Zayde died last Saturday. This afternoon we gathered to attend a service over a plain pine coffin and to remember him over cold cuts on rye. I remembered my grandfather chiefly as a madman.
“He died happy,” said my mother. “That’s all that matters.”
My father nodded automatically. His little head string had been pulled. My mother has a way of making pronouncements which cannot be refuted. Obviously, that was all that mattered in life, dying happy. If you believed otherwise – for example, that living happy was what really mattered – you were a fool.
“Pass the bread,” said my father. He did not participate in philosophical discussions.
My mother picked up the bread basket and gestured for me to pass it on. She glanced at my ears.
“That old-fashioned jewelry looks good on you,” she said. “Dropped pearls are coming back into fashion.” Coming from her, the compliment was a subtle put-down. White gold was obviously “in.” She was covered with it. Her voice turned sharp. “Sam, easy on the pastrami. You know what the doctor said.”
My father grunted, and heaped it on. Any other day he would have started an argument. This was a day better suited for passive aggression.
“He died happy,” she insisted. It was all I could do to keep from nodding.
When I think of my grandfather, I am always fourteen. That was the year he came to us every Saturday. His second wife, Lillian, had died the year before. As a consequence my mother felt the obligation to attend to him – though not without reservations. His visits always disrupted her household routine.
My grandfather was a tall man. When he strode down the street to our house, his black overcoat flapping around him like wings, and his beard jutting out from under his great beaked nose, the words “wrath of God” always came to my mind. I was the lookout, because no matter what I was doing – drawing, practicing piano, reading – I always seemed to know exactly when to stop and look out the window. Invariably, my grandfather would appear within seconds. It was as though I had conjured him. My mother never questioned this rare talent of mine; she simply made good use of it.
“Zayde’s coming!” On Saturday I was allowed to shout, because it was my job. And while Zayde marched down the street, yelling at fire hydrants, telephone poles and trees, flailing his walking stick furiously at parked cars, my mother scurried about the house, assembling, straightening, cleaning, preparing for the onslaught – as if achieving greater order within the house could compensate for the chaos which was about to enter it. At the last moment she removed her earrings, bracelets, brooch and necklace and thrust them into her apron pockets. By the time she answered the door, she was unadorned except for her plain gold wedding band.
“Come in Zayde.” She always greeted him as “grandfather” in Yiddish. I never thought it odd. After all, he had been old when I was born. She took his hat and stick and placed them in the back of the closet. He kept his coat on, as usual. My mother did not accompany him into the living room.
I was reading by the window when he came in.
“I will get your tea,” my mother said. My grandfather didn’t reply, unless you want to consider grunting as a form of speech. He perched himself on the edge of our Danish Modern couch. I tried to ignore him.
Once he was in the house Zayde usually behaved himself, though he muttered constantly. I never understood what he was saying, mainly because I didn’t care to. He expressed sentiments I had no wish to fathom. My task was to stay there until my mother returned, keeping him, at least from my mother’s perspective, out of harm’s way. That day he sat untypically silent, his brow deeply furrowed. I watched him carefully out of the corner of my eye as I leafed through a copy of Seventeen, waiting to see if he would croak something intelligible – like maybe “Lenore.” He appeared to be thinking. Then, abruptly, he opened his wide, frayed lapel, and drew out a large flat book. He laid the book on my mother’s new glass and stainless steel coffee table. The table had “cost a fortune.” I wasn’t allowed to go near it.
“Come.” It was the first time, in my memory, that he had directly addressed me. More than anything else, the invitation was alarming. But the book was enticing. I was dead sure it didn’t belong on that table. Eventually, curiosity got the better of me, and crablike, I inched my way closer.
He had placed the book facing me, so that I could open it without coming over to his side of the table. For that I was grateful. I put my fingers lightly on the cover. It had once been smooth red leather, but now it was cracked all over – and very dirty. It was irresistible. When I opened the cover, I found myself looking at the picture of a young man.
Zayde pointed at his chest.
I was shocked. The man in the picture was young, and handsome in a clean-cut kind of way. He was leaning against a wall with his arms crossed confidently over his chest. He didn’t look in the slightest bit crazy. I looked up at Zayde’s wrinkled face skeptically. He made a curt “go on” gesture with his finger.
Every page was filled with faded pictures of people in strange clothing, unsmiling couples posing stiffly before the camera, the women seated precariously on fragile chairs in front of frozen men. Heavy curtains framed the photos, as though the couples were on a stage. However, given their stodgy faces and unglamorous poses it seemed unlikely they were actors. On one page a woman sat next to a table bearing a vase of flowers. I could practically smell the dust.
All those dull, grim-faced portraits made me want to return to my glossy magazine. But Zayde’s eyes were boring into me, so I kept turning the thick black pages. Towards the end there were several pictures of children looking uncomfortable in thick white stockings and clunky boots. I stared at them with some interest.
“My brothers and sisters,” he said. “All dead.”
