, while the men looked at their laps or prayed with my uncles. In the kitchen, a tall candle burned in a glass jar.
“It’s lighting your grandpa’s way to heaven,” my aunt said, trying to be a comfort as she sat at the kitchen table smoking. She picked a bit of tobacco off the end of her tongue with her scarlet tipped fingernails, tapped some cigarette ash into a glass ashtray.
Upstairs, the front bedroom door was ajar. The room was still, shadowy, its life suspended, as though in reverence to the sudden wrenching facts of its new status, in shock at its loss. A sad winter sun, low in the west as the day emptied, cast a timid glow onto my grandpa’s desk where his prayer books and my blue Hebrew book sat abandoned, his prayer shawl forever folded in its velvet cover. No war voices came from the radio.
I saw my grandpa and me, sitting close together at the big desk, the sun warming us through the tall windows. I heard his voice, soft, encouraging, as his finger skimmed under the graceful Hebrew letters, and I repeated the sounds.
I saw myself dancing in the middle of the floor, twirling with my feet buried in the old pink ballet slippers, my grandpa bent close to the radio listening to news of Hitler’s war. I loved to dance, but never on the Sabbath. Dancing on the Sabbath was forbidden, my grandfather said.
I opened the closet door, pulled on a string to light the ceiling bulb and pulled my grandpa’s heavy wool coat tightly around me. I rubbed the cool silky lining against my cheeks, my forehead, let it rest on my arms. Inside his coat, with the lingering scent of his cigars, his aftershave, I could tell him that I loved him and beg him to come back. Over and over I told him I loved him, hoping that through the medium of the coat, he would hear me.
Through the floor from the parlor below, I heard my grandmother’s moans, the dull grating voices, the monotonous opening and banging shut of the front door as strangers came and went, offering cakes, candy, more sympathy for my grandmother.
For days, my grandmother cried and repeated the story to her captive mourners. It was late, they were in their bedroom. My grandpa, may he rest in peace, sat on the side of his bed and suddenly clutched his chest. Oh, my heart, he said in Yiddish, and fell back, dead. Just like that. Fifty years we were together. Fifty years. One second here, then gone. Ach, ach, ach.
Then I knew that he was dead when I left the house, that there was a funeral as I prayed every day for him to recover, and the wrenching, sinking pull of betrayal took hold in my stomach.
There was no comfort from the ghost who walked with me to the bus stop on my way to school. Alone on the bus, I stared at the dirty wood floor. My eyelids felt too heavy to lift, as though they had sprouted weights.
After school, a figure, a dark shadow in a heavy wool coat, sat on the low wall in front of the school. But he did not turn toward me with a smile, did not rise to greet me. It was only when I returned to the house and into the closet that the coat welcomed me. There I could feel my grandpa near me, bury myself in his presence, tell him again that I loved him.
But one day when I pulled the cord the light reflected off hard scuffed walls and empty hangers.
For years, I didn’t dance on the Sabbath. But then one day I did.
Ms. McBride wrote and produced The Old Days: Jewish Life in Washington, D.C., which aired on local PBS stations. Premiered by The Smithsonian Associates and the Washington Jewish Film Festival, the documentary was awarded first place in the Our City Film Festival It also was featured at the 2002 D.C. Independent Film Festival.
As an independent writer/producer, Esther McBride wrote scripts and produced documentary and other programming for government and private sector clients. These included the National Institutes of Health, Travel Channel, and the Jewish Historical Society.
In her early career, Ms. McBride was a free-lance writer and photographer, with stories and photographs in The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and other newspapers and magazines. Subsequently, she was a public affairs specialist at the National Institutes of Health, where she wrote educational materials and produced videos about biomedical research. She received a first-place award from the American Medical Writers Association.