A Bubbe’s Christmas Tale

“One thing I can tell you,” said Chuckie’s father as they cruised down the avenue, “you can’t hang around the house alone. The Boston public schools may be giving you two weeks off for Christmas vacation, but I have to work, and your mother has to work. And we’re not going to leave a seven year-old kid alone in the apartment all day.”

Chuckie gazed out of the car window onto Blue Hill Avenue. Although the area was totally Jewish in those waning days of 1959, Christmas decorations, thanks to the City of Boston, were everywhere—hanging from street lamps and traffic lights, wrapped around street signs, and blinking garishly from the police and fire stations. Chuckie’s father, dressed in his best snap-brimmed hat and ready for a day of work, wove through the early morning traffic, preoccupied with the pleasure of driving a new car—a Rambler Ambassador, with six cylinders, a 120 horsepower engine, a “space-age” all-pushbutton dashboard, whitewall tires and tail fins. Chuckie breathed in the new car odor and listened to Bing Crosby sing White Christmas on the car radio.

“Besides,” his father said, almost as an afterthought, “you know you’ll have fun with Grandma.”  Casting his small son a nervous sidelong glance, he continued, “Alright look, I know she’s very old and she’s got a lot of peculiar notions and old-fashioned ideas, but you’ll have a good time today, right?”

Wrong,  said Chuckie to himself. What he would have, if previous experience was any guide, would be the thrill of sitting on the living room sofa all day and seeing his grandmother sit glued to her easy chair in front of the TV, watching “”her programs.” Love of Life, The Guiding Light, As the World Turns, Search for Tomorrow, The Edge of Night, and The Secret Storm. His grandmother had been watching these shows on TV since there was TV; before that, she said, she listened to them on the radio.  Now, she sat transfixed—day in, day out—watching them one after the other, without moving or even looking away from the TV, from mid-day to late afternoon.

They turned right off of Blue Hill Ave into Harvard Street, and then left into the little side street where Chuckie’s grandmother’s apartment building stood on the corner.  As his father drove off to work, Chuckie climbed the wooden front steps into the building, a six-family wooden three-decker, built in the last decade of the previous century.  The reception hall, as always, was dark and intimidating.  Chuckie climbed the stairs to his grandmother’s second floor apartment, scrutinizing, as usual, the long-disused stump of an old gas lamp that lighted this hallway some two generations ago, when the voices that echoed here were not Jewish, but working class immigrant Irish. “In another five years,” his mother had told him during a previous visit, “there won’t be a single Jew left in this neighborhood. The whole place will be Colored.”

Chuckie’s grandmother let him in, hugged him, kissed him, fed him a late breakfast / early lunch of pancakes and fried eggs, and hunkered down in front of the TV. Chuckie sat through Love of Life, The Guiding Light, As the World Turns, and Search for Tomorrow, playing quietly with such diversions as a deck of cards, a pad of note paper and a pencil, and an old issue of TV Guide, all thoughtfully provided by his grandmother before disappearing into Television Land.

At some point during the Edge of Night, Chuckie fell asleep. When he woke up a little later, the TV was off and the room was enveloped in the somber darkness of late winter afternoon. His grandmother was gone. Chuckie got up and walked down the hall to the dining room, where his grandmother sat, as usual in late afternoon, by one of the bay windows that looked out onto Harvard Street below. The room was dark, illuminated only by two yahrzeit candles—memorial candles for the dead—flickering in their glasses on his grandmother’s old dining room table.

“Who are the yahrzeit candles for, Grandma?”

His grandmother, startled out of deep thought, gazed at her little grandson for a moment, as though she had forgotten he was there. After a moment, she patted her lap and said, “Come.” Chuckie walked gingerly through the dark dining room and climbed up onto his grandmother’s lap.

Minutes passed before his grandmother spoke again; Chuckie sat quietly, looking out the window. Finally, she said to him, “Nu, Shayndele, do you know how old I am?”

It occurred to Chuckie at that moment that he had no idea how old his grandmother was, or very much else about her, aside from the fact that she seemed very old and came, long ago, from someplace called Russia. Chuckie shook his head, which made his grandmother smile.

“The truth is, Chuckele, I don’t know exactly how old I am, but I know I’m more than 80 years old. That’s old, no?” She sat silently for a minute, and when she began to speak again her voice sounded different—soft, low, and almost far-away. “It was at this time of year, when I wasn’t much older than you, that They came to our town.”

“Who is ‘They,’ Grandma?” His grandmother did not answer, and Chuckie decided not to speak again.

