That would be Russian for, “I don’t speak English.”
Which, I do, of course. And aside from a few phrases I’ve been taught by my sweet Lena, I do not speak Russian. But when you are sixteen years old, and attempting to sneak onto a riverboat cruise, (read: floating bar) you get creative.
I was about six weeks into my first semester at college and happily agreed to go along on a trip to Pittsburgh, about 40 minutes from our school on the edge of Ohio. Our motives were innocent enough, having absolutely nothing to do that night and having no clue that there was an age restriction, we all piled into one of the university’s vans, dressed in our finest 90s garb.
When we arrived at our destination, it became quickly apparent that we’d be required to show our IDs and prove we were of drinking age. I’d never had a drink in my life, being the sheltered homeschool nerd that I was, but no matter. To board the boat, you needed to be twenty-one. And half of us were not. And we were forty minutes away from campus.
We needed a plan. A quick one.
My Lena is a smart girl who is extremely quick on her feet. Knowing my baby-faced self wasn’t getting by the ID checker, she turned to me and said, “Pretend you don’t speak English!” Which is a great idea, but how exactly? She was straight from Moscow, so that was a perfect cover, but for me? I didn’t know any Russian!
“Repeat after me. Ya. Ne. Govoryu.” She sounded out each syllable as we got closer and closer to the boat. I practiced enough to convince anyone who had never heard the language that it was legit. Not sure what we would have done if by some strange twist of fate, the security guard spoke Russian, but thankfully he didn’t.
When we got up front, the rest of our party boarded effortlessly, while Lena and I were stopped. She launched into a lengthy Russian tirade while I just nodded and threw out the odd “Da” or two for continuity’s sake. As Americans tend to do, the security guard got louder and elongated each syllable: “EYE-DEEEE. DO YOU HAVE EYE-DEEE?”
After we clogged the line for another minute or so, he gave up and waved us through. I was never much for rebellion, but I’ll be damned if that wasn’t a thrill.
Today would have been my maternal grandfather’s 112nd birthday.
He was living proof that the greatest of people need not be physically impressive. At just over five feet tall and just under a hundred pounds, my grandfather made people nervous with how fragile he appeared. His stick thin arms looked like you might be able to break them just by brushing against him. But he would carry me whenever I asked him to do so, usually on escalators which terrified me for some reason.
My grandfather emigrated to America from Russia in 1922 at the age of 19. He came here with his youngest sister after his own grandmother had passed away. His mother and other siblings came to America before him, but they didn’t have enough money for everyone, and so Grandpop stayed behind with Miriam and the grandmother.
Not that long after he arrived in America, Grandpop met and married Ida, my grandmother. They lived together with her three sisters and their spouses as well as her parents for many years until they were able to strike out on their own, at which point they lived in the misleadingly-named Strawberry Mansions neighborhood of Philadelphia, still known to be one of the most dangerous and economically-disadvantaged locations in the city. He made a living as a presser for a garment manufacturer. I can’t even comprehend how he had the muscles to operate the machinery, but he did that for nearly forty years, providing for his family and even managing to stash away some savings.
The story is a bit fuzzy, but at some point before my grandfather made his escape, the Bolsheviks were systematically destroying all of the Jewish villages, known as Schetls, and as they were going around shooting people, my grandfather hid underneath his grandmother’s bed to evade capture or worse. When they saw how old and sickly his grandmother was, one of the soldiers said to his cohort, “Don’t waste your bullets.”
Someone also told me the story of how my grandfather carried the body of his father in a wheelbarrow to the potter’s field for burial as they could not afford a proper burial. Prior to the revolution, they had some wealth, but that was all taken from them.
Grandpop never told me these stories himself. I was fascinated with the portrait that hung in his home, transfixed by the beauty of the clothing and the richness that emanated from it, but could only ever get him to share the names of those pictured, and sometimes a quick detail about their occupation. He would wave a tiny hand at me dismissively and say, “These were not happy times, no, let us not talk about them. Now are the happy times. We will stay in the happy times.”
I’d like to say that was possible, but having already suffered from the trauma of his youth and then later losing his only daughter suddenly, my grandfather could not help but succumb to his depression.
