Moments after reciting the four questions while standing on my chair during Passover Seder at my grandparent’s apartment in the Bronx, my beloved grandfather Poppy (Irving Friedman) approached me with what looked like a small piece of chicken in his wrinkled, pudgy hands. “Kipp-ah,” he asked, barely concealing a smile, “Would you like the pipik?” The sound of laughter filled the room. At age six I had no idea what a pipik (Yiddish for belly button) was, but I knew there was no way I would eat the slimy matter dangling from his fingertips. This question, though, would become a staple at family gatherings, guaranteed to produce a smile–sort of like when my brother Drew and I would fight over the wishbone. But unfortunately, it is the only memory I have of Poppy ever actually addressing me.
That’s not to say I didn’t know my grandfather well. On the contrary, I can still hear his thick Bronx accent, and picture his copper-colored bald head, furrowed brow and sad brown eyes. Poppy had the natty look of a Damon Runyon character straight out of Guys and Dolls: always impeccably dressed in a jacket, thin tie, freshly starched white shirt, creased trousers and wingtips. A cigar was always close at hand and he wouldn’t go out without a fedora hat. He had a perky way of playing the piano, too, which supposedly had caught the eye of my grandmother when she first spotted him playing in silent movie halls in the early 1920s. He enjoyed making corny puns and malapropisms, turning words like “homogenized” into the phrase “I homogen-ized saw you last night,” and, to my youthful delight, magically transforming orange juice into “orange Jews.” While singing “Some day my happy arms will hold you” from the standard All the Things You Are, he’d stop to ask with a deadpan expression: “How can arms be happy?”
I have internalized some of my grandfather’s mannerisms. For instance, I occasionally hold newspapers and magazines in a tight downward spiral–like a relay baton—the way my father told me Poppy did during his long subway rides to his Garment District job in lower Manhattan where he was a “cutter” of patterns for ladies’ undergarments for nearly five decades. I remember his distinct, warbling bird-like whistle which you could hear from blocks away and which my father would also employ to gather us as youngsters. Years later, I would try out the whistle on my son, but could never quite capture the right modulation.
I just wish I knew my grandparents better. I wish I could recall entire conversations, words of advice, wisdom, and life lessons imparted from years of experience, handed down like a trusty compass to guide me through all of life’s journeys. Instead, I have only disparate, fleeting memories, based on second-hand accounts and random childhood experiences, like the time my father took us to a pre-release screening of The Godfather in 1971 on the top floor of the old Gulf & Western building on Columbus Circle in Manhattan. During the scene where Michael Corleone’s young bride, Apollonia, unbuttons her blouse to reveal her breasts, I felt cold, rubbery fingers that reeked of Benson & Hedges cigarettes, mixed with a tinge of Shalimar perfume, suddenly cloak my eyes. It was my grandmother Nanny (Molly Friedman) sitting beside me in the dark, shielding me from what she felt was content unsuitable for a minor; she would also annoyingly cover my eyes during the film’s more violent scenes.
Memories of my grandparents can best be summarized by a puzzling question, my own personal Gordian Knot that has tantalized me all of my life: What is the sensus of the basis?
Those were the words my maternal grandfather, Papa (Joseph Howard), uttered one night in 1968 at the Jolly Fisherman restaurant in Roslyn, New York, during a heated exchange with my father. They were discussing the rough treatment of anti-war demonstrators outside the Chicago Democratic Convention when Papa, who had been drinking a glass of bourbon, insisted with bravado: “The cops should bust their heads!” He then boldly proclaimed that if he saw hippies and anti-war protesters on the streets he wouldn’t hesitate to “run them all over.” My father, who was fond of his father-in-law and generally avoided conflict with him, asked him if that would hold true if it were his own grandchildren. Perhaps out of embarrassment or, more likely, not expecting to be challenged by my father, Papa raised his arms in disgust and made a sound akin to “Aaaargh!” as though my father had said something ridiculous. What happened next took us all by surprise. Papa stood up, his thin, tanned face now a shade of crimson with bulging neck veins, and demanded repeatedly in a slurred voice: “What is the sensus of the basis!” Spittle flew from his mouth as he pounded his fist on the table, jarring silverware and knocking over coffee cups. I had never seen my grandfather so angry. All eyes in the restaurant seemed to focus on our table. Papa’s wife, Sophie, tried to calm him down with a soothing “Joeeeee” while my mother offered the more practical advice to my father, “Don’t bother arguing with him.” Eventually, Papa regained his composure, but for the rest of the dinner–including the following weeks–my older brothers, Drew and Josh, would pester me with the question, “What is the sensus of the basis?” to which, of course, I had no reply.
