Pop and violence

My grandfather, who my sister and I always called Pop, was a physically strong man.   Trim and powerful into his eightieth (and last) year, his large hands could open any jar easily and he could show you his strength whenever you asked him to, just by squeezing your hand.  Those big hands were always very gentle whenever they touched my sister or me, he never hurt us for more than a second, to make his point when we pressed him.  When we asked Pop if he was always strong he’d tell us about his youth back in Russia. 

“They couldn’t put a finger on me!” he’d often say gruffly, meaning the many local Ukrainians, the goyim who periodically went nuts and started beating and raping Jews.  He got along with the goyim, he told us, would take a wagon out to their farms and deliver goods, and he’d drink with them.   He dressed like a Russian, he had blonde hair and pale blue eyes, he looked Russian.   They respected him.  More on this later.

The one story that stayed with me, and will stand in for all others, was about the time the wagon Pop was driving, a horse drawn flatbed that carried groceries out to the surrounding farms, broke a wheel.   To replace the wheel they needed to jack up the wagon, prop it aloft for as long as it took to do the work.  They were in the middle of nowhere when the wheel shattered and they had no way to prop the wagon up while the work was done.   So Pop lifted the wagon off the ground on the side with the broken wheel.   He held it up on his shoulder until his companion pulled off the broken wheel and replaced it with a good one.   Then they went on their way.  All in a day’s work for Pop.   To hear Pop talk about his youth, he was one strong, silent, tough young Jew.

One night when my sister and I were quite young Pop babysat for us.   We were older than babies, probably six and four, or maybe eight and six, but that’s always the word that’s used, isn’t it, babysit?  Pop was in the kitchen, right next to the dining room, and my sister and I began to argue in the dining room.   Things escalated quickly.  Pop came out to intervene just as I grabbed my sister by the neck and started choking her.  (My sister usually did just fine in physical and psychological battles, no worries, gentle reader).   I don’t remember Pop putting a hand on either of us to separate us, I think it was his pure horror that made me drop my hands, made my sister and I instantly stop fighting.

Pop was so upset he retreated to the kitchen and started throwing up in the kitchen sink.  My sister and I felt so bad we left the rest of our fight for the next time.  There would always be time to continue our intermittent war, I guess we both reasoned, we were concerned about Pop who couldn’t seem to stop crying.

Many years later my sister and I were having lunch with Pop in the apartment in Miami Beach.   Our grandmother had just narrated how Pop had gone next door to talk to their neighbor, a tough-talking old Jew both of them suspected (possibly because he always bragged about it) had been a Jewish gangster in his earlier years in Brooklyn .   When the guy didn’t answer the door, and Pop could see him through the screen door, sitting in his usual chair, Pop tried the door, found it open and walked in.   He found the neighbor dead.

“Wow, Pop, you must have been shocked.  Weren’t you scared, standing there next to your friend’s dead body?” my sister asked.   

Pop scoffed.   “A dead man, to me?” he said, and flipped the cloth napkin on the table with the back of his hand.    My feelings about a dead man, his gesture said, are not even worth the couple of words it would take to dismiss them.   

I knew, even as a boy, that “one day the letters from Europe just stopped coming”.  The coins Pop’s father sent to my mother, and the Russian stamps, stopped in 1942, when my mother was 14.   She used to practice her Yiddish writing to the grandfather she’d never meet.   Nobody would ever meet him.   

Along with the rest of Pop’s family the old man was marched (if he’d survived the privations of a year of hellish ghetto life– his home had been designated the eastern edge of the ghetto), by local Ukrainian goyim who couldn’t put a finger on Pop, supervised by Nazis who regarded Jews as dangerous, gigantic insects, to a ravine on the northwestern edge of town.     

Eyewitnesses describe the ravine, raked in preparation by local Ukrainians, the softened earth waiting to receive layer after layer of dead Jews.  I have read the chilling testimony, by those who saw the execution and somehow lived to talk about it.  Fragments of bone from this killing place blow in the wind to this day, skitter across the dry ground, according to someone who visited and wrote about the town for the New York Times not long ago.

I never wondered, once I learned, as a boy, that the rest of Pop’s family (but for one I learned about recently, apparently as strong and tough as Pop, who survived the war in a series of harrowing Russian prison camps after being accused of disloyalty as a draftee in the Red Army) had been made to vanish, how somebody as strong as Pop could be so full of fear, and sometimes prejudice.    They hadn’t put a finger on him in Russia, perhaps, but that was as much pure, dumb luck as anything about Pop’s impressive physical strength.