But on this day, the occasion of his birthday, I will remember the spry fellow who wrestled his dog, Shadow. Who got tipsy from half of a beer. The man who loved to play checkers with any worthy adversary, and who loved his family. The man who helped raise me.
I will stay in the happy times.
When faced with split-second, life-altering decisions, most of us assume our instincts and good sense will somehow kick into high gear, and, fueled by pure adrenaline, we will make instantaneous smart choices.
As far as I can tell, the opposite may be true.
For example, a good friend of mine once told me about driving around with her mom back in the day. As it was pre-seatbelt smarts, my friend was changing her baby sister on the bench as they maneuvered around town. For some reason, her mom had to hit the brakes. But did my friend grab tight to the baby, saving her from flying off the seat and onto the floorboards? No, no she did not. She did, however, rescue the can of coke from certain spillage as it leaped forth out of the armrest. (The baby escaped unharmed, thankfully, not that much more traumatized than the soda)
My similar stupidity involved the rescuing of a twodollar flea market hat in the face of my own inevitable kidnapping or maybe death. An ugly hat, I might add.
The situation was this: one night, while traveling through Italy, my friend and I decided to sleep in a train station to save money, as neither of us had much left. It was mid-May, and for some inexplicable reason, it was freezing in Southern Italy. I asked my friend if he wouldn’t lend me a sweatshirt, but he feigned sleep and rolled over on the bench. I was entirely too chilly for sleep, so I walked around the station a bit, looking for a drink cart or something.
Now, train stations are not typically found in the fanciest parts of town, and certainly most places are not the ideal location for a leisurely walk at 2 o’clock in the morning, least of all a train station in a port town of Italy, but I was annoyed at being cold and really annoyed that my friend didn’t care enough to save me from the chill, and so I decided I would wander outside of the train station.
At 2 o’clock in the morning.
In a port town.
It was pitch black, and there was one road stretched out with jersey walls on either side, plastered with bills advertising establishments no respectable individual would frequent. It took about 45 seconds before a car pulled up close to me, dimmed its lights, and the driver leaned across and started to shout at me in Italian, motioning for me to hop in. I could read the danger on his olive-toned face.
At that moment, I realized I had never been more foolish in all my 19 years. Additionally, that if I intended to live for any more, I should move along quickly and get back. I smiled politely and confidently at the creepiest person I’ve ever seen outside of a horror film, and picked up the pace a bit.
Which is when he swerved the car in front of me, cut the engine, and got out.
My heart was now lodged in my throat as my eyes darted toward the field to the right of me. Thankfully, it led into bright lights which I assumed my pursuer would avoid, right back to the train station, and eventually to my friend. I have never been even close to athletic or fast on my feet, but I swear they only hit dirt every few paces as I went. He wasn’t that far behind me, but he wasn’t catching up to me, perhaps inhibited by drugs or alcohol.
And that is when my foot caught an uneven spot in the grass, and I stumbled over, my two dollar flea market hat, purchased at the beginning of the semester in the market square in Vienna, went rolling off of my big stupid head.
And at that moment, in the midst of outrunning a man with only God knows what hideously evil intentions, I stopped to pick up my two dollar flea market hat. Yes, I really did.
I don’t know if you can really measure time in smaller increments than seconds, but if you can, that’s about how long it took me to reconsider my hat-rescuing instincts and resume my sprinting. By the time I hit the safety of the floodlights, I turned and saw that the man was winded and bent over, having given up his chase.
Perhaps he saw me reach down for my hat and realized I was entirely too stupid for his tastes.
My mother is a bit of a saint.
There are many reasons, but for the purposes of this story, she is a saint for her desire to give an insane 80 year-old a proper birthday celebration. A saint, but also a bit of an overreaching optimist, as fate would have it.
When her father came to live with us, pleasant yet extremely forgetful, his wife also moved to town, but into a nursing home facility. Granish, as she was named by my older brother, was sort of our grandparent, but not really, as she was technically a step-grandparent. But that is quite a sterile-sounding term, so the cutesy Granish moniker was created.
Granish had never been married before and had no children of her own. She was somewhat emotionally fragile, and not that long after marrying Granddad, she started showing signs of mental illness. Living in our house wasn’t a safe possibility, so she went to live at the nursing home where we all visited from time to time. She was a frightening character, hunched in her wheelchair, her shocking white hair always jutting out in various geometrical shapes, never letting the nurses get close enough to tame it.
