While Reading my Book of War


Seated on the tram, reading on a spring day
 at noon, I’m distracted by a pink robe passing close to me. My eyes lift to a young face, pale and wet with tears. No sounds, just a face folding beneath its weight of pain. The rest of the person is young, thin, female, quite tall. She’s partially covered by a pink polyfleece robe. Beneath the robe two pale legs stretch down to feet in thongs.

The girl looks about seventeen. Her features are Chinese. I check her for external signs of physical illness and detect none. She’s just a young girl silently weeping. Happily she’s not alone; standing close to her a taller girl clasps her gently. The second girl looks about the same age. She too is Chinese. The comforter’s free hand rests against the back of the  weeper’s head. She bends the head tenderly forward and rests it on her shoulder where it stays a good time.

The two stand, lightly enfolded, bracing against the far side of the tram. They ignore free seats close to them. The tram moves on, leaving behind them the beachside where they boarded. Were the two swimming? What grief or pain or random unkindness of life brought them from the beach?

Ten minutes pass. The weeping face lifts from time to time and faces the tram, unseeing. Tears trickle. No words pass between the girls. The two have not moved from their station at the opposite side. A fair youth seated legside looks up and stares briefly, perplexed. His mouth opens, falls shut. Respectful of private suffering, he turns away. I too feel prompted to help, but diffidence holds me back. What’s more the friend seems to be comfort enough.

Watching for my own stop, I look up at intervals from my book. A few stops out from my destination I look up and find the wall opposite empty. The girls have gone, pink robe, bare legs and tears, and all.

 

Zeide

Tonight* my wife will light a memorial candle for her father. Her sister Robyn will do the same. Tonight will mark the anniversary of his death, in both the Jewish calendar and the secular. The two dates coincide only once in nineteen years; this is the second time they’ve concurred; Zeide died thirty-five years ago.

My father-in-law wore any number of names. In Russian he was Grigori (he’d sign loveletters to his children with “Gregory”), his wife called him Harry, friends called him Hershel, my children called him Zeide, and he asked me to call him Dad. That wasn’t difficult: it wasn’t hard to love a man who never had a son and who treated his sons in law like his own.
Harry adored his grandchildren. He was a natural grandfather. He had a gift for it. He showed me how I might do it, when the time for it would come.
Harry Novic burned with love of family. He loved Italian food, Italian clothes, Latin music. Harry loved his friends and he loved his Chesterfield cigarettes. His tobacconist alone knew how many he smoked and he assured Harry, when importation was to be halted, ‘You’re a very special customer. I’ll make sure you have them.” He told his daughters, ‘If you ever smoke I’ll break every one of your fingers.”
One day Zeide confided to his sister, ‘I think I’ve got “that thing”‘. He used the yiddish to name the un-namable, a tribal practice, as if to name it might be to bring it on. The medical name of the un-namable was mesothelioma. In less than a year Zeide had died.
Months later Zeide missed his first grandchild’s Batmitzvah. He missed two more batmitzvahs and three barmitzvahs, as well his grandchildrens’ many weddings. He never saw a grandchild graduate, he never knew his fourteen great-grandchildren. He died and he never saw his generations bud and flower.
The family grows and grows. We miss him – as my son remarked today – at every celebration, at every milestone..
What would Zeide think, If he were to come back tonight, if he were to stand alongside the evergreen Helen who was his bride, who became his wife, whom he made his widow? What would he say, what amazement would be his!
I think what I learn is how grandchildren need their grandfather, how a grandfather might be missed, how his memory is  a candle that burns.
*written just over a week ago