If a Jewish pirate decided to retire to the Bronx, he and his wife, who was also a pirate, would probably be a lot like my Great Aunt and Uncle, Gussie and Harry.
Aunt Gussie had a black plastic patch over one lens of her glasses, Uncle Harry walked with a limp, they had a large green parrot that shouted curses in Yiddish.
Their house was the perfect place to store treasure, a tall castle in a nearly deserted area at the end of the city. It was protected by thick, thorny bushes and by a screechy copper-colored dragon. To get there you took a train that few people knew about, a train you boarded only if you knew the secret entrance.
When I was ten and eleven and twelve and spent much too much time daydreaming for someone my age, according to my mother, my Grandma Leah would take me with her when she went visiting, and I prepared for a trip to the high seas.
Today, I know that Aunt Gussie wore a patch because she hadn’t received proper treatment for an eye infection when she was young and she got dizzy if she used the weak eye, and Uncle Harry walked with a limp because he had arthritis in his left knee.
Today, I know that the house they lived in is called a Tudor and was located at the border of the North Bronx and Westchester County and few people went there because there wasn’t much there. I know that the thorny bushes in their yard were where the currents grew that Aunt Gussie used to make jelly, and that the dragon’s head doorknocker screeched because Uncle Harry forgot to oil it.
Today you can get to that neighborhood by taking the #5 train to the last stop. But in the 1950s you had to take the dinky, the shuttle that ran back and forth from Dyre Ave to the 180th Street stop, where you changed for the train that took you downtown, which is what you called Manhattan if you grew up in the Bronx. If you wanted to get on or off the dinky at our stop, Pelham Parkway, you had to be in the first three cars because the platform wasn’t big enough to hold the whole train.
The foul-mouthed, Yiddish speaking parrot had been trained by Aunt Gussie and Uncle Harry’s sons. They had kept the bird in a large brass cage in their room, so no one knew what it was learning to say until it had mastered a very extensive repertoire of Yiddish curses. When the boys grew up and moved away, Aunt Gussie and Uncle Harry tried to get rid of the parrot, but no one wanted it. As the years went by the bird began to slur its words and pretty soon it wasn’t that easy to understand what it was saying, so they didn’t mind so much.
Great Uncle Harry was my Grandma Leah’s older brother, and he was as skinny as she was fat. He wore bowties and pants that were too big for him, held up with a brown leather belt. Harry and Leah had come to America from Poland when Grandma was sixteen and he was 20, just the two of them. Harry was supposed to work hard and start a business while Grandma helped out, cooked and cleaned for him.
The rest of their family remained in Warsaw while their father settled his affairs. But he waited too long. Grandma and Uncle Harry’s parents, their other brothers and sisters, they were all lost in the war.
Many of my relatives were lost in the war. When I was young, I imagined a crowd of confused old people wandering around Europe, knocking on doors and peering around corners while guns fired and planes dropped bombs; going from village to village in Poland and Hungary and Russia and Romania, trying to find their way home.
Grandma told me that when she and Harry made the trip to America she was often scared of the big ocean and the way the boat sometimes rocked, so he held her hand and sang to her to keep her calm. I stared at Uncle Harry’s hands that were stiff and bent into claw-like shapes. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to hold those hands. I never heard Uncle Harry sing.
Aunt Gussie’s family had come to New York from Germany, which, I’d been told, meant that they thought they were high class, at least higher than my father’s family which had come from a small village in Poland. (I’d heard Jews who originally came from Eastern Europe say that the German Jews weren’t as smart as they thought they were, that they had needed Hitler to teach them that they were Jews.) Aunt Gussie had gone to university in Germany and there were people in her family who were professors, ballerinas and opera singers. We didn’t see those people very often.
When Aunt Gussie’s family decided it wasn’t safe to be a Jew in Germany, they contacted their many relatives who were already in the US and were happy to help them get settled. But they were never again as rich as they had been in Germany. Harry and Gussie’s home was furnished with thick oriental rugs, their cabinets held fine China and crystal glasses. But as I got older, I noticed that the rugs were worn, the rooms needed to be painted, and the sets of China and silverware were incomplete.
Grandma Leah told me that Aunt Gussie’s family wasn’t happy when she started going out with Harry, a boy from Poland whom she had met at the local library. They agreed to the marriage because Harry had a successful business and, even though she was educated and came from a good family, Gussie was a girl with a bad eye who might not be able to attract one of the wealthy Deutsche Yidden, German Jewish men.
Grandma and I made the trip to their house every other month. Just the two of us. Grandpa Jake, Leah’s husband, was dead and my parents were too busy to go. As far as I was concerned this was the perfect arrangement. Gussie and Harry’s house really was filled with treasures, and I had no desire to share this loot with anyone.
When Grandma and I were ready for our visit, my mother gave me four subway tokens to keep in my pocket until it was time to drop them carefully in the turnstile. She told me to keep an eye on Grandma. Maybe she said the same thing to Grandma. Sometimes we’d be the only ones who took the dinky all the way to the last stop, Dyre Avenue.
