Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Caterpillar

I listened to you listening around the dinner table when we visited Aunt Clara whom you wrote about in your letters to your young wife, my mother-to-be, Olga, about her stuck-up sister who hardly drove to the Bronx because she and her husband, Jack, worried about their car parked outside being broken into; but we always went there and you were polite and blotted your mouth with a napkin, and listened to Aunt Clara describe her work with B'nai Brith, and Uncle Jack who liked being involved so he could get more business, and let them talk about planting trees along a boulevard in Jerusalem, making the Holy Land into a Suburbia; azaleas and rose bushes grew in their backyard, gladiolas, flaming torches.

We lived in the Bronx in the Hunts Point Section that drooped into the Bronx River where they later built an addition to the Fulton Fish Market behind P.S. 48 where I went to elementary school. The block was the street but Israel was another country. I knew about it, a place where the Jews in Europe went after World War II, hugging the edge of a boat in striped pajamas. I could take a subway to Manhattan and visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I could take a bus from Pelham Bay Park and go to Orchard Beach. I walked there once from the subway station and a strange man followed me along the rushes to the beach. My mother never knew.

My cousins were much older than I and had braces that shone like the Star of Bethlehem. They wore organza dresses to their proms and had proms. There was an attic in their house with boxes that smelled of mothballs. Uncle Jack took pictures of us at every holiday with a 16 millimeter camera and showed them on a white screen in the basement that had a shuffleboard court painted on the smooth cement floor. We used “pucks” to play the game. They had a bar. During the summer Aunt Clara sometimes served us dinner in an enclosed porch where I could see the fireflies and drink orange soda from tall aluminum glasses that were purple and green. Once she gave me a book as a present.

My father worked six days a week in his shop near Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. Then he worked five days a week like everyone else and on Saturday morning went to Orchard Beach to do acrobatics with his Hungarian friends. When my parents had their 25th wedding anniversary we celebrated in Aunt Clara and Uncle Jack’s basement where my parents’ friends drove and parked far from the house so Olga and Marty wouldn’t get wise to what was happening. Everyone shouted “surprise” when they came down the stairs. It was their silver anniversary. Platters braided in silver handles shone in white tissue paper.

Our apartment needed to be dusted every Saturday morning. There were cockroaches in the kitchen, babies that my mother squashed when they rushed out from beneath the dials of the stove, and sang her song about "Poor Little Fly Upon the Wall." We had linoleum, not floors. My Aunt Clara and Uncle Jack visited Israel. They went on vacations. During the winter, they flew to Florida and brought back alligator purses. To close mine, I had to press hard against the alligator's mouth. I never could make it close.

We didn't live in Port Chester where we could drive to Playland near Rye Beach and go on rides, especially The Caterpillar whose skin blew open with a hot burst of air and then covered us on the next curve in bluish silk. Israel was like Port Chester, far away from me but related. We didn't talk about Israel at family gatherings because we wanted to get along. I listened to my father listening. He didn't know how to make money with his strong hands; he was always the bottom man, holding up pyramids of acrobats. Other people depended upon him and he found a balance between what he wanted, and what he could live with.

I wanted him to have more.

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