A PORTRAIT OF
THE ARTIST AS
A YOUNG JEW
by Aaron Seligman
It was on a bright fall afternoon in the year of my retirement from the firm of Seligmann Schwarz & Miller, Attys. that a large package was delivered to my door, which I found that evening containing papers, documents and a mass of varied photographs from the estate of the late William Miller, who was the father of my partner and close friend Nathan Miller. Along with various financial documents I found a sketch of what Mr Miller must have intended to write as a personal Memoir. But it was incomplete and parts of the history were outlined in scraps of paper handwritten on the back of receipts and opened envelopes. At first there seemed to be no order to these notes, but when I laid them out on my large desk along with the photos, I saw that there was a shape to the project which he was contemplating, something about a notion of personal independence.
The years in my practice at the law had not completely dulled my collegiate interest in literature. I had always thought of myself as becoming a writer, but thought I should find a secure niche in the world before venturing into literature, so I gravitated toward the field of Law without much hesitation. Now having reclaimed my freedom from clients and cases, I find myself still privately aspiring to become a dilettante writer, and the package of Mr Miller's papers gave me an idea in this new direction.
After putting the papers in order, I began to inquire about the community for information about William Miller and the boyhood life he must have led in those years of the early '30's. Combining the notes which I took from my interviews with the photos which came with the collection, I began to feel myself able to put together a coherent storyline for the early years, which were what Mr Miller seemed to have desired to weave together into a memoir. Neighbors of the Miller family, my aging parents who lived in that same community, and my own photography of the older section of the town - - - all these provided me with the raw material from which I felt I could write a book at once biographical and also historical.
I remember reading early James Joyce in college, at the time it seemed a terrible bore, but the shape of that peculiar Portrait came into my mind again as I contemplated the scraps and pictures which covered my desk and a good part of the carpet over to the wall. It did me good to be working again on a "case" of sorts, reconstructing the character of a person I hardly knew, and flattering myself with the thought that at long last I was becoming a veritable writer.
Of course some of this book will come from my own imagination. I have taken the liberty of fleshing out episodes from suggestions and mere intimations, but that is the way one does this sort of thing, and I do not feel that I have to apologize for my liteary embroidery. After all, what is the art of writing but engagement with a liberating imagination, especially valuable as a long due relief from the details and dry exactitude of a profession like the Law?
Aaron Seligmann, Atty.
January 12, 1926
--- But don't you understand, May, my mother is old and ailing and since it is her last wish before she passes on, to have a grandson named in her husband's honor, don't you think we should consider giving her that choice? Would that be totally unreasonable?
--- I don't think so and I wish you wouldn't bother me with old-fashioned family prejudices like that. My uncle Willi was a fine man and close to me for many years and now that he is gone I would like some memory of him to live on in our family. This is a personal wish, not a matter of ritual doctrine, and I have never liked the name Nathan at all . . . .
--- But, don't you think we could . . . .?
--- No, I don't think and I don't want to talk about it any more. And don't bring your mother around to try to argue and convince me, I am sick of talking with her and you know she is a nasty old woman and took all the money she got when her husband died and went to vacation in England and bought fur coats and spent it all on herself and now that she is old and pathetic she wants to tell us what to do. Why this interest in family now when she ignored you and your sisters all those years? It makes me sick to talk about this, let's drop it and not go into it again.
Sidney Miller drew a deep breath, thought it all over for a few minutes and decided to follow the advice of the bible which was for a man to cleave to his wife disregarding all others, so he set his mind firmly and answered:
--- Yes. It will be William Miller. And I think that will do very nicely.
Ten days after the birth of a ten pound boy child, the doctor said that she should think of leaving the elegant flower-spread room in the maternity ward of the best hospital in the city, and resume her life as wife and mother with her husband at home.
--- Do you think it is really time for that, Doctor, perhaps she should have a few days more rest. Cost is not important but I want her to come home as well rested as possible. If you think she should. . .
The doctor said no. So things were brought together for her departure and in the late afternoon she was clothed and wrapped and wheeled with the boy child well wrapped against the January cold clutched in her arms, to the entrance of the Great Hospital where a great chauffeured limousine was waiting. Sidney smiled sitting beside his wife and child in the rear seat. He told the driver where to go and an hour later they were over a bridge and out of the city. Then he was helping her out of the high car seat and leading her cautiously up the steps to the front door of the house he had built the year before their marriage.
Grandmother came down from her upstairs apartment to help put things away, the boy was snugged into a white crib in a meticulously white room. The door was closed with a sigh or relief. It had all worked out perfectly. Married just shy of a year, they had a spanking new child now asleep in their own house, they sat together in silence on a rose velveteen love seat to contemplate their great good fortune.
Late one night there was something uneasy about the crying from the bedroom, which seemed loud and long. As the anxious mother started toward the bedroom her husband positioned himself akimbo across the doorway and said to let him cry because it was the right of children to cry and not to interfere May with your anxious attention. She was shocked, you mean to let him cry all night, you don't think something might be wrong like choking? I have to go in, Sidney, I have to . . . . . .
--- Choking with a scream like that?
They both laughed and went back to the parlor and soon the loud crying boy went to sleep and thereafter slept through the night. She wondered how her husband had such a sense of children's ways, she asked him about it later and he said he had it from many years of observing the ways of dogs and horses.