There was only one occasion that my mom felt it our obligation to spring Granish from the nursing home: her 80th birthday. As far out there as she tended to be, Granish was fond of reminding us all that she was “crazy, not stupid,” and so well aware it was her birthday. My mom set the dining room table beautifully with the best dishes and even some fresh flowers, and tried to make a nice celebration for Granish.
At the top of the long dining table were my parents’ chairs as well as my Grandmom’s, while Granddad was at the complete other end of the table. Every night, after the standard grace before meals, Grandmom had taken to adding on bits of extra prayers. I’m not sure when this all started, but by this particular dinner, we were in the range of two extra minutes or so. Most of us worked hard to tolerate the extra frills, but Granddad was not accustomed to hiding his disdain and had taken to interrupting her. I don’t know if Grandmom heard or not, but she always managed to press on, determined to add in all the priests, the police, and the names of every dead friend she had, which, at her age, was an impressive list.
As Granddad had no short-term memory to speak of, I assume each evening provided a new frustration for him, but on that night he went with his standard move: yelling AMEN! every three seconds or so. But on this occasion, that of her 80th birthday, our guest of honor chimed in with her favorite mantra.
“GODDAMNIT GODDAMNIT GODDAMNIT!”
And so went the rhythmic theme song of Granish’s 80th birthday: “God bless our priests -AMEN! – GODDAMNIT! – and all the firefighters – AMEN! GODDAMNIT! – and all the souls in purgatory – AMEN! -GODDAMNIT!” until Grandmom ran out of her prayers and the rest of us dug our nails into our legs to avoid laughing hysterically at the horror of it all.
Lemme ‘splain. (I swear the quotes stop here. But I can’t help it. I just can’t. Look at him – can you blame me?)
Back when I was in college, I spent a semester in Austria with about a hundred other students from my university. Unlike most study abroad programs, we all knew each other, with the exception of a handful of Europeans and even fewer first-time students. In spite of what I am about to tell you, it remains one of the best semesters of my college experience. That’s the wonderful thing about growing up – that which you think really and truly might kill you seems so trivial when you’ve gone on to survive, well, that which might have actually killed you.
During the first few weeks of the semester, I would spend a lot of time playing the beautiful grand piano in one of the many ornate rooms. Our campus was a restored Carthusian monastery and wasn’t short on impressiveness. As it happened, a boy kept appearing and silently listening to me play the few Beethoven and Mozart pieces I’d thought to bring along. I assumed he was one of the European students because of his appearance as well as his lack of speaking, but it turned out he was just a transfer student.
And as my obnoxious little 19 year-old self was wont to do anytime I was paid the slightest bit of attention, I developed a massive crush. Which, in my defense, was also reciprocated.
We spent many weekends traveling together with groups of our friends. As one might well imagine, traipsing about Europe together does precious little to damper a college girl’s romantic daydreams. We sat together at meals, during class, and stayed up late at night talking and talking.
Until one day, we didn’t.
I wasn’t the quickest bunny in the field, and I wasn’t catching on to the fact that dreamy boy had moved along. Sure, we still spent time together, but something had changed in our interactions. So I did what most college girls do – I dug in my claws a bit deeper.
Always a solid move, right?
Late one night, he and I were studying for a Philosophy midterm with a mutual friend. I must have dozed off on the futon mid-read, what with it being around 2 AM, because the next thing I knew, I was hearing my crush and our other friend talking. About me.
Now, I should point out the obvious fact that they were being completely foolish to have this conversation literally in front of me, but it was happening. And I was assumed to be still sleeping.
So there I was, frozen, unable to escape, as the boy of my dreams of the moment was carrying on and on about how he used to like me but was now head over heels for a someone better, someone brighter, a sweet Slovakian angel of a girl. How I was alright and all, but not nearly as lovely as the heavenly creature who now occupied his every thought.
Humiliations. Galore. And I was trapped.
This carried on for what seemed like an eternity but probably more likely ten minutes, until they meandered back into Plato’s cave. At that point, I pretended to rouse from a deep sleep and hauled ass to my room, fighting off the urge to scream and cry.