I still have no answer to my grandfather’s puzzling question. However, my brothers and I occasionally refer to that illogical question whenever confounded, vexed and confronted by something nonsensical. That, I suppose, is Papa’s legacy to us. Although I also find myself echoing his other more pointed term of disapproval: “Nahhhh!” a variant on the old Yiddish expression of distaste: Feh! Once, during the height of the civil-rights unrest of the mid-1960s, Papa’s older brother Murray shared with family members his less than progressive views on racial integration. “I wouldn’t live next to a colored family, and neither would you!” Murray lectured, like a prosecutor making a closing argument before a jury. “They ain’t got no cul-cha; They ain’t got no class; They ain’t got no style….” When my mother interrupted, noting that a black attorney and his family lived in a large house across the street from us, Papa responded with a dismissive “Nahhhh!” signaling an end to any further discussion.
My grandparents came from a time when children were to be spoken to and not heard from. That included Grandchildren, who were adornments to kvell about with their friends and relatives, and to celebrate nachas of joy. They saw their traditional, old-fashioned ways under attack by the more modern, supposedly progressive ideals espoused by my parents’ generation which, in their view, were the leading cause of most of the world’s ills. This generation gap, naturally, would lead to occasional differences of opinion between my parents and grandparents, but my brothers and I knew better than to argue with our grandparents.
Of all my grandparents, I got to know Papa the best. We were the youngest of multiple male siblings and we shared a love of sports and games. He was the youngest of five boys raised by strict Orthodox Jewish parents along Broadway and 126th Street in upper Manhattan. Papa maintained a trim, athletic build, with even-cropped silver hair, and wore glasses that gave him the stern look of an old-time schoolmaster. He vaguely resembled New York Yankees shortstop and TV announcer Phil Rizutto, and dressed dapperly in checkered sports jackets and bright trousers atop white loafers. As a young man he played semi-pro baseball and even had a tryout as a pitcher with John McGraw, manager of the New York Giants, but was turned down because he was told he was too thin and wore glasses, although he claimed it was anti-Semitism. His dreams of professional baseball dashed, he entered the life of a salesman.
Among the important lessons Papa taught me were how to play chess, gin rummy and pinochle, and why one should always pour salt on cantaloupe and grapefruit, which, he said, brought out the fruit’s sweetness. A favorite topic for discussion was his lifelong love of baseball and his beloved St. Louis Cardinals and his hero, Stan “The Man” Musial. He would call the base-stealing Cardinals star Lou Brock “a credit to his race,” especially admiring Brock’s business acumen as a florist once his Hall of Fame career came to an end (he had no sympathy, however, for more outspoken “colored” ballplayers of the era such as the fire-throwing pitcher Bob Gibson and Curt Flood, who single-handedly challenged the league’s no-trade clause and long-held racist attitudes). A preferred topic of debate for Papa was who was more of a gentleman, Hank Aaron or Willie Mays?
Like many of his generation, Papa, a devout patriot who supported President Nixon, had a conflicted, knee-jerk reaction to the changing social times, and here he proved to be a bundle of contradictions. Seeing women in mini skirts and “hot pants” on the streets of Manhattan could send him into convulsions of rebuke, this despite the fact that my mother occasionally wore such outfits, much to his chagrin. A retired traveling salesman and distributor of motion pictures throughout the Midwest, Papa wore his heart on his sleeve and still cried at Disney films. Despite occasional rants about “coloreds,” he had a sense of justice that crossed ethnic and racial lines. Once, while traveling on business in the late 1940s, he came to the defense of a black woman on a bus in a small town outside St. Louis, Missouri, when a white man had told the woman to move to the back of the bus. No stranger to both overt and more subtle forms of anti-Semitism, Papa yelled at the man, insisting that the woman had rights and demanded that she remain seated, which she did.
When it came to the sexual revolution and the emergence of the hippie youth movement, however, Papa was clearly dumbfounded. It was as if the world he knew had suddenly turned upside down. In his eyes, anti-war sentiment was practically treasonous. A proponent of family values, he had once boasted of leading a contingent of retirees out of a theater in Fort Lauderdale featuring Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, demanding and receiving their money back because of the film’s nudity and profane language. Why couldn’t more films be like Dames at Sea, he would lament. He had little patience for the youth of my generation, derisively calling long-haired young men “goils,” and you wouldn’t dare get him started on rock ‘n roll music, which he proclaimed “gah-bage!” (Ironically, he never seemed bothered by the hair length of his own grandsons; my brothers and I had Beatles haircuts since the mid-1960s and wore our hair much longer well into the ‘70s.) Once, while shopping at a drug store with him, he grabbed a copy of Playboy off the magazine shelf and started riffling through the pages, tilting the magazine to expose the centerfold. “Would ya’ look at this gah-bage! Just look at it!” he’d remark, with a pained expression. I strained to take a look, but he returned the magazine to the shelf before I could see the “gah-bage” for myself, only to replace it with the latest issue of Penthouse and resumed his diatribe.