Six months later the carriage box of a 1924 Cadillac sedan with its black detailing on a tan body, was being pushed to a start down the alley behind the house by the owner and three neighbor men. The lady in the kitchen window was waving her husband goodbye in the morning sunlight, before looking down to the wicker pram on its spindly wheels perched against the back door of the house. Sunlight through the wicker sunshade fell on a sleeping babyface with closed eyes feeling dry and warm and milky two birds were chirping in a tree nearby he heard and opening eyes looked up to see his mother smiling down from the window above closed his eyes and fell off into another morning nap with dreams of something far distant in another world or perhaps nothing but warmth of sun on his babyblanket and no need to cry out for anything now. All was round and complete with nothing outside the oval of the babycarriage wall, unless a leaf falling and a bird's call as he evencalm lay sleeping. William did not know that life was not to be like this, he had no idea at all.
It was ten months later the boy had somehow climbed out of his crib, was down on the floor and struggling to push something big across the room toward the door. He just knew this had to be pushed and it took a long time to move it the ten feet from the crib to the other side of the room, inch by inch at every push. He felt strong and intent on pushing and when he finally knocked it against the door. They hear the bang and opened it how had he got down so deftly, how had be moved that big chair, why was he pushing it across the room? They talked as if he didn't hear them but he heard just fine and said his first sentence with exactly the meaning he meant: "Something to eat. . . ."
They were as surprised as if a dog had asked for his dinner, they had no idea at all what was accruing in the growing brain in the little boychild. Settling him in his highchair they watched him fidget with his buttered zwieback as he prepared to taste a bit of it, still unsure if they had heard it right. May went upstairs to tell her mother about the apparition, but she merely nodded her head and said in her age-wise and experienced manner: So what?
Life was comfortable in that slate roof gabled English style row house which Sidney Miller had built in the fervor of the twenties. Grandmother was comfortable in her upstairs apartment with the old furniture they had brought from the city when her husband Samuel (who had broken and regained his hip and was still going daily about his round of friends and associates downtown, well dressed and now walking archly with a cane) died in his ninety third year. The boy was now almost four and would often go upstairs to see his grandmother's grand mahogany Victrola machine and play her old records of opera selections, or the rousing Wacht am Rhein in a between-the-wars innocence, or Cohen-on-the-Telephone with his dry Jewish accent, trying to hire a carpénter to fix the roof, and finally giving up with this newfangled telephone: Vhat the hell I will haf to it myself.
Evenings she would play dominoes with him always managing to lose the game in his favor, while he felt that it was his skill which knocked the dominoes toppling all over each other, this being the aim of the game. Then mother would call to come down for dinner and wash hands and eat and brush teeth and get ready for bed when he could dive down under the blankets and make a little space there all his own where he could conjure up anything like lizards and monsters under the bed but if he kept his feet up above and hid under the covers, he would be safe enough and could continue alone with his imagining games.
Behind the house was a steep driveway to bring in the car under the house, across the back alley was a ramshackle garage with a few dusty windows through which you could just see spiderwebs and old furniture and some car parts. But outside on the north facing wall was a small bench under a vine covered latticework arbor with lilacs on both sides, where one day a little girl in her flower patterned dress was sitting alone. He came and sat beside her, they were watching sparrows hopping back and forth in the gravel picking up grains, he picked a flower from the side and after considering it carefully he handed it to her and she smiled. They often came back there in months as the springtime progressed, until her family moved away and he found it wasn't nice to sit there alone. But the image of that arbor and the close feeling of being there with someone quiet and thoughtful stayed with him and when in later years he saw an arbor with flowers and lilacs in spring, he remembered that nice feeling as a special memory in a more complicated adult world.
He often went down to the cellar which was dark and dusty from the coal fired boiler, which was sitting like a mummy in a corner wrapped in swaths of plaster on chickenwire to guard the bright fire of luminous coals glaring through the dampers on the black iron door. He did not dare to open and look at the monster eye inside, he thought about many times it from a safe distance. Tied to the furnace was a network of thin wire chains which opened and closed the dampers on a schedule, which he could watch in the late afternoon as the chains tried to revive the dying fire in vain. His father shook the ashes down later and shoveled in pea and nut which was not peas and nuts at all, but why ask and seem stupid. There are reasons for things.
He had an idea that there was something own there behind the stove, not a thing which had fallen down behind nor something the workmen had left behind, but just a something, which he decided to crawl in to see. He entered the narrow space between the coal bin and the plastered wrappings, inching on knees past the wires sticking out to catch his pants, slowly moving past the giant fire guarding monster to the corner at the wall where he could rest from his slow progress for a moment. There were some bricks piled behind the stove which had to be picked up with one hand and passed around to place behind him so he could go on, but when the whole pile was neatly stacked in his rear he could just see the far corner behind the stove to the left. The coal shovel was stored in there so he had to stand it upright to worm past it fraction by inch, pulling his stomach in so he could get by the narrow gorge. There were two very hot pipes going sidewise from the furnace, he had to get on his belly and crawl under these to get out again at the front. His progress was so slow that it seemed he had been in narrow passage for hours, when he recalled the adventure later it seemed it had been a journey without beginning or end, a struggle against a space which was dangerous and unknown.
