Meet Your Grandparents
The poor thing stands there vainly,
Vainly he strains his voice.
Perhaps he’ll die. Then can you say
How beautiful is the world today?
…I never saw another butterfly…
Your first memory is upside down. The skyline hangs in the air like a mangled overbite. Spires drip downward toward the sky. Your back curves around the arm of the chair, and you slide, moving toward the floor, until you lose sight of the window, and bang your head against the firm carpet. You’ll learn later that this is called a concierge lounge, or a club floor. That hotels stock bibles and other books in their bedside tables. Some will charge you if you steal their robes, but the two in your closet managed to arrive unknown, uncharged. A rollaway bed sometimes costs extra, but happens to be less comfortable than sharing a bed with your younger brother, even though he kicks at night. When you’re on a beach vacation, the sand finds its way to the bottom of the covers. A smoking room will smell. And never sleep by the window; Dad thinks you’ll roll off and fall out, or something like that.
Grandpa Charles stands over you now. You look at the bottom of his chin, curving outward from his shirt. He has a box in his hand, it’s a present. A carton of blueberries. Each pops in your mouth, those explosions that taste blue. You sit upright to finish the entire carton. You’ll learn later that sometimes you overeat, that repeated taste isn’t necessarily worth curling against an inflated and enflamed stomach, and enjoying need not entail engorging.
This is your happiest memory. It’s not actually your first, though. That one is the dream where you live on a small moon, like Le Petit Prince, walking about with other denim-covered children. Suddenly, you slip, and start to fall, screaming as the moon sinks into space, your back buffeting the air until you land, in your own bed, and wake up.
That one is okay. It sounds more poetic to start the story with blueberries, upside down.
The pedophile lives one or two blocks away, you’re uncertain. Your trailer is on Whitewing Way, and from above you can’t see the debris in every yard, or the chain link fences that refuse to rust. When you run, in the late afternoon, a mother and daughter or a man and his dog are out. For a few days they’ll stare, then they’ll stop you, and let you know that no one runs in this part of Arizona.
The man knew your grandparents, Don and Jean, although he could just be reading the crooked sign on the front of the trailer, underneath the dangling light bulb whose disarray looks like a purposely derelict piece of contemporary art. He says they were the talk of the town, a fine duo. He needs dental work, you think. The next day, you see him unexpectedly on the edge of the alfalfa field, teaching a woman how to fly a model airplane.
Your father drove up for the weekend, to drop you off, in his own car. You caravanned. He says his father would leave before dawn, but you don’t hit the road till after lunchtime. It’s five hours from Los Angeles, six if you include the fact it’s an hour ahead. Arizona doesn’t use Daylight Savings Time, and you can only imagine what New Years is like here, celebrations on the other side of the Colorado River one hour, then rafts of people wading over to celebrate again, in Mountain Time.
This is where he shot his first rabbit. He was in the backseat when he saw it moving in the field and said Mom, pull over. This is the marsh where locals go duck hunting. This is how you skip a stone. You know how to skip a stone, but let him explain.
Your grandparents didn’t have the issue of iPhones switching between time zones every few blocks when they arrived in Arizona. They bought this place as a vacation home, and added a few more trailers over the years. You imagine them as trailer park slum lords, renting out 4x4’s around the central property, which includes two trailers, a shed, and a garage. The phone line does not work during your two weeks alone at the Colorado River. You sleep in the front bedroom, walls so thin you expect a coyote to approach and tear through the façade. The house behind yours is made entirely of cinderblocks. There’s a faded porcelain toilet upside down in the back yard. At night, without street lights, the only sign of life nearby appears down the block, where you’re uncertain if someone is living, or if an out of towner has just mistakenly left their lights on. Far away, the lights from the casinos rise into the sky, like columnar pillars of smoke.