When we got off the train, I’d point the way up the curvy street that led to the hill on top of which was Aunt Gussie and Uncle Harry’s house. When we got there, I’d reach up to the doorknocker, lift the dragon’s big head and listen to him screech.
Aunt Gussie smelled better than other old ladies. Instead of chicken fat and parsley she smelled of the fine, white, lilac-scented powder that came from a silver box with a large powder puff. The box was in her bedroom, on her dresser, on a blue mirrored tray. I’d never seen a blue mirror before, it made me look like someone in a fairy tale. I was allowed to use the powder since Aunt Gussie knew I’d be careful and wouldn’t spill any. If I did spill, I blew the powder away before anyone noticed.
When Grandma and Uncle Harry and Aunt Gussie talked to each other they spoke in English. My mother had explained to me that Jewish people from Germany didn’t speak Yiddish, they considered it a lower-class language. Unless there was someone in the room who wasn’t Jewish, all the other old people I knew spoke to each other only in Yiddish.
While the grownups had tea and talked about whatever it was that grownups talk about, I could go into the garden, pretend I was a soldier and battle my way through the thorny bushes that guarded tiny black and red berries. I learned to pry apart the tangled branches carefully, so my hands didn’t get scratched. No one noticed if I picked these berries, no one noticed if I ate them without washing them first.
When I was tired of being outside, I went to the living room where there was an old upright piano painted light green with tiny pink roses. If you didn’t know any better, you might think that the color was the only thing special about this piano and you’d press the keys and make ordinary piano sounds. But Aunt Gussie had shown me that the piano had a magic switch. When you pressed the switch and pumped the pedals the keys went up and down and the piano played songs all by itself. I tried to memorize the keys’ motions so the next time we visited I could get my fingers on to the right keys and look like I was really playing.
The best part of the house was the top floor. Up two flights of worn wooden steps was a big room with a whole wall of bookcases that reached almost to the ceiling, just like the ones in the public library.
In my house we had an encyclopedia, schoolbooks and some paperback books my mother bought at the drug store and read while everyone else watched TV. On the shelves in Harry and Gussie’s house were stacks of yellowing magazines, books with old leather bindings, shiny, new, hard cover books, and lots of thick paperbacks.
There was a large collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. I never thought about what “condensed” meant, that there might be something missing from these stories, I was too impressed by the idea of so many stories, three or four in each plastic-covered volume. There were all kinds of books and no one to tell me to do my homework, or clean my room, or do anything but open a book and ignore everything else.
In Aunt Gussie’s library there were books about Eskimos and Indians, stories that took place in Europe and Asia and Africa, sci-fi books about outer space. But these were of minor interest. I became a connoisseur of novels that took place in even more exotic locales—like the Midwest—and featured strange people with strange folkways. I later learned they were called WASPs. I searched for stories that took place in Iowa or Kansas or Utah, all the square states I’d mix up in find-the-states jig saw puzzles.
I read about moms who could play tennis, adventures in college dorms, and a world where athletics were as important as academics. The people in the books on Aunt Gussie’s shelves had native English-speaking grandparents—a species I’d never encountered.
The people in my neighborhood were Jewish or Italian. We all had stout, corseted mothers who believed in the benefit of large portions of high carb foods and extra sweaters to protect us from unmentionable diseases. We had distant fathers who worked hard and therefore deserved respect, and grandparents who spoke English with heavy accents and frequently switched to another language mid-sentence.
My family had come to this country dreaming of an America where the streets were paved with gold. Their heavily accented voices echoed in my head while I read and had visions of the “real” America.
I wanted to live among people with perfect enunciation, people with short, easy to pronoun names and to be one of the slim, blonde girls (you don’t eat, people will think you have consumption).
I pictured myself throwing a stick retrieved by a dog named Prince (a dog, what do you want with a dog? It’ll poop on the carpet, shed on the couch and set off your allergies).
I longed for camping trips (sleep outside where animals can eat you? I warn you about rashes you can get from strange toilet seats, and you want to pee in the woods?).
I tried to learn high jumps so I could become a cheerleader for the high school football team (a bunch of goyim chasing a lopsided ball and jumping all over each other. With what they’re doing to their hands you think they’ll become surgeons?).
Just once, instead of being urged to have a third helping of overcooked meat and vegetables, I wanted to sit down to a meal of a cheeseburger and fries and a tall glass of milk (***###!! Where do you get such an idea?).
I sat in the creaky old rocking chair reading those books until it was time to go home. Sometimes I asked Aunt Gussie if I could borrow a book and she always said yes.
And that night I dreamed of being a pirate who sailed on the amber waves of grain where loafs of white bread grew.
Jean Ende is a former reporter for daily newspapers in Westchester, NY and Jersey City, NJ, a publicist for the City of New York and several political candidates, Vice President in the Marketing Division of Citibank NA and Professor of Marketing at St. Francis College, Brooklyn NY.