I WAS almost eleven when I first learned of my maternal grandfather’s existence.
My mother, my stepfather, my five-year-old brother, and I lived in a sunny three-room tenement in Brooklyn, New York. The walls of our foyer were lined floor to ceiling with my mother’s books, and I read as many as possible, entering a trancelike state in which everything else floated on the edges of my awareness. My mother had substituted curtains for the missing doors on all the rooms, allowing voices to drift through the narrow apartment. One Saturday in 1954, I was reading in the bedroom when I became aware of my mother’s voice rising and my father shushing her. (I never thought of him as a stepparent, since he was the only father I’d ever known.) Minutes later my mother called me into the kitchen. I marked my page with a bookmark and pushed past the curtain.
My parents were seated at the kitchen table: my father drinking a cup of coffee and dunking a buttered roll; my mother beside him, a swath of sunlight falling across her, her mouth tight with irritation. She pointed to a chair opposite them, and I sat down. When she spoke, her voice was low and gravelly with anger. “Your grandfather, who I don’t speak to, lives on the Lower East Side right over the bridge,” she said. “Your father, without consulting me, loaned him money last year.” She glared at him, and he met her gaze without flinching, then dipped his roll into the coffee and took a bite. This contrast between my mother’s volatility and my father’s serenity was familiar to me, though years later I would recognize that he provoked her anger in subtle ways and presented himself as the more reasonable parent.
My mother turned back to me. “Every Sunday you’ll take the bus to your grandfather’s tailor shop on Allen Street and pick up money until he’s paid back every cent.”
That I had a grandfather I’d never known about did not come as a complete shock. People regularly shifted out of our lives as my mother shunned them for mysterious offenses. She’d ignored her sister Goldie, who lived a mere six blocks away, for my entire life. Goldie owned a candy stand that was open from morning to night regardless of the weather. On frigid days she wore a heavy coat, gloves, and a kerchief. When it rained, she flattened herself against the brick building, hemmed in by bags of candy, gum, and cigarettes. I’d discovered she was my aunt through a friend who lived in her building. Goldie’s candy stand was en route to the grocery store, and each week, in an exaggerated manner that guaranteed we’d be noticed, my mother would cross the street before reaching it, then cross back once the stand was behind us. The one time I asked why she did this, she snapped, “It’s my business, not yours.” It didn’t occur to me then that her business and mine intersected. Secrecy was so integrated into our existence that I regarded it as normal.
“Don’t talk to your grandfather,” she said to me across the kitchen table. “You and he have nothing to say to each other. Just collect the money and leave.”
“Say hello,” my father interjected, ignoring my mother’s scowl as he brought his dishes to the sink. “Tell him who you are. Say hello for me.”
“So I should say hello?” I asked my mother.
“Say hello, since your father insists,” she answered. “Nothing else.”
From the sink my father winked at me. Seeing my eyes move in his direction, my mother spun around, but he’d already gone back to the dishes.
ON Sunday morning my mother handed me ten cents for the bus and a nickel for a treat. “Remember what I said,” she told me. “Get the money and come home.” I pulled on a sweater she had knitted me and left.
It was a bright spring day with little wind. As always on Sundays, the bus station was a riot of people. I’d been taking the bus alone over the Williamsburg Bridge since I was eight. In our neighborhood of single mothers and families in which both parents worked, children were expected to care for themselves much of the time. Truancy was common, and packs of unsupervised kids wandered the streets, keys on chains flapping against their chests. I had difficulty making friends, and when I skipped school, I read books at the library, snuck into the movies, or hopped the subway to the museums and department stores, always returning at the end of the school day to retrieve my brother from the baby sitter, whose small apartment was jammed with the children of working mothers.