“Oh,” I said. It had not occurred to me that Zayde had come from a family. Maybe he’d had a father and mother, too. Sure enough, the next picture was of a fierce unsmiling man with a black beard. This, most likely, was Zayde’s father. He looked like a man fully capable of carrying a grudge. I glanced at Zayde and he nodded impatiently, urging me on. I turned to the last page of the book, glad that now I could close it and go back to reading my magazines. There was one last picture.
Unlike the others, this picture had not been taken in a studio. A young woman sat in the grass, her dark eyes regarding me with warmth and humor. She was leaning on one slim arm. A long, thick braid hung loosely over the opposite shoulder. She was dressed more casually than the others in the album. Her white blouse, partially open, revealed a graceful neck and part of one shoulder, and her full skirts were mounded carelessly around her, as though she had just flung herself to the ground. A pale, gleaming orb hung from each earlobe. The formal pearls looked a little out of place in this picture, though they would not have in any of the others. As I gazed into her huge smoky eyes, I desperately hoped I was related to her. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.
“Here’s your tea,” my mother announced. She entered the room bearing a tray with pastries, a bowl of preserves and a glass of tea. Zayde refused to drink tea from a cup, like a normal person.
“Who is this?” I demanded, assuming that she would know. She glanced down at the photo album and shook her head.
“Put that away,” she said to no one in particular. Since it was Zayde’s book there was nowhere to put it. Zayde picked it up and inserted it within the darkness of his coat. When I went back to my magazine, the models all looked insipid. I put it away and went to watch TV at the neighbors’. My presence was no longer required.
When I returned for supper a few hours later, Zayde was crazy again.
“It’s all slipping away!” he cried. Tears flowed down his face, dripped off his long nose and into his beard. Soon he would start to shout gibberish. My mother tried to soothe him.
“You still have your business,” she said.
Amazingly, that was a fact. Zayde owned a jewelry store on 58th Street. I had never been there. But my mother had taken me to A La Vielle Russie so many times that I had come to believe my grandfather had made Fabergé eggs for the Czar.
“Oh no!” my mother laughed. “He never made anything like that! He was just an ordinary Minsk jeweler.”
In my mind, I saw nothing ordinary about jewelry. Sparkling stones and golden chains were pure magic to me. The stuff of dreams.
Zayde had left the motherland right before World War II, his wealth of jewels sewn securely into his coat seams. He had brought nothing and no one else with him. Once in the States he worked for a jeweler in lower Manhattan. He was ambitious. Within a year he opened his own midtown store, married the daughter of an upholsterer, and had his only child – my mother. His wife had died when my mother was in her twenties. At some point after that he went mad.
“It’s fear,” my mother explained. “He has already lost so much. He is afraid of losing everything.”
“How?” I protested. He had a store filled with treasure. It didn’t occur to me to point out the fact that he had us, too. Families simply existed – they weren’t something a person could possess, or lose.
“You’re too young to understand,” she said, which was true.
According to my mother, Zayde was completely sane when she was growing up. She recalls him as “a hardworking man.” He rose early, went to work, maintained a family and business and, to all appearances, stood as a shining example immigrant success. However, a man who looks through a magnifying glass fourteen hours a day can easily develop tunnel vision; obsessions can sprout and grow, hidden from family and friends.
When did his madness begin? I imagine it must have started in the privacy of his shop, in the evening after he had closed up. I see him there, standing alone in the dim light, gazing at the cases of gold and silver, counting the gemstones as they lay on their beds of black velvet. He must, at the very least, have felt protective. Perhaps, as the War intensified, his possessiveness turned into paranoia. It seems a plausible explanation, for as the war years wore on his mind began to slip into isolated realms. He muttered to himself constantly, even before Lillian became ill. After her death, freed at last from the constraints of sanity, he transformed himself into his current caricature of lunacy. There was never a time when he did not terrify me.
Zayde wore his black coat through every season. Sometimes, I had the horrible suspicion that he wore nothing beneath it. His eyes, deeply sunken under his shaggy eyebrows, never seemed to register what he saw, or, rather, what the rest of us saw. He heard voices which ceaselessly reiterated his deepest terrors and he responded to their threats vehemently.
“They are taking it all away!” He would howl his mad refrain at mailboxes, phone booths.
God wasn’t picking up, or maybe Zayde’s frantic shrieking couldn’t be heard over the squeal of the El. On the street, the sight of jewelry drove him into a frenzy. “Thief! Hoodlum! Police!” He shouted at his surprised victim, until, indeed, the police arrived and hauled him away. We would receive a phone call. My mother would put down the phone. Sighing heavily she would pin on her hat and go into the City to fetch him. There was never any bail. The man was not dangerous, just a nuisance. His business, needless to say, suffered. As it declined, his ranting fits intensified. He would call the house at all hours, waking us with a start.
My mother always answered. Who else would call in the dead of night? Still, I’d perk up my ears, until I could hear her whisper over and over again: “Nobody is taking anything away from you.”
