I’m forever telling myself how lucky I am to have you for a grandson. Your grandmother always said you were one in a million whenever you came to stay with us for a week in Florida. You ate what she gave you without any complaints, you fixed up the sofa bed every morning, and you always asked if there was something you could do for her to help. She loved introducing you to everyone at the clubhouse.
Your brother Mitchell was another story. I never understood how someone could do nothing for a whole day except watch television and eat junk food. I told your grandmother not to keep buying those Twinkies or the M & M’s in the big bags, but she never listened to me. “He’s going through a phase,” she’d say. “You’re helping him rot his teeth,” I told her. That worried her, but it was more important to her to have in the house whatever he wanted.
I’m sure you remember how many times I told Mitchell to go outside and get some sun. You were smart enough to go swimming or ride a bicycle, but he just stayed in all the time. I can still hear myself talking to him like it was yesterday: “Your mother didn’t pay all that money for a plane ticket so you could sit in front of the TV all day. Either go in the back yard where it’s nice out, or go find David at the swimming pool.” Ten times a day I must have said it, but it was like talking to a wall. Most of the time you couldn’t even get an answer from him.
It was such a pleasure for me, David, when you came here to the nursing home last month. And what a surprise! I know you have so much to do and all your friends to see whenever you have a weekend in Boston. But you made such an impression on the people here. Everyone told me how handsome you were, and a few of the women keep saying they have granddaughters they’d like you to meet. Some joked, “How could Harry Greenfield have such a good-looking grandson?” Anyhow, I tell them New York City is full of beautiful girls, and you are in no hurry to get tied down.
Yesterday I got your letter, and it brightened up my whole day. You remember I always said you would do well at your company and already you’ve got a promotion. Someone should warn the president there his job is in danger. And thank you for sending me the cartoons you cut out from the magazines. Most of them were very funny, and I’ll put them up on the bulletin board. Not all at once — probably a couple each week. So the residents can have different days to laugh.
You asked me about the man who always sits by the elevator on the third floor. I told you before how he spends hours every day in that same chair, forever tapping his cane like it should make a hole in the vinyl. That’s all I know about him. Everyone calls him Vilna, just Vilna, but no one talks to him because he won’t say anything if you do. He was already here when I moved in, but for how long I have no idea.
He spoke to me one time and that’s it. I’d been here maybe a week or so, and the nurse had put Fiddler On The Roof on the phonograph. Usually the phonograph sits on a table in the corner by the elevator. I heard music playing so I sat down over there to listen. A few minutes later, Vilna was standing in front of me and telling me I’m in his chair. I didn’t even know his name at that time or anything about him. It’s a nuisance with a walker to have to get up just to change chairs. So I showed him there were others he could sit in. “That’s my chair,” he said, in such a way you didn’t want to fight about it with him. So I didn’t say anything else, I just got up and went back to my room. I figured if he was a little crazy I was better off elsewhere. Later, someone told me Vilna always sits in that chair and I shouldn’t take it personally.
He just eats, sleeps, and spends most of his time at the elevator, like he’s waiting for someone to get off and he shouldn’t miss them. Anyhow, telling you this has made me wonder more about him, even whether that’s his real name. I’ll let you know if I find out something.
Otherwise I am fine. Your mother was here on Sunday and stayed about an hour. She wanted to take me for a drive, but she was upset about not being invited to some wedding, so I decided not to take any chances. I’m not supposed to have any fast starts or stops on account of the spur in my neck, and I worry about her driving when something’s bothering her. But she does so much for me and calls almost every day to see how I’m feeling.
Now that you’re on your own and Mitchell is finishing up college, it almost seems like your mother has another child to look out for. I’m fortunate to have such a wonderful daughter.
Be a good boy and work hard.
I hope this letter finds you doing well in everything.
Your mother told me yesterday she spoke to you and found out you sprained your ankle doing jogging, but it’s almost healed. I’m sure you know not to run at night in a park. It seems everything you see in the newspaper about New York City these days has to do with one crime or another. So don’t get the feeling you’re smarter than everyone else and go places that could be dangerous. That’s a little good advice from your grandfather.
Anyhow, I wanted to tell you a little bit about Vilna. Do I know his real name? Yes. How do I know? Here’s how. First I asked all the nurses on the third floor, but no one could tell me. Vilna has been here longer than they have and that’s the only name they know for him. Even on the charts in his room and on the nameplate near his door, it just says Mr. Vilna. Never a first name.