The bus driver watched me closely to make sure I paid the fare. As I dropped into one of the last available seats, I wondered if he had ever caught me sneaking a ride. Sometimes during rush hour I would push my way in through the passengers exiting from the back door and stand between the two tallest people I could find to avoid detection. A middle-aged woman dressed in a suit and gloves sat down next to me. She’d gotten a seat only because a Hasidic man had chosen to stand rather than sit beside me, a female. She opened the Daily Mirror (a now-defunct New York paper) and began to read. From the corner of my eye I examined her soft pink lipstick and trendy French-twist hairdo, thinking her appearance banal. I considered my mother beautiful despite her short, boyish haircut, lack of makeup, and simple shirtwaist dresses, but I wanted something more dramatic for myself when I reached adulthood.
The bus circled the depot and drove past Washington Park, where I’d learned to ride a bike, and a row of tenement houses with children playing stickball in front. As we crossed the murky East River, sunlight reflected off the polluted water, which shone like diamonds. Cars crammed the bridge, and we inched along. From the window of a passing train, a tough-looking boy with slicked-back hair caught my eye and winked. I blushed and looked away, then began to wonder about my grandfather. Would my mother look like him? Would I? Had he ever been curious about my brother and me? Did he know why my mother and her sister didn’t speak? Would he be angry that I’d come to collect money? Why had he borrowed it? How had he made contact with my father? The idea of meeting him began to frighten me, so I concentrated instead on the memory of the book I’d just finished, The Dreaming Jewels, by Theodore Sturgeon. Science fiction was my favorite genre because of the glorious escape it offered. Only after I got older would I recognize its allegories of contemporary social problems.
The bus doors opened onto Delancey Street, which was mobbed with New Yorkers enjoying a day out. Most Jews didn’t leave the house on Saturday, the Sabbath, but on Sunday they emerged, and the kosher restaurants were full. I looked through the window of Ratner’s, envying the well-dressed customers waiting for a table. On Orchard Street I strolled through the jostling crowds hunting for bargains among the pushcarts. Vendors knew I wasn’t a customer and told me, “Don’t touch,” but I touched everything.
Finally I turned onto Allen Street and searched for the address my father had given me. The number belonged to a run-down storefront. The shop window was filthy, the stairs cracked, the iron banister rusty, the garbage pails overflowing. My stomach tightened, and I considered going home and telling my mother he hadn’t been there, but I knew my lie would have been discovered.
I took a deep breath, climbed the stairs, and pulled open the heavy door. The shop was choked by bolts of fabric leaning everywhere: against walls, on tables, atop one another. The columns of wool, cotton, and silk narrowed the space to the width of a cell, and the breeze from outside sent a cloud of lint swirling. A massive pair of scissors rested on a table with lines used to cut patterns. The room’s sole occupant sat at a sewing machine pulled up to the front window to capture whatever light might creep in. At the sound of the door he turned and looked at me. I fell mute, my mother’s instructions to “say nothing” unnecessary.
Perhaps sensing my desire to flee, my grandfather stood and beckoned me forward. I took a few steps in and examined him: a slender man in his late seventies; wisps of gray hair sticking out as if electrically charged around a bald head; glasses flecked with dust. Something in his Slavic cheekbones and the set of his eyes hinted at our kinship. My mother’s skillful sewing had given me an appreciation of handmade clothing, and the tailoring on his white cotton shirt and wool trousers was impeccable.
“So,” he said in Yiddish, “you’re Jenny’s daughter, and you come for money, yes?” His voice was rusty, as if not often used.
I nodded and stored this new piece of information: my mother, who went by “Jean,” had once been called “Jenny.”
“Come here,” he said in accented English. “Nothing to be afraid.” His lips curled, and I realized he was smiling. I understood then that he felt as awkward as I did, but he was determined to make the best of the situation.
“My father says hello,” I whispered.
He nodded, reached into his pocket, and withdrew an envelope, which he handed to me. We were both uncertain what to do next. Then he shrugged and turned back to his sewing machine — just like my mother, turning away from any situation that made her uncomfortable. As I stood there, he reached beneath the machine, pulled out a bottle of schnapps, took a long drink, and then stowed it away before starting the machine up. He didn’t face me again, and I turned and left, dust motes glinting in the air about my head.
“SO,” my mother asked, “what did your grandfather say?”
“Nothing,” I answered. “Didn’t you tell me not to talk to him?” I was mimicking my father, being provocative in a low-key way.
