We lived in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn apartment.
My parents, Holocaust survivors, spoke Yiddish, the language of their Poland and Romanian homes.
They were born and raised in rural villages. My father had a fascination with auto mechanics. His skills helped him during the war, when he became a chauffeur and bodyguard for the First Secretary of the Commnist Party of Tajikistan. My mother was a loving, smiling woman. No one would ever suspect she had survived the Auschwitz death camp. My parents and sister immigrated to the United States in 1949. Within a year my father bought a used truck, then additional trucks. He later expanded into warehousing and office furniture.
Our apartment was a second floor walk up. The paint on the yellow walls was thick and bubbled. An occasional mouse scurried across the linoleum floor. Appliances began to appear in our apartment. A washing machine, a television and a telephone. The phone sat on the rickety aluminum kitchen table. Even though I couldn’t dial the numbers, I would pick up the receiver and chatter away, creating imaginary conversations. The other subscribers on the “party line” complained and my mother put the telephone on top of refrigerator. After she left the room, I climbed on a chair. stretched my arm, grabbed the receiver and started to talk.
My father bought a used car and refurbished its engine. Its rounded fenders shone like glass.
We traveled to public parks, zoos, botanical gardens and the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.
And then my fourth birthday arrived.
It seemed to be a somber benchmark of sorts, but one I could not understand. I recall knowing it was my birthday and becoming aware that people were different and that I was an individual independent of my parents.
Later that day, we drove to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. We bought along a folding table, lawn chairs and food and set them up in a leafy park across the street from the shore
After we ate, we crossed the road to the beach.
I held my mother’s hands as we bobbed in the salty water. We rose simultaneously in anticipation of the waves. The iridescent threads of her bathing suit shimmered in the sun.
We returned to the hot sand and sat on a blanket.
Suddenly, I saw a man wobbling towards us. One of his arms ended above his elbow.
“Where is his arm? What happened to it?” I asked myself anxiously.
Weaving in and out among the crowd, he stopped to talk to people but they seemed to ignore him
His bathing trunks were getting lower and lower.
He approached my father and in a drawling, slurred voice, asked “What time is it?”
“Time to pull your pants up,” my father said.
In an instant, I realized that there were broken people who, after a loss, dragged on, unable to ever right themselves again.
The memory haunted me for years.
When I was older, I began to wonder if he had been a veteran wounded in the war.
But then, to me, he represented all the misfortune and hopelessness that was within reach of my own and everyone else’s world.
He moved along, continuing to try to interact with random strangers.
I was silent as we gathered our belongings and started for home.