By Geanie Grenshaw
Now, so long after that cold dark February afternoon, I feel the trembling of her hands in my own as I take an envelope, emblazoned with a foreign postage stamp, from my mailbox. Inside is a letter I could never have expected. Suddenly, fifty years slip away, and I am a little girl again.
Zaydie's butcher shop smelled of sawdust and raw meat mingled with the stench of plucked chicken feathers. As I stood at the meat counter, the odor traveled up my nose, into the back of my throat. I would try my best not to gag right there in the middle of all those Orthodox ladies who were more interested, it appeared, in poking and sniffing between the legs of their chosen fowl than they were in seeing some kid puking all over their sacred soil. Watching all their jubilant examining and inhaling, I began thinking about creating a perfume for those devout doyennes (what else was I going to do while I stood there waiting)? Now, let’s see, what should I call this perfume? Bloody Dust.
Dead center, amidst all that purple piety, could my irreverent sarcasm be a reflection (already—at so young an age) of my questioning of the Almighty?
“Weird,” the kids in school said. Pointing and whispering was as automatic as pledging allegiance in assembly.
Live chickens squawked in a coop at the back of the store; caged captives refusing to be silenced. Along the side wall, dead ones hung on racks by their feet like tortured prisoners—Dead Dust (I believe this is when I began the habit of talking to myself). How about Footsie Dust?
“Redt tsu mir yiddish, kindeleh.” A woman with a wool babushka tied under her chin put her arm around my shoulders. “Vu iz dayn muter?” Her accented, crotchety voice made me think of a machashaifeh (some witchy character in one of my story books).
“Bistu gantz aleyn? Ken ikh helfn dir?”
“Thanks. I’m okay. My grandpa looks after me.”
The woman glanced around, searching for something. She seemed bewildered, like some small, baffled child lost in limbo. I looked right at her and smiled my widest smile thinking that might make her feel better. Her face was like a round, sweet, rosy apple, innocent as Eve's. I wanted to tell her she would look so much prettier without that shmata wrapped around her head but, even at the tender age of eight, I knew that would not go over well. Just then, Grandpa spoke up from behind the counter.
“Nu, Mrs. Cohen, what can I get for you today? And say hello to my granddaughter, Rucheleh.”
“Oh, so you are Rucheleh!”
“Or Rookie—some people call me Rookie.”
“Nu, Mrs. Cohen? How about a nice pullet, today?”
“A nice pullet, yes—but I’m also thinking, taka, maybe some of that ground round.”
“One nice pullet, one pound ground round—and isn’t today your sixth visit? One pound ground round on the house—store policy—every sixth visit, one pound hamburger free!”
I stood up on tiptoes in order to see Zaydie put cubes of steak into the mouth of a meat grinder; a few whirring sounds, and red spaghetti-like strands came out the bottom. Grinder Dust or maybe Gut Dust—I was mumbling to myself again.
“One pound for Mrs. Cohen, and now one pound for my Rucheleh.”
Zaydie caught all the chopped meat in one hand and slapped it down on a piece of white butcher’s paper. He folded the paper around the ground beef, sealed it with tape, and then wiped his hands on his blood-stained apron—Dust Stain, or maybe just Stain or just Dust, or how about just plain Sawdust? It was sawdust, after all, that was catching all those odors and swirling them around in the air every time anyone moved about in what I now fondly remember as that kashrut carnival.
Zaydie was my Mama's father. He called my mother, his first-born daughter, Ettala, and he called me Rucheleh. He was a butcher, a wonderful grandfather, a hard worker, a caretaker, and a savior.
Mama seemed chained to her bed that whole year, trapped in a nightmare. Zaydie did everything, and he made me his helper. He gave instructions patiently like the schoolteacher kids always wish for. He made me feel like I could keep everything afloat. I learned how to make patties out of hamburger meat, cook the patties on the griddle pan, toast the rolls, and toss a great green salad. I also learned to bake yams that would fill the apartment with an aroma that was really worthy of bottling, and sweet enough to draw Mama out of her bedroom and into the kitchen for a meal.
I dreamed of the kitchen the way Mama once made it—scented with simmering pot roast. “When she is better we will get the recipe,” Grandpa said. “We will cook it, you and me. And when the aroma of onions and brisket fills the air we will be back home. Nu! My kindeleh, that is how it will seem.”
The package of ground meat went into a brown paper sack that I toted, along with my book bag. Zaydie always gave me a penny and told me to get a treat. When he bent down to hand me the coin, he kissed the top of my head right where mother had parted my hair that morning. She combed my hair, and she picked out my clothes. She reminded me of rules like “Cross at the corner,” or “Wait for the green,” but she never answered my questions. In fact she did little more than shrug and say, “Have a good day at school.”