Pop and Bunny

My grandfather, Pop, was totally against the idea of having a dog in the apartment.   He wanted nothing to do with it.   My grandmother, on the other hand, pined for an affectionate little companion to sit on her lap.  I suspect now that some of this pining had to do with her lifelong sorrow about the loss of a loving little pet when she was a girl.

One of the few stories I remember from her childhood, most of which were fond and anodyne (you’d never suspect, from her cheerful stories, that she grew up in a region where Jews were routinely beaten, robbed, sexually abused) was about a kitten.   She was a little girl and she had a beautiful little kitten that loved her and that she adored.  She slept with the tiny cat in her arms and woke up, to her horror, next to the tiny corpse of the kitten she had accidentally suffocated in her sleep.  A terrible, terrible story, even if we can call it a drop in the bucket next to what happened a few decades later to everyone else she ever loved in that accursed Ukrainian town she came from.

She wanted a Chihuahua, a small dog, perfect for a one bedroom apartment.   My mother took her shopping and she found a Chihuahua that she instantly fell in love with.   She bought it and named the fawn colored little dog Bunny.  Pop, who had made his wishes plainly known, was furious when he got the news.   He left the apartment and rode the subways all night long, never coming back the first night Bunny was in the house.

When he got home the next day the little dog approached him and, seeing his resistance, determined (in a way well known to animal lovers) to make him her’s.  She sat in front of him asking to come up on his lap.  He resisted, but eventually took persistent little Bunny on to his lap.   She never left.  Everywhere Pop sat, Bunny would be next to him or on his lap. It quickly blossomed into a full fledged love affair.

My grandmother was, understandably, upset by this quick betrayal by her new pet.   I recall her, many times, sitting with Bunny on her lap, happily petting the little dog, and my grandfather walking into the room.  Bunny would immediately indicate that she wanted to go to Pop.  My grandmother would struggle with the little dog “stay, mommy, stay, stay…”  she would say as Bunny wriggled out of her grasp and went directly to Pop.   He’d shrug and pick Bunny up and my grandmother would fume.

My grandparents slept in twin beds.  I don’t need to say which bed Bunny slept in.  Pop reported that the tiny dog was a prodigious bed hog.  Every time Pop rolled over, the dog would stretch her tiny legs and occupy more and more territory.   Pop sometimes found himself pushed to the very edge of his own bed by the luxuriating Chihuahua.  I asked him if he pushed her over to make room for himself.   He smiled.  

“I give her a futz, and she runs,” he reported.  Bunny, apparently, didn’t like being farted on any more than the rest of us do.

There is no real reason to add this detail, outside of my lifelong mania for the entire, truthful story, as accurate as I can get it.   When Bunny died my grandparents quickly got another Chihuahua.   The second puppy was sickly, had terrible diarrhea,  and they brought it back after a day or two.   They brought home a healthy little male puppy that they named Bunny.  Vu den?   It was this second Bunny who Pop reported his sleeping war with.   What he actually said was “I give him a futz, and he runs!”

The second Bunny loved Pop too.  He also liked to get me to chase him around the apartment.  He  was impossible to catch.  Bunny was agile, quick and nimble.  He was also small enough to get everywhere.   One day I feinted one way and  managed to corner him behind an easy chair he couldn’t crawl under.  I reached down to pick him up and he sunk his teeth into my hand.  I loudly complained (though he didn’t do any damage).

 “Sure he bit you, ” Pop piped up, immediately defending the little biting bastard, “I’d bite you too, you trapped him!”  

I recall telling Pop I’d prefer to be bitten by him, and his dentures, that Bunny’s teeth were as sharp as needles.    He continued to insist that it was my own fault, trying to trap the poor little dog who just wanted to play.    How far he’d come from that long night riding the subways in protest of a dog in the apartment!

Hey, Avooma Veeny!

(large print edition)

When my sister was thirteen or fourteen she walked through the room and Pop, mischief twinkling in his blue eyes, said “Hey, Abby, I like your bayzem.”  I thought it was one of the funniest things I ever heard and seeing me laughing, he began howling too.  You should have seen my sister’s face.  