“Such a fresh mouth,” my mother said and peered at me as if attempting to see in my face the story of my visit with her father. My brother was reading a picture book and moving his lips. My father was at work driving a cab. After a moment she asked, “So, your grandfather looked good?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I don’t know how he’s supposed to look. He looked OK to me.”
She considered my answer, then shook her head and said, “It’s sunny, beautiful. Let’s go take a walk, yes?” Walks with my mother were always fun. She had an eye for details that made even our familiar neighborhood seem new and exciting. She’d often find free art exhibits and spend any extra money she had. “Put the book away,” she told my brother. “We’re going outside.” He looked up eagerly, probably hoping that my mother would buy us each an Italian ice. She hesitated, then said to me, “Good job,” and she put her hand on my head.
Flooded with warmth at this rare affectionate gesture, I blurted out, “He took a bottle of schnapps from under his sewing machine.”
“So,” she said, eyes remembering something she would never share, “still the bottle.”
THE following Sunday my grandfather had a black-and-white cookie resting beside him on top of a brown paper bag. In the draft from the open door, the lint swirled like confetti, and some of it drifted onto the cookie. “For you,” he said. He brushed the lint off the thick icing and handed the cookie to me. I was surprised and pleased that he’d prepared for my visit. After our previous encounter, I’d concluded that, except for me, his customers and suppliers were his only contact with the outside world.
“Thanks,” I said and took a bite. The icing coated my teeth, and I brushed my tongue over them, relishing the sweetness.
“So, tea?” he asked.
I nodded, and he put a battered pot on a hot plate, produced a dish of sugar cubes and two stained glasses from somewhere, put a tea bag in each, and stared at the pot as if he hadn’t planned anything more to say. I felt uncomfortable and concentrated on eating my cookie. Later we sat on a couple of ladder-back chairs and drank tea, holding sugar cubes between our teeth as we sipped. I liked the feeling of being engaged in an adult social activity, however awkward. Looking back, I see in his social ineptness the roots of my mother’s difficulty maintaining friendships, and of my own disinclination, long struggled against, to work at relationships.
“So,” he said at last, “your mother is well?”
“Yes,” I answered.
He asked no further questions. When the tea was gone, he stood, handed me the envelope, went to his machine, and reached beneath it for the bottle. “Goodbye,” I said, and I left.
EVERY Sunday morning that spring I took the bus to the Lower East Side. The trips contributed to my sense of independence, a girl walking the streets alone, inhabiting a world in which her parents weren’t involved. I enjoyed the cultural diversity of this part of Manhattan, populated by Ashkenazi Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, a smattering of Sephardic Jews, Hispanics, Italians who wandered over from Little Italy, and Chinese from nearby Chinatown. I felt worldly there, as if anything were possible.
Though my grandfather never once embraced me, his expression seemed welcoming when I swung open the door to his dusty shop, and a modicum of familiarity developed between us despite our inability to reach out to each other. Every week he offered me a black-and-white cookie or a bagel and a glass of tea. On a few occasions there was hard candy rather than sugar cubes, and I assumed he was low on money. Each Sunday he asked the same question about my mother, and each Sunday I answered that she was fine. After the first visit, my mother didn’t ask about him. He never questioned me about my life or volunteered information about himself. Perhaps he believed all I needed to know was obvious: that he was an old man with a thick accent who owned a tailor shop and was related to me. And perhaps all he needed to know about me was that I was his American granddaughter who possessed the family sweet tooth, slight stature, and penchant for secrecy.
Then one morning, after our ritual of cookies and tea, my grandfather pointed to the back of his store, which was screened off by a curtain, and said, “Come.”
I’d been curious about what was behind the curtain, and I followed as he lifted it and walked beneath. The back room was even more claustrophobic than the front one. An unmade bed in the corner and cans of soup stacked everywhere indicated that this was his home. A tiny door against one wall probably concealed a bathroom. Most of the space was taken up by cartons piled one atop another, albums of 78s, fur coats hanging on racks, a few black-and-white television sets (still a luxury then), radios, irons, toasters, toys, and endless boxes of books. I couldn’t imagine what it was all doing there. The floor was overlaid with dust, but the boxes and appliances were clean.
