My father and mother, my aunt and grandfather made up our household, with me at the bottom and all of us under the wing of my grandmother. Although everyone attended to some household duties and you couldn’t say that my mother didn’t cook the three daily meals, it was my grandmother who had the final say on everything down to the last shake of pepper. She was up at five and it was she who fed my dog Terry, a black mongrel whom she just about tolerated. She went to bed at ten and after that time in our house nothing much happened anyway. My father and my aunt worked away from home all day. My grandfather puttered on projects around the house. As my grandmother’s husband, he had a nervous habit of hitching up his pants all the time because, unlike her, he never knew what he was supposed to be doing. With all of us there or not, by her presence alone she ran things.
My grandmother had the face of a chieftain but when she smiled you felt it was only her way of looking at the light. When she sewed in the parlor or peeled or stirred things in the kitchen her eyes narrowed down like an artisan’s and even after she relaxed, however seldom that was, the pride of having worked thoroughly still remained in them. Her type in the family had not passed to the in-between generation or to my own; I realized this very early and attached myself to her as a great one in our midst. My mother or whatever aunt sometimes lived with us had striven against her from time to time but she held out supreme.
When she first began to act unlike herself, everyone felt relieved that now each could move into one of the many vacant positions she left and together they could now take care of her in the way they thought right for an old woman. But as for myself, the only real child in the household, not having any interest in that matter, I clung to her more tightly than when I was under her once alert eyes. It must have been my own childishness, too, that endeared me to her as she settled down into this dotage, when the rest of the family gritted their teeth and bore with her bravely. I remember how her infirmity mellowed and quieted me and how I tried to care for her in my own way, partly out of revenge upon the adults around me—she was the weak spot in their armor.
“Sonny, bring Grandma in her milk. Don’t let her go in the kitchen,” my aunt would say; the refrigerator had been painted that afternoon. I felt important, of course. Only after my grandmother died did it dawn on me that she and I were classed together, with me the responsible one. But in those days I enjoyed the game, slackening my speed, keeping myself in check to please her by my playfulness without vexing her, and I took over responsibilities without anyone else ordering me to. And daily my grandmother seemed to grow more unpredictable.
There is a moment when you pass from youth to manhood at which you know that a change of status has taken place. At first there may be a few false indications of it, such as the lofty feeling in your heart after you’ve had a girl or perhaps the stupefied, superior feeling after you’ve broken away from home. But the one that carries most conviction and that may come later than either of the others is the sad feeling of no longer being accepted as the same person you were before. Then for an instant you may see yourself as someone between a child and an old man, too near to become friends with either.
There was a grizzled little tinsmith on the comer of Merton and Seventh streets I used to say hello to and chat with every day on my way to school. After I got my first job he once stopped me to ask if he could borrow a dollar. I knew for certain then that the change had taken place. He called my by my first name but I was more formal with him. That is, till then.
“What would you say to lending me a buck till next week?” he said.
I gave it to him and he paid me back the next day, and after a while I began to call him Pop and he’d use my nickname. I was no longer refreshing to him nor he a lucky godfather to me. He told me later that I’d been crowing so much about making money at my new job that he couldn’t resist trying to borrow a dollar to make me really feel like a sport. Even that proved it for me.
So it’s easier for me to see now what my grandmother and I found in each other. I could sit with her for an hour talking about every little thought that came into my head, about handball and my chemistry set, about the Kipling poems and summer vacation. She would listen with the sort of attention I usually had to beg from grown-ups, although she didn’t ask me many questions. But she was still my grandmother; she tested all the doors and watered the plants as before. She was given her own way now as much as she exacted it before. There was no figuring out just how much she was willing to carry over from the past and to what extent she just wanted to rest. But now we enjoyed a kinship that had only been secret before.
Grandma and I could see more to tell each other about in a colored magazine picture than anyone else, even my aunt who painted with oils. She would sit for long minutes looking at a page at a time although she couldn’t read the captions, turning the magazine first one way, then another, smiling or frowning to herself.
“What are you looking at Grandma?” I would ask her in English and she might answer in her accommodating Yiddish, “S’iz ein Boat, du sehst,”; although as often as not she would call it so when it wasn’t.