But he had circumnavigated the fiery monster with cunning and care, and he had come out unharmed from the confining narrow places between, he had made his first perilous journey as he was sitting on the lower stairs landing thinking of the stages of the trip when his mother came down and saw him sitting there covered with dust and ash. In a moment he was transported upstairs to the running water of a hot bathtub, being scrubbed mercilessly and told never to go down there again.
--- What in the world were you thinking, that is a dangerous place, what if the boiler had exploded, what if something caught fire and you were down there all alone. Now you promise me, . . . are you listening to me. . . ?
He was not listening because he was retracing the passage past the perils of the mummied monster, the darkness in that corner near the coal bin where the dust had a special musty odor, neither burning coal nor the taint of old mortar from the piled bricks. It was curious and he connected it with the turning of the corner to go behind the stove itself, that dark corner where the one cellar electric light was like a weak star at the far end of a long space. He would go back another time at the hour when the time was right for the chains to go through their dance of opening and closing the four dampers, he would be right under the moving chains listening to their rustling links and the squeaking pulleys, as if in the belly of an ancient boat beneath the rowers heading out on the nightdark sea toward haven and home. He would take that trip too, and the promise to his mother was not important in face of something valorous and strange, like that second journeying, which he could recall step by step many nighttimes under his tight pulled bedclothes in the mysterious dark.
The nurse in the Medical Center Office opened the door into the waiting room, paused a moment with a sheaf of papers and called out questioning: "May Miller next . . . . . Mr and Mrs. Sidney Miller?" Minutes later Mother was sitting across from a whitecoated doctor, who was explaining it was the birth of a ten pound son that was responsible for the tearing of the support muscles in her pelvic floor and that the condition of a prolapsed uterus causing her discomfort, could be corrected by re-attaching certain muscles in a surgical procedure. Two weeks later they were back at the hospital making appointments for surgery and a stay at Mt. Sanai Hospital, where a remote relative assured them their surgeon was of the highest medical reputation with an excellent surgical record. And so mother went to the hospital. It was back in those days before the strictures of medical insurance ejected patients as soon as they were ambulatory, so a leisurely stay of two weeks was anticipated.
Say goodbye to Mommy, Billy, hope she will be feeling better. Bye-bye.
Dad was great, he took his four years old son wherever he went on business, once to see Meyer the lawyer in a cramped office in the upper floor of the Loews Movie Theater building. Then they went to a place near the waterfront where men were regrooving truck tires with a hot iron which sent up a bitter smoke as they turned the wheel. They went to the old part of town where there were stables to visit Dad's aged polo pony now in retirement, a horse which Dad said could turn on a dime from his polo training and in those days a sheer joy to ride. But now he deserved quiet and oats and a cube of red dyed sugar which he lifted off Billy's palm delicately with his thick hairy lips before adding a gentle snort. They played ball on the cracked cement of the schoolyard and the father tried to show his son how a boy climbs a tree, but in vain as he protested angrily and had to be taken down. They had dinner together with grandmother, nobody remembered to talk about washing of hands or brushing of teeth, so Billy continued less aware of his mother's operation than the good fortune of his personal vacation.
After two weeks it was over, Mom was back home and things began to come back to normal as she re-washed the dishes, put the kitchen back together and sent out baskets of clothes to the Chinese laundry. A few days later Billy had something on his mind and at supper he delicately broached his concern:
--- Mommy, you don't look so well. Maybe you should go back to the hospital. . . .
Everybody smiled with understanding at the sly suggestion from this precocious brat, but the core of the situation was real. Billy had a great time with his Dad, but the truth of the situation was that when his attentive and observant Mom returned, his vacation was over!
Behind the house there was a long row of trees which through the heat of summer cast a pleasant shade over the quiet back alley. Now in the August of his fourth year, he had become the proud possessor of a shiny new red tricycle, which his mother said he could ride on the back alleyway if he was careful not to go too fast and fall off.
He had just rolled it out from the garage underneath the house and had left at the dead-end of the alley while he went back to push the garage door shut. He climbed carefully onto the seat of the cycle, looked all around to see the road was perfectly clear, and finally started down to the end for his first ride. There would have been nothing unusual about this afternoon journey, except for the fact that he was riding on the seat but pushing the bike along step by step from the ground. When he reached the end he got off, turned it around and went back in the same pedestrian manner.
On his third afternoon out, Mom spied this unusual locomotion from the kitchen window and called out to him to try the pedals. He nodded that he had heard her but persisted in his own system. When Dad came home he tried to show him the use of the pedals, putting one foot on each pedal and saying GO while he pushed from behind. But one foot slipped off the pedal and they had to go back to the house to find a bandaid.
Mom worried that there might be something wrong with his eyesight, or his sense of balance, or the motor controls of his leg muscles, but Dad said he would show him again and it would be all right. But he wouldn't keep his feet on the pedals, and always ended the demonstration by going off down the alleyway in his usual gait.
---- Why don't you make him do it the right way, Sidney? He has to learn to be like the other boys, everyone will make fun of him if they see him going down the sidewalk like this, it looks as if he is very strange. Make him do it the right way, or we will have to take the bicycle away. Try again tomorrow, will you?