“Pick. For you,” my grandfather said. “Pick what you want. A present, yes?”
Without hesitation I went for the books. It was impossible to do a thorough search, but turning over a few revealed one in a protective leather case. I picked it up and turned to my grandfather, who nodded. I pulled from the case a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, complete with illustrated plates. I sank to the filthy floor and began to turn the pages and read a few of the poems. I was too young to comprehend much of their meaning, but the grace of the words pulled me along. I recited one, to hear its music aloud:
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend, Before we too into the Dust descend; Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie, Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and — sans End!
I knew it was about death, and about fearlessly pursuing adventure while you could, about taking chances. I ran my hand over the gold-embossed calligraphic letters, etched with tiny flowers, that began each verse. I hadn’t known a book could be as splendid as the words it contained. After what might have been a minute or a half-hour, I looked up to see my grandfather watching me. His eyes were gentle, and in the dim light I saw how handsome he’d once been.
“Like your mother,” he said.
I knew then that he must miss her. “Why don’t you and my mother talk to each other anymore?” I asked, then held my breath for fear my question would anger him.
He shrugged and walked back through the curtain without responding. I followed, clutching my book, but he was already at his machine, the envelope of money on his cutting table.
WHEN I arrived home, my brother was playing outside and my father was at work. My mother sat at the table smoking a cigarette and pretending she hadn’t been waiting for me, a cup of coffee and the crossword puzzle in front of her.
“So,” she said when she saw the book, “Lee the fence still using his back room, yes? Your grandfather gets a cut, a few cents, not much money for taking such a big chance. That mamzer bastard cheats him good.” She shrugged. “His business.”
I understood then: his back room was a warehouse, and everything in it was stolen.
My mother took the book from me, pulled it from its leather case, and began to turn the pages. She ran her hand over the embossed plates and, oblivious to my presence, recited a poem to herself. Then she saw me watching her, closed the book, and handed it back to me. “Very nice,” she said.
“Can your father read?” I asked.
Indecision played across her face before she answered. “A little Hebrew, a little Yiddish,” she said. “My mother, who’s dead now, nothing.”
I dropped into a chair, lightheaded at having received a response to one of my questions. My mother watched me with amusement and took a long drag on her cigarette. Deciding to risk more, I asked, “Where did your parents come from? Where were you born?”
She smiled stiffly at me with her father’s lips. “The old country.”
“Why don’t you speak to your father?”
“Who knows?” she said, and she went back to her crossword puzzle.
I WOKE the next morning feeling pleasure at having a grandfather, regardless of how tenuous our connection was. Knowing a grandparent made me more like my schoolmates, who had aunts, uncles, cousins. I had an aunt, too, I thought. My mother dressed for work in her pressed shirtwaist dress and high heels while my brother and I ate our cereal in silence to avoid waking our father, who’d just returned from the night shift.
Our mother left before us. “Be good. Work hard. Don’t forget to get your brother from the sitter’s,” she warned me, just as she did every morning, although I’d never forgotten him.
After I’d dropped my brother off at the sitter’s, I stood on the sidewalk for a moment, then turned away from school and walked down the block toward my aunt’s candy stand. My stomach quivered when I stopped in front of the stand as if to browse the sweets. Traffic howled behind me, and the morning sun on my back was strong enough to make me wish I’d left my jacket at home. I glanced up at Goldie, a stranger with my mother’s face. She watched me without expression. I fixed my eyes on the candy; my hands trembled in my pockets.
“So,” Goldie said, “you gonna buy something or not?”
I looked up to meet her familiar eyes, and she stared back as though she didn’t know who I was.
“If you have no money to buy, get out of here. I got no time for loafers.”
