Friday, December 26, 2008

The Dragons of Rochester

“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

In my family there is a saying that what you don't know won't hurt you.

Here's what I do know: My father was only seventeen when he was called out of school to go upstairs into his father's tailor shop. Grandpa Max was a talented and successful suit-maker; he had cut fabric for New York's renowned actors and politicians; and my father was sent over to identify his body.

At least that's how the story goes, but the story is hardly ever told, and the details change between times and tellers, and I grew up without hearing any of it.

So when I turned 41, I visited my uncle Mort in Eugene and he brought out photos of my grandfather Max and told me who he was and how he died. Until that day, I was told, alternatively, that Max had died when he fell out of a boat crossing out of Russia, that he had disappeared, or that he had lived a long time ago and the details of his life didn't much matter, or my questions about my relatives and their lives were just met with evasions, talk about the Dodgers, the weather, which chores I had failed to do up to snuff, or the grades I should be making.

So here in my uncle's living room I was looking at a photo of a stranger--and yet I knew him indelible intimacy, the curvature of his chin, the odd nobility of his countenance that I had seen in my father's face: the Hyman obstinacy to survive no matter the details, to put your head down and keep charging, the non-acknowledgment of inner agony and suffering that somehow--as water seeks its own course through cracked granite--finds expression in convoluted ways.

I grew up loved and without want of any kind. My parents' home in Los Angeles bears little resemblance to the crowded tenements of New York's Jewish ghettos where my grandparents landed without language and scraped pennies together for sustenance. The home is decorated with photos of my mother's family, of Harry and Tillie, of maternal uncles Manny, Moe and Sol, but none appear of Max, or of Max's wife Libbie.

Today I live in a lovely cottage on a hillside in Northern California. They discovered gold near here. Deer graze in my yard. There's a pond outside my window dotted with geese and the ripples that drift outward in their wake. This morning it is cold and in the still gray before sunrise I can see the bubble of light in the distance where Sacramento is sleeping--where the waxing moon lies in the seat of dark clouds--and I can feel the shadow of my grandfather Max, sullen, the vapor of unspoken grief, the larval fury which gnaws restive on the valley below. If, in Langston Hughes' words, a dream deferred dries up like a raisin in the sun, then a grief deferred grows like a dragon in the earth.

The dragon has consumed some of us. It doesn't always kill you straight off. For some, it chews on us for a while, then backs away and waits patiently in an offshore corner, watching for signs of revival. Some of us have used alcohol and drugs, some prescription medications, some food, some workaholism. The dragon demands homage.

One summer not long ago I was riding in a car with my parents and Dad's niece, named Maxine after my paternal grandfather. Quite out of nowhere, she asked dad how far Max jumped to his death.

"Not far," my father said. "A chair is not that high."

I began to weep in the back seat.

"Were you close to your father," I finally could ask.

"Yes," my father said. "But it's not such a good thing to be so close."

What Maxine and my uncle seemed to agree upon in their stories was that my grandmother Libbie was a piece of work, a selfish, voraciously driven soul without center that preyed upon Max and his family. No one could do well enough, in her eyes.

There are facts and fancy. I've quilted this much together.

Let's say it's 1906: Max is himself seventeen--the same age my father will be when Max ends his life. Max lives in a small Romanian village where the summer heat is stifling and the humidly nearly unbearable. The still, evening air fills with the drone of mosquitoes. If you think of current-day Bosnia, you have an idea what it's like being a Jew in this village. Daily life is depressing for most Romanians, who find themselves in a downward economic slump, but for the scapegoat Jews there is only excruciating fear and torment. Their businesses are burned and homes leveled. And one evening, as Max returns from synagogue, he finds his family in the remains of their home. He is alone now.

And then, here is Max, with nothing but the box of jewels his mother has hidden in the sun-scorched garden, and a lifetime of horror to digest, and perhaps (I like to imagine) the drive of the family survival mechanism which, beyond all emotional disaster can operate at a steady thrum. And there is that winking gem of America and all it signifies across the sea. So Max and his box of treasure are smuggled out in a caravan of refugees--like today's refugee of the former Yugoslavia who sew their jewels into their coats with fishing filament as they are driven by bus to the camps outside the war zone.

Let's say Max lands first in Brussels where he buys passage to England and from Liverpool sails in steerage class on a shipload of Irish immigrants to Ellis Island.