He later defended his innocent remark by saying that bayzem means “broom” in Yiddish.  He shrugged. My grandmother confirmed that a bayzem was indeed a broom.  It was nothing and nothing came of it.  But it created a stir when he said it, for sure.

He liked this, he had a mischievous side that he had to keep under wraps most of the time.   It was cool to play this way with the grandchildren sometimes.   Sure his wife and daughter would give him some shit about it, but it was worth it.   He also loved speaking bilingual non sequitars, repurposing a word or phrase in one language to make no sense or relate to anything, except for the sound, in another.    

He was there when we brought Winnie home from the Brumby’s.   The Brumbys were a Scottish couple who bred West Highland Terriers (picture Toto from the Wizard of Oz in white).   The papers they prepared for Winnie referred to her as a West Highland Puppy Bitch.  My sister and I had a lot of laughs reading that off of her papers.   She was a wonderful dog, my father’s favorite, I have to think.    I have a great photo of her lying on my father’s chest, his arm over her, as he naps on the couch, glasses up on his forehead. 

Pop looked over to us playing with Winnie and said “Avooma Veeny!”   He said this playfully, in his deep, rumbling voice, said it more than once that day.   It was clearly a play on Winnie’s name and my sister and I immediately embraced it as one of several pet names for our adorable new puppy bitch.

Years later I would learn that Avooma Veeny was the Russian-Jewish pronunciation of Avraham Aveenu, our father Abraham, the first Jewish monotheist, the guy who was ready to cut his beloved son’s throat because the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded him to. Avraham Aveenu, Avooma Veeny, Winnie.  

“Hey, Avooma Veeny!” my grandfather would call from the kitchen table, holding out a small scrap of chicken skin on his wide fingers.   Avooma Veeny would waste no time getting the treat from Pop.

Pop loved “shooting pictures”

My grandfather was a mild-mannered man.  He had big, powerful hands he used for years professionally in the delicate art of egg candling. He held an egg in front of a bright light, (a candle at one point, one supposes) and inspected it to see if the yolk had the shadow of a spot in it.  If so, this spot of blood indicated it had been fertilized and wasn’t fit to eat.  I don’t know if this was under Jewish law or American health law, but he sat with cases of eggs, in the basement of his friend Al’s  (who my grandmother once said smelled like a camel), grocery store, or Julie’s appetizing shop, picking them up in his large hands one by one, gently turning them in front of the light and looking through their shells to see if they could be sold.

The year I was born, Pop, at one time a prodigious cigarette smoker (Camels, if memory serves), underwent late stage lung cancer surgery.   They removed one of his lungs.  I was a few months old at the time and remember only what I was later told about it.   We have the snake plant that was delivered to Pop in the hospital as he recuperated from the surgery.  The plant is almost 63 years old and doing well.   Pop had an excellent recovery from the surgery and lived twenty-two years with only one lung in his powerful body.  

One of his doctors recommended that he add bacon to his diet, for health reasons.  There was some kind of bullshit rationale involved, which my grandfather explained to me at one point.   So in addition to his usual kasha, boiled flanken, boiled chicken, soup and several slices of whole wheat, pumpernickel or rye bread Pop ate a few strips of bacon from time to time, at his doctor’s recommendation.

Pop was a well-built, trim man who weighed 168 pounds for his entire adult life.  One year at his physical he weighed in at 169 or 170.   He and the doctor were both surprised.   The doctor asked pop how many slices of bread he ate a day.   My grandfather counted and told the doctor seven.   The doctor said, “eat six”.   Pop did.  At his next physical he was 168 pounds.  

The lived philosophy of that, food merely fuel for the optimum running of your body, still fills me with wonder and admiration.  Pop would eat a Danish from a bakery from time to time with his coffee, but couldn’t care less if he did or he didn’t.  He always handed my sister and me each a candy bar (it was Chunkies for a long time, a chocolate chunk filled with peanuts and raisins, then mainly Nestle’s Crunch Bars with the occasional Mr. Goodbar thrown in) as soon as he saw us.  For himself, he never ate anything just for the taste of it.

Pop was retired for most of the time I knew him. His favorite pastime in those years was watching a good shooting picture on TV.   He’d scan the TV Guide, a small booklet that came out every week and told you what was coming up on each of the seven or eight stations available in the media mega-market of New York City and later Miami Beach. When he spotted a good shooting picture, also known as a Western, he’d tune in and watch the good guys triumph over the bad guys.

