Grandpa Robbie, the Tsar and Hebrews 10

A in middle school

Grandpa Robbie’s voice is as clear and strong as his image.  True to his Hell’s Kitchen* roots, he spoke like a film mobster.  On the occasions he dressed up, he’d look like an extra in the rub-out scene.  Sadly, the only photo I have is the one I shared with you last time, showing an overweight, tired grandparent.  Unlike digital storage, I can’t share the real man in images, but my mind can easily summon up one vision of him; Brooklyn tee tucked into his trousers as he shaved at the bathroom sink.

Shy bladders are a luxury of the rich.  In our Thatford Avenue house, the bathrooms were right off the kitchens, making us experts at shutting out family conversations, ringing phones and food aromas just inches away.  Upstairs at Grandma’s, the refrigerator stood at the right of the door while her electric broiler atop a kitchen cart guarded the left.  Since she fed her family massive slabs of meats at dinnertime, this small broiler acted as a shelf for platters and plates, except when a quick lunch was needed. Anyone in the bathroom would be enticed out by the bouquet of char-broiled steaks. By the time they flushed and washed their hands, juicy blood-rare helpings were already between slices of rye bread, slathered in Russian dressing and topped with tomato slices and lettuce ribbons.  This was Grandma Rose’s version of fast food.

One Saturday morning, after eating the Tsar’s favorite omelets with Grandpa, he left me at the table while he shaved.  The kitchen quickly filled with the rest of our family.  While my sleepy-eyed aunts were still in their pj’s, my parents came to greet their elders.  Grandma was putting up coffee in her prized Farberware pot when the bickering with Grandpa began to bubble up like the percolator on the stove.

Their angry snipes volleyed back and forth like the thwacks of the neighborhood boys’ handball games.  Grandma would roll her eyes then hurl a comment while cracking eggs.  Grandpa would step out of the bathroom, his shaving cream shoveled clean on one cheek, to lob back.  It was their Saturday morning recreation.  Sometimes, my parents and aunts offered quieting words, but mostly they waited for the match to end. 

That morning, my father ended it. 

My parents had arrived mid-argument.  Familiar with the scenario, they took their usual places; Mom opening the fridge, Dad at the broiler cart-- both trying to change the subject. 

Grandma chucked out her final jibe of the morning, “What do you know?  What did you ever give us?”  We barely listened.  Surely, it would end in a minute or two.  It always had before.  But this time, Grandpa stepped over the bathroom threshold, his left cheek still white with foam, lifted the platter off the broiler to brandish it like a weapon.  “You want this, Rose?  I’ll give you this!”

Before any of us could process what was unfolding, Dad took the platter from Grandpa and gently placed it back onto the broiler.  “That’s enough, Robbie.  That’s enough.”  My father’s words were barely audible, yet I still hear them as I write this. 

I don’t know if my dad’s six-foot frame and hearty youth scared Grandpa into submission or if my father calling him Robbie instead of Dad shook the old man.  But Grandpa receded back to the bathroom.  After a few minutes, he exited clean-shaven and joined us at the table as if the storm in the kitchen had simply blown by.

I had already thought my father was a giant among men.  The moment he took the platter and spoke softly as if taming a tiger just reinforced my convictions.

Perhaps, I hadn’t believed Grandpa would throw the dish or perhaps I was more enamored by my father’s strength than Grandpa’s weakness, but I didn’t fear Grandpa after that day.  I simply didn’t love him as I had before, even as he chalked up more endearing memories.

When I was a kindergartener, I wanted bangs just like Bonnie Bertoli wore.  I tiptoed upstairs, swiped Grandpa’s razor and shaved off the top locks of my auburn hair.  Grandpa found me mid-shave.  He placed his finger to his lips in a show of sympathetic conspiracy then tried to even out my chopped tresses.  He cleaned up the bathroom floor and sink then sent me downstairs with our secret.  That night as Mom washed my hair, she discovered my new haircut.  I didn’t rat out Grandpa.  The cleaned upstairs bathroom told the grown-ups all they needed to know.  Grandpa’s family standing was even improved as the upstairs and downstairs families got together for a good laugh over steaming cups of coffee and glazed walnut danish.

By the time I was nine, Aunt Evie had married Uncle Benson, I had a baby brother and my grandparents were divorced.  A year later, my family lived in an upstairs apartment just three blocks away on Osbourne Street.  I had seen my grandfather only once during our diaspora from Thatford Avenue when my Uncle Bert had fetched a gaggle of my cousins and me for a visit.

“Aren’t you going to say hello?”  My uncle asked as I stood before what should have been the family’s patriarch.  “Hello,” I answered quickly before running off to play Old Maid with my cousins.  It was the last time I saw Grandpa Robbie.   

During our two years as tenants on Osbourne street, my lone chore was bringing in the mail.  At 12, retrieving mail was like uncovering treasure.  Among the bills and ads were magazines, letters from Dad’s family in England and holiday cards.  I’d carefully tug them from the mailbox and check each piece before heading upstairs.

The post card looked ominous even before I knew the sender.  Unlike Florida vacation cards, this was plain with a thick pencil scrawl. “JEANNE, I HOPE YOU’RE HAPPY WITH YOUR NEW FATHER-HOPE HE’S STUFFING YOU WITH BAGELS!!** ARE YOU HAPPY NOW THAT YOU TURNED….”  The rest of the mail fell from my hands like dying birds.  I didn’t finish reading, but picked up the letters as my mom had sent me to do.  At the door, I put the card at the bottom of the pile with the childish logic that maybe she wouldn’t see it. It was 1958, I was a kid with no dominion over adults.  It would have been inconceivable to me to destroy it.

Looking back, I wonder why I didn’t privately show it to my dad.  I think I just wanted to be rid of it.  Although I’m sure my parents read it together while I slept that night and probably shared it with my aunts, I never heard about it.  Mom assumed I hadn’t looked through the mail.  I pretended she was right.

Forgiveness isn’t a word Atheists use.  I was raised to move on: Choke down a slight or cover it with a happy memory.  Bad recollections broke my heart, but the warmth of falling asleep on the shoulder of my grandfather and the sweetness of his tsar inspired breakfasts evened the score for me.  Perhaps, that’s what the Gospel was telling me all along.  “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” Hebrews 10:17


*Hell’s Kitchen in NYC circa 1900 was a dangerous slum with several gangs ruling the streets.

** My step-grandfather, Mo was a bagel baker.