grandpa as a costumed boy, Vienna, 1870s
grandma, a girl who crossed the ocean from Germany, alone
My grandparents lived with us throughout my childhood, and I heard their stories of life in "the old country" as I was growing up. They immigrated to America from middle Europe at the end of the 19th century, and with foresight and opportunity, escaped the Holocaust to come fifty years later.
My grandmother, Katinka David, born in Frankfurt Germany, crossed the ocean alone -- not yet 20 -- to get away from someone she was expected to marry. The trip was long and she remembered men who flirted with her and got her to eat a pork chop, something she had never eaten before. She got terribly seasick and cried when she saw the Statue of Liberty, which had arrived in New York Harbor only a few years before she did.
I slept near her in different rooms until I went off to college. She loved me in her way, which did not include many hugs, but she did instill in me an early appreciation for this country and a burning liberalism and empathy for the underdog.
And then there was my grandfather, William Schacht: orphan from Vienna. Violin player. Cigar store owner on New York's Upper East Side, 100 years ago. He was short with big ears, and today would be called "nerdy," but to me he was handsome as a prince.
He and my grandmother, both German-speaking immigrants, had met and then danced at a hall in Yorkville, on the upper East Side of New York. Grandma continued to waltz well into her 90s, and would swing around the room whispering "one-two-three ... one-two-three." Her favorite waltz was "The Blue Danube."
grandma, holding me at my first birthday on a roof in NYC; grandpa had my back, even then
By the time I was born they had been separated for years, but when grandpa became ill with heart disease and later colon cancer, they both moved in with their daughter, my mother.
That may have been an unconventional arrangement, but I was blessed by it. Her gift was intellectual stimulus and stories of castles and Prussian troops and a land far away. His gift was kindness, and he was the father figure I otherwise didn't have.
I've written about my absentee father, a gambler who was off six months a year to follow the ponies and dogs. And of my mother, who I better understand now as a probable borderline personality.
We all crowded into Miami Beach apartments and bunglows until I was seven, and the memories are mostly fearful and shadowy. I remember that cockroaches scattered inside the radio where I heard President Truman's voice. I learned early to shake my little patent-leather Mary Janes before putting them on to check for scorpions hidden in the toes. I got hives from the mangos, which fell from the trees in the yard.
I felt alone, although the two-bedroom places we rented were filled with seven of us -- my parents (or at least one of them, half the time), my grandparents and eventually me, my brother and sister.
Grandma liked to talk with me, but she was stern, and I felt that grandpa was the only adult who really loved me. I remember a time that I had a tummy ache and was left to suffer through it. He came to my bed and whispered in his accented English, "This will make you feel better." A magical elixer: a glassful of Alka-Seltzer.
"They don't mean to be mean." He said that often.
While grandma would be boiling sweet-and-sour greenbeans, steam rising into the humid Florida heat, grandpa would walk me hand-in-hand to the art-deco post office that still stands on Washington Avenue in South Beach, now across from clubs and tattoo parlors.
We lived near there, along with many older folks, some of them refugees from Europe, some of them with tattoos on their arms, not of decorations, but of numbers.
Grandma instilled a love of reading, but it was grandpa who taught me to read, when I was two. He saw no reason not to. I was curious and verbal, he was patient, and we both had lots of time together to read books under the shade of the palm trees in nearby Flamingo Park.
Grandpa was frail for as long as I knew him and that meant sacrifice in many ways. He had his own bedroom, which meant that my baby sister shared a room with my parents and my brother and I slept in the living room/dining room with my grandmother.
He would close the door of our one bathroom for uncomfortably long times, doing something called "irrigating," which included a brown, rubber hot-water bottle which hung from a hook on the back of the bathroom door. The rooms we lived in smelled of sickness. I remember "holding it in" until he was finished.
And then, in 1950, my father must have hit the daily double, and we moved to a light-filled mansion north of Lincoln Road. But by that time grandpa was often spending the day in a darkened room, in a hospital bed.
Grandma did most of the cooking for the family, but grandpa sometimes made omelets he would fill with grape jelly. He'd pour the liquid into a pan, turn the gas on high, and inevitably the eggs would burn.
One suppertime when I was eight, he burned another omelet, and I refused to eat it. The next morning cries and whispers confirmed that death could take away someone I loved.
And my mother reminded me then and for a long time after that I had made grandpa feel hurt because I didn't eat the burned omelet. I was a "bad girl." And I thought for years that I had precipitated grandpa's death.
It's only recently in fact that I realized while grandpa brought much joy and love to my life, I probably brought the same to his.
Grandma, with your independent spirit which flourished in me; grandpa, with your gentle heart: I hope you both knew, despite the problems in our lives, how much I loved you and how you helped me be the best I could be.
And I am so proud to let others know on this July Fourth, 2012 how I appreciated the chance to be with you -- so many years past the 19th century when you came to America young and full of hope. There is no way that you could imagine that your granddaughter, now a grandparent herself, would be able to tell the world just that, in this way.