Papa’s wife, Sophie, would engage us in more of a semblance of conversation. They had married within a year after my maternal grandmother, Blanche, had died of cancer in 1959, a year before I was born. Originally from St. Louis, Sophie had been married three times before and had an adult son, Charles, with whom she maintained a contentious, distant relationship. She once shared with us how disappointed she was that Charles had dated a “colored” woman, saying that he could have “done better.” Sophie, apparently, had a few skeletons of her own in her closet. One of her earlier marriages, she admitted, had turned out to be a mistake. She said she was attracted to his good looks and the fancy clothes he wore, but on their honeymoon he would leave her to dance with other men. “He wasn’t a man,” she would conclude with a sigh, “He liked boys,” and then quickly change the subject.
My mother had told us repeatedly the story of how when Papa had married Sophie, Sophie approached her at the wedding and asked if she recognized the jewelry she was wearing. When my mother spotted her late mother’s diamond ring and necklace, Sophie responded with a smile, “Not anymore. It’s mine now.” And with that, their relationship remained lukewarm at best. Even though she knew deep down that Sophie was good for her father, my mother did not hide her true feelings about her from us, and I suppose some of those bitter feelings rubbed off on us.
Each summer, Papa and Sophie visited us from Florida for about a week at our home in Great Neck, New York. My mother would point out that Sophie had purchased a new pastel-colored Cadillac, implying that she used her money as a means of controlling Papa. The trunk of their large Cadillac would be stuffed with suitcases and boxes filled with Florida oranges and grapefruits, candied fruit slices, coconut-covered date patties and other assorted gifts that they had purchased at “farm stores,” open-air discount markets that dotted South Florida’s farm belt. Once they gave me a plastic panda bear wall clock with silver sparkles around its eyes and a tail that swished back and forth. Not wishing to hurt their feelings, I placed the clock on my bedroom wall next to favorite baseball cards and pictures of Boris Karloff in various horror movie roles torn from the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. My brothers and I would help lug their suitcases up to the attic, where they would set up camp in a bedroom suite, hanging suits and blouses on makeshift lines. Pretty soon a rich brew of geriatric smells would pervade the attic space including the aroma of Aqua Velva aftershave, cologne, talcum and other scented powders, as well as ointments and flowery perfumes. For added privacy, Sophie would hang a bed sheet near the door, apparently leery of prying teenage eyes.
Whenever Sophie addressed me and my brothers the conversation would invariably steer to the same subject: her preference for boys over girls. “Do you know why I like boys more than girls?” she would ask, her eyes resembling large goldfish swimming in a bowl because of her bifocal glasses. We already knew the answer, but would play along. Girls, she explained, were more expensive than boys. “Girls like diamonds.” She would then tell us that our parents were fortunate to have had three sons instead of daughters, and we would smile back awkwardly, although this close-ended line of conversation usually left us speechless.
Sophie’s other preferred topic for discussion was business, and more specifically, the status of her stock portfolio. Despite being the beneficiary of wise investments set up by a late husband, Sophie worried about her finances, fearful that her fortunes could change on a dime. Each day she would avidly scan the business pages and then report on any changes in her stocks. Her frugality was expressed best one sunny summer afternoon when my mother took us to lunch at Gosman’s Dock, a favorite restaurant near Montauk Point, on the southern tip of Long Island. We were seated on the deck overlooking the scenic Montauk harbor, watching the passing fishing boats, when Sophie opened her menu and her eyes registered alarm. “Joe,” she said sternly, “there’s lobster tails.” I noticed that South African lobster tails were listed on the menu. “Whaaaa? Papa answered lazily, his head in the menu. “There’s lobster tails on the menu, Joe!” she repeated, this time more firmly, shutting the menu and staring blankly into space. I could see anger slowly building on her face. After a few tense moments, she lectured us on their limited financial means. She was apparently fearful that my mother had intended to stick them with the bill. “Joe and I live on a fixed income, you know,” she explained. “Joe only has Social Security.” My mother tried to reassure her that she would cover the bill, but Sophie remained skeptical. In protest, she ordered a baked potato and a cup of coffee, and sat silently for the rest of the meal, occasionally shifting uncomfortably in her seat, with the withered look of a migrant mother during the Great Depression.
