Growing up in an extended family gave me limitless face time with grandparents who couldn’t pass each other in a room without scowling. Every other grown-up relative at home had only one persona: My youngest aunt was always petulant with a noticeable disdain for me. (My crime was usurping her position as the baby of the family.) My second aunt, along with my parents were open-hearted, affectionate and oh-so-easy to love. But the same Grandparents who indulged my whims and showered me with kisses were openly hostile with each other. Leading me to love them separately while we lived together on Thatford Avenue, in our two-family house with the rusted front gate.
It probably would have been easier and certainly cost-saving if our two families ate our meals communally, but mid-century America was still a time of self-reliance. The role of a husband was to go to work. Whether driving a cab or curing polio, at the end of the day men came home as conquering heroes. Wives ran their homes; from meal planning to laundry and child-rearing. What seems medieval and punitive now, worked for generations. Don’t misunderstand, I don’t long for bygone gender rules, but I also won’t hoist my 21st century enlightenment on their working system. At any rate, it explains why Grandma cooked her family meals upstairs daily while mom cooked ours in our kitchen every day but Sunday.
If I detected an enticing aroma from the floor above, I didn’t follow my nose. There was another culinary delight being whipped up in the kitchen below. But memories are persnickety. I can also recall early mornings while the two house-holds slept, that Grandpa Robbie and I shared breakfast.
In pajamas, I tiptoed upstairs, avoiding Brownie’s flesh tearing bites, and leapt into Grandpa’s arms. He’d carry me into the kitchen where the sizzle of melting butter accompanied the steady blip-blop beat of the coffee percolator. It was our fanfare into the kitchen. A hill of buttered toast awaited as Grandpa stirred onions and peppers into cream-fused eggs to make our omelets. At four, I had grown too big for a high chair, but booster seats hadn’t been invented yet, making me tuck my legs under me, resting my butt on my heels while I ate. I think that’s why I can clean my floors Korean-style without a groan.
When the omelet was ready, Grandpa would lift the pan by its handle, allowing the steam to waft before me. Then with a flourish, he’d repeat his off told phrase, “you know I used to cook for the Tsar.” I wouldn’t know who or what a tsar was until third grade history. And it wouldn’t be for years after, that I’d wonder why my German-American grandfather named a Russian ruler. Why not Kaiser Wilhelm?
Throughout history, the borders in Europe changed with each skirmish and I suspect Grandpa’s clan was Prussian. One day, I’ll treat myself to a Ancestry.com search. Until I do, I’m half English and half-German and 100% American.
Like explanations for global warming, the real reasons for my grandparents’ enmity depended on the reporter. While my oldest uncle took his father’s side, my mom steadfastly took Grandma’s.
By the time Grandma revealed her side of the story, she was happily re-married to Moe and I was making a mess of my studies in eighth grade. Occasionally, I’d ditch last period math class to hide out at their apartment in Flatbush. I was sullen and rebellious and to this day, I don’t know why. As part of my defiance, I had refused to wear boots in snow.
That day, the dye of my black shoes leached into my tights as I trudged along the snow drifts on Avenue H. Grandma had stopped her chores as soon as she buzzed me into the lobby and waited like a servant at her door. A freshly ironed apron was tied around her little stout waist and her prized vegetable peeler remained in her hand.
At her insistence, I rolled down my soaked tights that she rinsed and hung off the opened oven door. Then, without prelude or introduction, the explanation for her break-up with Grandpa Robbie fell from her lips as easily as the peeled apple slices dropped into her prized wooden bowl*.
“I had gone to the pictures with Tanta,” she began as she twisted off an apple stem. “In those days, mothers left their sleeping babies in the theater lobby. Sometimes a big sign would cover the screen. Baby in Lobby is Crying. Usually, a mother sitting closest to the doors would check. If it wasn’t her child, she’d call out, ‘Baby with the rose blanket.’ or ‘Baby with red hair is crying!’ If your baby was fussy, you wasted your nickel. My babies were always good.”
I picked out a washed McIntosh and handed it to Grandma all the while trying to picture a world safe enough to leave babies alone in movie lobbies. “One day,” she continued. “Grandpa offered to babysit. I knew something wasn’t right. Men didn’t stay home with their kids back then and Grandpa absolutely wouldn’t offer. But he said his back ached from work and since he was going to be home… anyway who would say no to Rudolph Valentino?”
A chill shook me from the back of my neck and across my shoulders. I couldn’t know what Grandma was about to say, but I was certain I didn’t want to hear it. Other than jumping up from my chair and feigning gastric cramps, I had no means of escape. And Grandma knew it. “As soon I got home, I sensed something was up.” She pointed the peeler at me for emphasis. “Right there on my living-room couch… Robbie and that woman—fast asleep and under my blanket. And then she moved so the blanket rose up like a cloud uncovering a big white moon!”
I don’t remember another detail from that day although I’m sure my tights eventually dried, I got home safely and the applesauce Grandma packed for me was delicious. I can’t recall how I felt. I know only that I didn’t hate Grandpa for his betrayal to my grandmother. I had long since stopped loving him since reading his letter to my mother.
End of Part I
* Both Grandma Rose’s wooden bowl and vegetable peeler were given to me after her death. I use them both. And my homemade applesauce is luscious.