Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Remembrance

I must have been around ten when my grandpa made the offer. Not remembering my age at the time it happened is only the smallest thing I wish I knew about him but was too self-involved to have asked when I had the chance. Like how, exactly, he made it to the U.S. from Poland while still a teenager, leaving his village in the night, alone, after the chief of police had warned his father, the rabbi, that he had orders to arrest my grandpa next morning. Grandpa had, the story goes, wafted in the anti-Tsarist winds of change while attending agricultural school in Moscow, returning to the shtetl full of enthusiasm for bringing power to the people.
Or something. The story was oft told but, as I’ve learned many times since, memory can bear little resemblance to reality. It’s true, though, that somehow Grandpa found a way from there to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, thence to the farm of a US Senator Flynn of Pennsylvania, and some time later to the wilds of California, by train, having read an advertisement offering work to ranch hands. The place, it turns out, was the ranch of the writer Jack London. Eventually he became livestock foreman, kept an eye on his wife Charmaine for him while the writer was drinking his way through Alaska, and rode the range with him, shooting coyotes to protect the sheep. Taking it from a drawer in his bedroom, Grandpa would open a shape-fitting leather case to show me the five-shot revolver London gave him; I recall fondling it with reverence, spinning the barrel, noting, as was the case with everything my grandpa owned, that it was immaculately kept, oiled, pristine.
Growing up, our home was only a few blocks away from my grandparents’ and my brother and I would ride our bikes there frequently, always encouraged by Gammy to have something to eat; a sandwich of homemade bread, slathered with homemade mayonnaise which I thought only came in jars. Grandpa would visit our house regularly, too, always heading first to our garage to oil my brother’s and my bikes, and the doors of dad’s car.
Mom said that grandpa rode a horse like he was part of it. He’d sit a quarter on his saddle and gallop off, returning with the coin still there. His bearing, his dress were always immaculate, even after his stroke. He walked erect, almost never without a coat and tie and always, when outside, a hat.
The offer he made that day, sitting in the breakfast nook between the kitchen and the dining room which I mostly remember for the Seders we had in there, using his highly edited and annotated Haggadahs, involved a piece of paper he handed me, promising a dollar if I memorized what was written and repeated it back to him without looking.
A dollar was big money for a kid back then. Several comic books with coins enough left over for a couple of Mountain Bars. So I took the challenge. Another mystery among those that’ll never be answered is who wrote the extended aphorism he handed me. I’m pretty certain it was he, though. His English was precise, with a barely perceptible Russian accent and conscientiously flowery. He’d forgotten all of his Russian except songs, which, along with favorite American ones, he’d sing for every occasion. It was the throaty and luscious Slavic sounds that led me to learn the language myself a few years later. I could sing you the songs, every one of them, if you asked.
So I memorized and recited it back to him. I assume he gave me the dollar. Who knows? It might have been more. And if there’s so much I’ve forgotten, and much more that I never knew and never will, I still remember, like a mantra and a weedy pathway back to Grandpa, more than half a century later, and only saying it to him once:
Whatever we dwell upon most, mentally, we bring ourselves in closest contact with. That is why it so often occurs that we get most of what we most dislike, because our aversions and fears occupy so much of our secret meditations, even when we keep them out of our general conversations. Concentration upon that which we most desire is the surest way to bring it to us; but there must be no excitement or agitation in connection with our anticipation.
Fewer words were never spoken. But that was Grandpa.

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