My grandfather, Eliyahu/Harry, was, I’m told, a tall, strong man. On the Lower East Side, in the early 1920s, around the time my father was born, he had a job delivering barrels of herring to the shops. He drove a horse drawn cart through the cobblestone streets, the horse would stop, Eliyahu would wrestle a barrel of herring off the flatbed and hump it into the store. He’d collect the money for his boss, get back on the cart and he and the horse would go to the next stop. He did this for some time and all went fine. Until, one day, the horse died and they hooked up a new horse to the wagon.
Eliyahu had no idea of the route, had never paid the slightest attention, the experienced old horse had known all the stops. Eliyahu rolled aimlessly through the streets of Lower Manhattan behind the new horse, not recognizing any landmarks, unable to read the street signs or the addresses on the invoices his boss had given him. At the end of the day he returned to the warehouse, cart still loaded with barrels of herring. That was his last day of work.
I learned this tale about fifty years after my grandfather died, from my father’s first cousin Eli, who told me most of what I know about my father’s childhood. Eli was seventeen years older than my father, and so was a young adult during my father’s early years in Peekskill. To the end of his days my father loved and feared Eli, a rough but loving customer (if he loved you), and Eli loved and was proud of my father. In the end, he exerted himself to try to help me understand my father. Eli turned out to be an indispensable source of family knowledge I’d otherwise have only guesses about.
In the last years of his long life I visited Eli regularly, in his subsidized retirement cottage in Mount Kisco. We spent hours talking about the long ago past, many times long into the night. He was a great storyteller and a wonderful host (if he liked you — if he didn’t, all bets were off). He was somewhat estranged from his three adult children, kids he’d famously ruled with an iron hand. His tyrannical child-rearing was something he told me he didn’t regret, by the way, considering the fine people they grew up to be. In fact, he gave a speech to that effect at a family gathering, where he allowed that his treatment may have amounted to abuse, if you will, but still, he felt vindicated by how well everything turned out. He handed me the speech he delivered to look over.
“Not one of them accepted my fucking apology,” Eli told me indignantly. I read him back his words, pointed out that it was hardly an apology, the way he’d phrased it, the complete lack of remorse, and we proceeded to fight it out, the way he and my mother always fought. He was fierce when angry, short and powerful, built like a sinewy bullfrog, he jumped to his feet, his face immediately magenta, veins popping, the white hairs on his head quivered, foam formed on his lips. He had the menacing aspect of a panther when he was angry. After the fight, like at the end of every one of the many fights between Eli and my mother, there were no hard feelings, we hugged goodbye and I headed down the dark, twisting Sawmill River Parkway to my apartment.
I wanted to learn more about my grandparents who’d died before I was born, people my father said virtually nothing about. I wanted to know about my grandmother, Eli’s beloved Tante Chava, who Eli loved above everyone else and, even more so, my grandfather, a mysterious, silent character whose wry smile I’d seen in the two photographs of him that exist. In one he is in a dark interior space, probably the synagogue, with his wife and younger son, my Uncle Paul, at that time about sixteen. Eliyahu is in a dark suit, wearing a fedora with a wide, downturned brim, smiling a wry and utterly incomprehensible smile.
While Eli had many stories about beautiful, hot-tempered Chava, my grandmother, he struggled to describe my grandfather to me. He used a Yiddish word, fayik, I’ve never met anybody who could translate (or had even heard of), in explaining how hard it was to describe him. Google Translate translates fayik as “fayik”. I have only found one reference to the word on the internet, this frustratingly short fragment: “The root, fayik, means. creative, skilled or …” summarizing a link that leads nowhere.
“People say he wasn’t fayik, but it wasn’t so, he was just very quiet, very withdrawn … he had a sense of humor, he was very funny, I may have been the only person who realized how funny he was, because it was so subtle and always done with a completely deadpan face… no expression at all… He always called me ‘big shot’ ” he struggled to describe the man’s face. Then he came up with a kind of beautiful haiku.
“His face was just two eyes, a nose and a mouth,” and he imitated the face, staring straight ahead, like a mask, making a zipping motion over the straight line of his mouth, to indicate how rarely Eliyahu spoke.
I quickly got the sense that he’d kept his mouth shut to avoid getting socked in the head. I’d always wondered how my grandfather’s English name was Harry and his brother, one of my father’s uncles on his father’s side, was also named Harry. The two sons named Harry was like a Polish joke until Eli gave me the obvious explanation. My grandfather’s mother died and his father remarried. The woman he married had sons named Peter and Harry. This evil step-mother did not tolerate the second Harry, hitting him hard in the head with whatever came to hand, including sturdy pieces of wood.
“So, I guess he just checked out after a while, his whole life seemed to be devoted to not getting cracked in the skull, and Chava could be tough too,” Eli told me.
While many apparently considered my grandfather mentally deficient, Eli saw his dry, deadpan sense of humor, his wit — his hidden fayik nature. He finally dug up an example. Eli’s father, my great-uncle Aren, ran a garage in Peekskill. He hired Eliyahu to work in the garage, he fixed cars and provided parking for others, but because Eliyahu couldn’t drive he was limited to releasing the brake and manually moving the cars around. Eli took him out one day to teach him to drive, it had become clear it was senseless to keep him at the garage if he couldn’t drive.
“Peekskill is hilly country,” he said, “and we’re going up a hill and the car starts losing power, and your grandfather is just looking ahead with that face and I say ‘Uncle Harry, give it gas! Give it gas!” and a second before we start sliding backwards he turns to me and says ‘gas costs money’ and we start going backwards down the steep hill, we’re about to get killed. I managed to get my foot in there and downshifted and pulled the car over and told him to get the hell out and that was the end of his driving lessons.”
It appears Uncle Aren (who ran my father’s little family) made the right call sending his little sister to explain to the school authorities why her son spoke no English when he started school.