Summers Part 2

Next door to my grandparents lived my maternal great grandfather. Much of him remains a mystery to me but he is a person who continues to shape who I am today.

Levi Moskowitz moved from Poland to the United States in 1914. He worked as a tailor for most of his life. He had two children, my grandmother and a great uncle whom I don’t recall ever actually meeting. I remember him being straight-laced and serious. A man who loved to play card games and have conversations.

I would go over to his house, he’d offer me some fruit from the seemingly endless bowl he had on his countertop. Then he’d sit me down at the counter and he’d shuffle a deck of cards and deal us a game of Kings in the Corner. It is similar to solitaire but for two people. It involved critical thinking and strategy. Early on he’d go easy and explain his moves as they happened. As the game count mounted, he took the training wheels off. He taught me to think. I lived for those games and treasured those moments.

The one memory of him that stands out says more of my grandmother than him but I love it nonetheless. He would come over every night for dinner. He sat at one end of the table across from my grandfather. My grandmother would sit to the left of her husband and cut his food due to his paralysis. Papa Lou as we called him asked my grandmother to “toss him a biscuit.” Now, when I say he was straight-laced, I mean we had to eat french fries with a fork, napkin on the lap, no elbows on the table. These were strict rules we followed. Well, when he said to toss him a biscuit, my grandmother did just that. A biscuit went soaring across the table. He caught it with a look of shock on his face. My grandmother had a mischievous grin. Us kids stifled laughter. It was great.

Little did I know these moments wouldn’t be as numerous as I would have liked. He passed away when I was 7. He was 86. It was my first bout with losing a loved one. I didn’t fully grasp the concept of death and only that our card games wouldn’t ever happen again. Those rich conversations I had, even at 7, were gone.

It wasn’t until my adult life that I truly learned his history, and it is something I think a lot about. It was an offhand comment by a member of the family but it revealed my jewish ancestry. My grandmother was raised jewish, my mother was raised with a mix of Jewish and christian beliefs, and chose to only raise us in a christian/catholic household.

Many people and families are anchored to their cultural identities. My family doesn’t have that. My father’s side, the Italian side, was never the stereotypical large boisterous family, with great food. Hell, my off the boat Italian grandmother couldn’t even make pasta without burning the noodles. I lacked that. My mother’s side, they didn’t really have an identity. I grew up not knowing my Polish or Jewish roots.

As I move through adulthood, I am trying to find those roots. I’m trying to anchor myself or parts of my identity to a culture, but I feel a lack of connection with it all, which seems to be a common thread of my life. A search for connections.

Summers. Part One

After the divorce, the best part of my home life was summer breaks. We would come down to Florida to visit my mother’s parents. My mother would pack me and my sister into a minivan along with her sister and her three daughters. There would be a stop half way, and we’d then arrive at my maternal grandparent’s house. And I would set about making the best of memories

My grandmother was a spitfire of a woman. Quick witted and played by her own rules. She was incredibly loving, but strict and tough as nails. A side effect of raising five kids alone in days when that was uncommon. Her first husband, died in a freak accident when my mother was three years old, leaving behind a wife and four children. She worked as a nurse in the infant ward of a hospital which only added to her thick skin. Throughout my life, whether it was me crying over physical pain of doing something stupid as a child or emotional pain later in my life, she would repeat the line I have declared to be the family motto: “If you’re looking for sympathy, you can find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis.”

While I obviously never knew my biological grandfather on this side of the family, there was a man named Harry that basically raised my mother and her siblings. He was the man I called Grandpa. About the time I was born, he had a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body. The mental toll was apparently worse according to my grandmother. He barely put the effort in for his rehab but enough to be able to walk short distances with help of a cane or for longer outings he would use a motorized scooter.

My grandparents lived in a two bedroom house on the water. When we came down, there would be nine of us. Needless to say, the house was a bit crowded. My aunt and my mother would share the spare room, the two oldest cousins would get the pull out sofa, and then us younger three would sleep on the floor in the living room.

Every morning at 7AM, my grandfather would wake up, get dressed and start his walk to the kitchen. Every morning at 7:05AM, my grandfather would poke me with his cane. This was the signal to wake up and get the newspaper for him. I’d jump up, run outside in the Florida summer morning, grab the paper, come inside, pour him a cup of decaf coffee, put two eggs waffles in the toaster, and pass him his sugar free maple syrup. I’d get him situated, make myself waffles with regular syrup, and sit next to him in mostly silence and read the parts of the paper he was finished with. After breakfast, he would move to his recliner and put on some political talk show and I would sit and wait for every one to wake up.

Some afternoons, Grandpa would want to go to Sam’s on Hudson Beach which was at most a five minute walk. He’d choose one of us to join him. We all loved those times. We’d sit on his lap, and he’d let us drive his scooter. In the course of getting to the beach, you had to pass a bait shop. It was the almost the best part of the trip, second only to him getting us ice cream. As we passed the bait shop, he’d ask us to read the sign. We’d grin and say “Chip’s Bait and Tackle!” To which he’d reply “Nope! It says Chip’s Bait and TICKLE!” and proceed to tickle us relentlessly.

On afternoons Grandpa wouldn’t go to the beach, he would sit on the lanai and watch the afternoon storms roll in. One day, I decided to join him. I asked what he was doing, and he told me. Silence ensued. The next day, I again followed him and sat in silence. After a few more times, he invited me to sit on his lap. He told me does it because it reminded of his time in the Navy during World War II. He said the thunder reminded him of the sounds of the guns of the ship he served on. Each afternoon for the rest of the summer I would get a new memory. These afternoons were our moments, and I still treasure them.