So the next time I had something to do downstairs, I stopped in to see the social-services director. She’s also been here less time than Vilna and said she had no idea why no one ever called Mr. Vilna by a first name. She told me to wait, and she went in the back office where they keep the records. After a little while she came back and said all the information on residents is confidential and she couldn’t answer any questions about Vilna. But I noticed that time she said Vilna, not Mr. Vilna.
Since nobody else could tell me anything, I figured I’d see if I could get something from the horse’s mouth. So after lunch I took a magazine and sat down next to Vilna at the elevator. I said, “Hello, Vilna,” when I got there and, “Goodbye, Vilna,” when I left after maybe two hours. He never said a word and didn’t even once look at me.
For at least five more days, David, I did the same thing, always for about two hours after lunch. One day I asked him, “How are you, Vilna?” Another day I told him the cook had turned a good piece of corned beef into shoe leather. Another time, when the nurse played Fiddler On The Roof again out by the elevator, I mentioned I had seen it years ago in Boston. Every day, besides a hello and a goodbye, I had something else to tell him.
One day I was sitting there looking at the pictures in a National Geographic that Mr. Cooperman let me borrow. I told Vilna the pictures reminded me of the woman who took a trip around the world and then told her son she didn’t know where she’d go next year. All of a sudden Vilna said a name I didn’t hear good. When I said, “Excuse me?” he looked right at me and said, “My name is Yitzhak Posner. If you like, you can call me Isaac or Izzy.” I introduced myself and said I’d rather call him Izzy because I had a brother Ira who was also an Izzy. Then he said he’d tell me a joke, and for the next fifteen minutes until I left, he told me three or four funny stories. Naturally, the residents sitting over there in their wheelchairs looked like they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. And when I said, “Goodbye, Izzy,” he gave me a “Goodbye, Harry.”
That happened on Thursday, David, and today it’s Sunday. When I sat next to Vilna on Friday, he started in with the jokes again. He knows jokes about everything. Some I heard before, but not most of them. He has a good voice for telling stories, and he can give you a real good Yiddish or Irish accent when he wants. Maybe he’s got others, too; I don’t know yet. Anyhow, he made me laugh good at some of the punch lines, and I had to say goodbye after an hour to go to my room because laughing loosens up the kidneys.
I was thinking about Vilna that night in bed. Something bothered me, but I couldn’t figure out what. When I was with him again the next day, I suddenly realized what it was. He told me a funny story, and I almost couldn’t stop laughing. Believe me, David, tears were running down my cheeks. While I was wiping my eyes with my handkerchief, I noticed he hadn’t even smiled. Even if a man has told a joke a hundred times, he’s got to laugh again when the other person is dying from how funny it is. But Vilna’s expression never changed. He just looked at me, and when I finally stopped laughing he started right in with another joke. I stayed for a while longer, but then the fact his face never showed any expression began to make me feel uncomfortable. By then I wasn’t enjoying the stories as much as before. There was still about half an hour before the Metropolitan Opera would come on the radio, but I told him I felt tired and wanted to lie down.
Right now, David, is the time I would be sitting with him at the elevator. Maybe he thinks somebody took me out for the afternoon. Actually, I expected your mother would be here today, but I haven’t heard from her. I thought if I wrote to you about Vilna maybe something would suddenly dawn on me why he never smiles. I’ll have to decide whether it’s my business to ask him. I don’t want to lose him as a friend, and you never know when something you bring up is going to be like stepping on a person’s Achilles’ heel.
Mitchell was here last week. Your mother told him about another problem I was having with my TV, and he came to fix it. It took him about a half hour to do it, and the maintenance man here had been in and out with it for a couple of weeks. It’s hard to believe your brother has got only one more year of college. Also, he must be fifty pounds heavier since the last time I saw him, with a chest and shoulders like a wrestler. He brought a girlfriend with him who you could tell is crazy about him. Her name is Nancy. She didn’t look Jewish to me, but at his age I’m not going to worry about it. Let him enjoy himself before it’s time to settle down.
Be a good boy, David, and write me a letter if you have time.
Finally I am writing you the letter you would’ve gotten a few weeks ago if I didn’t have the accident. First of all, thank you for the card you sent. The nurses read it and then pretended they had to be very careful when they came near my bed so I shouldn’t grab them. It was good for a laugh. Also, your mother brought in a box of fresh-roasted cashews she said was from you and Mitchell. So, again, thank you. I already called Mitchell on the phone and told him they were delicious.