When Zaydie placed the coin in my palm I could smell the stain of dead meat and chicken feathers that clung to him like a yellow badge. The odor floated around him like low-lying clouds—like Meat Dust, or why not Feather Dust, or maybe Death Dust? Anyway, I didn't spend too much time thinking about perfume, or names of perfumes, on my walk home. I was too busy wondering why Zaydie was here, and why I was here, and why mother was here—but where were Papa and Goldie? I had memories, but answers were locked away like secret codes.
Outside the door of the butcher shop, a trolley car clanged down the street chugging its way toward the high school where it picked up lingering teenagers. In front of the school, girls made cracking and popping sounds with wads of bubble gum as they sucked back pink bubbles they had blown as big as Spaulding balls. Goldie must be a teenager, I would think. Why isn't she here? I walked as near to those girls as I could get, hoping I didn't look like some nerdy pest. I'd edge close enough to them to get a whiff of the sweet scent of Bazooka mixed with Tangee Orange lipstick wafting out of their painted mouths. Sometimes, even now, some fifty years later, I can walk into my daughter’s bedroom, get a whiff of bubble gum or some fruity lip stain and be transported back to that schoolyard thinking about Goldie.
I walked past the corner delicatessen, where pickles in wooden barrels filled the air with the pungency of garlic. Then I passed Rocco’s Produce where pale, smooth honeydew melons huddled in baskets ripening in the sun. At a glance two of them might have been the breasts of Mrs. Bernbach, my second-grade teacher. Bernie, as she was known, was always spilling out of her push-up bra, and that push-up bra fascinated the girls in room 204. At recess, they would gather in a circle, in the girls' bathroom, giggling about Bernie's decolletage. “Deco-necklasse,” Judy Klein (the maven) coached them mispronouncing the word. I stood at a distance listening to their chatter about Bernie, and breasts, and “deco-necklasse,” longing to be one of them.
At Frieda’s candy store I bought a long, salted pretzel from a glass container with a shiny silver cover and a silver ball at the top. When you pulled the cover up, the pretzels popped up out of the jar. I put my books and the package of meat on an empty stool and climbed up on another one to try to reach the pretzel container. I had seen the high school girls come into the store many times, and they would put their pennies on the counter, reach up to the glass container and take out a pretzel. I wanted to do the same thing. The stool swiveled as I got up on my knees to try and reach the salty treat. It caught me by surprise, and I teetered like a wobbly gymnast on a balance beam. I quivered there for a moment before noticing Tommy De Maio, two years ahead of me at school and cute in a way that ten-year-old boys can sometimes seem to second grade girls. Tommy was standing there talking with some friends. He put out his hand and caught mine in his, restoring my equilibrium.
“Hey, be careful! You almost fell,” he said. Then he handed me a pretzel.
I jumped down from the stool and reached for my books and the package. Blood had seeped out of the meat sack, spotting the pale blue plastic covering of the stool. Frieda handed me a wet rag and told me to clean it up. I felt my face reddening, and I was jittery having to do that in front of Tommy and his friends, but I swept the water-laden cloth across the seat. It was dripping and felt soggy and smelled of sitting in the sink all day. I was careful, handing it back to Frieda, trying not to drip any of it on Tommy. Then I turned to him and said, “Bye, and thanks.”
“Hey, you have great blue eyes!” he said. No one had ever before said there was anything great about me, and I would never forget it.
The Castle, perched on a hill on Featherbed Lane, was built around a central courtyard that led to different subdivisions of the building. Its gabled, Gothic architecture, as well as its size, is what gave it its nickname. In spring and summer, mothers gathered in its gardens, surrounded by flowering cherry blossoms and the scent of oleander, while their children skipped rope or played hopscotch on the brick and stone pathways. If you played jacks there, the rough ground would bruise the tips of your fingers. Esther Moskovitz and her sister Gertie were the best at everything: jacks, jump-rope and hopscotch. They were the champs. Gertie was always bossing Esther around. Anytime Esther didn't perform exactly as Gertie would have liked, Gertie would scream, “You have to practice to be perfect!” and I would cringe.
Walking the steep stone staircase that led to the garden, I could hear the clear coloratura of the diva ringing out through the courtyard. One day it might be scales, on another you might be treated to Mozart, Gershwin or Puccini. My favorite was “O Mio Bambino Caro.” How long had it been since I last heard that recording on Papa’s gramophone?