“Sit down,” he’d say, if I asked him who was who on the screen, “watch and you’ll know.”  In most of the shooting pictures Pop watched, Hollywood movies of the 1940s, 50s and early 60s, it didn’t take long to figure out who was wearing the white hat and who was the evil, sadistic, murdering bastard who needed killing, the one glaring provocatively from under the black hat.   Simpler times.

Pop loved Bonanza, and Gun smoke, two shows he caught every week, my parents and I loved those shows too, my sister would also watch them.  Outside of those, he’d catch every western on Million Dollar Movie, a show where they played the same black and white movie several times in a given week.  Pop would watch pretty much any movie where good guys and bad guys dressed like cowboys, (or Indians, for that matter), chased each other around in the dust of their horses and shot it out at the end.

Pop’s hammer

This is the “European hammer” that belonged to my grandfather.   I will have more to say about the old fellow and his life in the coming days, but, for the moment, here is the hammer itself:


You can see how ready it is to get to work, banging in a thin nail or doing some serious peening (whatever the hell that is).   Here is another view of the business end of my grandfather’s ball-peen hammer:


I never saw my grandfather use this hammer, that I can recall.   The hammer, I must say, reflects his style.  My grandfather had a certain graceful delicacy about him.  He was surprisingly light on his feet.   My sister once witnessed him, at close to eighty, doing a mocking dance move behind his overbearing wife’s back.   It was during a dispute over the fate of some cash my grandfather was planning to deposit in the bank.

“Don’t put that money in the bank! I’m taking Abby out for lunch and then we’re going shopping, I need the money,” my grandmother said, in the tone of one used to being the boss.  

My sister then had the miraculous luck to witness a little dance that my grandfather must have done countless times over his long life with Yetta.   As his wife went into the other room, he did a kind of shrug and with fluid grace lifted one leg, bent the other knee and threw his arms to the side in a comically ironic manner.  

“She don’t want to put the money in the bank,” he said quietly, moving his head from side to side as he danced his mocking dance.   “She don’t want to put the money in the bank!”

Decades later I found a great clip somebody put together of Paolo Conte’s [1] wonderful “It’s Wonderful” with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing.   A beautiful job.  Take a moment to enjoy it, and enjoy it you certainly will.   I sent it to my sister with the caption “Pop” and she instantly agreed.


[1]  dig  what Conte plays behind the sax solo, (I’ve cued it up for you), great stuff!

My grandfather’s hammer

My grandfather had a ball-peen hammer [1] that I now use to drive small nails into the wall to hang baseball caps and calendars on.   Because I was a child the first time I saw this eccentric looking, thin handled hammer (without the familiar woodpecker comb on the back of the head, used for pulling nails) I thought it was called a European hammer, which made sense to me, since my grandfather was European.    I have no idea how he came to own the machinist’s hammer as, to my knowledge, he never did any type of peening at all (whatever the hell that is).

I love this hammer, because it was owned by Pop.   The smooth handle has the feel of old, well-used wood.  The small metal head is smart looking and ready to bop.   I wield it every time there is a small nail to be driven into anything.   I feel a small rush of excitement as I go to get the natty little hammer.

When I was a boy I went through a time when all I wanted was a baby elephant.   I would not let up on the theme.   One day, over dinner, Pop promised to get me one when I reached a certain age, along with, a few years later, a copy machine.   I never stopped to think that baby elephants grow to become the earth’s largest land mammals.  The baby ones are so cute.   I was a kid.   Still, I didn’t forget, when I reached those ages and had no elephant, no copy machine (at that time a gigantic thing that took up the footprint of a single bed) appeared. My gentle, loving grandfather had lied to placate me.   Et tu, Pop? 

He was trying to soothe me with these obvious lies, I realize, and I didn’t really hold it against him.   Fifty years later we’d all have copy machines on our desks and, truly, it would have sucked to have been the child owner of a baby elephant.  In the best case scenario there would have been that wrenching moment when the growing elephant would have to move away.   I never even thought of the cruelty of taking the little giant away from her mother so I could have the world’s coolest pet.  Elephants are social animals.

… And I am going to be late for my appointment with the nephrologist if I continue tapping here now.  So, if you will please excuse me, I must… be…. awwwwwn my way.



[1] Wikipedia:  

also known as a machinist’s hammer, is a type of peening hammer used in metalworking.