Blessed is the Memory
By J.L. Wall
This much I know is true: it was the morning after the snow fell, that day when Chicago slept late and woke with uncertain pleasure to thoughts of coffee or tea or hot cocoa, gazing bleary-eyed at the still, white-coated streets; that day when cars were silhouettes of their old selves, like the plaster casts archaeologists took at Pompeii, and every so often you could see an owner digging and scraping with a shovel, though they mostly waited, spending the day at rest, giving way to the sudden onslaught of a forced sabbath. The residential streets were still two-feet-deep, and whatever portions of sidewalk and main roads were cleared — Broadway, I’m thinking of, and Addison and Irving Park Road — seemed mostly for the sake of emergency vehicles that periodically buzzed past, or parked themselves, waiting, in snow-blocked intersections. All the plows were on Lake Shore Drive, excavating CTA buses. Out there, near the lake, the snow was less like manna than arterial plaque finally come loose, lodged at the city’s heart.
And it was this day — because he told me so, and I believe him, regardless of all that happened after — that my father wandered out of his apartment and into the city and was awed by the fact that he had never seen it so still, and, rather than walk straight to shul to say kaddish for Bubbe, he meandered, because he’d left early, and he had time and no reason not to. He stood on the corner of Roscoe and Halsted (right in front of that club where, sometimes at around five or six in the evening, a man in a hot pink thong with well-toned muscles stands on a table in the window and rubs his crotch for all the world to see — just grinning into the traffic, so that you don’t know whether to scream and quicken your pace or to slow down, turn and press your hand against the glass). It was there that my father first caught sight of a shabby figure, standing on the corner and blocking the narrow trench dug out for foot traffic, rotating slowly right to left, left to right. A black man — leather creases in his face, a worn winter coat with stuffing that no longer puffed against the wind but hung, rather, in disconsolate lumps. In his right palm — and this was what he showed to the world as he rotated slowly in place; this was what caught my father’s attention that morning — lay a blue plastic Star of David, a broken piece of a cheap child’s necklace, with its beaded chain dangling earthward between his thumb and index finger. My father, Roger, saw this and stared, pausing momentarily in the middle of the intersection.
But here is where my knowledge ends and speculation begins, right at the point where it all began. Or maybe, like in Ovid’s creation story, where it all changed — just the changing of ever-changingness into form which can be witnessed — because perhaps beginnings and changes are only different words for the same thing. I do not, like Homer, have any Muse I can call upon, hoping for the inspiration of truth, her mouth against mine, to tell me the voyages of this much-suffering wanderer. I do not, like Moses on the mount, have opportunity to sit face-to-face with God Himself across a yeshiva table and pepper Him with questions about the infinite meanings of that first preposition as we sway like candles and seek to understand everything the words and shapes that form them have to tell. I have only my own raw speculation, a fiction that strives toward truth, even as I tell those things which I believe myself to have witnessed and acted in.
Roger stands briefly in the intersection which, this morning, is emptied of cars. When he moves again, the salt-heavy street slush left behind by the plows slides under the rubber of his boots, and its noise is half-solid, half-liquid. He walks up to the man, still on the streetward side of the snow barrier that reaches my father’s chest. It only rises to the waist of the man with the star in his palm, not because of his height — if anything, he’s no taller than my father, who is himself only a slim five-seven — but because he stands on at least a foot and a half of snow not yet dug off the sidewalk. Roger tries to say something but finds it difficult, so he settles for staring, mouth slightly agape, at the other’s face. There is nothing remarkable in it except its lines, its toughness, and, above all, the blackness that is both the first and last thing one notices. His eyes are half-closed and his head tilts upwards, just slightly, just enough that it’s clear he isn’t interested in seeing the world around him so much as being seen by it. The man keeps rotating in place, wholly unconcerned and uncaring at my father’s presence. There is a threadbare, knit winter cap tight against his ears. My father tries again to speak, and this time he succeeds and asks the man who he is, what he does, what he’s doing, but can’t force his lips to form the question he’s most concerned with: Why? When the man doesn’t answer, and he asks again and is again greeted with silence, Roger grows frustrated at this being which has fallen into his life along with the snow but which, unlike the snow, stands here signifying and refusing to explain what. At least, I imagine he thinks, the prophets of old had enough decency to condemn us with words.
“Here.” Roger fishes in his pocket and pulls out his billfold, a slip of wrinkled leather. He has three dollar bills in it and removes them all. The man with the star in his palm shakes his head, or maybe that was just a shiver at the wind. He makes no move to take the bills, but my father no longer wants them. He feels an urge rising in him to flee as quickly as he can, and he lets the bills fall toward the earth, drifting gently for several seconds before soaking up the melting snow beneath the man’s feet.