I was born in New York. I spent the first eleven years of my life there, but as I look back it is obvious to me so much of my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood is centered around Hudson Beach. Summers spent there at first, then moving there, my first kiss, the first dose of mortality, falling in love, getting engaged. It all happened there. To this day, when I’m feeling lost, I make the drive to Hudson Beach to smile at the ghosts of my past

Spaces Between

After the divorce, my father moved back in with his parents. They had an apartment upstairs in which my family apparently lived in until shortly after I was born. He didn’t have many things. An old tv set, an armoire, and a king sized bed. My best memory and my worst memory of my father happened in that apartment. Both of which have had lasting impressions on my life.

Lets start with the worst.

Some back story is needed. My paternal grandfather, despite my parents splitting up, stayed an active part of my life. My mother worked long hours to keep our heads above water, and he helped out by babysitting us and cooking dinners. Just all around helping out. He was my favorite person. I loved sitting on his lap, calling him a turkey, and going every where with him (mostly because anything I wanted, I got.).

I was seven or so. Dad has been living with my grandparents for awhile. It was his weekend and my grandfather drove me back to his house to save my father a trip. I remember sitting on my grandfathers lap, and my father asked if I was going to come up stairs for bed. I asked him if it was okay if I stayed downstairs in the spare bedroom they had. We were in the same house. I’d go upstairs and hang out and go sleep downstairs in my own bed. He said okay, and stormed up stairs. My little brain already knew enough to know this wasn’t good. He slammed the door, and we heard things crashing around. I decided it was time to go make it right. I went upstairs, and he ignored me. He was just pacing around the living room in a fit. So, I just went and curled up in his bed and tried to sleep. Sleep wasn’t going to happen. I’m not sure if he forgot I was there, or if he wanted me to hear him, but he made a phone call to his best friend. For most of the conversation he was talking in a normal volume which I couldn’t fully hear. Out of nowhere he starts yelling into the phone that his son doesn’t love him anymore. That I should just be downstairs since I don’t want to be there. This is all punctuated by objects flying.

It was a night that changed the way I saw my father. I subconsciously decided to shut down and be the dutiful son. To do anything to placate him so those outbursts were no longer directed at me. Maybe this is where my aversion to conflict comes from?

Time for the good.

I was a sickly child in first and second grade. Constant ear infections and strep throat. I have hearing issues due to scarring of my ear drums. The solution for these problems was removal of my tonsils and adenoids. The day after the surgery I still couldn’t talk, my father brought me back to his place. One detail remains hazy to me. I cannot recall if it was so close to the divorce that he didn’t have any furniture moved in yet, or if he was moving out into his friends place. Regardless, the living room area of the apartment was empty. Just plain carpet. In my grandparents hallway closet is where my toys were kept. My father brought up my play set that was Cowboys and Native Americans. He built the plastic fort, positioned the plastic warriors all around it, and got into the prone position with two bags of rubber bands next to him. He motioned me to do the same next to him, so I followed his lead. He reached into one bag pulled out a rubber band and fired it at one of the soldiers. I smiled. He handed me a rubber band and told me to shoot. I missed. He told me to go again. And this continued until every last plastic soldier was down. There were rubber bands everywhere but we did it. Instead of cleaning up we curled up on the floor and took a nap.

This was the one time in my childhood I felt we bonded. It was quiet. It was simple. To quote my favorite movie, Beginners, “Here is simple and happy. That’s what I meant to give to you.”

Unfortunately our relationships, especially with our parents are never simple and we can only hope they are happy.

 

Walls

One of the earliest memories I can recall, one that I am certain is a memory and not an internalized story my family has repeated often enough for it to be rote, is building a wall to turn what was the master bedroom in my childhood home into a third bedroom.  I remember spending the day with my uncle, a few cousins, and other assorted family. That day started happy. Hell, theres even a photo in the album my mother made me commemorating that day. I was about six years old at the time, and had no idea the implications. I was just enjoying the company and thinking I was helping build something. 

I’m not fully certain if time has clouded things or if it is the actual truth but in my memory bank, these two events happened the same day.

Like every wall, this one had two sides. I didn’t comprehend the other side of it until it happened. The wall wasn’t just to split a room in two, it was meant to divide the family as well. This was the day my mother put her foot down and kicked my father out. 

I vividly remember sitting in the front half of the newly divided room. On my parents bed. I was told to go inside as my mother broke the news to my father. My father, as expected did not take it well. I guess he asked for a moment to speak to my sister and me. That talk wasn’t the kind you’d like to think it was. It was a tempest of raw emotion. He yelled, he blamed our mother, he cried, and a small part of my brain says he threw some objects. It wasn’t until his father stepped in, kicked us out of the room, and spoke to him, did he leave. 

I wish I had profound revelations, or motivational things to say about keeping families together is about tearing down walls, not building them. Some cliched line like that. I just don’t.

Maybe in the initial first few years of my parents separation did I want them to get back together. I was 6. Of course I wanted my father around. After awhile though, it was nice not laying in the bottom bunk of the room my sister and I shared. Twirling her hair that she would hang down for me while our parents yelled and screamed. Dad sometimes punching or kicking holes in walls. It wasn’t a loving home in that sense. Not until after the wall was built.

I offer that maybe in some cases that walls are good. Cordoning off the bad parts and moving full speed ahead towards better and brighter is the way to go. Grab my tool belt, and lets go onwards.