A flight of wooden stairs led up to my grandfather’s room, where he’d sit in a stuffed chair for hours and listen to the plastic radio perched on his dresser. The door to his room was always open so that my mother could hear the constant demands he barked down.
“Peg!” If she didn’t reply immediately, he would howl again, bending her name into two syllables
I would empty his waste basket, or lug a pillowcase filled with dirty hankies reeking of snuff to the cellar to be washed. When he ordered me to tie his shoes. I’d ask why he didn’t wear loafers, but he’d pretend he hadn’t heard me. He kept me kneeling before him like a manservant lacing his shoes. He’d humiliate me by helping him take off his arm, an old device of Bakelite and leather. It was all about power. He’d thrived on power, collecting one small measure at a time, as a squirrel collects nuts.
My parents had been sweethearts at South Side High School in Newark. My father been a varsity receiver, a letterman with a carefree outlook on life. She was his devotee, laughing at his foolish jokes. They played volleyball on Union Beach, and danced the jitterbug at South Side High.
My father had served on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific, as an Aviation Machinist Mate. He’d drawn some pay in the Navy, but after subtracting cigarette and beer money, what he sent to my mom was never enough.
They were married as soon as he returned, and lived in the back room of my grandmother’s flat on Avon Avenue.
If they were going to start a family, they’d need a lot more money than the few dollars my mother had hidden away. She took a job in a dress maker’s shop downtown, while my father went to the Newark College of Engineering, on the G.I. Bill. He had become the first in his large Polish family ever to go beyond high school.
With his diploma in hand and his natural smarts, he found a job at Airborne Engineering, in Hillside. It was a long commute on the # 6 bus, and my parents were losing a race against time.They knew they had as much of a chance of finding a home as they did of landing on the moon.
My grandfather had a Union job at Port Newark that paid well, and my mother hinted that he might help out.
My father did want to ask anyone for financial help.
He had not risked his life overseas to be in somebody's debt. But my mother convinced him, stressing that it was her father, after all. He was family.
They discussed the situation with him, and in the end, he promised them a loan of $1,000 for the down payment on a two-bedroom home .My father accepted the loan cautiously.
My grandmother died two months after I was born. The cause of her death had never been revealed, at least not to me. I learned early never to ask questions. I knew her name had been Irene, and judging by an old wedding photograph I'd found her quite stunning. I’d noticed in the picture that my grandfather’s arm had still been attached, and draped over her shoulder fondly. No trace of the leather glove he'd always worn over his prosthesis. Logic then told me that he had lost the arm after I had been born.
Shortly after she’d died, my grandfather gave up alcohol permanently, and stopped smoking cigars.
The mystery surrounding her death was only one more skeleton in my family closet; right alongside the puzzle of Pop’s missing arm.
After his wife’s death, Pop had found living alone in the flat on Avon Street disheartening. He’d wondered why he was living in the gloomy, four-story walk-up in Newark. He yearned to get out.
Especially since he’d already owned a $1000 stake in a house in Hillside.
He showed up without warning one afternoon, with all his belongings piled into his Chrysler Windsor.
There were two bedrooms, and Pop decided he would take the small one, probably since it had a view of the yard and the Japanese cherry blossom tree. He imagined the room to belong to him anyway, since he had given them the loan.
Over my dead body, my father proclaimed.
After some discussion, my mother allowed that my grandfather could live in the room until the baby arrived. She said that my father would build an extra bedroom in the attic for him.
My father hadn’t liked the arrangement at all, He wanted his independence, not a father-in-law in the attic. But he grudgingly agreed to construct the extra room. At the very least a third bedroom would add value to the house.
But my grandfather's stay had to be temporary, he told her.
My grandfather sat a spare wooden chair and watched my father drive every nail He watched as my father hauled sheet after sheet of drywall up the flight of stairs.
The attic room was large enough to hold an armchair, a single bed and a dresser. The only decoration in the room was a black-and-white photo of Man O’ War.
There was a window facing the Schwartz’s house across the driveway. I could see straight into Kathleen’s bedroom at night, and watched her silhouette against the window shade as she dressed for bed. I had to wipe my breath from the window with my sleeve. A few years later; Kathleen hit my cheek bone with a rock while she and I were playing with some other kids. Fifty years later I still carry a half-inch scar under my eye.
She said it was an accident.
My mother called my grandfather‘dad’ and his friends called him Mack. Somehow I'd learned to call my grandfather ‘Pop.’ I thought it was the funniest name in the world. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror at times, sticking my finger in my mouth, then pulling it out to make a popping sound.
My father had never called him anything, at least to his face.
The small attic room smelled of aging mahogany and Copenhagen snuff. He didn’t chew the snuff, but pinched it into his nostrils to make himself sneeze, which made an elephant blast you could hear the throughout the house.
He was addicted to sneezing, which I have been told is ranked the second most pleasurable feeling, because of all the muscles that are used.
At dinner time, my mother would stand at the foot of the stairs and call up to him, “Dinner’s ready, Dad.” Customarily, he waited until everyone had been seated before coming down. He had always sat at the head of the table. My father had fumed over this, reminding my mom that it was his damn table, that he’d bought it with his own hard earned money.
At that point, Pop would ask for the butter.
"Tell your father we’re talking, for chrissakes,"my father would hiss. My mother continued, insisting that it would be easier for her father to get in and out.
My father had to make it appear as if he had made the decision himself. The seat was too close to the door.
"It’s was too drafty." He'd say to no one in particular." “Who the hell would want to sit there?”
“Christ, you can smell the dog shit from there.”
Pop sat down, and placed both his stump and his good arm on the table. He used his stump to adjust his seat, which rocked the table. I thought that his good arm would have worked better.
Pop asked for the soup.
My father leaned forward with his elbows on the table and scowled across at my grandfather, while shooting a quick look at my mom. When dinner finally began, the fight was in earnest. When my grandfather slurped his soup, my father slurped his louder. Pop stirred his coffee noisily, dinging the spoon against the cup with rapid flicks of his wrist. My father responded by banging his own spoon against the side of his cup, as if he were ringing the Liberty Bell.
On the nights when my father returned from work drunk, he sometimes splashed hot coffee all over the table, which my mother had to lap up with a dishrag.
It never mattered whether it was the slurping game or the coffee-fest, or the times that my dad and Pop would change the TV channel while the other had stepped out of the room, my mom sat between them quietly, wedged between my grandfather's silent scorn and my father’s anger. All she could do was sit and watch.
These 'games' became the central metaphor of her life. She was stuck between the mythical rock and a hard place. It was a wonder that my dad became the alcoholic, not her.
Any chance he could, Pop silently brandished the mortgage over my father’s head, even after my father had paid it off. He was determined to gain power over my father however he could, even if it meant demanding an emotional price for his daughter.
Once he moved into the house, he offered ‘suggestions’ as to how certain things should be done, such as deciding who would park in the driveway and who would park in the street. He began commenting on the way I was dressed, or what kind of comic books I should be allowed to read.
That was where my father drew the line.
“You can sit in my seat, or watch the damn Yankees, or you can sit in your beach chair when I’m cutting the lawn; but you will not—let me repeat, you will NOT question the way I run my family!”
Exactly how my grandfather lost his arm I will never know. In one telling, it had happened in a bar fight in the Pabst brewery in East Orange. In another version it had happened mysteriously somewhere near the Penn Station on Frelinghuysen Avenue, in Newark. My favorite was the legend that it had happened in Hoboken. His arm had been caught in a leather press, and he “ran through a blizzard to the hospital, clutching the dangling arm to his chest, like Bronco Nagurski.”
In 1965, my parents bought a four-bedroom Colonial in the best part of town. It had a finished basement, two fireplaces, and four bedrooms. It sat on a huge corner lot amid towering oak trees and pines and dead-ended into to County Park. It had cost $29,000, and this time my father needed no help with the mortgage.
And Pop still had his own room.
When my parents died, they willed the house to my sister and me. I was renovating brownstones in Hoboken, and it was mostly my sister who'd taken care of Pop. In this case, it was the grandchildren attending the old. Old age caught up with Pop quickly, and he became more and more fearful that my sister and I were going to through throw him out of the house.
He was ninety years old. We had to assure him daily that we would never put him out. It was sad to watch this man whose only aim had been the search for the power, the kind he'd thought he lost along with his arm. He just didn't get it. He didn't understand that it didn't matter to us, his family.
On his deathbed, between hallucinations and ramblings, I asked him what it felt like to be ninety-two years old. He seemed truly dazed, and after a moment, he rolled on his side and spoke into my eyes.
”I feel the same as when I was nine.” he smiled wistfully.
That was the last time I saw him alive.