“But it isn’t a boat, Grandma,” I used to say at first. “It’s a house. Can’t you see?” But she could still overpower me with a look from beneath her brows, pitying me, so that I would begin to see the possibilities of such a house with a nice thrill of recognition. I remembered with pleasure my aunt telling me that when you paint a subject you must try to find all the possible colors that are bound up in it, find green even in a bright red, and I began to feel silly about opposing Grandma with stodgy objections.
I would point out pictures of flowers to her, and to make her feel good, comment on them as if I loved flowers, and in that way I could evoke her vitality almost to what it used to be. With the Sunday sections spread out on our laps I would be completely enraptured the whole morning even if the family thought me more of a child than my years were supposed to allow for. One day I was startled when my grandmother, gazing intently at a photograph in the paper of a young bride with long hair, suddenly made as if to stroke it. Then for the first time I wanted to cry and protect her but I let the impulse die down in me because I knew immediately what a hard time I’d have explaining my tears if my mother caught me.
I came home from school one afternoon a week later; I was seven years old, it was spring, towards the end of the term and every day stood out clearly on the calendar in the hall. Terry ran out of the alley towards me with his three o’clock bark that annoyed the carriage-wheeling mothers so much, and as I gathered him up I noticed that Grandma wasn’t sitting, wrapped up to the chin and wearing her hat, on the bench outside the house where she usually took the late sun upon her never-closing lids—her accustomed place which not even the landlady would usurp. Inside, I found a note from my mother on the kitchen table next to the milk and cookies telling me to have my bite, do my homework, and keep an eye on Grandma. She was at the department stores and wouldn’t be home until late, the note said, and Grandpa had gone to the doctor’s.
Now that I was in the house and still no sign of Grandma anywhere I became angry. The afternoon was cool and sunny; I wanted to go out and play. I finished the cookies with big bites and walked slowly through the rooms, a glass of milk in hand. I called her throughout the entire house, looked in the back yard—no Grandma. Outside I was ashamed to call so I just searched carefully in every direction and I even made a game of it by getting my field glasses and looking with them much more carefully than was necessary. Now I made a wry face and stamped my foot for mixed reasons. I wasn’t very worried about her; I imagined she might have gone for a walk around the block, although I never remembered her going anywhere at that time except in a straight line up and down the street our house was on.
I gave up and went after her, first around the block, then in ever widening circles, hurrying if I was on the avenue, taking my time on side streets where I cracked hedge leaves idly between my palms. After a few comers turned irregularly I found myself near the El station where the third store away was the fruit man’s. He was standing outside in his stained apron looking my way before I had a chance to detect his figure myself.
“Tell your mother,” he said, “that the old lady bought a head of lettuce and a bunch of celery from me. Your grandma.”
I guessed that he meant Grandma hadn’t paid him. Most likely she had no money in her purse, since my mother had stopped her from shopping months ago. She hadn’t exactly stopped her, she just didn’t remind her about it, and Grandma seemed to have forgotten the whole routine, especially after the food and groceries began to be brought in by a delivery boy.
“Please where is she now, Mr. Lipstein?” I asked anxiously. “You shouldn’t have let her take them.”
“What am I gonna do, refuse it?”
He took me by the shoulder. “She went that way,” he said, pointing towards the El station.
As soon as I opened the outside door of the station I saw her carrying the package. She was trying to push her way past the turnstile nearest the change-booth. The man inside was explaining to her with a sarcastic show of patience while five or six passengers gathered around, a little removed, that she couldn’t-go-through-without-putting-a-nickel-in-that-there-slot-there. I ran up to her afraid she wouldn’t obey me now that she’d gone so far astray, and whispered, tugging at her sleeve, “Grandma come home.” But I could see by her eyes that she didn’t want to listen. Grandma didn’t recognize me.
In Yiddish she kept saying to the man in the booth, “Mensh, let me in,” with tones of the old voice that used to send me scurrying off.
“OH for Chris’ sake you gotta put a nickel in lady to go through, Jesus!” he shouted at her.
“Leave her alone, she’s my grandma,” I shouted back at him but I was trembling. He sounded ready for violence. Grandma obviously didn’t understand him—at least not speaking that kind of English. I tried to tale her by the hand and just pull but she shook me off. The people standing around were wagging their heads and smiling out of the corners of their mouths as my grandfather sometimes did when he watched her from another room.
A short, thin man, carrying a briefcase, who had just pushed through a nearby turnstile tapped my grandmother on the arm and, kindly, as if she was a foreigner, said, “Nickel, five cents; there,” pointing to the slot, but Grandma looked right through him. The man took out a nickel and put it in the slot for her.
