And so it Was Unto All the Generations
It was three weeks before our wedding in 1960 that I turned onto Aldine Street and saw the hearse parked in front of our house. I remember my heart pounding violently as I ran from the car. But, I knew. It was Pop, and I knew. The night before Dr. Brotman, our longtime family doctor, had made a house call and diagnosed a touch of pneumonia. Just give him bed rest and plenty of liquids. And so we did, but it wasn’t enough. He was an old man of 77, four years younger than I am today.
The wedding was to be a great simcha for him. His blue-striped suit hung on the closet door of his room, draped in plastic, cleaned and ready for the big event. Throughout my life, the memory of that suit has haunted me. I can still feel its smoothness and see the fine pinstripes running down the fabric. Now, over six decades later, the pain is still searing. His place was at the wedding, not in the Long Island cemetery.
Pop lived with us for most of my childhood. When his wife, Bubba Peshka, died of exhaustion from years of hard labor running a small Catskill hotel, she was 62 years old. As was the custom in those days, my parents insisted that Pop not stay alone in the Bedford Stuyvesant apartment he and Peshka had shared. He, accompanied by Phoebe, surely the world’s most intelligent mongrel, had to move to Newark to live with us.
I would like to say here that that’s how it happened. But it wasn’t. Pop resisted. To my mind, as a little kid, the drama that played endlessly about the move didn’t concern me at all. How wrong I was. I can’t overstate its significance. He moved to Newark eventually and became a third parent to my sister and me. But it took many months of persuasion for him to agree. Now, as an oldster, actually an older oldster, I can finally understand what I couldn’t as a small child. Ceding independence is not easy at all.
Long ago, but clearly, not far away, that was how things were commonly done. An elderly parent was not to live alone. And while I’m sure nursing homes already existed, I’m also sure that no one in my family ever lived in one. Thus, in our four-family house, and family is what it was, we had three apartments with a grandparent in residence.
There was Aunt Edna and Uncle Abe, providing a home for Zayda, Edna’s father, my own paternal grandfather, who was actually the builder of the house which was situated near the corner of the treeless Forest Place. Next door was Uncle Ben and his beautiful wife Aunt Ceil who shared their apartment with Ceil’s mother Florence, known to all as Flippy. She regaled us with stories of her life in the Bronx as she sat in the kitchen playing Solitaire with a perpetual cigarette hanging from her mouth. And then there was our family, my mother, my father, my sister and me, and Pop.
In those days it was common and expected that these types of family units would emerge. Each family worked out its own modus operandi. Hence, Zayda was more involved with his sefarim (Hebrew texts) than his grandchildren, unless it was time to play cards. Then he had time for all of us and he had a killer instinct. Zayda loved to win!
Flippy became a grandmother late in her life and shared the new girl, Jody, with any listeners. She was the most of everything, smart, talented, pretty and lovable. Just ask her grandmother.
And then there was Pop. Pop never heard of not butting in as an attribute. He was into everything and it was only many years later that my sister and I realized what a tzadik our father was. We never once heard him argue with Pop or ask him to stay out of a discussion. Pop was no shrinking violet.
I remember an incident where I was sent to bed without supper. Sobbing dramatically in my room I was still able to hear the loud knock on the door. It was Pop with a beautiful ten-dollar bill and a tray of supper. I can’t at all remember why I was being punished but I clearly remember the reward. Pop must have had a full fount of $10 bills since he seemed to have an endless supply for every occasion. In the 50’s $10 was not a small change! It never occurred to him, however, that my parents might want the punishment to fit the crime, whatever that was. He overruled them continually. The “kinder,” the children, came first.
Pop was also a very helpful addition to the household. As a retired presser, he did all the ironing. The ironing board foldout in the kitchen was used constantly. So I grew up, as did my sister, with no clue as to how to iron, which I do regard as a positive! The same is true about sewing. Somewhere in his garment industry days, he had learned to sew. To this day I can not only not make a hem but I cannot sew on a button. Our own children, when they were growing up, always knew to ask their father to do those apparently simple chores. Better that way!
Pop always had an opinion on any issue facing the family. He never retreated to his room tactfully, gracefully, or without taking a side. Most of the heated discussions were between me and my mother and, with Pop, I had a cheerleader of the highest caliber. We formed an alliance. Our own little NATO.
So, it’s easy to remember the devastation I felt the day he died. It was not deprivation or a lost supplier of easy money. It was that this man was really my best friend, and I knew it then, and now. In his eyes, I could do no wrong.
And the truth is, in my eyes, he too could do no wrong. I loved him very very much. May he rest in peace!