The pungency of ammonia, that the superintendent swabbed daily across the terrazzo flooring, mixed with the scents of braising meats emanating from various apartments in the hallway. The smell left me with a longing for a past that was beginning to fade. The flashing lit-up numbers on the rickety elevator, as it inched its way down—changing from twelve to eleven, eleven to ten and so on—accomplished a kind of hypnosis, like the swaying of a magician's iridescent ball, taking me back to another time, another elevator. As this one clattered and clanked to the lobby, the reverberating iron gate rattled me out of my reverie. The door opened, and I stepped inside.
Before I reached my floor I could hear the soprano again, climbing the scale to high C. When I entered our apartment it wasn't the picture or place I was longing for. Why was Mama standing there pressing men’s shirts? Mama put her finger to her lips to remind me to be quiet. The boarders, Millie and her husband, worked nights and slept days. As I walked into the kitchen, the steam, the starch and the hissing sound of the hot iron against moist cotton shirts welcomed me home.
I was not yet seven when I left Germany with Mama and Zaydie. Papa and Goldie were to follow. Goldie was almost thirteen when we left. She was practicing the piano for her recital. Mama did not want to miss seeing her daughter when she played in the concert, but having papers, we had to go.
“We will hear her in many concerts in our new homeland,” Mama told me.
“Mit ’Gott’s hilf,” Zaydie said, as he bent down and kissed Goldie on the top of the head. Then the piano playing stopped, and my sister was hugging me.
Every time Grandpa kissed the top of my head, I felt Goldie’s hug, and I wondered what she was doing at just that moment and when she would finally get here. Grandpa is here, we are here: where is father, and where is Goldie? Then I came through the door of our apartment one cold dark February afternoon, and saw Mama with the letter in her hand. The letter was from my aunt, Tanta Nessie, my mother’s sister. She had finally obtained a visa. She was leaving Germany. And then something I did not understand—Die Weisse Rose was written in Tanta’s distinctive hand. I didn’t understand that—something about pamphlets or leaflets entitled, The Manifesto of the Students of Munich.
Arrested by the Gestapo, Nessie wrote, executed by decapitation.
In the weeks that followed Mama became less and less communicative. She would no longer be at her ironing board when I arrived home, take the package I carried and begin to prepare dinner. No longer even a word or two to ask how school was that day. The door to Mama’s bedroom was closed, and if I peeked in, Mama would be lying there wrapped in her covers like a mummy, a cloth across her forehead, her eyes tightly shut.
It is easy to make hamburgers out of chopped meat, Zaydie told me. He showed me how to prepare the patties, and how to season them with salt and pepper.
When Tanta Nessie and her family arrived in New York some weeks later, she told
Mama that she was sorry she had put such news in a letter. “I wanted to be here with you. I had the visa in my hand, and I was finally coming. To have to hear this, to know this—and in a letter! I wanted to be here with you, but what if I never got here?”
I spent more and more time at Tanta Nessie’s, where there was music, and there were cousins and laughter. Some days I would say I’d be at Nessie’s after school, and instead I wandered down to the park on Sedgwick Avenue and daydreamed on the swings. Other times I would stop off at the Jewish Community Center on University Avenue and listen to records with friends or play checkers and parcheesi.
Years later, when they were giving out free samples of Dolly Madison ice cream at Freida’s candy store, I met Tommy De Maio again. I was standing outside sampling butter pecan and talking with my girlfriends, all of us huddled together in a circle. At thirteen we were always in a group. Tommy spotted me though. “Can I get you a pretzel to go with that ice cream?” he asked.
And then, one day, when I got off the elevator on the second floor at the JCC, I saw Rabbi Lenoff talking to Tommy. After that Tommy showed up often at the JCC. He quickly became known as the knock-hockey champ and, like some Olympian gold medalist, he was greeted with lines of challengers all waiting their turn around the table. I got on the line once and the challenge was on. It didn’t take more than a few seconds for the flying puck to slam into my hand. Tommy reached into his pocket, took out a pure-white, folded handkerchief and wrapped up my bloodied finger. He led me to the water fountain in the hallway, unwrapped the stained handkerchief and guided my hand under the cold water. A scarlet whirlpool of red-tinged liquid swirled into the drain. Tommy told me to go into the girl’s lavatory and wash my hands with soap and warm water. “Do it gently,” he said. “And there are band-aids on the top shelf of the game closet.”