My father walks away. His pace is quick. Lines from a half-remembered poem erupt in his mind — how the mute accuser is the one God we might still believe in or deserve. He whispers them, trying to force the pentameter’s circling dance out of his soul. Then his eyes widen in horror: Who has he just seen? His gait grows as close to a trot as he is willing to risk on a snow-coated sidewalk in steel-toed boots. He has half a mind to turn and look, to see if the one with the star is still there, to see if he ever saw him in the first place. But he sees the glint of salt on the road and dares not.
The walk begins well before this, when he heads north from his home toward Wrigley Field, even though this will force him to take an indirect route to the shul by the lake where he will say kaddish for his mother, my bubbe, Raisel Weinstein née Perlowitz. And even though this will be the tenth time he has lit a candle and gone to synagogue three times in twenty-four hours to stand at the back of the room and recite the mourner’s prayer in slow, deliberate Aramaic, it remains a strange thought for him (and for me) that this must be done. Not as a practical matter — for of course it must be done when circumstances require it — but that circumstances could require it for his mother. I keep a picture of her above the desk in my apartment, a copy of the one that sat in my father’s office, and if you look closely, you can see the worn edges, and creases show up like shadows and strange lights across the details. She’s sitting at her own desk of stark, simple metal, sometime in the mid-fifties, still tilted forward but looking up now, only half-pleased, at whomever is holding the camera. There is a sheet jammed in the typewriter and a sheaf of notebook pages to her left. This was when she worked at one of those long-dead Yiddish papers, the name of which is lost even to me, the collector of family lore. One hand rests impatiently on the keys, ready to return to work. The other holds a cigarette midway between her face and the ashtray, already filled too high with stubbed-out butts. There’s smoke floating around her head. There have been times — some in the not-so-distant past — when I have lugged the broken typewriter I bought for eighteen dollars at the closing sale of a used book store out of the closet and onto my desk, set a stack of notebooks to one side and an ashtray on the other, propped a bathroom mirror against the wall and sat there smoking Parliaments for close to an hour, trying to look like her. It never works. I used to blame it on the brand I used, but there’s no carton or label in the picture. Then I blamed it on my hair, how even when I pull it back into a bun like hers, it never looks right in the mirror. She never, in my memories, wore it in a bun, and trying to do so now makes me feel that I am imitating a picture rather than a person. I suppose I am.
I would like to say that I have stopped this silly game, this trying to play grown-up, now that I am beyond my quarter-century mark. To say it, no matter my desire to, would be to lie. I catch myself, sometimes, lifting my eyes from the screen on my desk (or the book on my desk, the magazine on my desk, the food on my desk) and feeling that old longing, somewhere in the muscles of my upper arms. Sometimes I succumb and try to leave my body for another’s.
This is for whom my father heads north to say kaddish, even though he needs to head east, toward the lake and the shul that sits by it. He heads north because of the snowfall and the city’s silence, because he woke a short time earlier convinced, even before opening the window, that he had never seen Chicago, his home, like this before; that on such a day, he must see Wrigley Field transported, like the whole city, to this other world. He walks north for more than twenty minutes, longer today than it should be because he moves slowly. He’s skeptical of the side streets, the residential roads — too many sidewalks yet untouched — and he has no desire to plod, knee-deep or more, through them, to fall and risk death by snow shovel, lost until the city thaws in mid-May. If you’d been there to see it when he turned the corner eastward onto Addison and found Wrigley Field rising out of that soft white layer covering the whole earth — if you’d been there to see it in its original, pristine moment — then you would understand why he left early and walked slowly in the wrong direction.
He walks closer to the ballpark and pauses to stare up at the marquee, red flecked all in white. The bulbs still glow HOME OF THE CHICAGO CUBS, but it feels cold. He shivers as the wind blows and adjusts his scarf, pulling it up around his mouth to filter and warm the air. In a few minutes he’ll be able to see a thin grey frost forming from the moisture in his breath, and when he pulls the scarf down again to ease the humidity around his lips, his skin will tighten with the impact of fresh cold air on sweat and condensation. That first moment of childlike wonder melts away, and Roger is overcome by the sensation that this place, covered in snow, and the streets around it, dug out in trenches barely wide enough for a slow, single-file procession through them, will never see baseball again. It will never be warm enough for baseball again, the field will never thaw and the ivy never green and they will be frozen in this day, this season, for eternity. He stands, peering up at the marquee as the letters morph among advertised events, worrying that time itself has been frozen shut.
He has always been a sad man, my father, approaching his life with a deep, abiding resignation. In another age, he might have been found among Roman Stoics, Christians tossed to lions or buried in catacombs, with equal equanimity, or among those long-bearded men, his ancestors, who trudged through knee-deep snow to their thrice-daily prayers, in threadbare caftans not warm enough against the force of a Polish winter. But none of that is to be found in America. The marks of his suffering were too mundane, too inconvenient, merely, to bear the weight of witness.