---- He knows about he pedals, May, he just doesn't want to use them. Each time I get his feet on them he says "My way. . . my way. . ." and they go down to the ground. No sense making a fuss over it, he has a clear idea in his mind of doing it his own way, and maybe he just does't want to go faster with the pedals. Let him do it his own style, what is the difference, and we'll see how it works out.
He had started riding on Monday afternoon and had walked the new bike through the days of the week enjoying his afternoon ride, after a while putting the trike away and closing the garage door carefully, before coming in to wash up and get ready for dinner. It was such a good bike with its bright read paint just like a fire-truck, it had been a good week of afternoon riding, he was thinking to himself before going to sleep on Friday evening.
Saturday there was a light shower midday and he didn't want to go out that afternoon although it was clearing, because he knew his shoes would get muddy. But Sunday was bright and clear.
---- Look, Sidney, look down the alley will you. He went down to the end and he is coming back now, he is going very fast and he has his feet on the pedals. Did you teach him how to do it that way? Maybe he didn't understand your telling him about the pedals. Did you tell him why he should use the pedals, why didn't you make it perfectly clear?
---- Don't make a fuss about it, just give him a wave from the window and let it go as something completely natural, will you? No, I tried to show him, but he didn't want to do it, he kept saying he would do it his own way, whatever than means. So I figured better to let it go at that. But you see, when he was ready he went for the pedals, I suppose that is just his way of going about things. Not a bad way, thinking for hismelf at age four, it was a good experiment and we'll see what comes of it later.
It was in the old-fashioned kitchen with the modern Dutch cabinet found in every house in the 'twenties, that he sat hours with his grandmother next to the window looking out on late summer afternoons over the garden. Shelling peas from a basket, they ate two for each one dropped into the bowl, while mother smiled and said after all the peas were to eat and might be just as healthy raw. When the peas were gone, they sat there watching the fading light over the concrete fence which divided them from the rich houses on the next avenue, where there were gardens full of lilacs under a grand spreading oak. As light failed a certain sense of mystery seemed to please them both, perhaps a feeling of something strange and sad because it was so slow in fading away. For her it was a reminder of the trees in the yard of her childhood home in the old country, where people were always peeping in through the windows thinking it had once been Goethe's home. Sitting in silence in the soft mood of fading day, they watched the light dimming until it was too dark to see, when suddenly the kitchen lights went on and it was time to get ready for dinner.
Afternoons Robert from down the street came over to visit. They set a large roofing slate on the porcelain table which pulled out of the kitchen cabinet and busied themselves rolling shapes out of green plasticene. A mark scratched at the middle of the slate delimited each area, but Billy was aggressive and kept moving the scratch over until his mother turned the slate around one day to make things fair. Of course he cautiously moved the scratch over again, here was human territorial nature described in small.
They played piling up kitchen pots and pans in wintertime and in summer found stones to carry back to the yard to make cairns in the garden, just where mother wanted to put a new transpotted plant. But there was room elsewhere in the neighborhood for architectural experiments and they could go down under the great elm at the end of the back alley and carve out roadways and streets in the compacted earth for an imaginary township. Beyond that was terra ignota across a row of dense grown bushes, behind which you could just see the glint of the glass greenhouses which old Mr. Schwarz had kept for himself in a narrow strip by the fence after selling off the front lots for houses. Of course boys throw stones which break glass and there were formal apologies to the old gentleman who said it was all right because he remembered that he had been a boy too once upon a time very far way.
The maple trees in front of the new houses along the unpaved avenue had been growing for a dozen years by then and it was an autumnal ritual for the families on the street to bring out bamboo rakes and gather heaps of dry leaves to set ablaze with a touch of the match. This was a time for talking with people along the street whom you might otherwise never see. Everyone enjoyed the acrid odor from the smoking leaves, whiffing it gingerly and saying what a good fall smell it was. From time immemorial leaves had always been burned in the streets, nobody had the least thought of bagging them to cart away in a truck, or composting them for the garden the following year. Not yet aware of pulmonary dangers from smoke and fire, people in the small towns were satisfied with the way they had always done things. Watching the fires, people would talk about everything they had on their mind, about jobs and FDR and the depression, and only incidentally about rumblings of trouble in Europe, where it seemed that it still wasn't quite over, over there.
In those years of the Great Depression you could see signs of distress and decay everywhere. Realtors didn't bother to put up sale signs because nobody had money to buy a house, but there were rooms for rent everywhere. Idle boys looking for trouble quickly saw that the lawn signs TO LET had potential for a great joke by adding one letter between the words. He asked his mother why there were so many TOILET signs all over town. She had no idea and seemed annoyed by the impropriety of the question, but it was not until some time later when He saw a boy with a brush and little can of black paint, that he realized what was being done. Joke or not, the to-let signs showed how desperate people were; they wanted to earn a few dollars a week letting out a room in their house, these few dollars would be a help against the week's grocery bills.
Across from street from the Millers and a few houses down, was what must have been the main farmhouse when this was all open farmland. It was a two story building with two inside chimneys, a slate roof
which had been laid by careful design in two shades of slate with the date 1847 worked in. There was a wide porch around the front and south as was then common, but the whole house was in sad disrepair. It hadn't been painted for years and what paint there was had worn off the split and weathered clapboards. What once had been a lawn was overgrown with weeds and brush, there was an accumulation of broken chairs and an icebox without doors on the side porch. The house had been boarded up for some years but it was opened up again so it would not be condemned by the town commission for destruction at the owner's cost.
