His last name was Bahr, a German surname meaning bear. Thin, scruffy and odorous as swamp gas, I avoided Mr. Bear (as I called him) as often as was possible in a two-family house. He lived with Grandma Rose and my aunts in their upstairs apartment from the time I was five until I turned ten. Taking in strangers was not unusual in 1950’s Brooklyn. Often the permanent houseguest was called the boarder even when no rent was paid and meals were free.
Mr. Bahr was the legacy left to my maternal grandmother from her mother. At a time when deaf and dumb was an accepted term, Grandma Rose chose to use, deaf and mute; not due to political correctness but, rather because her own mother was also deaf. My great-grandmother, GG had lost her hearing when surgery as a toddler left her deaf. With her verbal skills halted by age two, she was for all purposes--mute.
GG spoke sign language and read lips. So did Mr. Bahr; a bedraggled homeless man who did odd jobs at the local paper-box factory. Their friendship was born by circumstance, since they seemed to have nothing in common other than their hearing challenges. Even today, I wonder what filled their conversations. For as long as GG lived in her dark and narrow railroad apartment a few streets from our home, Mr. Bahr had a place to come in from the winter cold or the sweltering summer humidity and spend an afternoon. After GG’s funeral, Mr. Bahr came back to our house for coffee and stayed five years.
He wore the same wool suit day-in day-out: blueberry stains from a July 4th pie abutted hardened gravy from a Christmas dinner. His twisted arthritic fingers held his worn pencil nub and pad for writing his needs when my grandmother’s signing skills couldn’t grasp them. With whiskers like glass slivers poking out from around his scowl, he seemed more creature than man, yet my grandmother never seemed to notice. She’d scowl right back at him until he sat meekly on a kitchen stool while she lathered and shaved him on Saturday mornings. Dented saucepans, half used cards of sewing pins; things destined for land-fills served as his thank you cards to her. Occasionally, he offered her a wrinkled dollar in gratitude but more often, he’d open a worn and folded note in his wallet and pushed it towards my grandmother. In a barely readable scrawl, it read: When I die, DO NOT bury me in YOUR cemetery. I am Catholic! Often, before he could unfold it, Grandma motioned she understood, “I know. I know,” she’d nod and pat his shoulder.
I was too young to see beyond his gravelly voice, crowded with eerie vowel sounds. When he was misunderstood, he’d wave his arms in frustration while wailing plaintively which sent me tearing downstairs for the safety of my room. Through our half-decade as housemates, I watched as my father polished Mr. Bear’s shoes for church or my mother made him lunch or my eldest aunt fetched a newspaper for him. I was never mean to the man who frightened me, but I wasn’t particularly kind to him either.
When I was in fifth grade, Grandma re-married. Our house was sold as we began our separate moves away. Early one Saturday morning, we arrived at a Catholic home for the poor. The scent of lemon oil rose off the polished oak floors like morning mist. It was the first time I had seen nuns. Some scurried by so quickly; I thought they were wearing skates under their long black skirts. Only after the good sisters could satisfy Grandma’s scrutiny, Mr. Bahr moved in.
It would be years before I appreciated the magnitude of my family’s kindness towards strangers and I think it will take a lifetime to pay it forward.