“We thought we would be spared,” his grandmother continued.  “Other towns had been attacked—towns with far fewer Jews than ours. But ours had been left alone. The Rabbis in our town said it was a miracle. Some miracle! Our relations with the gentiles were never great, but at this time of year, Christmas, and during their other big holiday, Easter, they’d get crazy and very dangerous.  You know what we were doing when They came, Shayndele?  We were doing what we always did.  The bakers were baking. The peddlers were selling.  The slaughterers were butchering meat.  The porters were schlepping, and the tailors were making clothes. The yeshiva boys were studying, and the Rabbis were davening. And us children—what were we doing? We were outside in the streets, playing.”

His grandmother seemed to shudder, and Chuckie—leaning back against her, felt her heartbeat at his back. The room, now shrouded in darkness, suddenly felt very cold.

“We heard them before we saw them. We heard their yelling and their laughter, voices from hell. We heard screaming from nearby streets, and the sound of glass shattering. And then we saw them—thundering through the streets on horseback, on the biggest, most frightening looking horses we had ever seen. Wild men, with yellow hair, red hair, wild beards, waving long swords and howling. With voices from hell.

“The first thing I saw was one of them swing his sword at the face of a Jew standing near me in the street. I didn’t know him—maybe he was from another street. The murderer’s sword hit him full in the face and sliced his head open. I was splattered with his blood and started to scream. I began to run, but then someone—to this day I don’t know who it was—grabbed me, picked me up, and hugged me so tight I thought I would suffocate. I couldn’t see—he had my face squeezed against his chest. All I know is that he ran with me, carried me into a house and down a flight of stairs into the cellar. He put me into a wooden barrel, put the lid over me, and through the little crack he left for air to get in he said to me, “Stay there, little one. Don’t move. Just stay there.” I heard him run up the stairs and out of the house. I stayed in that barrel without moving. But I could hear things going on outside. Screaming. Smashing. Breaking glass. Crying. More of that laughter from hell. Things breaking. More screaming. More smashing. More glass breaking. I stayed in that barrel and didn’t move. I stayed in that barrel, crying, and I guess after a while I fell asleep.”

Her voice became heavy, and without turning around to look at her face, Chuckie could tell that his grandmother was very close to crying. She said, “When I woke up, it was quiet. I could hear moaning, crying coming from somewhere, but the smashing and screaming was over. I pushed off the lid of the barrel, climbed out and slowly went up the stairs. My eyes were suddenly attacked by sunlight—the house that stood above the cellar I was in was half gone.

“I went out into the street and the first thing I noticed was the smell of smoke, of burnt wood. The smell was everywhere, and it made my eyes sting. The first thing I saw was broken glass and feathers. Feathers were everywhere. On the street, in the ruins of the houses, everywhere feathers. Our people used to hide valuables in their pillows and mattresses, and the murders had ripped open every pillow and sliced through every mattress belonging to every Jew in town. I walked through the streets and people were sweeping, standing, crying, moaning, milling around. Women were either sobbing, or sitting in the ruins of their houses, staring off into space. One was cradling a dead infant, rocking back and forth, crying silently. I turned a corner and saw the remains of the town’s big shul, burnt to the ground, the black wood still giving off smoke.

“I kept walking, and just as I started to cry, my aunt leapt out in front of me and swept me up into her arms. ‘Oy, Raisele’ she sobbed, ‘A miracle has saved you!  Your father, your mother…may God wreak vengeance on those murderers, those animals who took their lives! May their blood be avenged! You’ll come to live with us now. Me and your uncle will now be your mama and papa. Come, Raisele. Come, my child.”

Chuckie glanced at the flickering yahrzeit candles as his grandmother said, “So, I went to live with my aunt and uncle, and stayed with them until I left for America, fifteen years later. The town buried its dead. People rebuilt what was left of their lives. New people came to live there and even built a new shul. I heard that it stood there until the Germans came and burnt it down 50 years later.”

His grandmother sat silently for another moment. She kissed her little grandson, got up, and went into her bedroom, closing the door behind her. Frightened of the darkness, Chuckie went down the hall into the living room, turned on the lights, switched on the TV, and watched the Mickey Mouse Club until his father came by an hour or so later to pick him up.

On the way home, his father asked him, “So…what did you and Grandma do all day?”

“We mostly watched TV,” said Chuckie, as he gazed out of the car window at the garish Christmas decorations along Blue Hill Avenue.

“That’s it?” his father asked, “You just sat there and watched TV?”

“And Grandma talked about stuff.”

With most of his attention directed toward the “space age” pushbutton automatic transmission in the new Rambler Ambassador, his father asked absently, “Stuff? What kind of stuff?”

“I don’t know,” said Chuckie. “Just stuff.”

“Well,” his father laughed. “Who knows, maybe some day, years from now, when you’re, like, 50 years old, you’ll be walking down the street, and it will suddenly hit you—whatever the hell your Grandma was talking to you about.”

His father laughed again and turned off of Blue Hill Avenue onto Morton Street. Chuckie stared at the pushbutton dashboard, while Johnny Mathis’ sang Winter Wonderland on the car radio.