Visiting Grandma and Grandpa
© Copyright 2008 by Joshua Taylor
It is a December morning in Maine. I am sitting in the backseat of the parked Station-wagon and my mother is seated shotgun. I rub my hands together and shake my legs, impatient for the car to heat. My father scrapes frost off the windshield, then off the back window. Steam shoots out of our mouths with each breath. We drive up the road, take a left that goes for about a mile and pay our toll. We’ll begin our journey on a cold highway laid out between leafless trees, under an overcast sky. The sides of the roads are piled high with snowbanks. Snow wisps criss-cross the asphalt. We pass a public works truck spraying salt. It is another bleak New England winter.
It is Christmas vacation, and we are flanked by people heading south. Inside the vehicles are the outlines of kids engrossed in their walkmans, piles of suitcases and the occasional dog. Oftentimes when we roll up on a car in another lane, I turn my head and make eye contact with a person in another vehicle. I wonder where they are headed. I wonder about the people heading north on the other side of the highway’s divide as well. We are going to Great Neck, New York to visit grandma and grandpa.
The green signs with white lettering are passing in a familiar order. At twelve years of age I already know our itinerary by heart. The first prominent thing is the green Piscataqua River bridge that separates Maine from New Hampshire. I always look down at the houses on the island beneath. Boston appears and fades on the horizon. I see the familiar Prudential Tower. Providence, with it’s trademark clock passes in closer proximity. We pass New Haven, signaling we were leaving New England. Then, little by little, we start to see and feel the presence of New York City. Big housing projects in New Rochelle rise up on the left--ugly brown towers with black windows and balconies that are never occupied. Yonkers passes. We cross the Tri-borough-bridge, and I crane my neck to see the outline of lower Manhattan in the distance. Finally, we arrive.
A disjointed collection of artwork, memorabilia and heirlooms fills the house. A gigantic ming vase which one of my grandfathers clients had given him in lieu of a cash payment. A ink-brush painting of a snowy abandoned village which my uncle had bought while stationed in South Korea. A diverse collection of menorahs and abstract paintings. A clock my great-grandfather brought from Poland with the numbers written in Hebrew. A porcelin Passover plate commemorating the founding of the state of Israel. A copy of my great-grandfathers Polish birth certificate. A thread that extended out the front door, into the Lower East side and back to Europe and on until the people and places connected to it disappear.
What draws my attention more than anything are the pictures of people I’ve never met. Great-grandparents, great uncles. From conversations overheard between my grandparents and parents I know vague things about a couple of them. However, most of them are personalities whom I can only guess at from those frozen black and white seconds.
The real reason we go to Great Neck is to see my grandparents. My grandfather is a man of few words, but when he speaks he is succinct and often tells stories about growing up in New York.
We hear stories of him selling handkerchiefs on a corner in the lower east side and being chased off by the police when he refused to bribe them. He tells us of a teacher who bloodied his nose and later hid from his outraged mother who stormed into the school intent on a confrontation. He tells us about the tenement he grew up in and how the bathroom at the end of the wall had a machine that you had to deposit pennies into in order to make the light work. He tells us of a movie theatre somewhere in New York City that charged five cents for two people and how he would stand outside and say “I have three, who has two?” I wonder if I have inadvertently walked passed these places on some of our trips into the city.
I am in a hospital somewhere on Long Island. My grandfather is recovering from colon cancer surgery. He is lying in bed. He shakes my hand when I enter. I look down at his hand and follow his arm up to his shoulder. He has lost a lot of weight. His arm is emaciated, shrunken like the stem of a dehydrated plant. He was burly for an old man, but no more. We ask him who he thinks is going to win the election, who he will vote for. He has the same soft-spoken voice. He asks me about my new job.
The nurses bring him his next meal. He leans forward to watch the television as he eats. His eats methodically. His attention is focused on either the T.V. or the food but never both. Something with Gene Kelly is on. He is more curious about what’s on T.V. than my grandmother. My grandmother talks constantly as if she is sparing with the television for his attention. She appears to be losing. My grandmother tries to motivate him. She sings things in Hebrew. First, she’ll survey him in the bed for some time, then suddenly burst into song. Without warning she has again burst into song. It’s in Hebrew and from what I can glean, it’s about the Jews going back to Jerusalem.
I remember that my grandmother was an ardent Zionist her whole life. For thirty years she spent her summers in Israel and traveled extensively; my grandfather stayed in the New York, content with where he was from.
My grandfather’s roommate is a big silent Italian guy. He looks like the mob boss Pauly Cicero from Goodfellas, only he is darker and has a ponytail. He has a hideous scar down the front of his chest. I think he has just had open-heart surgery. His wife is sitting by his bedside reading a magazine. My grandmother is busting my balls about something; acting like a typical Jewish matriarch. The Italian guy looks at her with the kind of smile typical of someone observing something familiar to them.
I am back in Maine. I turn on the lights of the car and they illuminate the backyard. I look for the two skunks I sometimes see poking around the backyard. I back out the driveway always careful to make sure the neighbor has not parked directly across the street. I leave the house I grew up in. I drive to my apartment in intown Portland. The car ride so familiar I sometimes arrive at the apartment remembering nothing of the journey. Driving around Portland Maine. Something I’ve been doing for twenty years.
My grandparents have both been gone for a number of years. I haven’t gone back to Great Neck since they passed away. Now some of those black and white photographs hang in our house in Portland, Maine. My grandparents have joined them.
My wife says she wants to move to Texas. My parents say they won’t always stay in Portland. I know I won’t either. I wonder which streets my son will become familiar with. I wonder where we will take him on road-trips. Where will the pictures of his ancestors hang on the wall?
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