Monday, July 18, 2005

Last night after dinner my family lit yahrtzeit candles in memory of my departed grandparents, all three of whom died in the month of June over the past 10 years. Each of us said a few words, replayed a warm and fuzzy memory or two; As usual my mother did most of the talking.

"Your Grampa was always kind," she said. "You wouldn't think so, grumpy as he was in his old age. But when I was little and I had a bad dream, I always went to his side of the bed. Grandma could be vicious if I woke her up in the middle of the night, but Grampa always made room for me, and let me stay with him until I fell asleep."

I love hearing a story like that about someone I thought I knew. It's like discovering a long-lost relative. How easy it is to pretend my grandparents were always shrunken alter kakhers who collected playing cards and smelled like pickled herring. How easy it is to forget they were young once; unique and full of life.

My grandfather was in the schmatte business; he sorted used clothing collected by Goodwill before it was sent to musty thrift shops or wherever old trenchcoats go to die. My mother told us his "office" was a cavernous warehouse piled high with coats, dresses, slacks, shoes, purses, scarves, sweaters... Sometimes Grampa would find something special -- a nice leather jacket, a button-down shirt ("a hundred percent cotton!" he'd proclaim as if it was spun from gold) -- and set it aside for one of us.

As my mother reminisced I tried to picture my grandfather appraising wool and cotton between his fingers while he picked through mountains of fabric and shoes... But all I could see was the irony of his life's work: Here was a man who was torn from his family, stripped and shaved and starved like an animal, his personal effects sorted and heaped to the ceiling in a Nazi warehouse. I just find it so funny, in the most unfunny way, that a man who survived Auschwitz built a proud new life on piles of schmattes -- daily reminders of a scene he'd have given anything to forget.

Used clothing never made my grandfather rich, but he scrimped, saved and bargained. Found pennies, airplane liquor bottles, fast food napkins... nothing went to waste. His resourcefulness put food on the table and braces on his children's teeth. Even if he had to work half the week in Connecticut away from his family, even if he had to leave every day before dawn, nothing could come between him and his American Dream.

When his old Buick died 18 years ago we took Grampa to see a new Accord at the Honda dealer in Queens, then a Camry at the Toyota lot next door. "Meh," he waved the salespeople away. Nothing doing. The man wanted a Chrysler and he would not be swayed.

"What are you thinking?" we cried. "Why a Chrysler? Chryslers are crap! Buy a Japanese car, they're the best!" My Grampa puffed up his pigeon chest, planted his fist on the nearest desk and declared with tears in his eyes, "America has been good to me, so I want an American car!" It was one of the few times I'd heard him speak a full sentence in English; certainly the first time I'd seen him passionate about something besides smoked fish. Then he turned to the Chrysler salesman and commanded, "Now give me good deal. I pay cash."

You know what? Nearly two decades later that car still works. I like to think Grampa's kept it running these last few years -- way past its expiration date, against all mechanical and technological odds, and in spite of an accident or two. Call it coincidence or sound engineering, but I see it this way: You can douse a dozen engine fires a dozen different ways, but you cannot extinguish the spirit of a survivor.

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