I NEVER knew my grandfathers, one collapsing of heart failure, the standard Jewish disease, shortly after my birth; the other dying, years earlier, when a tree fell on him while he was bringing the cows home during a June thunderstorm.
The dog brought the cows home alone, and my father went out and found his father in the rain under the tree, dead. I know where the tree was, on a dirt road in a town in the Catskills that is a scratch on the surveyor's map; and each of my cousins--two of whom, like myself, are named for the grandfather--knows where the tree was. But though I think about it from time to time, I have never asked my father the essential questions: Was your father dead when you found him? Had the tree fallen on his head? Were his eyes closed or open? What was it like, being 19, finding your father dying or dead?
Instead, I skirt about it: What kind of personality did your father (who formed you, who formed me) have; what did your father (my grandfather) look like; where did he (I) come from in Poland?
And the answers, for my father is not good at these things, are vague: He came from some place in Poland that wasn't even a town, some place on the Russian border, maybe; he had a personality like your uncle Artie--what would you call that, easygoing? Yeah.
Nor is the Bubbie (my grandmother), 84 years old, good at this sort of thing, speaking of her husband (my grandfather, my father's father) as a saint, a Jewish saint, as widows do. "A good man," she says. "And educated. Dark, like an Italian. Even the gentiles liked him."
Except (goes the dark part of the legend) for the ones who arranged to lower the tree on his head.
You never get a straight answer in families, I have figured out by now; and Father's Day and Mother's Day have always been just an institutionalized way of laquering on another layer of guilt. And though the family is probably the most significant part of anyone's history, discovering that history is not always easy; what the family knows is not what they want to tell you, and what they want to tell you is not necessarily real.
And if you are second-generation Jewish, or maybe it is the same if you are second-generation Italian or Irish or Vietnamese, it is a particular problem, finding out what made you, because sometimes--as in the case of the Bubbie and my generation--you do not even speak the same language anymore; and what you want to know, they don't want to remember.
The Bubbie, born Gussie Belinsky, came to this country from Russia in 1907 and worked in a sweatshop on New York's lower East Side. Asked if she ever gets the itch to visit the country where she was born, she is astonished.
"For what?" she asks.
Among her generation, there is not much desire to talk about the old country. Though she should be the main source of information about my grandfather, he clearly never discussed with her, or with their children, his parents, their lives, the decisions to leave Russia; and so there is, at the juncture where the Jews crossed the ocean, a door slamming down on history.
"They were so secretive," my mother says. "They were all like that, about Europe. It's like the slaves; we have no roots."
Of course, this is not so. I have roots, my brothers have roots, my cousins have roots. It is not necessary to know the town where someone was born to know what makes you. It is of equal importance to try to figure out why they don't want to tell you what they try not to tell you, and to make what sense you can out of the scraps.
What I know, therefore, from my grandmother Gussie Belinsky: When you get off the boat, and you do not speak the language, you do not start automatically at Morgan Guaranty Trust.
What I know from my Grandfather Wadler: Even on the nicest day in summer, the sky may cloud up and a tree may fall on your head.
It does not seem sufficient, however, that from your namesake--Jake Wadler, by the way--you have only the lesson to expect the unexpected, though it's a fairly good lesson, as lessons go. And so, over the years, I have pieced together the following:
Jake Wadler was one of six or seven brothers, all tailors, who arrived in the country in the early 1900s. His father, whose name is not known, had a store near the Russian-Polish border, in Poland. Arriving in this country, Jake had a large steamer trunk and saved at a downtown bank, making deposits of 5 cents. He bought a farm, which was also a boarding house, in a tiny town called Halcott Center, purchasing the property with two partners. A Jew could not own property in Poland, and owning property was a big thing.
One of the guests at the boarding house was my grandmother, recovering from influenza, and a sister. My grandfather (goes the legend) first saw my grandmother lying in a hammock and (continues the legend) courted her with candy and flowers. Because her older sister was unmarried, my grandmother was cool. In the fall, after she returned to the city, Jake surprised her one day, arriving, dressed up, at the shop. She didn't recognize him.
"He looked so good," she says, "I thought he was a boss."
They were married the next year. They had three sons: my father, Bernie, named for my grandmother's father (a whole other story), and my uncles, Artie and Hymie, named for relatives unknown.
There wasn't enough money for three partners, so early on the partners drifted away. Jake spent a lot of the time as a tailor, in the city. In June, at the end of my father's first year at college, my grandfather went out with the dog to get the cows and there was a June rainstorm and a tree fell on his head.
What I deduce from the fact that grandfather pursued my grandmother back in the city: He was not easily discouraged.
What I deduce from the fact that my grandfather saved nickels and was able to buy a farm for $10,000: That he was not afraid of work.
What I deduce from the fact that my grandfather went out for the cows in a June rainstorm, in which he got killed: That he was a realist. Or he was an optimist. Or he had very slow reflexes. Or he was daydreaming. Or none of the above.
The business about foul play being involved in the unnatural demise of my grandfather seems, by the way, to be myth; though where the myth began I would be curious to know since all my generation--the nine cousins--have heard it while my father's generation--the three brothers--now insist it is fraud.
"Whadaya talking?" my father yells, on the phone. "It was a dead tree. It just come down and hit him. Nothing more to it than that."
He is speaking from the mountains, from the building supply business, on a two-way line, with my Uncle Hymie on the other phone and my Uncle Artie hollering from the counter, in front. I am checking to see if there is anything, in 34 years, they have neglected to tell me about their father, and I am seeing, again, that though their voices are all tight with emotion, there is not a lot they know or can add.
"His father had a little country store, somewhere on the border, and they would take a cow to the market and trade it . . ." says my father.
"On the Polish side," says Hymie. "The first town in Poland from the Russian border; he used to tell me it was an overnight trip; they'd go into Russia, stay the night . . ."
". . . You know what it sounded like, when he talked about it? Like that movie, 'Fiddler on the Roof'. . ." says my father.
"Only it wasn't your grandpa playing the fiddle!" Artie yells.
"He never talked about his parents . . . we never talked much about this kind of thing. You wanna remember, I was 18 or 19 when he died . . ." says my father.
"I was 11," Hymie says.
What a family does when the first grandson in America, scheduled to be named, according to Jewish tradition, for a dead ancestor, turns out to be a girl: Name her Joyce Judith, the closest you can get to Jake.
What a family does when the firstborn of the other sons of the dead ancestor turn out to be males, but the name Jake has gone out of fashion: Name them Jason and Jeffrey.
What the first grandchild in America, assuming she has children, will name her firstborn, unless a nearer relation dies: Joanna, Jessica, Jeremy, Judith or Jake.
What the first grandchild in America, assuming she has children, will tell the firstborn about its namesake:
He came over on a boat with his brothers, to a place where he did not know the language and would be considered an outsider, because it was lousy for Jews in Poland and he wanted a better life. He had nerve and was not easily discouraged. He wore a funny peaked cap in the country, but in the city he went to the opera and dressed sharp. He was a good man, even the gentiles liked him. He chased a woman he saw in a hammock from the country to the city, though you will also note, in the one picture of him we have, that he has his arms around his family.
It is not known whether he knew this, but for your own sake, please remember that even in the nicest day in summer, the sky may cloud up; and if so, try to take some measures so that a tree will not fall on your head.