At some point during their stay my mother would literally start counting the minutes until their departure. This was usually about the time Sophie would ask her in front of me and my brothers: “Which one is your favorite?” to which my mother would answer in exasperation, “What kind of a question is that?” Undeterred, Sophie would repeat the question, “But which one do you like the best?” My mother would shake her head in disbelief and her voice would rise: “I love all three of my sons!” Once, my mother came up with a creative way to hasten their departure. Aware of Sophie’s aversion to our pet cats, my mother encouraged my brother Drew to place Leroy, a black and white alley cat with a Charlie Chaplin-like mustache, on the dinner table. When Sophie spotted Leroy sniffing at the dinner plates, she panicked and left the table to start packing her suitcases. Before leaving for Florida, Sophie would give each of us a hug and a kiss and then insist on us calling her “Grandma.” Shortly after, my mother would quickly remind us, in case we forgot, that she wasn’t our “real” grandmother.
While we didn’t always treat Sophie with the utmost respect, we were wary about how we addressed our paternal grandmother, Nanny, who was more of an imposing figure. She had dyed red hair, a leathery tanned face, wore cat-eye glasses, and had a gravelly, low voice that sounded as if dipped in tar from years of heavy drinking and smoking. In old photos from the 1930s and ‘40s she resembled a hardened version of Rita Hayworth, and the passage of time had not been kind. The story goes that soon after my cousin Chuck was born in 1948, Nanny was walking him in a stroller along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx when a neighbor approached pushing her own grandchild in a stroller. “Molly, what a beautiful baby,” her neighbor supposedly said excitedly. Nanny peeked inside her neighbor’s stroller and responded in her low, raspy voice: “That’s an ugly baby.” That lack of tact and willingness to say what was on her mind pretty much summed up my grandmother.
Nanny and Poppy lived in the same Art Deco-era one-bedroom apartment for nearly 40 years on a street that bordered Yankee Stadium off 167th Street and Sheridan Avenue in the Bronx. By the mid-1960s, their neighborhood was rapidly changing as many of their friends and relatives had left for the suburbs or Florida, to be replaced by a new wave of Puerto Rican and Dominican families. Despite the changing nature of their neighborhood, their apartment seemed like it was caught in a time warp from a bygone era. They kept a baby grand piano near the entrance that they bought shortly after they were married in the early 1920s. Original sheet music from old Broadway show tunes filled the piano stand and chair. A shelf in the foyer contained a display of Art Deco cigarette lighters and they kept decorative glass ashtrays throughout the apartment with a mini wet bar off to the side. We typically visited them on the High Holidays or on special occasions, but more often than not we met them for dinner further downtown in Manhattan or they visited us in Long Island.
Whenever we visited, my father would slip a Don Diego cigar inside Poppy’s jacket as a sort of welcoming gift. Upon entering, I would marvel at the small alcove at the back end of the narrow kitchen just off the front entrance. This was where my father slept on an oversized chair for much of his childhood until he left for college. My Aunt Dollie would sleep on makeshift bedding within the TV console box in their sunken living room. When I was very young, for fun I would crawl inside the console box and stare at faded cutout images of movie stars like Don Ameche, Hedy Lemarr, Loretta Young and Dick Powell that my aunt had taped to the walls during her childhood. As a child, I thought it sounded perfectly normal, even adventurous, to camp out in your own apartment, although my father told us that it became increasingly embarrassing as he grew older, especially when he would have to explain to a girl he was dating where he slept.
Unlike my maternal grandfather, Papa, who had retired years earlier, Poppy never officially left his job in the Garment District. We heard stories that Poppy had somehow made a poor business decision around World War II, against Nanny’s better judgment, and was mislead by his business partners out of an opportunity for a controlling interest in the company, coming out on the losing end. The real story was never fully disclosed, but it obviously left a dark spot on their marriage. Poppy stoically carried on, however, returning to virtually the same “cutter” position for the rest of his working life. This may have been the cause for his painful stomach ulcers which kept him on a strict diet of bland foods like boiled beef and kasha varnishkes. My father would say that ketchup was the most exotic food Poppy could stomach. One thing we were all aware of was Nanny’s constant bickering, often under her breath. She would berate Poppy over the most benign things but Poppy would good-naturedly just grin and take it, occasionally making a small retort.
