My grandmother fitted two thimbles over her puffy fingertips. She wet the thread between her lips. She was about to sew a button on my winter coat - the one that came down past my arms - but first, she thrust a piece of bread into my hand.
“Chew,” she said, “or I’ll potch you good.”
This was no idle threat. Children visiting her tenement, two flights down from the one my family rented in her house, were routinely spanked if they disobeyed. We were expected to know our place. And if you were in any kind of pain, well, there were hospitals for that.
If, for instance, you accidentally took a fall in the driveway and came rushing into the house crying because you scraped or bruised your arms or knees, she admonished you in Yiddish: “Pish mit augen? Gey avek fun mir!” (“Piss with your eyes? Get away from me!”).
So I stood, chewing. The needle passed through the buttonholes.
“Chew hard,” Annie said, “I don’t want the needle should sew your lips together.” And then she broke the thread free with her teeth.
Adults tell children stories of struggle and hardship, like the tales by the Brothers Grimm, so they learn life’s lessons. The stories are fantastic, the woods enchanted. Only in my house growing up, the stories were never from the land of make-believe.
“Drink your milk,” my father told us, “so you don’t end up sick like the kids in India.” We knew he had served in the Army in Calcutta. He told us he once saw vultures there while we were watching Saturday morning cartoons.
Bugs Bunny lay spread out and the dark winged birds were circling him, getting lower and lower, ready to pick at his bones. My father said, “Yes, that’s exactly what vultures do in India when people are dead in the streets.”
But we had never heard about the children. My sister wanted to know why glasses of milk were so important. How could drinking milk prevent little children from getting sick in a country so far away from Providence?
“Milk makes you healthy. It helps you grow healthy bones,” he said.
But my sister wouldn’t let up.
“Tell us why,” she insisted.
And so he explained.
“I saw a boy in Calcutta,” he said. “He was suffering from elephantiasis.”
“Oh, so he looked like Alice the Elephant at the Roger Williams Park zoo?” my sister laughed.
“That’s where the word comes from, yes,” he said. “It is a disease that makes certain parts of you big and swollen, like an elephant. This boy in Calcutta, he was dragging himself through the streets. His testicles were the size of basketballs.”
I gulped my milk. Later, behind the closed door of the bathroom, I examined the flap of crinkled skin between my legs. It was tough, like an elephant’s hide. My testicles had not yet descended, but I didn’t know that. I stood in front of the mirror, tickling around up there for any sign of the disease.
We took daily doses of cod liver oil to ward off vitamin deficiencies. My mother mixed sulfur with molasses, and we ingested that too. If we had a fever, we were given enemas to reduce our temperatures. Three glasses of milk were served daily, and we drank them all. Whole milk delivered to our door in glass bottles. And in summertime, we were rushed inside before nightfall, so we wouldn’t get a chill, like the Rappaport kid, who contracted polio after he got sick from staying outside after a swim on a chilly summer night.
On Sundays, we were paraded past St. Michael’s Church wearing jodhpurs and two-toned Buster Browns. I wore a cap with earflaps. My cowlick stuck up over the rim and kept springing defiantly upward. I walked behind my grandmother. Her ankles were so swollen, her feet barely fit into her black shoes. She was pale.
When the light fades from someone’s face, my mother told me, that’s when they aren’t long for this world. You can tell someone is going to die when there is no light in their face. And then she made as if to spit twice, to rid herself of knowing or seeing something terrible. She said if I ever saw or thought something terrible, I should bite my tongue and that would make it go away.
I remember hoping that my grandmother’s face would grow red again, like when she started yelling at me in Yiddish. I didn’t want her to get the elephant’s disease. I didn’t want her to die.
I bit my tongue several times until tears welled up in my eyes. My hands were way up inside my sleeves. I couldn’t wipe the tears away. I shrank into my tightly buttoned coat.
Max, my mother’s father, greeted me in the sunroom at the nursing home. He was dressed in his pajamas and slippers. I was four years old.
“Take the whole package,” he said. He pushed chewing gum into my hand. His hand was trembling. The light had gone from his face.
Bella, my mother’s sister, was a piece worker. She attached individual pieces of costume jewelry onto cards. She brought home as many rejects as she could, gaudy earrings, damaged necklaces and bracelets, rings with gold and silver paint that flaked onto your fingers. In the cupboards we had sacks filled with rejected baubles, colored glass made to resemble precious stones, attached to cardboard backings with exotic names printed on them. Since there was a plethora of females in my family, these trinkets were eagerly passed around: imitation pearl necklaces; flashy earrings with thick clasps that pinched the earlobes and left gouges in the flesh; gaudy, glittering rings; oversized bracelets. I regarded these cast-offs like pirate booty, and actually buried a representative sampling in our backyard.
Bella traveled during her holidays with Ada Rappaport, a neighborhood friend and co-worker. They brought me a souvenir tee shirt that had two plastic goo-goo eyes inside a radiant orb of the sun that said, “Just a little sunshine from Florida,” and a stuffed baby alligator with razor sharp teeth and black marble eyeballs.
Ada gave me a kewpie doll. When you filled him with water and squeezed his pink rubber dunce cap, he peed.