A desperately poor family was living there. Four scruffy kids who looked only a year or two apart in age. Their mother was never seen outside except when she hung her wash on a line on the porch, while her husband tinkered on and on with an aged Willys-Kinght which coughed once in a while without much hope of starting. When dinner was ready and the kids were called in to wash up and eat, you could hear from their mother's intonations that they were a long way from home.
---- Billy Bob, now you just go get those kids together, and you'all get yourselves into the house now and clean up for dinner, d'you hear me? I got everything hot on the table and I ain't waiting for y'all to come in late like last night.
In a ramshackle house with no job and no money, living in a northern climate as the fall evenings were now coming in cold, they were in a bad way. It was just a question of how long they could hold out until the car got running so they could head on somewhere where the climate was a little more tolerant. One evening the hand cranked engine spluttered more than usual, later it caught and did keep on running. That night after packing their clothes in cardboard boxes, they turned out the lights and went to bed early.They must have quietly stowed their things in the car the next morning before daylight and pushed it down the driveway to get it started rolling down the avenue, because when the neighbors went out to go about their business, it was clear
that there was nobody there. The door was left open, everything they couldn't carry was piled up on the porch, the car was gone and there was only one sign that they had been living there. Their old brown dog was hanging limp on the porch with a noose around his neck, the rope fastened to a nail on the eave above the west side of the front porch.
Billy saw it as he started off to school. He came back with tears in his eyes to tell his mother, who went to the doorway to see if it was really true. Bit by bit the neighbors gathered to have a look. How terrible this was, what kind of people would hang their dog as if he were a criminal, a pathetic end to his years of being the children's best friend. After the shock subsided they all said that nobody had ever seen anything like this. People tried to understand why this had happened, what must have been in their mind calling old Spot over to the hanging rope, maybe giving him a crust or a cookie and patting his head goodbye. Did they have feelings or regrets, or was it just something which had to be done, do it and get it over with? Did the children see the hanging or were they told to get in the car and close their eyes until Dad came back from the porch?
May tried to explain it to Billy who was so upset that she said he could stay home from school that morning. She sat down at the kitchen table with her morning coffee to try to think up an explanation for him.
---- You know, they had no money and it would have cost them to go to the vet and have him do an injection and that meant money which they just didn't have. Maybe they didn't want to just abandon the dog, who would be barking and running up and down looking for the family everywhere, or they couldn't face his starving to death in the winter weather. So maybe they had a reason for what they did. After all the dog was about twelve years old which is a normal dog's life and he couldn't have lasted much longer. Everybody gets weak and old and in the end we all have to die, that is part of what life is about, Billy. So maybe there was a reason for them ending his life then rather than . . . . .
She heard a cough and turning her head saw grandma standing in the kitchen doorway and knew instantly that she had heard everything.Grandma was thinking about the stories from the old days about the stetls in Russia, when there was no food for the children and the old people understanding the situation had gone quietly for a long walk in the woods and were not heard of again. She knew her family loved her but she could not help thinking.
---- It is a good thing we are not Eskimos in this family, she said, breaking the long pause. She came into the kitchen and they all hugged with tears in their eyes and ended up laughing at their unexpected show of feelings. Someone went out later with a knife to cut the rope, two men got a couple of shovels and they buried Spot in the far corner of his backyard, pausing a minute after tamping down the earth as if searching for a word suitable for the ceremony of a dead dog's funeral.
Perhaps as the wanderers in the Willy-Knight left the city and headed down the highway toward the open country of the Atlantic states, another scenario may have played itself out. Perhaps they had further thoughts about the death of the dog as late that first afternoon on the road Billy Bob pulled off onto the shoulder and remarked soon they would be back in Virginia. They were all quiet and nobody wanted to be the first to say what was on their mind. With a deep sigh, her arms around her children as if trying to protect them from something bad, Jennie Mae said to her husband:
---- You know that was a real bad thing we did up there and it wasn't just what we did with the poor old dog. But the kids know it and they saw the dog hanging there with his feet jerking in the air and that was very bad for them to see. We are going back home where is a lot of that hanging going on, we know it ain't right but we put up with it because we don't know what else to do. I don't want the kids to think that it was all right because it was just a dog. If they get that hanging idea in their heads, they are going to think that it is also all right some other time, because after all it is just a . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A few years later the Miller family got a new model 1928 Cadillac automobile, a large square sedan suitable for the family to go out touring in the countryside. Sundays in springtime were a wonderful time to see the trees sprouting their light-green leaves, or to take a drive to the farmlands where you could get asparagus early and corn later in the summer. But when they were all ready to go out for a Sunday drive, grandma always said:
---- You go on alone, you don't need me with you. I'm too old to go out driving, I can just as well stay at home and read my newspaper, I don't mind your going out by yourselves, now you just all go out by yourself and have a good time, and don't worry about me. I'm all right and I might just take a nap now.
She stood waving to them from the doorway and off they went down the avenue to the country roads. But one exceptionally fine afternoon when the flowers were coming out and the birds were flying everywhere for their usual reasons, Dad decided that grandma had to come along if only because it was such a beautiful day.
