I eat from my grandparents’ dishes. I sleep in one of their beds. I store my clothes in their dresser. I surround myself with old family things, as if the possessions themselves continue the family lore.
I sometimes visit my grandparents in my mind’s eye. I race up the dark stairs of their two-family, semi-attached home in Brooklyn. When I open the door, I am supposed to smell the wonderful aroma of chicken soup, top of the rib, and egg barley, but memories fall short of the true experience. We, four children and my parents, invade my father’s parents’ home. Grandpa—short, barrel-chested, and energetic—is bustling around the kitchen. He has a snack for us of chopped eggs on crackers and precious Coca-Cola. We throw our coats down in one bedroom and quietly enter the other to kiss Grandma hello. Grandma, with down-turned blue eyes, is most often resting, already worn from her battle with breast cancer. My parents stay to talk with her, and we children return to the large, sunny kitchen for our snack. As I eat, I study the decals of butlers and maids that adorn the cabinets. Grandpa serves us, yells at us, and gives us little kicks in the toches as signs of his affection.
Soon dinner is served in the dining room. As I enter I look up with an admixture of fear and reverence of the dead at the framed Purple Heart. I imagine the uncle I will never know, how life with him might have been. If Grandma is feeling well enough she comes to the table—sometimes to eat, sometimes just to visit. I still remember pieces of conversation, conversation in a Yiddish-English construction that defined their Brooklynese and that haphazardly colored my youthful perceptions of the world.
Well before dinner is over, I am eyeing the bowl that later will be filled with chocolate. Next to it are the four molded musicians from St. Petersburg, Florida—Ben with a banjo, Lem with accordion, Clem with a fiddle, and Pete with a penny whistle. Over the afternoon I will arrange and rearrange them. They still keep me company today.
After dinner the children are left to their own devices while the grownups visit. We greedily eat the chocolate but at a pace at which we won’t be chastised. We compete for the comics from the Sunday newspaper. We dig into the junk draw and pull out marbles, coloring books, and balls and jacks. We sit with the comics and toys on the floor of the living room where there hangs, in a large gilded frame, a colorized photograph of our glamorous aunt from her days as a chorus girl. If Grandma is well enough, we visit with her briefly one by one. Sometimes we join her on the front porch. To get there we go through a small room used mostly for storage but having the mystique of being where “the boys” slept—young men passing through Brooklyn during the war.
When our father and grandfather go to the basement or garage to check on “things,” we follow them. From the garage we pull out the old scooter, go cart, and tall tricycle and ride up and down the driveway shared by neighboring houses. We play handball with a pensy pinky. Sometimes we go into the little garden space to weed or plant flowers.
When it is time to leave, Grandpa follows us and fills our car with gas at the corner station. He works there a few hours a day—not too far from home but out in the world.
As my grandparents get older, we bring cold cuts from a kosher deli and often eat with Grandpa only; Grandma spends more time in bed under the influence of morphine. We children bring our homework or quiet hobbies; the toys in the junk drawer no longer interest us.
Until I was fifteen years old I visited my grandparents, Gussie and Jack, practically every Sunday. Then, on the same day, they were both taken to the hospital, and on separate floors they both died of cancer within a month of one another. My grandfather had hidden his illness in order to care for my grandmother.
I love when a smell or sound reminds me of my grandparents’ home. Sometimes I dream of them or the house, and I savor the dream in the morning. These dreams are the best visits memory allows.