There is a joke in my family about the Jewish man who comes to America in such a vessel. His Eastern European name contains so many consonants the Irish shipmates give up on using it. They give him a name--Joe O'Leary --to use when he lands, but now, dockside, at the table where the first line of immigration authorities interrogate him, the man cannot remember the simple, four-syllable name given him by his fellow travelers. In a fit of despair he says over and over that he has forgotten. The authorities shake their heads and ask again, and over and over he wails in Yiddish, "Shayen fergessen." Finally they understand, and on his immigration form in the block marked name they write, Shane Fergusson. And so Max enters the country as an Irishman without a word to share.

I don't know Max's real last name--before it was changed-- although we natty-haired Hymans are not Fergussons. And the name Hyman, with so much irony it seems, comes from the Hebrew "Chaim"--life! And when I walk the hills here in Gold Country and wonder why Max was never able to carry himself forward into so many truths, I acknowledge that survival itself at any cost is not life enough for me. I've come this far, Max. See the hills here? I've been on glaciers in Alaska in the midnight sun, wrote my name in gold foil in the ceiling of the Golden Buddha in Nara, Japan, placed prayers for our family in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, seen the deep blue of Loch Ness, saw the birth of your great granddaughter Emily and cradled her in my arms as we danced to a recording of "What if God Was One of Us?"

I'm sad that you ran out of options. And I'll never go out that way.

On the streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side where Max lands in 1906 at age seventeen and already the owner of a lifetime of horrific secrets that he cannot communicate in the common tongue with Americans. I wonder even if he would even speak of such horror among the Romanians or other Jews he encountered in the ghetto who spoke his language, or whether the slaughter of the Jews by now had become so commonplace that it was the baseline of silence: this is where we all come from but it's passed and now we have this life to lead. Don't talk about it, now put your nose to the grindstone. That's certainly my father's message.

And perhaps it worked, for a while. Did Max already know how to tailor suits with such delicate workmanship? What of my great-grandfather and his skills? Gone into the silence. But this was America now of the industrial new century, the streets of Manhattan awash with merchants, the Babel of Immigrants. You have to leap a lot in the story to get to the next part--but it a leap worth taking, for all that ensues in the next few years is silent, steady toil. And Max learns English, finds work, and by all appearances--since appearances have become so important in America--is a huge success. Bully for Max! He does so well that he buys himself a motorcycle. This, I know, is fact. My uncle was certain of it, but I so wish I had that photo--Max in his leather cap and goggles, revving the throttle on that Indian motorcycle.

Work is going well. So swell, in fact, Max has time on his hands. He decides to ride the Indian up to Montreal, or maybe northwest to Toronto. The road from New York City passes through the Adirondacks, the trees blossoming with fall color, birth and death at once. Past the Finger Lakes he rides, flushed with excitement, and he gets as far as Rochester before he finally gets lost.

It is there, so Uncle Mort had told me, that he asks for directions at a house. A white picket fence frames the yard. The woman in the garden is his bride to be. And from there spools out the history of my father, my family, my brother and sister and their children.

I wish I could know more. But one day before my father's 89th birthday this year, Uncle Mort took his own life. There was a note, as unreliable in relation to the truth as any other speculation here. But here are some facts: after his stint in the Navy, Mort visited our home in Brooklyn. I was a toddler. There are home movies of us in the almost-accurate color of the time. Mort is strumming a ukulele and I am dancing. Other stories have Mort asking me to put a tune on the record player. I am too young to read, but I have associated the look of the writing on the record label with the music that comes out when it is played. If you asked me, I could put on The Jones Boys. "The whole town is talking about the Jones Boys," it went. And so went I, beyond the boys to Shostakovitch and Springsteen, Miserlou, and MP3s.

I have Mort to thank for that--and for my love of words. When I graduated junior high, Mort gave me a thesaurus and invited me to explore the "adventure of words". The blue hardback catalog of synonyms sat at the side of my desk, in all the states I traveled, during my years that I worked as a journalist, at my side when I completed graduate school and taught writing in the Big Ten. I kept it until my niece Jessica, my brother's eldest child, graduated school and I sent it to her. I want her to go on this adventure of words, too. I want her to seek the truth.

And all these words, unworthy as the best may be, are for Ted and Linda, for Emily, Jess, Nathan, and Christian. Dragon slayers.

1 comment:

tangobaby said...

There are some days when I don't mind crying at 11:19 on an ordinary day, and this is one of them.

You have just broken my heart but also made me glad to know you, and that you could make a tragic story also so incredibly beautiful.

Thank you.