My paternal grandparents, Mae and Nathan, who emigrated to America as children, told me stories from vanished empires—Mae from Austro-Hungary, Nathan from Russia.
Papa’s boyhood especially intrigued me because I was his age in his stories. His parents had split up in Russia, and his father had come to Newark, NJ, where he remarried and had another family. At twelve, Papa sailed for America alone and moved in with his father and went to work for a greengrocer. A year later, his father died. Papa didn’t move out of the house until he married, but even then he continued supporting the family.
As a child, whose life revolved around sports and double features on Saturday afternoons, I was overwhelmed imagining myself in his place. Yet Papa never mentioned the story that stayed with me. My father told me shortly before he died.
It was 1939. My father was fifteen. Nathan had built a successful wholesale seafood business in Newark, and he and my father were driving home from Manhattan after a buying trip to the Fulton Fish Market. My grandfather turned up a ramp of the West Side Highway and nearly hit a police car head-on. Both cars stopped, and the cop stormed over to the driver’s side window and shouted at my grandfather, asking him what the hell he was doing. Nathan began to explain, in a way that made no sense, why he had entered the highway on an exit ramp.
It was soon apparent to the policeman—and my father—that Nathan couldn’t read English. In a gentle voice, the cop told my grandfather to be careful and didn’t ticket him. Papa drove to Newark without saying another word. My father never mentioned the incident until he told me about it sixty years later.
Sometimes, while I’m sitting at my computer, I whisper, “Listen to me, Papa. You don’t have to read. I’ll tell you the story.”