As I squirted the liquid soap into my hands, I looked into the mirror. The face was not mine; it was Goldie's. In that reflection we were back home, sitting at the Baby Grand Piano in the living room. I was trying to play the scales as smoothly as possible. I tried again. “I keep telling you,” Goldie said, “you have to practice, or you will never be perfect.” In a rage, I slammed the keyboard cover down, breaking Goldie’s finger.
When I came back into the game room, someone had put a record on the phonograph. As Patti Page sang about dancing with her darling to “The Tennessee Waltz,” Tommy took my hands in his. He was careful not to press his fingers into my bandaged one and, like Fred Astaire in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, he waltzed me around the floor as if I were Ginger Rogers. “The beautiful Tennessee Waltz,” he whispered into my ear.
On the first warm day in April, when Tommy and I were walking home from high school, we made a secret plan to meet later that night. “At the swings in the park,” Tommy said. “It’ll be fun.” Sedgwick Park became our favorite meeting place.
I got there first. I sat on a bench waiting and remembering, still feeling the stinging guilt for an accident that should never have happened. “She will be all right,” the doctor said as he’d bandaged Goldie’s finger. “It is a clean break; it will heal perfectly.”
“Oh, thank God,” mother said. “What about the concert?”
“There will be other concerts.”
I was swaying on a swing waiting for Tommy to arrive. The jet-black sky with twinkling
stars and a golden moon looked the same as that night. “Hi, Mister Moon,” I said. “Are you my moon from long ago? Do you remember me? I remember you.” I remembered the night—with the bright full moon in a pitch-black sky. I remembered Papa and Mama in an embrace, looking like they would never let go of each other. “A bi gezunt,” Papa said. When he let go of Mama he held me so tight. “Gutte neshoma, kindeleh,” were his last words to me.
We walked out into that dark night. Zaydie said, “Look, Ruchelehi, see up there? Do not be afraid. He is looking over us. Everything will be all right.” I remember that night—the night the three of us made our way out of an apartment we would never see again and left behind the two people we would long for forever.
I was beginning to hate that castle on the hill. I dreaded the trek up the stone stairway to
the garden, and I shivered when I heard the coloratura’s trills. It seemed even the spark of
imagination that once ignited my daydreams had been snuffed out by an invading gloom. I couldn't wait for the nights when I would sneak out to the park to meet Tommy. Every time I looked up at the nighttime sky and saw that moon, I wanted to shout: How dare you shine so brightly! How dare you shine a light on me, on us! How dare you not care. How dare you be there, and here, and do nothing!
On a cold, grey evening when I had finished washing the dinner dishes, and Zaydie had dried and put them away, I started to drag myself to my back bedroom to sulk until I could fall into an exhausted stupor. Grandpa said, “Rucheleh, one minute; I have something for you.” He produced a kit from a shopping bag that had been sitting on a kitchen chair. He opened the box and took out the contents: slabs of wax, some clear, some colored, and small containers filled with liquids of different hues, as well as tiny vials of aromatics. Together they would become scented candles: vanilla, rose petal, jasmine, and my favorite, sweet magnolia dust. Did he know, I often wonder, that he was introducing me to a craft that would stay with me through my teen years, and then start me on a lifelong vocation that would eventually become a career?
It took more than a year before Mama began to act, just a little, like the mother I remembered from before. I sat at the kitchen table one afternoon, busying myself with my new hobby. I was mixing pink colors and rose petal aromatics into wax and pouring the liquid around a wick. I felt her at my shoulder, and as I turned around she said, “Very pretty candle. It smells like a flower.”
Perhaps the darkest of times in our lives were now going to begin to fade. With Zaydie’s encouragement and prompting we managed to get through each day, and occasionally Mama came out of her room. She walked around the apartment trance-like, but at least she was no longer in bed. Too often she was silent, but she was there.
On weekends Tanta Nessie would pick me up for a sleepover which was a short relief. When I returned to our apartment, I fell back into the darkness that still seemed to pour through the cracks in Mama’s bedroom door.
Then one Sunday, as I got off the elevator on our floor, I heard the piano.
Rachmaninoff’s Concerto #2. Zaydie had installed a hi-fi phonograph in the living room. It was one of those new-fangled ones that held ten 33 rpm recordings on a stem and released them one by one. Rachmaninoff, it appeared, was to be Mama’s magic. Years later I discovered that #2 had worked magic for Rachmaninoff’as well. According to an article by Peter Gutmann in Goldmine magazine, the concerto was composed after a long bout of the doldrums. The composer was quoted as saying, ”My dreams of a brilliant career lay shattered. My hopes and confidence were destroyed. I felt like a man who had suffered a stroke and for a long time had lost the use of his head and hands." Eventually, with the help of a local hypnotherapist and music enthusiast, Rachmaninoff’s confidence was restored. Concerto #2is “his only major work that escapes quotation of the “Dies Irae,” the ancient lament for the dead with which he had a life-long obsession.” It is also the piece that helped to bring Mama back to the living.