Late summer: noises from the wire factory awaken me, men coming on shift, men coming off shift, the drone of machines slowing down, the whir of machines starting up again. In the morning the men emerge apparitional: green overalls, work boots with round, thick toes, hair on their arms smeared with grease partially covering tattoos and ochre encrusted scabs, and on their gray faces salt and pepper sprouts of sandpaper beards. They lean against the tavern door, cigarettes dangling from their lips, clustered, the pack of them, squinting in the summer light.
“Pie-eyed,” my mother says, and she reminds me she hates walking past them on her way to the shopping center, but she never takes a different route. “Stay alongside me,” she says, knowing full well that I dawdle when I walk, three, maybe four paces behind her, looking for renegade marbles and at the pigeons cooing in the gutters. “Stay close to me. I don’t want them to think I’m fair game.”
But we are fair game.
I’m holding my mother’s hand, yanked down the street by my mother’s hand. Every now and again she straightens my sleeves, or neatly twists the ends of my cowlick with spit-wet fingers. We are close enough to distinguish the men, their blackened fingers groping at crotches, close enough to smell their cigarette smoke and to hear their catcalls as we make our way down the block.
During the schwarze jahre, the black years of the Depression, when there was no money, Max turned to making gin in the basement and trying to sell it, Annie took inschmatte work, sewing torn or ill-fitting garments, but it never was enough to pay the mortgage. The house was taken away. Before it was auctioned, Annie asked her nephew, a lawyer, to intercede. And with the nephew’s help, they bought their house back, this time putting it in Bella’s name.
But the years were not kind to the neighborhood. All the synagogues closed down except for one that merged with two others and had a name that went on for a mile. The kosher shops closed. The bulldozers razed the dilapidated tenements on the street behind our house. A housing project was built. The empty lot where children played – while mothers watched from front porches–became a dumping ground for charred remains of furniture, mattresses and old tires.
After Annie’s death my mother and her sisters put the house up for sale for less than Annie and Max paid for it both times put together.
On Sunday mornings there was whitefish and lox and halvah so sweet it hurt your teeth. There were loaves of challah and cheese and slices of purple onion. The dining room seated our family, my aunt Ruth and her family, my aunt Bella, my grandmother, and Ada Rappaport and her boyfriend. Everyone talked at once. Annie took the sliced head of the whitefish and removed it from the scaly body. She pressed her lips against skull and sucked the eyeballs whole.
In the summer for three weeks we lived in shared rooms near the beach in Narragansett Pier. It was there, in the back yard, surrounded by grass and trees instead of the many windows of neighboring tenements with clothes flapping on clotheslines and mothers calling for their children, in the neighborhood near the red brick steeple of St. Michael’s parish, it was in that yard near the beach that for first time I realized I was alone. Totally alone. No sounds of traffic. No whir of machinery. Only the incessant buzzing of mosquitoes.
I sat upstairs in the women’s section of the shul, because the men did not want me to distract them. The women knew prayer by melody, humming the incantations. The men knew prayer by reading the scripture while the rabbi stood towering above us before the Holy Ark.
At Chanukah we ran up one staircase of the Jewish Community Center and down the other. The children’s feet echoed throughout the building. There were sweets and chocolate coins. And there were lights in all the windows. At the wire factory, every window was dark, the machines silent.
I played the song for her from Joan Baez’s first album. “Donna Donna,” the song about the calf with the mournful eye, the sparrow flying high above him,winging swiftly through the sky. How the winds are laughing, they laugh with all their might, they laugh and laugh the whole day through, and half the summer’s night.
Annie remembered the song but not the lyrics. She remembered hearing the song but not who sang it. As a child it was sung often, before things turned bad in Russia, before they were forced from their home, before they had to take the long journey to Liverpool. Once in Liverpool she was quarantined. The inspectors used a metal stick that flipped your eyelids inside out. So many children had pinkeye. They all had to stay in rooms in the quarantined ward of the hospital. Once they arrived on Ellis Island there was another quarantine, and finally, so many weeks later, she moved into a crowded flat in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
By sixty she was broken. Max was dead. Every Friday night right she lit the Sabbath candles and a special candle in his memory. She drank tea from a glass that had once been a memorial candle for her mother, but had been scrubbed clean. She held a sugar cube in her teeth, sipping the amber liquid with loud airy sips, as the candles sputtered against the encroaching darkness.
On a summer night two months before she died, a young boy followed Annie home. She had to walk several blocks to the bus to go shopping now that the kosher market had moved. And so this boy followed her, this skinny runt of a boy, fifteen or sixteen years old. He waited until she got to the steps of her tenement.
“Look,” he called out to her, “lady, look!”
She turned around. He opened his coat. He wore no pants, only shoes, socks and tee shirt.
She stood with the shopping bags weighing her down. She was exhausted. She looked at the boy holding himself. A minute later she turned away. Inside her flat, the curtains drawn and the shades pulled down so that her plants folded their leaves into themselves and slept, she wept.
If Max were here, she thought, he’d chase that boy away. He’d make him go from here. Oy vey, mamenyu, she said. Even when we had nothing, we always had clothes to wear.
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