The inflection of her voice was so like my mother’s that I wondered how these women could be such enemies. Or perhaps their similarity itself was the reason. I pulled from my pocket a nickel I’d kept from the previous Sunday, and I picked up a small chocolate bar. She took my money and turned her back to me, having given no sign of recognition. I waited a moment or two, then walked away with a flushed face, embarrassed at my naiveté. Had I expected her to greet me like a prodigal child? To invite me for tea and explain why she and my mother were enemies? Had I expected that she’d want to get to know me, what I liked, how I spent my time, who I was? How could I have anticipated anything more than what I’d gotten? She was, after all, my mother’s sister, her father’s daughter.
I didn’t approach my aunt again. We both left the neighborhood years later, and I never learned what happened to her or her family.
THE weather turned from the cool of spring into the sweltering heat of a New York summer. Women’s jackets were replaced by sleeveless dresses, men’s wool suits by seersucker. One Sunday in July, when I came in the door of my grandfather’s shop, he said, “Last envelope. All paid. No more visits.”
Though I’d known this day would come, I was unprepared for it. I’d imagined that my cloistered grandfather had begun to treasure our relationship and would want to continue seeing me. I felt numb as we sat together over our last cup of tea. My grandfather had purchased an apple strudel, more expensive and festive than a cookie.
I’d received no more invitations to go behind the curtain at the back of the shop, and I wondered if Lee the fence had discovered the missing book and taken my grandfather to task. The sheer number of items back there made it seem unlikely. Nevertheless I imagined my grandfather, a refugee from some European country where Jews were persecuted, had held his breath for weeks, expecting to be caught and punished.
As casually as possible, I said, “I bought something from Goldie’s candy stand. She didn’t say hello to me. Do you ever see her?” I waited, pleading with my eyes for any information at all, but he only shrugged and took a bite of strudel.
I took a deep breath and tried again. “Why don’t Goldie and my mother speak to each other? What happened?”
Again he remained silent.
After we’d finished our tea, he handed me the envelope and sat down in front of his machine. He reached beneath it for the schnapps and took a long drink, as usual, but he didn’t begin sewing right away. His hands rested on the table that held the machine. His leg twitched, and there was a droop in his shoulders that suggested defeat. I stood holding the envelope in my hand for a full five minutes. When he began to sew, I stomped out, slamming the door behind me.
“Here,” I said to my mother when I got home. “The last envelope.” I went into my bedroom and waited for her to come in and speak to me about my anger, my grandfather, her past. She never did.
UNTIL the day she died, my mother kept her secrets: why she and her sister were enemies; why she refused to speak to her father; who my biological father was. My knowledge of her life begins and ends with my memories of her. Following her death, a friend, trying to sympathize, said it was a pity I hadn’t learned more about my ancestry. I didn’t feel that way. In the years since I’d slammed the door to my grandfather’s shop, I’d learned to live comfortably without answers, without certainty, without knowing my family’s secrets. I’d learned from my mother and grandfather not to judge people’s love by whether they gave me what I wanted, but by whether they gave what they were capable of giving.
THAT autumn I turned eleven, my brother started school, and my father left my mother, who sank into a malaise, refusing to speak to my brother and me and often leaving the refrigerator empty. I brought my brother to the library with me and read there rather than at home. I stumbled across a book on Sigmund Freud that lured me away from my usual science fiction. Here was an examination of the hidden reasons grown-ups acted the way they did, a study of secrets.
I saw my grandfather one last time. I was prowling the Lower East Side, handling the vendors’ goods, daring them to chase me away. I’d stolen two apples and been chased down the street by a fruit seller who’d given up, affording me a kind of triumph, a reward for my bravery. I turned onto Allen Street, planning to walk past my grandfather’s shop, as I sometimes did. On this day he was sitting outside on a bench, drinking coffee and reading the Forward, a Yiddish-language newspaper. A crisp wind shook red and gold leaves from the branches, blanketing the street with color. Feeling bold from stealing the apples, I walked up to him. Though it had been just three months, he’d aged. He looked up at me as though I were a stranger; something flickered across his face, some hesitation, and then he went back to his paper. The season that had circumscribed our relationship had passed. I turned and left him there, a solitary man in a swirl of fallen leaves.