Friday, April 22, 2005

The Silence of the Grandfather

My grandfather was 85 when he died. That was about thirty years ago.

He came to the United States from Russia as a young man in the pre-revolution days. He escaped actually. He didn't see any future in being drafted into the Czar's army, especially as a Jew, so he left. He'd been arrested, as the story goes, for not showing up in response to his draft notice. He made the leap from the second floor of a police station and didn't stop running until he'd reached the new promised land, where milk and honey flowed and the streets were paved with gold. As far as I'm concerned dodging the draft in Czarist Russia was the best move he could have possibly made. Because of him, I got to grow up as an American, and you're damn right I appreciate it.

He met my grandmother here. They raised my father and his brother. After working for Ford for many years, he lost his job during the Depression and opened up a poultry store, which my grandparents ran until long after I was born. My parents used to take me there as a child. There were live chickens, ducks, and rabbits just waiting to be a part of your balanced dinner. The place smelled something awful, but I was always fascinated seeing the animals.

My grandmother died when I was around six or seven. My grandfather continued to live in the upper flat of the two-family house he'd owned for I-don't-know-how long. When he finally moved out, my father and I went over to help him pack and throw things out. I was probably eleven or twelve by this time. In the attic I scored an old Phantom Big-Little book, which has disappeared, and a 1917 edition of A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It's illustrated by Frank E. Schoonover. There are very moody, mysterious, black and white plates scattered throughout the book. I had to tape the cover on, so the book is being held together by masking tape thats almost 40 years old. I still treasure that book. The story is good too.

My grandfather moved in with my aunt and uncle and lived there for about ten years until he went into the hospital to die. Every Friday he came over to our house. My mother always made chicken and chicken soup and he always brought us (my siblings and me) Hershey Bars. We were little enough so that he played with us. I don't remember exactly what we played, but Fridays were always good because Grandpa was over. I still have old super-8 movies of my youngest sister at four years old riding and dancing around the basement on his shoulders. He must have been 80 years old at the time. On every visit he took a one mile walk to the local mall, hang out for a while and then walk back. One day my sister tried to go with him. I think she made it a few blocks before she turned back. He followed to make sure she got back OK. He still walked in the hospital as cancer was killing him. He'd stroll up and down the halls pushing his IV stand along. He was the talk of the ward.

My grandfather was a very quiet man. So is my father. So was my uncle. So am I. It's been remarked how we all married women who were the opposite.

As a teenager I still enjoyed his visits. We didn't talk much, but I still liked having him there. I paid less attention to him than I did when I was younger, but I always went with my father to take him home at night. The three of us all sat in the front seat with me in the middle, and that was fine with me.



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