---- You really have to come along with us, Grandma, but there is a reason for this.
---- You always want me to sit there in the back seat but I don't want to go. The car is so bumpy on these rough roads, I would rather stay at home and be comfortable.
---- But I have a serious reason to take you along, Grandma. You are right, the car is bumpy on these country roads, but I need your weight in the back to keep it from bouncing. Without that we will be bouncing all over the road, so you just have to come along with us today.
Pulling her flowered kerchief over her head with her shawl around her shoulders and laughing with great amusement she clambered up to the back seat of the touring car and off they all went together to the countryside. Sidney noticed a sign at a farm FRESH EGGS -- DRIVE IN which he thought very humorous.
---- Sidney, you have such a strange sense of humor. It just means that they have chickens which lay eggs and they sell them here, fresh eggs every day. That's all it means.
---- You never heard that smarty-pants expression, May, "You fresh egg!" ? I guess nobody ever got fresh with you, but that's an expression everybody knows. The sign reads like an invitation for any of you "fresh eggs" driving down the road, welcome, you can just drive in here . (All right, so you don't get it, but still very funny, he was chuckling to himself.)
It was a long drive that day and everyone was tired by the time they were heading back. Sidney had a good strong voice and loved to sing old songs, so he broke out with an old army ditty:
Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag
Nobody knew all the words but Grandma Lena remembered that a Lucifer in Germany was a match in the old days, and everybody knew that a fag back then was a cigarette. When they came home she said that it was a very nice ride, she was glad she came along and she had a very good time.
---- But that remark about my being fat and using me to hold down the bouncing car, that was not funny at all. Sidney you are such a . . . . .you are a Fresh Egg.
In the fall of that year Grandmother woke early one morning and got up to go sit in her padded armchair. She was there a while thinking, had put on one shoe and had tied up the lace. The other shoe had dropped at her foot as she leaned back in the chair, she smiled to herself about how good life had been all those years as she quietly closed her eyes to rest.
---- Billy, go up and see if grandma is ready to come down for breakfast, tell her the scrambled eggs are ready.He came down alone with tears in his eyes and they knew right away what had happened. Yes she was almost eighty and it was a good way to go, they all said later .
They were busy with arrangements for the the funeral, for the date and the site and the stone. He went walking alone for miles around the town, out to where the bridge went out over the bay to another shore, thinking about the old times when his grandma must have been a little girl living in Germany. It was his first contact with the fact of death and it left him with a shroud of sadness which masked off the houses and trees and lawns as he walked past them in his distant, misty solitude.Here was a feeling for which there were no words, a sensation which would come upon him at other time times in his life, but always with a remembrance of that first time when someone near had just slipped away.
The Public School, a grim building in now dirty brick poised on a slight rise overlooking a concrete yard with tall wire fencing all around, had been built in the years after the Civil War in a style more suitable for a fortress or an armory than for a school. It was designed to be solid and impressive, but over time had become just old, obsolete and depressing. In the concrete paved yard behind the building the students assembled each morning in freezing winter gale or summer heat. The boys were on one side, the girls across, they arranged themselves in rows by grade, standing at an almost military attention as the yard attendant counted off numbers to a proctor who directed file after file through the ominous doorways to the classrooms. * There was no need to give an order for silence because no one would have thought of frivolity or idle talk in this bald concrete yard, which served as a warning that school here was a serious business. It was obvious that they were not there for fun.
Entering the classroom, the students went to their appointed desks, they sat on wood-seat iron chairs screwed to the floor, they opened their desktops placing their folded hands waiting on the rails so as to be mischief free, while Teacher strode around the room looking for unauthorized items in the desk drawers. Attendance called and noted, the eyes of fifty students were fixed on the imposing blackboard at the front, where the teacher wrote with a squeaky chalk, or read lessons aloud pausing to call for answers from hastily rising students. This was conceived as hard business without frills, the essential path to any serious learning. A wrongdoer would sit in a front corner for half an hour with a pointed paper cone on his head. Students had to raise a hand to ask permission for the bathroom, one or two fingers to indicate their function. This may have been an administrative precaution designed to avoid loitering , but there was no loitering in the grim asphalt paved halls, because one look at the bathroom with its dirty urinals and musty odor was enough to send a boy back to the classroom as quickly as possible. The girls had a cleaner place because the teachers were all women and they had to go there too.
Reciting the arithmetic tables in droning unison again and again, everyone i did learn to add and subtract, with perhaps a bit of hesitation on the less critical multiplication tables, while division was somehow neglected as being nothing more than multiplication done backwards. History was just a list of dates designed solely to be repeated, geography was only names of places to memorize and cough up on demand. The quick learners were left to scribble or draw in their notebooks while the teacher concentrated on those who were slow, a procedure which was thought to be proper educational theory for a democratic country.
Of course there were funny notes slipped from desk to desk. A tough boy might have a metal tube to shoot paper spitballs across the room and one boy in Billy's row idly dipped the braid of the girl in front of him into his inkwell. Punishment was sitting an hour before the office of the Principal Mrs. Van der Zong, a formidably gaunt and elderly lady with a sharp tongue which she used in place of the ruler now forbidden by statute. Her glance was enough to wilt on the spot any student's thought of an explanation for his misbehavior. The school had been like that since time immemorial and nobody proposed or anticipated anything in the way of change.