At eighty-four years old, believe me, it was something I didn’t need. Usually with a fall like that an older person breaks a hip. But I got two for the price of one. I can understand the wrist because I landed on it, but how the leg broke on the other side I’ll never know. There was a lot of pain for a few days, and with two casts all I could do was lie in bed. The ambulance took me to the Veterans Hospital up on the hill. They said two days was all they would keep someone until they could move on crutches, but for me they made it a week because I couldn’t even get off the bed. I needed the ambulance to get back to the home, and since then all they let me do is sit up on the edge of the bed. Today the nurse wheeled in this table with a slanted top where you put the paper, and I can write almost without leaning over at all. Still, you can see from my writing I’m a little shaky, and I hope you can read everything. Thank God it was the left wrist so I can still send a letter and turn the pages of a book.
I can’t tell you, David, how wonderful your mother has been all these weeks. She came to the hospital every day for hours and sometimes she wouldn’t go home even when I told the nurses to throw her out. Half the meals I had your mother cooked at home and brought in for me. She read to me about the black holes in space which have always fascinated me. She made some calls so I could talk to my brother Naty, your Uncle Walter, and some friends of mine in Florida. But most of the time she just talked to me about family.
It’s hard for a parent to understand what makes four children so different, and your mother tries to figure out why she isn’t more like her sister Lucille or her brothers. She thinks all the good luck went to them and nothing worked out for her. I try and show her she’s wrong, but she won’t listen. I tell her she’s young and she can still be whatever she wants, but it falls on deaf ears. Your mother knows more about more things than Walter or Lucille, and I’ve always told her that, but she never stayed with anything long enough to make a go of it. I don’t mention your Uncle Jay on this point because his whole life was sports from the beginning. But at least he knew how to do enough in all his classes to pass the tests and get his diploma.
We used to have in the paper a comic strip called “Li’l Abner.” I don’t know if you ever saw it. But there was a character who always walked around with a dark cloud over his head like rain was coming the next minute. Sometimes I think it’s the same with your mother. She’s always waiting for the worst things to happen, and then they happen, like they didn’t want her to be disappointed. I tell her she should try to see the world in a different light, but she can’t seem to do it. Your mother has a lot of love in her, David, I don’t have to tell you. But sometimes she gets more discouraged than she should and can say things without thinking, and it may hurt someone else. Or she lets the depression get the best of her, and then there’s no sense even answering the phone if she calls.
I’m stopping right now, David, until later on or maybe even tomorrow. All of a sudden I’m very tired, and it’s not even three o’clock.
So now I’m back again, two days later. Yesterday was full of unexpected things. In the morning they took me downstairs for therapy on my hands a day earlier than usual. Turns out the therapist is going for jury duty today and doesn’t know for how long, so she came in for several of us who shouldn’t go more than three days without treatment. I call it playing in the sandbox. They put my hands in a machine full of sand that gets moved around and gives them a massage. It lasts for maybe an hour, and for half a day or so afterward they feel a lot better. It won’t make the arthritis go away, but anything that helps even for a while is a blessing.
Later on they had a meeting in the lounge for everyone on the third floor. Every so often they need to make announcements to us. This time they complained that some of the residents had been leaving the home for the day with a relative without telling the nurse at the desk. When it’s time for their medications, the nurses have to start asking if anybody saw so-and-so go out. Most of the time a roommate or someone sitting near the elevator will know, but it takes time to find out, and then the nurses get off their schedule.
Another announcement was about the laundry that’s always getting lost. This coming Sunday, everything without a name on it will be in the auditorium, and anyone missing something can see if it’s on the table. Your mother has called the social services director a few times about my shirts and sweaters that never came back, but it’s a problem they can’t stop. Mr. Rosenthal has the most to say about this. His children have brought him five or six cashmere sweaters in the last year, according to him, and today he doesn’t have one. All of them had his name inside, but the laundry was a one-way trip. He says he saw one of the workers wearing the last one he lost. But no one asks them what’s theirs and what isn’t, and you never see it again.
Anyhow, David, you remember the last time I wrote I wasn’t sure about asking Izzy Posner why everyone else calls him Vilna. I sat with him a couple more days in the afternoon and listened to the jokes, but it was harder all the time to laugh when his face never changed at all. So I began going to the library on the first floor after lunch instead.
