Stories tell you who you are. My father used to sit in his chair in our house in Boston and smoke a cigar and tell us stories from our family history. It’s the only time I ever saw someone with a cigar. I don’t even know where he got them. He wasn’t around all that much. He was at the hospital most of the time, and usually quiet when he got home. Both of my parents were quiet. They’re both doctors, maybe that’s why — Mom an anthropologist. When we sat at dinner at night, whether there were three or four of us, depending on whether my father had gotten home, it was pretty quiet. So when my sister or I saw my father get out a cigar, or walk around the house with it, we’d bring whatever we were doing to living room, sit on our couch in the living room and wait. In so many memories I’m off in my bedroom, which in my memory is always cozy, safe, and where things still felt magical. My sister would come in and say, ‘Hey, come to the living room.’ I was always drawing, so I might bring my pad and my pencils or pastels to the little coffee table we had in the living room, just set them up and sit down. It wasn’t a formal thing or anything, like my father announcing he was going to tell stories, and I think if we had said we were coming to listen to him tell stories he might not have told them. It just slowly happened, and we acted as if we just happened to find ourselves there in the room and finally he would sit down and light his cigar and start telling a story. I’ve always hated the smell of cigarettes, like people walking around with a lot of dead ash on themselves, but if I smell something like those cigars, they have a sweet smell to me. I’m sure it’s just because it brings back memories of afternoons in that bright living room. And my father starting to talk, “Sarah,” or “Rebecca,” and then, “have I ever told you about …?” And then it would go.
A lot of them were stories about my grandfather. He was from Bohemia. That seemed like a cool place to be from. So many kids I grew up with couldn’t tell you where they were from, except they all said they were packed in there on the Mayflower, like that was a big party boat that had come into Massachusetts Bay just yesterday. But I was from Bohemia. It was never all that clear how he went from Bohemia, a little village in Bohemia, to Austria, but there were stories of things he saw and did while working as a doctor in a town in Austria near Vienna. As I grew up, I imagined someplace like the town in The Sound of Music, with all those big beautiful mountains around and old churches with bells ringing. I remember once my father saying, maybe there were bells, but it was farm country, not mountains. He had a little office in the square and he married my grandmother and, from the way my father told it, all might have been well and I might have been born an Austrian except that in the early part of the century people in Europe were all crazy and the king of Austria, the Hapsburgs, were starting to round up people, revolutionaries I guess, and send them off to somewhere in Bohemia, a place that sounded like a concentration camp although my father said it wasn’t, just more like a prison. I always remember the name, Terezin. It’s funny, I remember the name of that place, where as far as I know, nobody I know ever went, but I don’t remember the name of the town in Austria where he lived, where my father was born. I guess it’s because as a young girl sitting and listening and drawing, that name Terezin sounded magical and beautiful and at the same time, horrible, a horrible place. From that I guess I’ve always had this sense that even behind the most beautiful things, terrible things could be happening.
My grandfather had married, and he and my grandmother had just had a baby, but they realized they had to get out. I heard one story that the rich guy in this town, I don’t know if he was royalty or just someone that had ended up rich and powerful, he helped my grandfather leave. I guess my grandfather had saved his wife from some terrible illness when people thought she had died and he had been able to coax her back to living and now she was fine, as lively as ever. My father was proud of that, I could tell. He told this story a few times. “To my father it was nothing, but to this man, it was a miracle, the greatest gift he had been given, and he was grateful to the man who had given it.” He always said it like that. I think it must have been his creed.
So this man takes my grandfather aside and says, You must get out, things are not safe. My father never talked much about their being Jewish, I don’t know if they practiced. We didn’t, really. But they were Jewish and I guess everyone would have known it and things were starting to go badly for the Jews there — this is way before the Nazis, even World War I, but I guess if you were Jewish you might have your shop looted or things stolen or be beaten by mobs. Things I can’t imagine. And my father used to say, “My stubborn father, even with all of that, he did not want to leave, he almost said no, I guess he said no a few times before giving in.” And he and my grandmother packed up and came to New York, where they knew no one. My father was just a toddler then. I remember him saying he remembers the journey, up through Germany and through Rotterdam, but he said he couldn’t have remembered it, it was just the stories his mother told as he grew up. He said she told the stories over and over and he was sick of hearing them and wanted to run away but as he had grown up he had been glad, because with all the tellings and retellings he had lived the story so many times in his head it was as if he had an actual memory of it. Maybe memory does call up sensations and reactions we’ve held there, in the deep recesses of our minds, things we’ve never put together into a memory, a story. But I think it’s just from the listening, you see it in your mind, like I saw Austria and Bohemia and Terezin as he talked.
They didn’t know anyone in New York, but they ended up where so many of the new Jewish arrivals did, on the lower east side. I guess my grandfather spoke no English and couldn’t manage to figure out what to do and so he couldn’t practice as a doctor, although I heard lots of stories of him helping people over the years, delivering babies, helping neighbors who were sick. My father had a story about my grandfather helping a woman next door with a difficult birth. There was a midwife or something but there were complications and it seemed like both the mother and the baby would die and my grandfather was called and he went and got the baby out safely and the mother stitched up and both lived. And a few weeks later, when she had recovered, she brought my grandfather some soup. My father thought that was funny. “Sometimes, for his work, he received passage across the ocean to a new country. And sometimes he was paid in soup.”
He never worked as a doctor again. He did what all the other people did in the Lower East Side: he made clothes. Became a tailor. I guess he must have been good at stitching already, maybe that’s what recommended him. They went from being so important that the richest man in town would give them a lot of money to save them to being poor and forgotten people crowded into the poorest part of the richest city in the world, making dresses and suits for the wealthy men and ladies who ran the city. My father said they never complained, and he never felt poor, although of course they were poor, but they worked hard enough and saved enough that eventually, when he was nearly ready to go off to college, they moved across the river, to Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, which I guess was like the suburbs, the nice place you go when you escape. When I was a teenager, almost ready for college, I think, my father and I were in New York and we walked down there. It’s old and dirty, old brick and stone tenement buildings, packed together. Lots of new immigrants now, people from war zones in Central or South America or Chinese people. Still doing the same work, sewing the designer clothes for the fashionable people in New York.
My grandfather never worked as a doctor again but he did everything to ensure that his son could be, would be. I don’t know if my father had a choice, although he seemed to love what he did. He talked about the patients he had and the research he was doing as though he was totally absorbed. He wasn’t a guy to bubble over about things, but just that it clearly occupied so much of his thoughts, it always stuck out to me. He seemed so enlivened by it, focused it by it, in a way that I’ve never felt like I could do. Maybe it’s that when you look at someone else, you see the ideal, you don’t see what it’s like to live inside that life, you just imagine that it’s better and happier than what you’re living.
The stories seem to live on, even beyond us. I think of them now, and I think about being stuck out here, in a place that is far from anything I ever knew of as home as I could imagine. I think about how New York must have been to my grandfather. Even though he had studied medicine in Vienna, he was a man from the town. What would living in a tenement in New York have been like for him? My father said he didn’t complain. And so I try to hold it back also. I try. I don’t think I do a very good job, but I try.