“No, mister, don’t,” I cried out. “She has to come home with me.” I had an idea. “Will you help me take her home, mister? We just live two and a half blocks away from here.”
The group of passengers, now larger, buzzed with excitement but the man lowered his head to avoid any possibility of looking at me or acknowledging that he’d heard me and pivoted to tip his hat to Grandma and walk out.
“Why don’t her people take care of her instead of letting her out like that?” remarked a fat lady to the person next to her who was holding a little boy by the hand. The child, younger than myself, said in a loud voice to his mother, his face turned flat upward to catch her eye, “It’s Auntie Ardle, ma.”
Go away, I thought, this is my grandma.
“Lady, if you don’t have no money you can’t go through,” said the man coming out of his booth, wiping his hands off on a rag, “or else I’ll call a cop.” He was mad and red-faced. The whole incident went beyond just a minor delay for him now.
“Grandma, where are you going? Come back with me!” I nearly screamed, pleading, pulling her towards the wall. “Grandma you don’t go in there—you come home with me.”
“She’s sick, she needs me,” she finally murmured, in Yiddish, a little distracted, less intense.
“Who’s sick, Grandma, who?”
“So sick, the old one,” she repeated, but my quick question seemed to have startled her. She looked right at me but not so that the glint of my eyes lit up hers.
“Meine mutter,”; Grandma said in answer, but not to me.
“Grandma! You. . . . ” my train of speech shunted into its only clear track, a desperate cry for my own mother. Grandma put down the bag of vegetables on the turnstile and bent over to quiet me with a “Shah . . . shah, kindt, don’t cry.” This sudden attention to me engrossed her so completely that her features settled into their composure of the morning, of the days before, and seeing this through my tears I called to her in Yiddish, which I hardly spoke, wheedling as my mother would do, “Mamela, Ma . . . come, come, come home with me.”
Grandma closed a large hand over mine and sweeping up the bag expertly with the other led me outside.
“What are you doing here?” she asked me. I was shocked and delighted. I just kept repeating for her to come back and as we stopped in the passageway I turned for both of us to head home. Soon she needed no prodding but I made up my mind to keep her lightly distracted until we came in sure sight of the house so I asked her questions about what we saw, pointed out places to her, told her what I did yesterday, what I was going to do tomorrow.
“Ay, Mamela, Mamela, tsh. . . . ” Grandma intoned.
Before I could stop myself, “Grandma, please,” I said, “you haven’t got any mother. You can’t have any mother—you’re my grandma.”
“What kind of nonsense is that, child?” she asked curtly, looking down at me with that easy twist of the head grown-ups used for my height. I knew what she meant: that I was talking wildly, not that I was wrong.
“Grandma, fix your hat,” I said. She was wearing her old hat and tom coat that she used for her afternoons, sitting on the bench outside. The family would be horrified to know that she had been seen in it so far from the house. The hat was stylish for an old woman’s hat, set a little sidewise on her head, it gave her an irresponsible appearance and her gray hair was straying. She reached up to adjust the hat but only succeeded in shifting it around to a position just as awkward.
When we neared the house I saw that her tenseness had now completely given over, and she was quick to sit down on the bench. Side by side, relaxed, our hands in our laps, we let the last threads of excitement unwind. Grandma told me to pick up my foot so that she could tie my shoelace. Terry began to yap at us from the doorway, his nose pressed against the screen, and Grandma made little woofing sounds in mimicry which spurred him on until she yelled “Shah!” and we both looked at each other and laughed. I felt weak with relief.
I told Grandma to sit still while I went into the house to bring us a magazine. I wanted to see if I could stir up some interest in our favorite pastime, to keep my fears down and her interests from wandering until my mother returned. Luckily my first choice was a meat advertisement showing a golden brown roast photographed so cleverly that the juices gleamed and its texture seemed to fool you. Grandma was overcome with authentic old-fashioned amazement; for my part I began to get hungry. From that we went on to a talcum powder ad picturing a naked baby with an enormous head. This didn’t hold me as long. A few neighbors passed by and I said hello for both of us. Children were playing across the street bawling names at each other. Their voices distracted me from my own silent, energetic job of gazing and turning pages. Grandma looked up at the children.
“Aren’t they silly,” I said to her.
She curled the skirt of her coat around her, got up, and started to walk across the street without a word before I knew what she was doing.
