It was hard for me to put together an image of my father’s father, Eliyahu. I never met the man I am named for, he died a few years before I was born. My father rarely spoke more than a few words about him, ending always with “may he rest in peace” uttered in Yiddish accented Hebrew.
I have two photos of him, dressed in his best suit, wearing a fedora in one. He has a wry expression in the photograph with the fedora, standing next to his wife, his younger son next to her. The kid looks about sixteen, which would explain my father’s absence from the family photo. Irv would have been in the army. I should scan that photo so you can see my grandfather’s expression. An expression as telling and elusive as the Mona Lisa’s.
The man is a mystery I learned as much about as I could from other sources. My mother never met him and my father, as I said, rarely said anything about him. I never learned where he came from in Europe, though he crossed the ocean as a very young child. I was surprised to learn he spoke English with no foreign accent. He was a man of few words in any case, communicating mostly by shrugs, it seems. He was raised by a cruel step-mother who frequently hit him in the head with whatever came to hand, including wooden boards. His wife, who hated him, spoke mostly Yiddish and always struggled with English.
I am muddling this portrait, which is already muddled enough. Maybe it is too soon in the Book of Irv to bring up this mysterious character of Irv’s father. I have almost nothing to go on, except for the eerie resonances echoing between this dead grandfather and my own life.
I have very few stories about him, and these came through my own diligence ferreting them out of my father’s first cousin Eli, Nehama’s half-brother. More about those two later. Eli, who was seventeen years older than my father, and also born in America, describes the life of my infant father and his parents in the slums of lower Manhattan in the years right before the Great Depression.
“Your grandfather had a job delivering herring on the Lower East Side. He was a big strong guy and he’d carry the barrels of herring into the shops and collect the money. He drove a cart, horse drawn. The horse knew the route and he’d stop at each store and your grandfather would get down and wrestle the barrel into the store. This went on for some time and then the horse died.”
“So they got a new horse and sent your grandfather out with the herring. He had no idea where the stores were, he never paid attention since the horse knew the route. He just drove around all day. He came back at night with all the herring still on the truck. His boss asked him what the fuck the idea was and your grandfather shrugged and was fired on the spot. Not long after that my father sent me down with the truck to bring them all up to Peekskill.”
Where they lived in humiliating poverty until my father was rescued by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. My father turned eighteen less than six months later and was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Forces. He served for 36 months and never again lived in Peekskill. Shortly after the war his father, a non-drinker, died of liver disease at the age of 56 and is buried under a headstone identifying him as a simple, straight man.
“People said he wasn’t ‘fayik’,” Eli told me, “but it wasn’t so. It’s just that he emotionally checked out after his step-mother got done whacking him in the head. He didn’t say much, but he was fayik, he had a good sense of humor. Sometimes I felt like I was the only one who realized this. It was his manner, the way he reacted to things, which was no reaction. He was very funny, completely deadpan. You’d look at his face and he’d be like this,” and Eli turned his face into an emotionless mask.
“Two eyes, a nose and mouth,” he said and he zipped a finger across his mouth.
I never got a definitive definition of “fayik” but it seems to mean ‘with it.’ Apparently my father was among the many who believed his father wasn’t fayik. The most compassionate thing I ever heard my father say about his father was uttered the night before he died. “My father was an illiterate country bumpkin completely overwhelmed by this world,” he said in that terrible strained voice he had right before the end.