It seemed all Mama did now was worry about me. “Where are you going?” “When will you be back?” “Don’t stay too long—come home soon.” “Where have you been? I was so worried!”
Even Grandpa started to say, “Come home early today, Rucheleh. Your mother needs you.”
Tommy and I were rocking on a swing. My arms were around his neck, his were around my waist. He was teaching me how to French kiss.
Even without Zaydie’s apron, and with him wearing a washed and starched white shirt and freshly-pressed black pants, even though his fingernails had been scrubbed with the horsehair brush and castile soap that was always laid out on a silver dish on the bathroom sink, and he had been freshly shaved only hours before by the barber across from his shop—I could still smell the blood when he came up behind us. “Luz ir geyn! Hern mir? Luz ir geyn da maideleh!” Tommy let me go, and Zaydie dragged me home.
Everything I had been thinking during all those long years of alienation. when Mama either stayed in bed all day or wandered through the apartment like a zombie came spewing out of me the moment I walked through our door and saw her. Years later I still begin to shiver when I remember my words.
“How could you do that to me?” I screamed at her, this frail little woman still in a tremulous state. “How could you send him to spy? You never trusted me. It was always her, always Goldie. She was your favorite, but you got stuck with me. You think I didn’t know that? You think I didn’t know you were just waiting for the moment when you could ruin my life? How could you leave her there? How could you save yourself and leave her? I hate you!”
Zadie was shaking. “Rookie, mein kindeleh, what are you saying?”
The next day, as I sulked in my room, Zaydie knocked on the door. “Somewhere in the Bible,” he told me, “it says, ‘Rash words are like the piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the wise is healing.’ It is never too late to say you are sorry.”
I adored my Zaydie, and of course I apologized. But, once uttered, can hurtful words ever really be taken back?
Death does not always come with a warning. While a lingering illness often leaves one time to prepare, an acute affliction gives no such grace period. For Zaydie, it was a blessing. He did not deserve protracted suffering. He did not need time to say things that would explain his feelings. His feelings were on display over his entire lifetime, through his actions. I wish even today that I had had more real time with him. For a long time, I missed him daily. But, now, so many years later, I feel he is with me still and will be with me forever.
I stood alongside Mama and Tanta Nessie at Mount Zion Cemetery. I took the shovel, scooped some earth and sprinkled it on his casket. “Baruch ata Adonai,” Mama and Tanta Nessie said.
When he died, Mama surprised me with what she knew, and with how strong she was. She ran the butcher shop as though she had been right behind the counter from the beginning. She may have looked frail, and perhaps in some ways she was, but she rarely let it show. When she came home at night, she made dinner for the two of us while listening to Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Verdi, Puccini and Weill. When she put the 33 rpm’s back into their sleeves before going to sleep at night, she would touch the blond wood of the phonograph and say, “Thank you, Papa.”
Mama and Nessie found a closeness they hadn’t known in many years. They spent time together on evenings and weekends knitting and crocheting, hobbies they had shared in childhood, with the music from the phonograph always playing in the background. Of course, there were times when their raised voices, debating something in the news or on television, drowned out Beethoven or Berlioz, but that never lasted more than a few moments. They were two of a kind when it came to opinions, strong-willed, and almost immovable, but they could both put their differences aside, and even laugh at themselves, until the next disagreement.
I remember standing outside the entrance to the living room watching the two sisters celebrating their lives and their good fortune.
“Ettala, remember that fight we had over the election?”
“What fight? It was a little argument. You wanted left, I wanted right. Or did you want right, and I wanted left?”
“You know, that time I'm not so sure. But my feelings were so hurt.” Nessie became emotional.
“Nessie, let’s just say it’s good we called a truce. Let others fight about the left, about the right. You and me, please let us stay in the middle.”
“In the middle is fine with me.” Now Nessie had tears in her eyes.
“Come, my dear shvester.” Mama took hold of Nessie’s hands and swung her around to the music of Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride Polka.”
“We’re here, we're together. We should be happy.”
It is a long letter. My eyes skim the pages. Tears well up as I read. I found a painting of us as little girls, and photographs, and Mama and Papa’s letters beneath the floorboards… It says, I think you are my sister. I send love. It is signed, Gretchen Wagner—formerly Golda Guildenstern.