The phone line is dead. Your dad calls the phone company, but when your uncle arrives next weekend, he says let’s fix it. He leads you into the workshop, behind two padlocks and by the yellow speedboat your grandfather bought that just smells 70s. Your grandfather was a mechanic, by trade, and a school administrator, by profession, so the shop reflects organization and craftsmanship. All supplies are stocked and in place.
To fix a phone line, first clean the two small bolts connected to the company line, then scrub the tips of your wires for corrosion. The steel wool won’t prick your skin, but the pads of your fingers will turn red before the bolts are clean. You try the line again and still nothing. Must be the wire, he says. He pulls at one, it holds, he pulls at the other and it crumbles. Your aunt is in the front yard, smoking. You pass her every time you check the line, running between the receiver inside, still dead, and Uncle hammering at the cement foundation to unearth the wire. You suggest, maybe, crawling under the house, cutting the wire loose from the cement, and using the slack to pull it out and splice it out here. Uncle looks at what he’s started, says sure, let’s do it. It works. The dial tone returns, and you call your dad to gloat. He doesn’t answer, so you text him a selfie. Your uncle reminds you that even though you haven’t been here since you were five, that your mother doesn’t care for it, this belongs to you, it’s what dad would have wanted, he says to your father when the whole family is up next weekend. You take a photograph of the family over bacon and eggs for grandma. She loves to read, and you pick up an old book from the coffee table, an insider’s history of the FBI. You skim, until noticing the cockroach relaxing in the stiff, mottled carpet. You throw the book at the bug, leap up, stomp on it, until it’s crushed, then clean the book and bug and carpet. You decide maybe you’ll read something else tonight.
Your mother doesn’t like the River. You think it’s because she’s from New York, proper, European, as Dad says, and isn’t the kind who enjoys roughing it but instead refused the desert tortoise your grandma gave you and returned the parakeets after three days. You learn, later, that she fell ill here, twice. You sit in the bathroom, feeling guilty for your own health, when twenty-two years ago you imagine her, in this same spot, the yellow toilet with the plush seat, curled around herself. You normally enjoy shitting and such, but you’re an efficient bathroom user at the River.
Many houses have thirty-feet tall cacti in their front yards, dug up in the desert, years ago, replanted, and let to tower over the property. You see one Confederate flag, at the house with the aviary. The River water is cool year-round, because when it sits in one of the dams, the heat rises and the cool water sinks, until it hits the bottom and slips out a slot at 55 °F. The accountant for the community club has been indicted for embezzlement. You’re sure the white, clean Honda down the street was bought with meth money. You try to write every day, but can’t make anything stay. Your rental car will start to smell like you. Your girlfriend is on the other side of the world, but it’s going to end soon, you’re both thinking it, just let it coalesce. You’ll both be fine.
On the last day you fill the car with full trash bags, and dump them at the Safeway. Up the road, you ate the best enchilada you’ve ever had. Farther, at the casino, the prime rib was cold, and the blackjack players groaned after you hit when you should have stayed. Every time you cashed out, your mom bought you more chips from across the table. Your grandfather didn’t gamble, and spent most of his time in casinos ratting out your then-sixteen-year-old dad, who hid under a ten-galloon hat and a pubic-inspired stache, leaning against the table, saying hit me.
You make your last plate of bacon and eggs. Someone knocks on your door. You don’t know who I am, do you?You don’t, but you shake his moist hand, watch the stiff gaps in his coifed hair, and you know it’s him. I live just one block away. Your grandmother and grandfather were like family to me. You nod, smile politely, that’s how you respond. But you keep the screen door in your hand.
Dad reminds you he won’t do anything to you. You’re a man, and he’s not.
This will take around two hours, and your train leaves for Brussels in three. You’ve always imagined your mother’s parents ice skating here, on the river that runs through Antwerp, the Scheldt, a bruiser slapping a puck, and a young girl just enjoying her skates. Later, you’ll read a TS Eliot poem where “The Jew squats on the window sill, the owner/spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,” which reminds you of the 8th grade thought exercise, you can say something positive about anyone, your teacher said, even Hitler, and you immediately raised your hand to say he was a good strategist, or something like that, only six months after you became the first person in your family since before the War, seventy-five years it had been, to be Bar Mitzvahed. The rabbi announced that from now on, Sammy would be Sam.