I’d love to tell you that I held my head high, knowing this was a learning experience, and that I moved on gracefully, realizing I was better off, alas, I carried on in my unrequited idiocy for a couple more months until the semester’s end. And then we went to Greece together for two weeks.
I can decidedly say that while this remains one of the most cringe-worthy moments of my younger days, I now laugh along with you, dear reader, and that has made all the difference.
I used to joke that the reason I was immune to most peer pressure is that I knew somehow, some way, no matter how inconceivable, if I dared to stray from the straight and narrow, my mother would find out. Yes, my own disposition lent itself to good behavior, but were I ever tempted to rebel in the slightest, I had years’ worth of experience to know that woman was some kind of freaking sorceress when it came to her children and their missteps.
This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I am confident that my seemingly-omniscient mother kept me from making a handful of stupid mistakes in my teen years. I aspire to convince my own children that I know and see all, for their sakes as well as my own. The groundwork for this illusion is being built every day, in fact. (insert maniacal laughter)
But there was this one time, this one, magnificent occasion, where I got away with something.
When we were younger, my parents would host parties from time to time for my father’s colleagues. As these were for grown ups only, my dad would carry the only household television into the den, tinker with the rabbit ears until we got a decent picture, and stuff us full of popcorn. We’d watch whatever movie was available on public television and then head off to bed.
On one of these occasions, we were happily plunked on the floor, probably watching Wizard of Oz, when the picture started to go wonky. We weren’t to disturb our parents, and since I didn’t have the patience required to wait until one of their periodic check-ins, I decided that I would rise to the occasion and adjust the antennae myself.
As was usually the case, the twins attempted to talk me out of my stupidity, to no avail. I was seven years old, darnit, and I could save us all. I’d seen the grown ups do this a hundred times, how hard could it be?
Being a short kid, I had a time of it attempting to even reach the long, metal pieces, so I focused my attentions on the lowest bits which stuck out of the back. I kept at it for a while, relying on my sidekicks to let me know if I was on the right track. And just as I had nearly finished saving the evening, I heard and felt a dull snap.
Complete and utter panic ensued. In my zeal, my weak little hands had broken the plastic piece which attached the antennae to the television. My heart beat fast, my hands shaking and clammy, I wonder how I didn’t pass out at that moment. We started to brainstorm plausible explanations, but came up empty. My only option was to prop it up like nothing happened and hope no one noticed.
And so we waited.
Not much long after, my parents sent us off to bed. I can remember lying there, wondering when the hammer would fall. Would it be at breakfast? Perhaps I would be woken up in the morning and interrogated? Would all three of us manage to keep the secret?
But something so completely and utterly bizarre happened that next day. I came down the stairs, walking as slow as possible, dreading the fate I would meet, and there in the living room was the television, bunny ears extended toward the sky. Was this a trap? Or had I dreamed the whole tragic mess? No, I didn’t think so. But why weren’t my parents interrogating us? No sense was to be made.
Hours gave way to days, and eventually my heartbeat returned to a healthy rhythm. And every once in a while, I would catch a glimpse of the duct tape holding the antennae on and wonder how it is that I got away with breaking it.
Finally, one afternoon after we had moved overseas and back again, I heard my parents talking as they were setting up our furniture. It was then that I had beer to thank for my fortuitous escape from punishment. It turns out that my father had one too many and decided to move the television out of the den that night before going to bed and regaining sobriety. He was operating under the delusion that HE had broken the bunny ears clean off the television!
Oh thank you, glorious, glorious beer.
As a child, before I landed in the home in which I was raised, I spent about two years going back and forth between my Irish Catholic grandmother, my father’s mother, and my Russian Jewish grandfather, my mother’s father. If that sounds confusing to you, try being a preschooler.
My grandfather was a wee wisp of a thing, standing tall at about five-foot one, and weighing in at maybe ninety-five pounds. Although he’d never been formally educated past the third grade, Grandpop was brilliant – he had grown up during the Communist Revolution and while his family and community spoke Yiddish, taught himself Russian so he could eavesdrop on the soldiers. I imagine being able to move his tiny self about unnoticed helped in this as well. After emigrating to the states, he then taught himself English.
