MAY 2009 – NO. 33
Breaking Apart the Family
In the wake of Grandpa's remarriage
In some ways the family was sundered when Grandma Schine died. It wasn't the dying so much as the fact that Grandpa was now free to remarry and did so before the prescribed one-year waiting period. That caused major turmoil. I was away then, in the service, and heard about this in letters from home.
"Write to him," they said. "Bring him to his senses. He's breaking apart the family. He'll listen to you. You were always his favorite."
These importunities came from my mother, her sister and brother, each one imploring me to action. For my part, I thought of his happiness. Having been straddled with a bedridden wife for 17 years, wasn't he entitled to some happiness? I found in later years that all his grandchildren had agreed with me, but his children were antagonistic. They thought the woman he was to marry was after his money. Not that he was a rich man. He owned the house we lived in, and he did have the farm upstate and perhaps a few thousand dollars he had saved from his part-time labors as a cutter in a small men's suit factory. After much thought I did write to Grandpa and told him to do what would make him happy. I loved him. "You deserve it," I said and hoped his children didn't see my letter.
Grandpa was short in stature with reddish-gray hair surrounding his bald dome. His five grandsons towered over him. He was forever smiling, as if he had a secret we weren't privy to. He loved to laugh and enjoyed a good story. Born in Russia, he moved to the United States at the turn of the 20th century with the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe and settled into a cold-water flat on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. While he worked my grandmother raised the children and did janitorial duties in the tenement in exchange for lower rent. Between them they were able to save some money and purchased a new home across the East River in the middle of Brooklyn.
Of course, there were complications when he remarried, as there always are. My family lived in his house in Brooklyn and my uncle, his son, lived in the upstairs apartment with his wife and children. Bringing a strange woman into the enclave was not acceptable. Grandpa was forced to move out of the house he worked for all those Great Depression years. What did he feel in his breast? Thinking back I wonder if he was sad or perhaps exhilarated to be escaping to a new life. How can one truly know another's heart?
Then there was the question of the farm, 105 acres upstate near Albany. Before I left for the service there had been talk that I could take over the farm when I returned, for at that time I wished to be a farmer. The country life appealed to me and after spending all my summers there in the bosom of my extended family it was more the home of my heart than the house in Brooklyn where I lived during the school year, waiting for those ten weeks of summer. There I'd be with Grandma and Grandpa, all my cousins, the chickens in the yard that had to be fed and watered twice a day, all the things I now think of when I ruminate about my childhood. When someone asks about my childhood my mind immediately returns to those ten weeks. "Oh, that," I'd say when referring to the other 42, "that was okay, but really it was a waiting thing: waiting for that final school bell in June so we could go to my heart's home."
It was all changed after my Army discharge. Grandpa was living in New York City with a new bride and came to the farm only for short visits. In the city he lived away, his house now transferred to his son. My uncle now became my family's landlord. A new strange situation arose and created a mental chasm between my uncle and his sister, my mother. However, Mom and Dad continued to live in the old house for many years after my brother and I married and each of us moved to new homes with our wives. Family gatherings went on as before but something was missing — Grandpa.
Back on the farm things changed. We sold the big house and most of the land, keeping the small bungalow and the barn across the road. The big house became a small and modest country inn serving three meals a day. I worked there one summer prepping food in the kitchen and later serving the guests in the dining room, most of whom were friends of the new owners: people I didn't know. I felt like a servant in what had been my home.
Grandpa soon buried his second wife, the one the family disliked because she didn't treat him with the respect they thought he merited, which seemed a bit hypocritical to me. When Ida died I had thoughts of things returning to the old ways but it wasn't to be. He quickly found another woman. How did he do that, I wondered? Where did he meet them? They became engaged but she became ill and died just prior to the wedding date. Everything was in place — only a bride was absent — so Grandpa asked the woman who was the fiancée's best friend and she filled the gap. And you know what? The family liked this third wife. She, we thought, treated him right; respected him, called him Mister Schine and took good care of Grandpa. She also outlived him.
Grandpa was never sickly. I can't remember a time that he had a cold. Certainly he never complained. Summer evenings at the farm, when people grumbled about mosquitoes, and they were a problem, he'd say, "What mosquitoes?" and claim he never got bitten. Mosquitoes didn't bite him nor did bees. Then one day he told his third wife, Bertha, "I have terrible stomach pains. I need a doctor." He was rushed to the hospital where they opened him up and quickly stitched him back together. What they saw inside was death, no question about it.
I visited Grandpa in the hospital. He woke momentarily from his anesthetized coma, opened his eyes, looked at me as I held his weathered hand in both of mine and asked, "What did they do to me?" as though the doctors had caused his problem. Then his light went out.
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