Blessed with a quick wit and an equally sharp tongue, Nanny would have excelled in business had she been given the chance, but Poppy was too traditional to allow his wife to work. Clearly frustrated, she spent most of her days at home, often in a bathrobe except when she went out with her girlfriends. As it happens, she developed a drinking problem, although in those days she was what my parents would euphemistically call a “social drinker.” It was said that she would occasionally leave the apartment in her bathrobe, carrying a bottle of liquor and take long cab rides, unloading all her problems on the cabby as a form of therapy. Poppy was known for taking long lonely walks of his own, often sunning himself on nearby park benches or in the bleachers at nearby Yankee Stadium. Family get-togethers would sometimes end with us silently stepping by Nanny’s sleeping body in the kitchen. Still, Nanny was very kind to us and always showered us with sweets and gifts whenever we visited, my favorite being a box of petit four Rainbow Cookies from a nearby bakery. She also seemed to carry an endless supply of hard candies in her purse.
Of all of my grandparents, I think about Poppy the most–not for what he said or did, but for how he made me feel. There was something very comforting in his quiet, gentle, steady, dignified—even somber—demeanor. My father once referred to me as “Mr. Mellow” and I’d like to think that that was a character trait that I inherited directly from Poppy. As a young man during the First World War, and then in mid-age during World War II, Poppy joined the ranks of the civilian defense as an air raid warden, patrolling the night skies for enemy aircraft that never materialized. I still feel pangs of guilt for once shutting the electric car window on his finger when he ran out in the rain to say goodbye to us after one visit. It didn’t help that Drew lambasted me: “Why’d you crush Poppy’s finger, moron?”
By the time I was 11 Nanny was suffering from lung cancer. I remember the final summer that Nanny and Poppy visited us at a house we were renting in the Hamptons. Nanny was drinking more heavily and I remember her scolding me for no reason, which made me cry. After that, I would try to avoid her as much as possible. One night my father took us to an old supper club adjacent to the East Hampton public beach. There was a piano player and a singer near the bar. After our meal, my father and Nanny stood and began dancing to a standard that we could hear from the bar. Nanny appeared lost in a dream as she gently swayed with eyes closed while clutching my father, who was slightly overcome with emotion. Within months, her cancer would rapidly spread. My parents’ marriage was also dissolving and we were in our final plans to sell our house in Great Neck so we could move into Manhattan, ostensibly so my mother could be closer to my father’s work. Nanny was being treated at Lenox Hill Hospital in Midtown Manhattan, and for a while she would stay in my father’s high-rise apartment on East 65th Street so that she could be closer to the hospital. By the time she was hospitalized I never had a chance to say goodbye. At the funeral, my father remarked how the officiating rabbi did such a nice job capturing her personality as if he’d actually known her. I remember how lost Poppy appeared with my Aunt Dollie taking charge of all the funeral arrangements.
Within a few months after Nanny’s death, Poppy would also become sick. He was scheduled for what was supposed to be routine prostate surgery. Since children under 12 weren’t allowed to visit patients for fear of spreading infection, I waited in the hospital visitor’s lounge while my parents and older brothers went to his room. Within a few days Poppy would pass away, apparently because he was operated on while he had a high temperature. The funeral was held at the same chapel as was Nanny’s with the same officiating chaplain. Only this time, my father complained bitterly that the rabbi had failed to capture Poppy’s true character. At the burial site, it was one of the few times I had ever seen my father cry. As much as I tried, though, I couldn’t cry which made me feel a sense of guilt. I wanted to show my father how bad I felt, too; that somehow my grief would make him feel better. As we left the cemetery, my father placed a cigar in Poppy’s open graveside. He said he hoped the cemetery workers would have the decency to leave the cigar.
The last time I saw Papa and Sophie was for lunch at an outdoor Italian restaurant in Manhattan during the mid-1970s (Papa would pass away in the early ‘80s while I was away in college). By this time, my parents were separated and my brothers and I were living with my mother in an apartment on the Upper West Side. Papa still spoke optimistically about bringing “you two kids back together” even though my parents were involved in new relationships and would soon file for divorce. The conversation shifted to mundane talk about retirement life in Fort Lauderdale, their fondness for “farm stores,” and their various ailments. At a certain point, though, my brothers—perhaps out of boredom—began dripping strands of spaghetti and meatballs from their mouths as if they were in a food-spilling contest. Each took turns trying to outdo the other, releasing ever increasing amounts of food onto their plates while my mother and I did our best to keep from laughing. But neither Papa nor Sophie seemed to notice. Then my brothers, each with spaghetti sauce on their lips, took turns mouthing bizarre noises and curses under their breath in Sophie’s direction, which she either didn’t hear or chose to ignore. It was just another in a series of random, puzzling memories of my grandparents that only reinforces Papa’s baffling question uttered so many years ago: What, indeed, is the sensus of the basis?