These were the deep days of the Depression and a sense of deprivation went down even to the kids who quickly felt the loss of what everyone needs, a little pocket money. Billy had a modest dime a week and was learning to parse out his pennies carefully at Mr. and Mrs. Seligmann's * newspaper and candy store on his way to school. These gentle old people were the last generation of the European immigrants who had come over with great expectations, now surprised by the sudden downturn of luck in their newfound land of opportunity. They had known trouble before and were glad be Americans even in hard times,. because they had the little store and things would soon be getting better, they said. Others had nothing at all and very little to hope for, yes, they knew about that.
They saw some kids slipping things into their pockets before leaving the store, sometimes they would remonstrate in as friendly a manner as they could manage, other times they would let it go remarking that they were just kids without a cent and that was sad enough in itself. Behind glass under the counter were the square BigLittleBooks, but they cost a quarter and stories without pictures didn't seem as interesting as the five cent illustrated comics. He liked the salted pumpkin seedsi n a folded paper box for a penny, he found he could go a long way chewing seed by seed and his mother said the seeds had vitamins although she couldn't see how anyone could roast and salt and package them for that price. But learning about ingenuity was the business of people living on the edge of poverty, they would try to put together almost anything to bring in a few cents, since the alternative was having absolutely nothing at all.
Mikey O'Leary or his sister Twilah often brought to school some object surreptitiously wrapped in a handkerchief, which they tried to sell to any student who looked likely as judged by their clothes and especially their shoes. Figuring that Billy Miller was worth a few tries, Mikey showed him with a covert gesture a little glass inkwell, which he said was very valuable with its hinged solid silver cap. Take it home and ask your dad for two bucks for it, willya?
Where it came from was unclear, whether a family present from old times or something stolen from a store was anybody's guess. May said it was pretty but she was afraid it was stolen, and itcost too much and so he took it back sadly because he really liked the silver cap hinged on the delicately etched body. This was his first occasion to want something he could not afford.
The following week Twilah asked if he wanted to go downtown with her brother and a friend to go to the movies. If he had a quarter Mike could use it to get in, then he would go and open the back door quietly to let the others in and they could all see two feature pictures and a short, all for free.
---- Thanks Twilah but my Mom won't let me go, she says that movie theater has bedbugs in the seats and is not a clean place, he said. So they went looking for someone else who had the critical quarter for the show.
When the weather changed that fall, snowballs were flying everywhere, some with a stone in the center to give a fellow a good black eye. Going home one day he was just passing the little station perched over a railroad cut with the tracks down below. With snowball in hand he stood on his toes to peer over the street level concrete fence, he was looking at the tracks where people were waiting for the train just grinding to a stop. He gave the ball a deft throw at the people as they were boarding the train before ducking behind the fence and walking off nonchalantly with his cold hands in his pockets.
The next morning he was summoned to the office of the Principal Mrs. Van der Zong who had phoned his mother to come in as soon as school opened. Confronted by the angry Principal standing beside his confused mother, he couldn't utter a word for surprise and shame. It seemed the snowball had an with unerring selectivity hit Mrs. Van der Zong square on the back of her black fur coat, something that she averred had never happened before in all her many years in the teaching profession.
Hearing this accusation about his evil act with purposeful intent, he was about to apologize when to his surprise his mother cut in angrily, asking if the Principal had ever been a girl and had she never been hit in the head by a deft snowball from a smart boy who set the whole crowd laughing at her, until she decided to save her dignity by laughing along with them. The Principal in her turn asked if Mrs. Miller had any ideas about bringing up a child in an atmosphere with proper discipline, when the phone on her desk rang, at which moment Mom walked out the office door with her hand on her son's shoulder. It was nice to have a Mom who would speak out and stand up for you, he thought to himself when he got home,. but when he told her so, she said with a smile that she found it very easy to talk back to such an especially nasty old lady.
Mother had a sharp sense of what constitutes a proper personal appearance and sent him every other week to Louie's barbershop opposite the ticket station for a trim, telling him to be sure to have Carl do it and not let him put on that perfumed Italian style pomade. This was embarrassing because Louie, who was rotund and full of fun, a great talker with the waiting string of customers, was the boss. Carl the assistant on the other hand was tall and saturnine, with black hair and an aquiline nose, a man of few words who would prefer to gesture a customer to his chair with his scissors, rather than speak. He was the better barber but he had one habit which displeased the mothers. He would reach automatically for the bottle with the fancy label and squirt on a gush of pomade to finish up a haircut, forgetful of orders from the irate Moms.The boys thought the pomade was great stuff and heartily approved of Carl.
He did not like the way his mother had him comb his hair with a part on the side just above his right eye. He wanted it combed without a part, which he felt was more manly and he always told Carl to cut it straight-back. So if at the end Carl's hand went for the pomade bottle, He didn't say a word but smiled to himself since hr knew this would keep the haircut fixed straight-back for a week. Mom would gasp and say she would have to go with him next time to speak to Carl, but she never did. It was always a bit embarrassing to have to tell Louie, when he said NEXT and motioned him with a wave of his hand to his barber's chair, that he would prefer not to. He had his mother's orders as a backup excuse, but also his preference for the fragrant and sticky pomade.