My mother probably believed she could restore him to reason by sheer force of repetition. But it was her mantra, not his. She waited, as we all did, for the inevitable. I remember that when his business finally did fold, it was like a clap of doom. The wrath of God was finally visited upon the totally deserving. Zayde called one December morning to say that he was closing the store.
“I’ve lost it all,” he said, and hung up.
My mother phoned back immediately, but he must have called from a pay phone, because there was already an out-of-service recording for the store. She tried his home and got no answer. Then, panicked, she called police stations, hospitals, the morgue and finally me. By the time I got there, my parents were arguing over who was going to start the next round of telephone calls.
“Ruthie,” she implored, holding out the phone to me.
“It’s too soon to call the police,” said my father. “You have to wait a few days before he can be a missing person. It’s only been eight hours.”
My mother was not comforted. With Zayde there was no predicting, and, even more alarming for her, no controlling him.
“Yes, I know,” she snapped. “But he’s…” Even now she would not say it.
“You should have had him committed years ago,” said my father, relentless. My mother cast him a murderous look. This was not a discussion I needed to take part in. I put my things down and walked over to the window. I was late this time. He was already half way down the street.
“Zayde’s coming,” I said.
My mother rushed first to the window and then to the door.
There was my grandfather, standing on the threshold, neat, clean and shaven. As he walked through the door, he removed his coat, revealing a plain brown suit.
“Happy holidays,” said my grandfather, handing my mother a white bakery box. He patted her on the head.
It was a miracle.
And that is how my grandfather regained his sanity. The manifestation of his deepest fear had released him from the curse of his madness. Or so I believed at the time. It was the only explanation at hand, and it made a nice parable for later use. My mother, of course, refused to discuss it with me. She had never admitted to his madness to begin with. And once he had recovered from it, she refused to look a gift kuchel in the mouth.
“He’s fine,” she said whenever I asked after him. “That’s all that matters.”
As always, I nodded. Then, there was no reason not to.
In the tranquil years that followed, I finished my degree. After putting in a few years working for Social Services, I started my own practice, and lived a life of unblemished conventionality – until my mother called last weekend.
“Zayde’s in the hospital,” my mother said. She was using her matter-of-fact voice, the one that prevented the expression of any form of sympathy. “He’s had a stroke.”
“Should I come?” I asked, though I already knew what she would say.
“No,” she said. “He’s paralyzed. He can’t talk. He won’t know who you are.”
“I’ll be there in an hour,” I said. On the way to the hospital, I examined my motivations. Certainly, I had never been close to my grandfather. He had been mad for my entire childhood, coming out of his delusions only after I had left home. My mother, of course, needed support, although it was not likely she would accept any. My father never needed anything. I had to admit that my professional training was completely useless when it came to dealing with my own family. In the end I decided that the reason I was driving like a bat out of hell was simply because I felt compelled to perform my filial duty. I was doing the right thing – with reservations.
The hospital had given my grandfather a private room, so it was clear they did not expect him to live long. There were no flowers, no cards, no visitors. The atmosphere in the room was somber. My parents rose when I came in.
“How are you?” I greeted my mother with a kiss. Her eyes were red.
“I’m fine,” she lied, blowing her nose delicately into a tissue.
I wasn’t about to argue with her. “I’m fine” was family code for “I’m not going to talk about how I feel.” Not even death could induce me to break that code.
“He was just sitting there watching TV, when he keeled over,” said my father. “He was watching Lawrence Welk.” This was the Official Story, so I listened carefully to the details.
“Have you eaten?” asked my mother.
“Yes,” I replied. I knew she hadn’t. “Why don’t you two get something? I’ll stay here.”
My mother seemed reluctant, but at my father’s insistence she gathered up her bag and made for the door. Grief had temporarily shocked her into obedience.
“We’ll be back soon,” she said.
I took a seat next to the bed. My grandfather looked small and vulnerable. I had never gotten used to seeing him without his jutting beard. Lying there against the white pillow, he looked almost like a boy. I touched his hand. As I expected, there was no response. A nurse entered and dimmed the lights. She said nothing, and neither did I. The monitors blinked impersonally.
What are they hoping to record? I wondered. When all the lines go flat, and when all the beeping and flickering stops, is that the end of life? How can a machine determine when it’s over? Some lives finish long, long before the crossing of that final boundary can be measured – consumed by madness and hopelessness and fear. I looked down at the immobile face of my grandfather.
His eyes were open, and he was staring directly at me. It was the same intent gaze he had leveled at me all those years ago, when he had forced me to look at the photo album. A picture swam into my mind of a dark beauty, her eyes warm and laughing, in love with the man behind the camera. The sweet fragrance of cut grass filled the room, displacing the odors of disinfectant and plastic, relegating them to a lost, distant future. I watched his hand as it reached out to me.
Slowly, he extended his arm, and when his closed hand hovered directly over my mine, he opened his fingers, releasing two gleaming drops into my palm.
“Perla,” he said. “I’ve made these for you.” Then he closed his eyes, a smile of pure bliss gracing his lips.
Header photograph: By Ian Rosenberg Jeweller (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons