The woman who gave birth to my father always called him “Sonny” just as she always whipped him in the face when he was first learning to stand. There was a terrible distance between Irv and his mother Chava, I always got the feeling, though Chava died young a few years before I was born and so I never got to meet her. I don’t get the sense that my father ever trusted his mother or felt very close to her. Why would he have?
It was his mother-in-law, Yetta, who he called Mom. My father adored Yetta and Yetta loved my father unconditionally. In Yetta Irv found a mother’s tender love for the first time. Beyond that, he was Yetta’s clear favorite, the number one son she’d never had, my mother being her only child. Yetta was a dynamic, opinionated, bright and talented woman who inspired hyperbole.
“Your grandmother could make a battleship with a needle and thread,” my father rose to the heights of poetry to tell my sister and me. Yetta had worked for a famous designer, Helena Troy, perhaps (my mother would know the name, but she’s silent on the matter now) attending fashion shows to steal the ideas of other designers, which she would smuggle out in her head, committing them to memory and making the mock-ups without patterns or, apparently, any hesitation. She was a genius dressmaker, had been since she was a girl.
“She had a business in Vishnevetz, making clothes. She had several women working for her, she was still a teenager,” my mother told me once. It didn’t surprise me.
“Grandma could have been the first female president of the United States, if she’d been born here,” my mother told me from time to time. I never gave it any credibility, Grandma was not, to my knowledge, a great reader, or a serious student of politics, or a born organizer or a party stalwart or any kind of expert in the distasteful arts all professional politicians must master. She had strong beliefs she was deeply committed to. She was blunt, brutally honest and unable not to be.
“I know, I know,” she would say sympathetically, smiling warmly, waving her big hands after a cruel remark came out of her mouth, “the truth hurts. I know, I know….”
That Yetta and Irv deeply loved each other there could be no question. In fact, I’m pretty sure Yetta had a hand in choosing Irv as a husband for her rebellious daughter Evelyn. Evelyn had been born Helen, didn’t like the name and changed it to Evelyn. A beautiful girl, extremely bright, with a good sense of humor and a lively personality, Evelyn had numerous suitors. Yetta locked horns with the most persistent of these suitors, a handsome, dashing, headstrong fellow named Art Metesis, a young man her daughter was madly in love with.
My mother and Art wanted to get engaged, may have already become engaged. Yetta would not hear of it. Like Aren and Tamarka busting up young Chava’s romance with the red haired Jewish postman, like Chava and Eli busting up young Irv’s romance with that Connecticut widow, Yetta apparently busted up the romance between her daughter and Art.
After my mother died I searched everywhere for the blue leather- bound poetry journal I remember my mother having when I was a kid. In the very last box I found not the notebook, but a folder with about a dozen poems, most of them corny ones written for her fellow senior citizens on special occasions. One poem was a passionate love poem I scanned and sent to my sister. My sister blushed when she read it and said it was surely not written to our father. It had, to the best of my knowledge, been written to Art Matesis.
Art was hot-blooded and so was Yetta, when it came down to it. There was a horrible scene in Yetta’s kitchen on Eastburn Avenue, just off the Concourse, and nobody was backing down. At the climax of this shouting match Art apparently crushed the glass he had been holding in his hand, in a show of superhuman strength, and left, one imagines, cursing and bleeding. As far as I know my mother never saw Art Matesis after that.
I don’t know how long it took, but Yetta eventually convinced her daughter to go out with Stamper’s cousin Irv. Stamper was Yetta’s good friend, Dinsche was her name, and the Stamper she married was a Communist and all around good guy. Dinsche grew up in Truvovich and had come over on the same boat with her cousin Chava, my father’s mother.
Chava would bring the boys on the train from Peekskill and they’d visit their cousins a few floors above my mother’s apartment. My mother’s kitchen window looked out over the courtyard of her building, it was on the first floor. She glared at the two hicks from Peekskill as they walked toward the front door, following behind their evil looking little religious mother.
Yetta eventually convinced Evelyn to go out with Irv, who Yetta thought was a wonderful boy. Evelyn eventually relented and went out with the hick, just to get Yetta off her back. To her amazement the hick was urbane, funny, self-effacing and seemingly interested in, and informed about, everything. They went out again and had another great time. Yetta welcomed Irv with great shows of warmth that must indeed have warmed him. After a short while Evelyn and Irv were going steady, then engaged and then married. They made a handsome couple on their wedding day. My mother adored Irv, maybe more than Yetta herself did.
My mother almost always took my father’s side and so, for the most part, did my grandmother. There is only one incident I can recall when Yetta took my side against both of them. I had been on crutches for a month, and my first day off crutches, on a blazingly hot Saturday, my father kicked me out of the Jewish camp he directed and made me walk a few miles up hill to the nearest restaurant to wait out the Sabbath.
Ironic, the timing of the injury that put me on crutches. The near severing of my left flexor hallicus longus, the long tendon on the underside of the foot that moves the big toe, happened on Father’s Day, 1978. The Yankees had just had their asses handed to them in Fenway Park, I’d been in the bleachers watching the Red Sox use the Yankee pitchers for batting practice, launching countless home runs over our heads.
We were cooling off after the game in an icy pond in Wellesley. When I put my foot down, feeling for the muddy bottom, I felt a sharp sting. My friend almost fainted when I held my foot up, urged me not to look at it, there was blood everywhere. He had me keep pressure on it as we rushed to a doctor. Apparently the sting had been a slice from a razor sharp broken bottle on the bottom of the pond, the severed tendon was hanging out like a gruesome white tongue. When the shock passed, and the pain killer wore off as the sun was coming up the next morning, I woke up in agony that must have been similar to crucifixion. I hopped into the next room and woke my friend who dashed off to a 24 hour pharmacy and brought me more pain killers.
The doctor had warned me not to put any weight on the foot for at least a month. “If you do,” he said, “you will never dance again, never run, never walk properly. You will tear that flexor, which is more than 3/4 severed already, and that will be that. If you let it heal, you will be fine.” He didn’t have to tell me twice. I had no intention of never again chasing down a long fly ball in the outfield of Inwood Park.
I’d been off crutches a day or two when my girlfriend’s father offered me a ride past the camp where my parents worked. They were on their way to a bungalow a few miles away. I hadn’t seen my parents in a while, and the plan was that the following day my girlfriend and I would spend the day at camp, where she had also gone, and head back to the city in the evening. For some reason, a loudmouth I knew slightly also hitched a ride with us. My girlfriend’s father dropped the two us at the camp and continued on with wife and daughter to the bungalows.
The loudmouth immediately began braying loudly like the donkey he was, trumpeting our presence as we walked, waving his muscular arms over his head like a returning hero calling for applause. I told him to keep the noise down, not really sure about coming into the camp on a Saturday, although we were walking, not riding in a car, which is forbidden to religious Jews on the Sabbath. He told me to calm down, that my father was the director of the camp and that nobody was going to do anything about it. He continued to bray and strut triumphantly.
Word of our arrival reached my parents’ cabin before I did, and my father was already furious when I got there. “What the hell is the fucking thought process here?” he wanted to know.
I explained that we hadn’t driven on camp property, were obeying the laws of the Sabbath, I’d told my acquaintance to be cool but he was, apparently, incapable of it, and so forth. My father was not having any of this.
“You know exactly how this makes me look, and you did this deliberately,” my father said. “I can’t have one set of rules for the camp and another set for my son. You can’t stay here. You have to leave.”
My mother protested, “Irv, it’s a hundred degrees outside, there’s no place for him to go within miles, he just got off crutches, can’t he just stay in the house until Shabbat is over?” These were all reasonable arguments, but my father was having no part of them.
“Well, good shabbas and fuck you too,” I said, leaving their little white cottage, the screen door slamming behind me. Up the long steep hill on the rocky road, along the gravelly shoulder of the parched highway for a couple of miles.
When my grandmother found out about this, she was outraged, did not take kindly to my father’s position. My mother tried to justify it and Yetta uttered the immortal line, in Yiddish. “You stick to his ass like a wet house dress!” she said. The ass being a tuchis and the wet house dress being a nassah shmatta, a wet rag.
Outside of this one incident, however, I remember no other time Yetta found fault with her beloved son-in-law Irv.