Your aunt sent your mom a list of the places to visit, the Catholic primary school, the house where your grandmother was born. You plug them into Google Maps, and drag them around to create a loop. You print out a copy, and text it to yourself, and save an image, so you won’t lose it.
You lead your mom, dad, and brother on a tour. The diamond district has become Orthodox, with small boys riding on scooters and BMX bikes, underneath keepot, with curling peyot, those sideburns. Peyot comes from the Hebrew word for corner, side, edge, but Yemenite Jews call them simonem, literal “signs” of Jewishness. You think of your obfuscating name, which means “god favoring” in another tradition, but it’s the same god, so who cares, except the churchgoers who told your mother she was going to hell and forced your father to choose between them and their house of god and your mom. They had a civil wedding, married by a judge. You want your mom, a judge herself now, to perform the ceremony at yours.
A man waiting at a crosswalk opens his flip phone, and you lose sight of it in the peyot. Microsoft Word autocorrects this to peyote, don’t be confused or alarmed. Green light, green light, cross the street. The house where your grandmother lived is covered in grey siding and graffiti. ALORS, FOR, SAME. You laugh at the small boys walking in front of BOYS! Around the corner a class gets out, and the students mull around as you pass through saying this way, grandma’s school, right there. Your brother poses with his tongue out. Some signs are written in Hebrew. Bagel Bar, the Place for Bagels. The street curves, and your mother asks to pose in front of her mother’s birthplace. A woman walks by, and your mother asks her, in halting French, if she knew the family who lived there. She does not. You continue walking, and end up at the Cathedral for sunset. You’ll later learn the feeling of ascent implicit in sublime experiences, the stretch as you curve your neck upward. It’s dark, and cold and snowing. Again, you see your grandmother and grandfather, ice skating kids, unconscious of the displacement in their near future, of the places they’ll go to escape, to Nice and Cuba and camps.
This is another lie, though. They probably did not ice skate together, him several years older, more likely testing the Scheldt while she toddled about at home. You have the sense that even as children they knew they would be going, not necessarily knowing where to, but that they had to leave, sometime soon, that the smoke was rising across the border, sifting through the air, making it harder to breath. You don’t know what else to do today. You continue taking photographs, trying to remember.
You don’t drink coffee but you have to try this Turkish coffee. It tastes like mud, and you can’t finish it. You’re introducing your girlfriend to your grandmother and aunt, and have driven an hour from Westchester into New Jersey. It’s part of a grandparent tour, your suggestion. Lunch with yours, then swing up to hers in Ossining. You’re both Jewish, something you rarely encountered in your blonde suburb. Her grandparents are having guests, you know ahead of time, her mother tells you with that grin, but you don’t know until you arrive that it’s the reunion of the 1950-something Columbia Lions baseball team, the men outside sipping on drinks and their wives all indoors, seated, fanning, meeting your girlfriend and you, her friend, the polite boy.
A man walks in with a cake. You ask her grandmother if he’s a baker. He’s not a baker, she says, he’s a widower. You laugh. It’s not funny, she says, it’s just the truth, so you blush. Before you leave, you shake many hands, and everyone rises to meet you. Your aunt drove your grandmother home from the restaurant. You should call her more. You leave with your girlfriend, and can’t stop laughing.