For him, only an abiding sadness: an aging man whose parents had lived long enough to know his children, and a wife who left him because she could no longer bear his sadness as her own. Who was, she told him, “no Christ, and neither are you.” The great sacrifice of his life — other than the one-seventh of his days given over to the Lord and the bills for the educations of his two daughters — was the care of his senile grandfather in the year between my bubbe’s death and her father’s. Had I been older then, and known what I know now, I would have been able, as was my mother, to see this truth: my father was energized by such suffering and sacrifice as by nothing else in his life; he was vigorous only for those thirteen dreadful months that my sister and I spent hiding at the base of a stairwell the old man could not descend.
Grandfather Perle was trailed by the smell of sour pickles and diarrhea, he wiped himself on the curtains and let his bathrobe hang open, he scrawled Yiddish verse in shifting meters on his bedroom wall. We begged Roger to send him away, to bring someone in who could care for him and to breathe deeply the stench of his own, misplaced loyalties. We begged, and he refused; we pleaded, and he refused; we screamed, and he refused. He refused, and my mother broke down, and she unbuttoned her blouse and crawled into the bed of one of her colleagues, where she remains, as the Bible puts it, “to this very day.”
He refused and sparked the central crisis of his sacrifice and suffering: an angry word somewhere, spoken by someone, and his wife flinging glassware at the man she’d wed: his fist beating the dining room table, I in my bedroom, doing math homework over and over again, desperate for distraction — and the two deep bruises his thumbs left on each of her wrists, still visible at the funeral. When Grandfather Perle died, at long last, thinking I was his daughter and my father his son-in-law, nothing was left but the dull, throbbing toothache of a man who has lost his family.
Some, I suppose, feel they are called upon to endure, to receive the impressions of the world, secure in the knowledge that, at the still core of their sorrow, they may someday have opportunity to hear. Once, not so long ago, such men could thrive, could wander, and find, even in the most skeptical gaze, the hint of respect, the knowledge of a possibility. Today they are treated, sent away, given pills. But such denial of the supernatural has always been rooted in the dread of it.
My father finds himself on a Chicago street corner gazing at the weather-toughened hands that seem to contain some essence of the Divine. Called on at last by his God — I won’t deny him this — he did only as he felt he must.
And the walk continues well after this, too, after he strips off the leather thongs of his tefillin and rushes from shul, leaving his hat atop his prayer bag in the lobby. After he trudges knee-deep through the snow on Lake Shore Drive, crossing the street as briskly as the powder and slush allow, falling to his knees when he tries, on sixty-year-old limbs, to jump the barrier, humming a line from some Leonard Cohen song, or thinking of the flurries on the day of his own mother’s funeral. And maybe he hears his grandfather or his father, turning to him, calling, in Yiddish, “The weather! This weather!” These are the words he says when the three shouting CPD officers finally catch up and grab him a little too firmly. They walk him to the station and he calls, waking me, and starts to tell his story until I stop him, tell him, “I’m coming, I’ll be there, I’m on my way, don’t be scared,” in a perfect daughterly way, lighting a cigarette while waiting for the kettle’s morning screech, then another for good measure, Roger’s darling little June, dousing herself in perfume to cover an acrid cloud of smoke.
And it continues even after they released him, and I walked him home and sat with him for another cup of tea. He wanders out again, sometime that morning, past my building, stopping a moment in its lobby — just those three floors beneath me — when I should have been calling my mother. Not even leaving a note. Perhaps thinking, like Virginia Woolf told her husband, “But it is better this way: I alone.”
And again, over the barrier, balanced now, steady on his feet, maybe the vision of God still dazzling his eyes and melting a path before him. Or seeing his mother at the typewriter, the cigarette smoke streaming around her like a feathery Byzantine halo, or in the grave. He sees the rocks and lakeshore up ahead, feels the surface beneath him shift from pavement to frozen turf. Past the harbor and dog park, there’s his grandfather’s cane and mustache and pickled old man smell, smeared feces on the drapes. But the weather, the weather, nu! His empty funeral. My mother’s absence, the pit in their bed, a rodent’s hollowed den.
He reaches the edge, no rocks in his pockets, just the lake crashing before him, pitted with ice, crusting, the city invisible beyond the grey haze of a Chicago winter. As the cold rips into his flesh, he remembers a page of Talmud he had seen me open to, reading, as he brought the tea: snippets of an argument, of a veiled damning of their Lord, by two-hundred scholars, scarce miles from the birthplace of Christ, coming to this hybrid conclusion. Man having been created (though, Lord knows, He oughtn’t have done so), let him consider how to be — until, at last, he is not.