Maybe three or four days later, Izzy came into the library and sat down at my table. I was so surprised to see him, I started to make an excuse about my son calling with a few articles I should read. But Izzy just said, “You’re wondering why I don’t laugh at the jokes, Harry, right?” I could see there was no answer except to tell him he was right, and I knew it was time for the whole story to come out so I told him, “Yes, it bothers me, Izzy, and also why they call you Vilna.”
His story is nothing easy to write about, David, so I’ll make it short. Izzy was thirty years old, living in Poland, still without a wife but he had a girlfriend when the Nazis came to where he lived and soon sent them all to the camps. From five minutes after they got off the train he never saw anyone from his family again — his parents, two married sisters with their husbands and children, another sister, and a brother. He was the only one left to live because he was strong and they knew he could work. He was in the camp almost two years before the war ended, and then in a hospital for six months until he could take care of himself without help. In the meantime, the Red Cross found one of his relatives in Argentina and he went to live with them. A few years later someone else from his mother’s family visited the relative down there and said they would sponsor Izzy in America and he’d be a fool not to go. So they all helped him with the papers, and he moved in with the family in Cleveland. They were good people and took him into their lumber business. He took a shine to it right from the beginning and helped the business grow. Pretty soon they had lumberyards in a few places in Cleveland, and Izzy was the one who went from one to the other to see how things were going.
Without a warning a miracle happened. He was in the newest store, walking toward the checkout, when he saw a woman holding a large can of paint by the handle in each hand. He went to help her and saw right away it was Vashti, his girlfriend from before the war. Well, you can imagine the scene between the two of them right there. So when the hugging and crying and kissing was over, they went to his office and talked. She had a room with a cousin, everyone called her Vicky, and she had no husband. Two months later Izzy and Vicky got married as soon as the relatives could make the arrangements with a temple and a caterer. I think he said that was 1952. Anyhow, they started late, but had four children in the next five years, two of them twins, all girls. He says it was a “happily ever after” story.
The oldest daughter, Isabel, finished college when she was just nineteen, with all the honors. The other girls were Lilah, and Naomi and Aliya, the twins. After Isabel’s graduation, Izzy took the family to an old resort for a few days. On the last morning he got up early and went fishing with someone they just met the night before. It was still dark when he got in the rowboat and went out on the lake. Maybe an hour later a fire started in the cabin and spread all over the living room in minutes on account of the covers on the furniture and a bookcase full of books and magazines. They told him later it was something from the heater in the room but he never got it straight. The smoke went under the doors into the bedrooms and all of them died without waking up. Izzy and the friend saw the smoke and then the fire from the boat and rowed back as fast as they could, but there were only sad faces by the time he got there. The firemen had already taken out the family and wouldn’t let him go near them.
A couple days later he buried them all in Cleveland, and then some kind of shock hit him and paralyzed most of his face. The doctors told him it was because his brain could never rest from what happened to his family in the ovens and then it was like a short circuit from almost the same thing again to his wife and children. The muscles in his face could barely move, and in the beginning it was a battle for him just to mumble a few words. Over a period of time, the therapy helped him learn to speak again, but he couldn’t smile or laugh. His face wouldn’t do it. One of the doctors had the idea if Izzy watched funny movies and read lots of jokes pretty soon the face would get the right signals and give in. But it never happened. He memorized all the jokes, and inside he feels like he wants to let out a laugh or smile when he tells one, but he can’t do it.
That’s the way it’s been for eighteen years. He never spent another day in the lumber business. He went back to live with his relatives and stayed there until the old lady passed away. Pretty soon it was arranged for Izzy to live with one of their children in Worcester. That only worked a short time, and then they brought him here. So you can see what a sad life he’s had to think about.
After telling me all this, Izzy got up to leave and said, “Harry, so I shouldn’t go a single day without thinking about my family, I made up the name Vilna from the first letter of all their names. I made everyone call me that or I wouldn’t answer them, even the doctors. Now from so many years it’s the first word that comes into my mind every morning as soon as my eyes open up. I don’t have to worry anymore that the memory of their faces will ever go away. So you can still call me Izzy, and I hope you’ll be able to laugh at my jokes.”
Only when he left, David, did I start to cry from that story. Then, still in tears, I wanted to go back to my room before dinner, and that’s when I slipped and fell. Izzy has come to my room every day since I got back from the hospital, and he tells me jokes. At first I laughed and cried at the same time, but now I laugh and I know it makes him feel better.
So that’s it, David. Not such a short story after all. Anyhow, it’s good you asked me to find out about him, and I’ll introduce you whenever you visit here the next time.
Be a good boy.