My grandfather in his last years, his children about him for one last Christmas feast, a holiday freed from religion by the old atheist Jew, a good pine tree topped with a golden staff and star, no hint of unseemly angels or mangers or miracles beyond the province of Marx. Christmas scrubbed clean of excess in prescribed gift exchange and price-limit so that no child could be spoiled or over-delighted; a turkey smoked slow with cherry-wood, French wine brought by my ex-patriate uncle and Martinellis for the children. Finally, a singing circle, my uncles and aunts and cousins gathered by the tree to sing folk songs of protest and celebration, vintage Americana, this land is your land and you are my sunshine and this little light of mine, my aunt strumming the guitar, songbooks handed out to those of us who didn’t know the words. My grandfather in the easychair, unreclined and bent forward over his knees, hair gone wispy and white, fierce eyes closed and brow unknit for once as gave each song its due, his broken voice still a pleasure even pitchless and hoarse, overloud now that his hearing was gone. My last memory of him; I don’t remember saying goodbye.
Abe at seventy-five, hovering at the counter of a country diner with pale, knobby arms outstretched, instructing our waitress on the particulars of a chocolate soda that was nowhere on the menu. His white beard bristled from his face like a cat’s puffed tail. “If! This! Is! Your! Idea! Of! Service!” he exclaimed, slamming his palm to the counter with each word, “I’ll have nothing on your so-called menu!”
He knew he couldn’t have a soda with his diabetes anyway. But a world that couldn’t offer even the meanest comforts – that was no world at all. This was him mellowed, after the stroke.
Before, he’d been a lion. A communist union organizer he’d been untiring, even as the F.B.I. ran him out of work and out of New York State, harried him and his family across the country until he rested finally in California, in Berkeley, the leftest Coast. He held forth until he was made city planner, pushed issues that begged disagreement and banged podiums until everyone acquiesced.
My childhood was defined by the echoes of my grandfather’s presence – my father grew up in fear and awe of his father, and my father’s own strictness and discipline and idealism and his occasional white-knuckled rage were response and imitation. I can remember my father’s dilated pupils the rare times I talked back or was caught in dire error, how his face went tight, and remember him striking me so hard on the bottom I felt it through the top of my head. My brother doesn’t recall being spanked because my father became so ashamed at his violence that he stopped entirely by the time my brother was a toddler. The punishment he substituted was forcing us to sit in proper ‘seizah’, back straight and feet tucked underneath, in the Japanese style used in the martial art of Aikido that my father trained and taught, for twenty and thirty minutes at a time, however long it took until he was convinced we had fully and deeply repented. I was stubborn when I felt I was right, and sometimes would sit seizah in my room until I lost feeling in my feet, unapologetic even as the needles of pain spread to my calves and knees, but sometimes I simply refused to admit I was wrong. We were supposed to learn respect and self-control from this discipline, but what I gained instead was a high endurance for pain and the conviction that suffering was better than compromise. My brother and I have tried to find others of our generation raised as strictly, and we cannot; we cultivated the willpower of a different age. We were raised to restrain the passion that burned in our grandfather, to stoke it and bear it, to keep it lit. To hew to what we believe just no-matter the consequences.
My father’s earliest memory is of seeing Abe’s shadow loom in the doorway – and of breaking into terrified tears, sure he had done something wrong. My grandfather did not salute small accomplishments, especially those which offended his political convictions. So it was that his oldest son, who became a businessman, remained a failure in Abe’s eyes even as my uncle became a millionaire and served on Reagan’s board of education. And so it was that my father, who became a doctor, was hopelessly bourgeois, a traitor to true causes. When my father sent an invitation to my grandfather for his medical school graduation, it wasn’’t that Abe refused to attend – he refused to acknowledge the accomplishment at all.
In his presence, nobody defied Abe that I ever saw; everyone gave way. When I was a boy, he would bring his five children and their families together for Seder, spread the folding tables into a banquet hall in his living room. Then he would sermonize against the existence of the Almighty for the benefit of my aunt and two uncles who had fled godlessness and become born again Christians. Standing at the head of the table by the unlit candelabra, bending from the waist toward his oldest son who was an elder at a Fundamentalist Christian church, he pounded the table as he spoke, encouraged them to turn the other cheek as well:
“”Passover is the day we must recognize that if there is a God, and he did indeed choose these unsophisticated, nomadic Hebrews for his purpose, loving them more than all other human beings on the planet, then God’s love is a love of suffering. He led them from slavery only to offer them a Prophet they would deny, blessing them with three thousand years of bloody persecution. He offered them the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea so that my uncles and aunts who stayed in Poland could be starved in Hitler’s concentration camps, so that your second cousins who were only children, innocent young children, could be dragged to the gas chambers praying for His mercy.”
God had no leg to stand on when he was finished with Him. Then, after half an hour of holding forth, he would sense the absence of opposition and take up the other side, light the candles with all the holy prayers, elohenu-alech-shalom, reclaiming the sacred with the sure cadence of the cantor he’d been as a boy.
For my grandfather’s last birthday party, my aunts and uncles gathered at his house to sing the working man’s folk songs of their youth. I wasn’t there, but I trust my brother’s account of the evening. My father has always loved to sing, though his voice is a quavery, unmelodious warble. That night he sang enthusiastically, squawking and false-noting as usual. My grandfather, who had gone nearly deaf, sat watching his children sing, and then he put hand to my father’s shoulder and shouted over the music, “Terry, you sing so well now!”
My father nearly choked with surprise and pride, and then beaming, he sang louder still. He repeated my grandfather’s praise a dozen times in the next months, wondering aloud if his voice had improved, if perhaps in middle age he’d been gifted with a new vocal instrument. I never told him my grandfather had clearly lost his sense of hearing. How could I sully the only compliment his father ever gave him?
When my grandfather was near death, my father flew out to tend him in hospice. Acutely aware of how much pain someone in my grandfather’s difficult respiratory condition could suffer, he administered morphine at every visible sign of discomfort, dosing him well beyond levels that anyone not a physician could have been comfortable with – after a lifetime of living in fear of his father, Abe had finally passed into my father’s province. Through each night he sat with his hand on his father’s arm, eyeing the clock to count the minutes since he’d hit the morphine button, listening to his father’s ragged breathing for any irregularity that might indicate pain. My father went three sleepless nights tending his father’s suffering with devotion, tendering his love openly, silently, finally beyond reproach.
My grandfather was always kinder to me – like many men, a better teacher of grandsons than sons. Once, when I was ten and my grandfather was visiting, he took my brother and I to the neighborhood field to play baseball, though there was only time for a few swings before dusk. It was the gray heart of winter and already felt like night, but still we went. My grandfather was said to have been a mean second baseman, scrappy and tireless, but he pitched to me now, my brother fielding on the edge of the soggy outfield. My hands were numb and my timing off, and I chopped two grounders, popped short to left. My grandfather peered at me when he held the ball again, dried it on the bottom of his shirt. “Make this one count,” he said. “It’s the last.”
I knocked the bat against my tennis shoes, squeezed the cold metal tighter and fought the shiver in my knees, willing my hands warm.
“Here it comes,” my grandfather said. He brought the ball to his glove, went still, reared and threw. I swung clean from the heels, felt the connection in my palms. The crack echoed across the empty field as the ball rose above my brother’s head. We stood and watched it soar. My grandfather nodded in admiration, lifted his hand to trace the ball’s arc. “This is a beautiful thing.”
We searched for the ball in the deepening dark, but found no trace. Finally my grandfather called us home. “It will be a mystery,” he said. “Unless you find it tomorrow.”
I knew better even then. I never looked.