From the September/October 1994
IN THE PHOTOGRAPH OF MY maternal grandfather, Louie, that I remember most clearly, he is around 50, his bald head and profile prominent against a black background. His portrait became a blank screen for our family, on which we could project whatever we wished. I can no longer find this photograph; perhaps it is not a photograph at all, but a picture developed, not in a darkroorn, but in my unconscious.
Photographs have a habit of disappearing in our family’s unremarkable wake. We know little about my great-grandparents; nothing visual exists, no trace of their handwriting or possessions remains. A few years after Louie my mother’s last remaining parent died, I browsed through the family photograph album and realized that many of the photographs I had dimly remembered were missing. “I threw them out,” my mother explained “Most of those people were dead, and I didn’t know who half of them were.” This was in the mid 1960s, shortly after she had “antiqued” the family cedar chest by painting over it.
Louie moved slowly and deliberately; he often would think a long time and then say practically nothing, further stoking my father’s habitual impatience. Louie’s temperament existed to a narrow zone between contentment and regret He had a wind-up clock in his bedroom that ticked loudly. It would have driven my father mad in our house we had only electric docks, with red second hands that swept quickly. When ray sister and I stayed the night at our grandparents’ apartment, Louie and Celia slept in the sun parlor, and I have a memory probably several memories rolled into one of awakening deep in the night, hearing the dock’s ticking, and drifting back to sleep. The night the ambulance took my grandmother away, I think I recall hearing a thud and some voices, but I was young enough that things like that could not reach down and pull me out of sleep. Even though she was gone the next morning, Louie poured our cereal, and seemed slightly off-balance, but generally all right.
Shortly after Celia’s funeral, Louie began coming to our apartment every Tuesday evening for dinner, taking two buses to get there. My mother would cook a week’s worth of food for him to take back home, and Louie always paid her two dollars. This was a matter of honor for him, and an irritant to my father. Two dollars, my father often remarked in private, did not even cover the cost of the food, let alone the time he spent driving Louie back home. One Tuesday there was a terrible snowstorm. My father had my mother call Louie up and advise him not to come the buses would be late, if they were running at all, and Louie still would have almost a mile to walk from the bus stop to our apartment. Even then, I understood my father’s real concern: he did not want to have to leave the warm apartment and drive Louie back home in the snow. Louie told my mother that he would simply leave his apartment early, and, sure enough, he arrived right on time, with his usual paper bag of dirty laundry and last week’s Tupperware.
Louie slurped his soup leisurely, not greedily. It took each spoonful a long time to disappear. Soup for him was more than nourishment; it was something to be tasted and savored and there were undoubtedly memories in its steam. He had lived through times when ingredients were hard to come by, when soup was the culmination of a great deal of preparation and simmering, an effort to make the ingredients as filling as possible without losing nutrition Zoup, Louie called it, and we used to laugh at his pronunciation. Long before my grandfather’s weekly Tuesday evening visits began, my father had trained us not to slurp, so Louie was our surrogate slurper. He could do it with impunity, while we laughed silently, like dwarves tickling the murderous giant’s beard Such is the power of grandfathers.
Louie had come to America as a teenager after his father, a Lithuanian tailor who made uniforms for army officers, had learned that the army was about to draft his son. For Louie, this meant 20 years of military service and probable death-Jews were considered the most expendable of soldiers. That night, Louie said goodbye to his sisters and parents forever, snuck out of his village, Shalaiu, via the Jewish underground, embarked from Bremen, arrived in New York in 1903, and took a train to Chicago, where his older brother, Max, already lived. (Shalaiu was one of the first villages in Lithuania later captured by the Nazis. Louie never heard from his sisters and parents again.) Louie’s cousin, Celia, who lived in New York, had also emigrated from Shalaiu. He finally persuaded her to move to Chicago, where they were married.
Louie and Celia are now buried together in a cemetery near Chicago. There used to be a modest arch at the entrance to their section, but vandals have long since torn it down. He died of a sudden, massive heart attack, holding what, if there is any sense of correctness in the universe, was an average pinochle hand. One minute he was alive, the next minute he was not. The bag of personal effects that the director of the funeral home gave my mother was missing Louie’s watch and the ten dollar bill that he always kept hidden in his wallet for emergencies. The Cossacks had looted one last time.
Although I was 14 when Louie died, I have few memories of him. Louie had been a cap maker, but I have no idea whether he worked on them individually or on an assembly line. By the time I was old enough to know my grandfather, he had long since retired, and always seemed to me a man with no occupation and no passions. He never seemed a full person to me. Everything I have tried to learn about him has eroded into generalization, petrified into anecdote. Louie’s fossilization, already begun while he was still alive, seems long completed
I do remember a photograph of my older brother and me dressed in Hopa-long Cassidy outfits. Louie was in the studio when the photo was taken. I had thrown a tantrum, refusing to pose, and he gave me one of his raspberry-filled hard candies to calm me down. In the photo, I look like a serious little cowpoke, with just the tiniest bulge of tobacco in my cheek. That is Louie’s raspberry candy. It has not melted, never will, as long as someone remembers it is there. Like memories, like Louie, like you and me, the raspberry candy has its own half-life that glows in ever so slow diminishment. I remember almost nothing else from that age, so Louie’s comfort must have settled in on a very deep level The power of grandparents is subliminal I remember Louie crying at my grandmother’s funeral, and how it surprised me. It was because of Louie’s tears that I first realized adults could feel alone.
When I was 23, I decided to leave Chicago and start a new life to New Orleans. I had no intention of returning. For years, the only emotion my father and I had expressed aloud to each other had been anger. The night before I was to leave, he drove me to my apartment. He stayed behind the steering wheel, and I hesitated before I opened the car door, knowing something had to be said Then, suddenly, we were hugging and I felt myself beginning to cry.
“You always made me cry,” I said and I left quickly. The words had come so spontaneously, from such a deep place, and were so demonstrably untrue, that I had no idea what they meant.
Louie would understand none of this.
Sometimes I feel that as the universe continues expanding, everything perhaps even our own individual atoms-drifts farther and farther apart Desperately, we call to each other across a widening void Louie made that two-bus trip every Tuesday not so much out of loneliness, but because meals were the daily renewal of life. Today, meals are pit stops. We eat canned soup instead of zoup. Most people slurp in a hurry. Louie, so prominent, so stark in this classic studio photograph that may or may not exist, radiates out of the black void behind him, god of our family’s universe, imperturbable and inclined every so subtly towards kindness. He is quiet He does not have to speak
Garry Cooper, LCSW, is in private practice.