Most of the boys wore corduroy knickers tied up right under the knee,. curling down over calf length socks. Some wore plain cloth since their parents felt that corduroy was the garb of the Irish immigrants, unaware of its origin as the royal cloth of the French nobility. But corduroy was warm in winter and had become the pants of preference for most of the boys in cold weather. Mrs. Miller knew city wholesalers who had mountains of men's clothing piled on tables in their third story warehouses, and each fall she went there to get pants for the coming year. She always remarked, somewhat to the boy's embarrassment, that they should be long in the leg and loose in the crotch, since he was growing so fast. While in the city it was a few blocks to the custom shirt maker who had a wall of colorful cloth rolls in striped patterns which immediately caught the boy's eye, but the man suggested a drab white oxford for the longest wear. Long pants were what he really wanted but they were not worn before age of ten, and he would have liked a garish striped shirt looking like the Italian flag, but he knew that was useless so he kept quiet and endured. Back on the train it was a half hour ride to the station, then home and into a bath before dinner, prefaced as usual by handfuls of horse sized vitamin pills, and at last he was off to bed with his night time imaginations about about appearing at school in long pants and a shirt with striped colors, before slipping away to sleep in a more congenial nighttime world.
It was in the early months of the second year of school that he got his first experience with one of the least attractive traits of human behavior. He and Danny were good friends at first, both were better dressed than many of the kids from poor and out of work families. Being somehow isolated from the others by this matter of pure chance, they had established a truce-like friendship between themselves, until Danny decided to test the temper of his rival by an occasional blocking of a doorway or a finger poked hard against Billy's chest as a dare to do something about it. He was the smaller boy which made him the more eager to show his strength and he developed a habit of bullying as a matter of daily course.
He told his mother who told his father, who advised not to get into a fight since they would both land up in front of the Principal, who would blame and punish them equally for bad behavior. He knew about bullying from his boyhood in rough neighborhoods and tried to show his son a few boxing stances and defenses, but he didn't get into the spirit of fighting even to defend himself and decided to be quiet and endure. Relatives in the cities of central Europe whose names he would never know were making that same decision to be quiet and endure, even when trucked to the death camps and walking in file into the death chambers. Fighting was not a natural road to follow for those coming from centuries of a peaceful religious tradition.
But when the rough kids from the rough streets saw how easily intimidated Billy was, they took it upon themselves to exploit his defenseless role by having one boy get quietly on his knees behind him while another tripped him over his back. Unwilling to tell his Marine father with war stories and medals and a commendation from General Pershing's hand in the dresser drawer, that he was a coward, he kept silent. Trying to prepare for the day of retaliation, he practiced boxing in front of his bedroom mirror, concentrating on fast left hand jabs which would keep the enemy at a distance, rather than a right hand slug to lay him on the floor. But this was all done as a solo exercise with nowhere to go, it was an imaginary study of the art of self defense which he was practicing solo, until he got his courage up many years later to set thing right.
These things made him feel strange and isolated. He seemed to himself different from the other boys who attended the school. He heard one of the boy whispering [ jewboy ] behind his back and even once to his face, just to see if he could get him to fight. He asked him why he said that and what the word meant, but the boy wasn't sure. He said he had just heard a pal of his father saying it about someone at a volley ball game in their yard, but he didn't know what it meant.
But he knew from his father's private talk with friends at the temple that there were still problems with being Jewish and he heard from kids who went to Sunday school at the Catholic church that the priest said that the Jews had killed the Lord Jesus and would be responsible for that unto the last generation. So if that was true about the last generation, he said to himself, that would mean him. Better watch out for trouble and not be surprised if someday he was called upon to explain his role and his * responsibility in the Crucifixion.
Danny asked him one day if he believed in God. He thought about it a while and decided to take a chance and say NO waiting in the back of his mind for a lightening flash or a sign from heaven to correct his answer to the question. But it was quiet, there was no tremor in the streets, the world looked much the same to him, even if he was a disbeliever. Still he wondered if this were in some way a family trait, since there was little talk about religion or theology at home beyond the high holiday visits to the schule.
Grandmother Lena told a story about the holidays in Germany when she was a young girl. They had sent her up to an attic to bring down a set of dishes for the Passover service. She was carrying these in a box in her arms stepping carefully as she went down the stairs, when her foot tripped on a loose nail on a tread. Down came Lena dishes and all and although she was not blamed for the broken dishes, there was a postscript to the situation. She felt that if she was carrying the dishes for god's service and if she fell while doing a small piece of his business, then there could be nobody watching over her from above, and in her opinion there wasn't really any God at all.
In the coming years she had gone through life at a polite and civil distance from deity, never speaking out of turn about religion or religious people, but never bothering her conscience with what she had firmly figured out, which was that God did not exist. Had a rabbi told her that * - - * in his wisdom had decided to test her faith by letting her fall, in what later theologians would call The Job Test of Faith, or if a Protestant minister had told her that her fall was to correct a sense of false pride in her role as the elected carrier of the holy service, she would have looked at either of them with a incredulous stare of disbelief, while confirming her original opinion as being correct in the first place.