(The following is the Excerpt from The Twentieth Century Passes, a memoir of my father’s life)
By the time I was born, three of my grandparents were already dead. They had died young, in their early 60s, just before and after the birth of my sister ten years before me. My parents had had me, their third child, late for those days, my father at 42. The only grandparent my brother and I knew was Minnie, who had left Dad in infancy, as had her husband, Yoina, to travel to a new life in America. During my first decade, Minnie had already entered her 70s, but she looked, to a child, a hundred, and with her square, weathered face, the stocky block of her body, and her kerchiefed head, she could have been, during her frequent Sunday visits to our Queens Village garden apartment, any Babushka plucked the day before from a field in Podolia. And by then, she had been living in the United States for nearly fifty years.
We felt no love for Minnie. We had, the three of us, very early on some idea of what she had not been to our father, and it would have been otherwise, anyway, not easily accomplished, without some assistance, to turn from Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo to the peasantry under Czar Nicholas II. Minnie would arrive dutifully retrieved by my father, Mac, from her apartment off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, to which he would return her, by car, at the end of the afternoon—two round trips of two-to-three hours each for every Sunday visit. Minnie would visit us along with her companion, Charlie, a large, round, gruff old American character with neatly parted and lacquered black hair and a fat cigar permanently chewed into the corner of his mouth. Imagine him beside Damon Runyon at a Jack Dempsey fight. Like everything else about the history of our family prior to our birth cries, we never got it entirely straight or clear from Mom, but apparently Charlie, who was some fair number of years younger than Minnie, was actually her first or second cousin, and her seduction of him away from a promising career (One must do uncounted mental crunches and endless stretching to imagine Minnie as seducer.) was a scandal in its day. Charlie was always friendly in his crusty way, but—he had, after all, shacked up with Minnie—also a being too foreign to contemplate for the suburban-ized children of Eisenhower’s America.
Minnie was odd and distant and vastly inappropriate. On every visit, we would be brought before her at the dining room table as if in presentation to an idiot Queen, all terse and awkward decorum, in anticipation, as it were, of a detached and senseless laugh. Minnie would beam a smile of grandmotherly pleasure upon us and fix somewhere on each face one of those gross, heavily smeared lipstick kisses of comic, Woody Allen reminiscence. There was no other effort at contact with us. What there was, until Minnie grew too old and the visits ceased, was the ritual of found-gift giving. Planted at the table, each grandchild in turn beside her, Minnie would reach into and draw out from large Alexander’s or Mays department store shopping bags a succession of soiled and broken toys that she had retrieved from the street: punctured rubber balls, wheel-less cars, half-used pencils, lone figurines, all held up with wonder before our eyes as if baubles brought from China. Sharyn, Jeffrey, and I would receive each gift in a manner of stupefied thanks, and then pass it to one parent, who would pass it to the other, who would next, for safekeeping, place the item into a bag, which would later, after Minnie’s departure, complete the cycle of its existence as a garbage bag finally to be disposed of. Gift giving over, we grandchildren would depart—to leave the adults to their adult time together—but not before being quietly directed to go to the bathroom to wash our hands.
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