While I lived with my grandfather in Center City Philadelphia, I attended Hebrew Nursery School. I was presumably the only baptized kid in my class. While he worked very hard to strictly speak English, there were words from his first language that peppered his speech, and I adopted them into my own cobbled-together vernacular.
I can remember walking my grandfather’s giant sheepdog, Shadow, in the middle of what must have been the blizzard of 1979. The snowbanks were taller than I was, and nearly as tall as he was. Thank goodness Shadow was a black sheepdog, otherwise we might have all been lost for good. When we got back into the house, he heated up milk on the stove and poured in Hershey’s syrup from a can, and we sat at the corner diner-style table in his tiny kitchen on the green vinyl booth and drank it together. I still think of him anytime I smell that stuff.
Being downright Lilliputian has a number of advantages, particularly when one lives in a tiny row house. Had we been a bigger people, conditions would have been cramped. The only creature that might have felt the walls closing in on him was Shadow, but fortunately he enjoyed lazying about and being very close to his people.
I’m not sure why it happened this way as I usually spent the religious holidays specific to each side of the family with that side of the family, but for whatever reason, I ended up with my Jewish grandfather one Easter. There wasn’t a yard to speak of at our house, and aside from that, it was raining. I insisted on an egg hunt in spite of the obstacles.
I can remember dyeing the eggs together, something I am certain he’d never done previously. I explained, in the best way a four year-old might, that you put the colored eggs in the refrigerator so the Easter Bunny can hide them while you sleep. I recall agreeing to the terms of indoor hiding in light of the weather conditions.
The next morning, I came downstairs to a lovely basket full of chocolates and candy. The drizzle continued outside, but I was determined to start my hunt for the eggs. As I mentioned, the house was downright tiny and there couldn’t have been that many hiding spots, but as I surveyed the room I couldn’t find a single pastel egg interrupting the grey hue of the cloudy day. No egg in the piano bench, no egg in the china cabinet, no egg nestled on the candlesticks.
No egg to be found.
Grandpop was so proud of himself for hiding the eggs so well, but sensing my mounting frustrations, he began to give hints and direct me. “You’re getting warmer, getting warmer,” as I maneuvered toward the sofa. “Getting hot! Hot!” as I realized the gap between the sofa and the wall had grown significantly overnight.
I scrunched down, clutching my empty basket, ready to snatch up the first-discovered egg. Which is when I spotted the mint green tupperware bowl, draped with an open newspaper page which covered the entire lot of Easter eggs.
Apparently I had neglected to mention to my newly-appointed Jewish Easter Bunny that hiding eggs meant hiding them individually, not collectively.
Really, we should all just be glad he thought to hardboil them!
As I previously mentioned, my grandmother came to live with my family just after her 90th birthday. She had slipped into a depression at that point, and instead of living on her own, everyone thought it best she be surrounded by family who loved her on a daily basis.
My grandmother was pretty amazing. Having been the oldest girl in her family, she left school after the eighth grade to help raise her siblings. She was born in 1899 and so was always one year older than the calendar year. She scooted around the house with relative ease for her age, and could be found, on occasion, pilfering snacks from the walk-in pantry. Having been raised in an age where food was scarce coupled with a generational shame of eating publicly, Grandmom liked to maintain an illusion of a birdlike appetite. This required sneaking food from time to time. Her hearing wasn’t the greatest, so I suspect she didn’t realize just how loud the crumple of the pretzel bag really was, no matter how careful she thought she was being.
I hesitate to say my grandmother had a naughty streak as that seems to infantilize her, but there were times when she most certainly appeared to be so. In her defense, any grown woman who raised a family, lived through the depression and two world wars along with every other moment of the 20th century might find it necessary to act out a wee bit.
Or maybe even a lot, which explains the night of the Roadrunner.
As Thanksgiving was drawing near, we broke it to Grandmom that instead of the usual trip to Pennsylvania to eat with extended family, she would be going to Ohio with us. Grandmom was displeased. Truth be told, so was I, but that’s the deal when you’re a kid. Grandmom was an adult and let her displeasure be known. She’d done Thanksgiving at my aunt’s house for decades and wasn’t about to cave to this Ohio insanity.
