Visited with cousins of my father’s yesterday, the only ones I know of. Gene is closing in on ninety and we hadn’t seen him and his wife for over a year. He used to call my mother “you old bag,” although, it turns out, he was three months older than her. He called my mother an old bag with love, they’d been childhood friends, growing up in the same building on Eastburn Avenue in the Bronx. The old bag made it to eighty-two, by a day, and always smiled benignly whenever Gene, now a much older bag than she lived to be, called her an old bag.
Gene was in a pivotal position to observe the events that eventually lead to my life. If not for his mother and my mother’s mother being good friends, and Irv being Gene’s cousin … forget about me, my parents would never have met.
Gene’s mother, Dinch, at 15, had come over on the Korfus die Grosse, with her cousin Chava, the 17 year-old who’d later become my father’s mother. This was right before World War One, on the ship’s last voyage before the war, according to Gene. Chava used to visit her cousin Dinch in the Bronx, making the long trip from Peekskill with her two boys.
Dinch was married to Stamper, a man I’ve seen pictures of, always nonchalantly referred to by my mother as a Communist. They never had much money. Gene told me that his family moved often during the Depression, apartments were plentiful and landlords would give a couple of months free rent as incentive to move in. For some reason, (providence, most likely,) they wound up settling in that apartment on Eastburn Avenue, the place Gene and my mother called home. If not for Dinch living in the same building as my mother’s family, my young father never would have seen my mother, perched haughtily in her kitchen window that overlooked the courtyard on that doomed little Avenue.
Doomed because a power broker in New York City hated poor Jews and other poor people and said “fuck these people.” Little Eastburn Avenue, three blocks long in its prime, as Gene told me last night, was cut down the middle by Robert Moses and his Cross Bronx Expressway. That expressway gouged down the middle of the working class borough destroyed the Bronx, most people agree. It certainly fucked up Eastburn Avenue.
Gene, proud of the many accomplished Americans from his Bronx neighborhood, was a large man in his day, over six feet tall with large hands and feet and, for many years, an ample belly. Some kind of very aggressive cancer, possibly stomach, slimmed him down tremendously twenty or more years back, maybe thirty. He is quite gaunt to this day. My mother was very worried about Gene, the prognosis for him was dire. On the other hand, my mother’s fatal diagnosis came something like twenty years before her death. Yesterday, Gene was noticeably smaller, which happens when you live long enough.
“When your father went to Columbia he’d come over every week or so for a good home cooked meal. That’s when he saw your mother,” Gene told us last night over vegetarian Chinese food in Teaneck.
During these visits his cousin Irv spied the dark haired Evelyn who, for her part, wanted nothing to do with the hayseed from Peekskill. She was still angry with her mother, who, in her typically overbearing way, had broken up a relationship with a dashing fellow named Art Metesis. Art had a nice car, dressed well and was a stylish high roller who loved to dance, and drink. The young woman who would become my mother was crazy about him. They got engaged.
My mother’s mother, Yetta, would not have her daughter marry somebody like Art Metesis, under any circumstance. As had happened with my father a few years earlier, the strong-willed mother busted up the romance and that was that. Art did not take it well, he was apparently not very stylish with his rage when Yetta told him not to let the door hit him where the good lord split him and to take a long fucking hike and leave Evelyn alone.
The engagement to Art over, my mother brooded, naturally. Yetta suggested she take Gene’s cousin Irv up on his invitation to go out. My mother wanted nothing to do with the bumpkin from Peekskill. Eventually she relented and Irv won her over. I told the bones of this story at my mother’s memorial, and my uncle, at the start of a short, heartfelt speech, introduced himself, endearingly, as the other little bumpkin from Peekskill who used to visit their cousins, Evelyn’s upstairs neighbors, in the Bronx.
Sally, Gene’s wife, when the subject of what I’ve been doing the last year and a half came up (“are you making a living?” Gene asked, as always), asked me if I was interviewing people about my father’s life. I told her that most of those who knew anything about him were gone. She nodded with a sad, knowing smile. Over the years Gene told me most of what he knew, all interesting, but not terribly much. It occurred to me last night that Gene may have met that mysterious grandfather of mine.
“Oh, sure, I knew your grandfather,” he said, slowly working on a tiny corner of the bowl of noodle soup he’d take home. “He could never make a living, Aren used to support them.”
As far as I could make out, from the moment or two of gentle follow-up that followed, he was likely merging long-ago memories of my grandfather, Harry, with my great-uncle Aren. It seems likely that Aren would have driven his little sister and the boys down to the Bronx to visit their cousins Dinch and Gene and Gene’s little sister. It doesn’t seem certain to me that Chava would have invited her detested mute husband along on these visits.
I told Gene about Eli’s poetic description of my father’s father: “two eyes, a nose and a mouth” with a zip of the finger across that straight line of a mouth. I told Gene Eli said my grandfather was totally deadpan all the time. Gene had nothing to add to that, actually didn’t even reply to it, though he did recall visiting Aren at his Nelson Avenue Garage in Peekskill. We talked about Aren for a moment and then went on to other subjects.
I’m thinking about context a lot nowadays, even more so now that we’re all living in an ever more distracted, desperate nation in decline where context has been abandoned for blind, knee-jerk, red hat/blue hat partisanship. This limited man we have as our current president does not seem to know about anything that happened before, is not curious about anything but what makes him feel like a winner. A sad symbol for a nation where millions of its hypnotized citizens do not seem at all concerned about, or even aware of, the erasure of history itself.
Last night was not about researching my father’s life, it was about visiting with and listening to an old couple who have lost just about all of their friends (as well as their younger daughter, Emily, who died young of cancer). Their need to talk was palpable and Sekhnet and I have known, and hung out, with several people over ninety and there is no discomfort in it for us. We were pleased to listen, and I knew the evening wouldn’t lend itself to the ideal interview.
There are a few details above that need to be folded into any account of my father’s life, or mine. I am trying to make intelligible things that are not really intelligible, as my grandmother Yetta might have said, if she had known the word ‘intelligible.” A life may or may not make any sense, but a book about that life can be made to make a certain amount of sense. That’s my sense of it, anyway.