The letter is in the book of poems. …I never saw another butterfly… Your family has two copies, so you don’t know which this is, the one you found underneath the Disney VHSs. It has nothing inside, so you yell for Dad to come find the right one. The book is a collection of poems and drawings made by children at the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. Your family was there. An artist, Bauhaus-trained, taught art classes to children in secret, allocating all available supplies to her students, saving none for herself. Much of the work in the book is anonymous. A few poems list your mother’s maiden name as the author. The Theresienstadt Concentration Camp served a unique function, in that it was used to show off Germany’s “model treatment” of the Jews to the West. If a unthinking person were to stop by for a quick visit, fifteen-to-thirty minutes, leaving their eyes shut the entire time, they would hear the mumbling leaders of the town, the local theatre’s applause, the society mulling about the smoky air of this glorified pit stop for Auschwitz.
You mom’s cousin urged his mother to write the letter before she died. You find the book on a low shelf, underneath the Battleship box. The letter is six pages, cursive. At the suggestion of my children, I shall try to recollect and put down on paper my experiences during the Holocaust years.
They were packed to leave for a weekend at the beach when it started, the bombs that sounded like firecrackers. For six days they hid in the cellar, until their father returned with their diamonds. There’re diamonds in your blood, dealing, cutting, it’s what you would have been allowed to do seventy-five, three-hundred years ago. Your great-grandfather begged a cobbler to bore a hole in the heel of his shoes, bury the diamonds inside, and cover it with a piece of leather. He walked on those diamonds until the end of the war.
They escaped into France, resting in a town called Royan, for a moment, until their foreign license plate gave them away, and the French police arrested your grandfather and his father. They were taken to a detention camp. Your great-aunt and great-grandmother left the rest of their family in Royan, and spent the next morning on a bus, to plead their case to the camp commander. He told your great-aunt and her mother that your grandfather and his father were arrested for being Germans. They are not German, but Jewish. Your country is being invaded by Germans, therefore you are considered Germans. Commander, I can hear the German boots coming this direction, if they will invade these parts, will you become German? Enraged, he threw your great-aunt and her mother out of the camp. They spent the rest of the afternoon on the bus returning to Royan, where the found their other family members gone, back to Antwerp to see what they could salvage of their belongings. The note said they would bring them back soon, but they were never seen again.
Two weeks later, your grandfather and his father appeared to your great-aunt and her mother, covered in beards. The Germans had invaded France, and the camp guards fled their posts, running, unlocking all the prisoners. Your great-grandfather had the idea to flee South, to Nice, for one year. The letter fills the year with attempts to get into Shanghai, Cuba, Brazil, Spain, and finally succeeds with America, but only after your great-grandfather bribes a Protestant priest to list them as parishioners, since the Vichy government would not let Jews out of the country. For the brief moment from Nice to Lisbon, your grandfather was Protestant, but twelve days later, he arrived in America, still a Jew. Here, he will live, marry, divorce, and remarry, to the woman he knew as a child, the ice-skating girl who fled over the Pyrenees and stayed in Cuba during the war. She tanned, moved to New York, married, divorced, then married your grandfather. In 1986, your family will learn the relatives who returned to Belgium were captured, sent to Auschwitz, and exterminated.
Even if this chapter in our lives was a very difficult and seemingly endless and hopeless one, we had to thank the Lord for sparing us from the fate of many other people who perished in the Holocaust under horrible circumstances and this chapter in my life has helped and convinced me to never lose my faith and forever by grateful.
You ask your mother about Nice. Sounds nice. Sunny, warm, South, a paradoxical place to hide. She says your grandfather played with le Hot Club de France, a French jazz group, while in hiding. You pull up their work on Youtube. The rough vinyl whirls, twangy guitar jumping around a quick beat. Onstage, you see him. He sits at the piano, tapping his foot, laying down the chords, in public, playing while his life is hiding. You’ve always heard, how do you make art after the Holocaust, but now you see the art made during it, and for all the sadness it contains, again, you feel that feeling in your neck, the muscles pulling as you crane up at something.
Even though you know it’s probably not true, you imagine your grandfather wearing your great-grandfather’s shoes while he performed. Diamonds hidden in his heels, fingers zipping over keys, he drags music into a world desperately in need of joy.