There was, however, no dissuading my parents from their nefarious plan. The old girl tried, and for that I was grateful, but the parentals were unmoved. It was Ohio or bust. The night before our trip, we all went to bed in the usual way, except Grandmom, who had apparently worked out her own agenda.
The first step involved spitting out her sleep medication.
As this all took place in the early 1990s, before the days of home video monitoring systems and the like, the rest of the details are probable as opposed to definite, but what we do know for sure is this: at around 2 o’clock that morning, the phone rang, and one of Crofton’s finest let my dad know that his mother was in the back of a squad car.
Yes, in the fourth week of November, a particularly chilly time of year, my 92 year-old grandmother was found walking down the middle yellow line of Route 450 wearing nothing but her nightgown.
Luckily, the police officer was extremely understanding when he returned my recalcitrant Grandmom to our home in the middle of the night. He may have even been impressed that she had managed to travel over a mile down the highway. And fortunately, she was completely unharmed and not at all damaged by the cold. My parents managed a sense of humor in light of her safety and nicknamed her the roadrunner, vowing to install a higher lock on the door upon our return from the next day’s trip.
Yes, we all loaded up the big brown van the next day as previously planned and headed off to Ohio. And as my father completed the prayers of grace before carving into the Thanksgiving turkey, right before we all joined in an “amen,” he thanked God for my grandmother’s safety and declared, “MEEP MEEP!”
For whatever reason, all of the genetic material needed for making meaningless conversation was maxxed out on me. There was none left over for my twin brothers, I guess. So when the three of us are dispatched to relatives for visits, I end up being the one who chats incessantly, filling any and all awkward silences, typically in an awkward fashion myself.
I’ve hopefully perfected these skills as I’ve grown older, making sure to ask meaningful questions, steering the conversation toward pleasant topics, etc., but let’s just say that in the early years, I wasn’t so much a skilled conversationalist but more of a nervous talker. I never met a pregnant pause I couldn’t destroy within seconds.
One summer break during our college years, my mom strongly suggested (read: here are the car keys, this is what you’ll be doing today) that my brothers and I pay a visit to our aunt and uncle who lived in Northern Virginia. While this was only a little over an hour away, we hadn’t spent a lot of time with them, and this was our first visit to their home. My uncle was my mother’s older brother and only sibling, and as things often are in families, it was complicated. But they were lovely people who loved us dearly and wanted to spend some time getting to know us more.
We had a quiet lunch, occupying ourselves with many bites of food. As it turns out, my uncle and brothers shared a love of sports statistics second only to their love of long periods of silence. Having an only child, I imagine their home was typically so quiet you could hear a pin drop. And while my brothers certainly knew the answers to my aunt’s questions, they sat still as stones while I prattled on, happy to let me do all the talking.
Which is how the most glorious of word confusions of my entire speaking tenure came to pass.
At one particularly long pause, as all gathered shifted their gazes from left to right, wondering who would be the brave soul to save us all from the growing awkward, I stumbled upon the topic of our older sister’s approaching wedding. Solid topic. No controversy possible. Material for days. Until the record-screeching moment when I announced their living plans for after the wedding.
“They’ve rented a condom in Annapolis.”
And there sat my brothers, silent as church mice, understandably shocked and unable to move.
Now had this been essentially any other relative, I could have cracked a joke, laughed off my slip, but NO, it had to be the quietest of politest relatives we have. Couldn’t have made this mistake in front of my rowdy Irish aunt, of course. She would have found it hilarious. She would have said something along the lines of, “That’ll be a tight fit,” and we would have all chuckled and each year it would have been trotted out for more laughs.
There was nothing to do but quickly correct myself and pray for death.
We remained at my aunt and uncle’s home for a solid two hours after this dreaded moment. This may have been the longest two hours of my life to date.
As we piled in the minivan to head home, no sooner had the sliding door latched that my brothers launched into a chorus of, “Icannotbelieveyousaidthatwhatiswrongwithyou”s. The three of us shouted it out, completely exhausted from the past 120 minutes of containing our laughter, horror, and really, our breath.
Suffice it to say, while my brothers never did up their pointless chatter game and still trust me to fill the silence for some reason, I made a wise decision that day: ALWAYS say condominium, never condo. It’s just a risk I’m no longer willing to take.