“Grandma!” I put down the magazine. A few yards away by now, she didn’t answer, so I followed carefully behind her, looking around vainly for my mother.
Grandma was across the street now near two little girls who were rattling on at each other. “Come home, darling,” she said to one of them and called her by a name I’d never heard.
“Leave the little girl alone, Grandma,” I called out.
“Come inside now, it’s time to go in,” said Grandma to the child, who looked up at her with fascination and fear and then suddenly surprised herself by crying.
Soon both little girls were crying, calling for their mothers, but Grandma had the one child by the hand so that she couldn’t run away as her playmate had already started to. I was so confused that I simply walked back to the house to call up my friend’s sister to come over and help me. But there was my mother coming home. I saw her more than a block distant with that trembling sense of recognition with which you see someone you love from far away, always afraid of being shocked into error.
But it was my mother, and it seemed as if nothing too terrible was ever destined to happen. I ran to her, my anxiety gone for joy, and began to pour out the whole story at once. Before I’d got far she spotted Grandma, handed me her bundles, and strode resolutely across the street towards her own wayward mother. Her eyes widened as I continued talking about the fruit man and the change-booth operator and they narrowed as we drew closer to my grandmother who was saying to the child, still holding her by the hand but not forcing her, “Come home and I’ll give you something nice.”
My part was done now. I hoped my own familiar late afternoon for running and jumping around would still be waiting for me. I turned aside, walked back to the house, and left the bundles on the kitchen table, running out again immediately without daring to look any way but ahead towards my friend Billy’s house so that I could find him to play ball. Terry jumped up to follow me down the steps but I sent him back without pausing in my own trot away from the house. There wasn’t much of the day left.
When I turned the comer Billy saw me first and called out. He was playing ball against the next house front where the rounded-off steps gave more surface to hit a fly from.
“Boy what a time I had with my grandma!” I said.
“She’s off her nut, isn’t she, your grandma?” Billy didn’t look up as he threw, crouching to catch the return at knee-level.
“Yeh, she’s getting crazier every day,” I said, knowing that those words were a strike-me-dead signal to God.
We played against each other and I felt happy and exhausted beating him. Every thought I’d had all afternoon faded far away as though it never belonged to me. It was a good game.
Then a car drove by so fast we turned to watch it skid around the corner and as soon as it got out of sight we heard the brakes grind and screech. The silence that followed pressed the noise deeper into our ears and then broke into fragments of a loud, excited, screaming of women and children around the corner. Billy and I stopped to turn our heads. His arm went down to his side from mid-air, the ball in his hand, and we both whooped. An accident. A boy ran around the corner on the other side of the street. We followed with speed and enthusiasm, racing each other, in the direction of my house. A crowd had collected in the road in front . . . of my house. There was a dog in the road, and no car anywhere.
Now I ran faster, my heart pounding, feeling sick. There were my mother and grandmother coming out of the house in a hurry, my mother undoing her apron which she threw on the bench as she passed it, without stopping a second. I pushed my way into the crowd and as soon as I saw it was my dog, I sobbed and bit my lip and ran to my mother. Terry’s coat was gleaming with blood, his neck was twisted, his lips parted, his teeth bared. With my mother standing above me, holding me by the shoulder, I knelt down to touch him but was afraid to, he was so wet and so terribly dead. So that’s what he is, I thought—dead.
“Don’t touch him, darling, it’s all right,” said my mother, “I’ll get a shovel and carry him back of the house.”
The crowd began to disperse as soon as all the women and old men identified us as the owners of the dog, and mother and I returned inside where we sat down in the kitchen. She was trying to calm me but her own face showed strained and pale. I began to cry uncontrollably, my elbows on the table, holding my head.
We saw someone move in the hallway—it was Billy who had followed us inside and was standing in the shadows against the wall, forlorn, not knowing what to do or say. He turned towards the door.
“I’ll open it,” he murmured, his voice quavering, and for the first time mother and I heard someone rattling the screen door. Billy made a low cry: coming through the doorway was my grandmother—in the excitement we had forgotten her outside. She was carrying Terry in her arms like a baby, her fingers half hidden in sticky wads of his hair, dripping blood on the floor as she seemed to stalk into the kitchen, that lifeless gift and burden held before her with magisterial tenderness.
“No!” my mother screamed. But I broke away from her to rush over to my grandma, the tears drying on my face.