This article was originally published in Grand Fathers: Reminiscences, Poems, Recipes, and Photos of the Keepers of Our Tradition, edited by Nikki Giovanni (Henry Holt & Co., 1999) and is reprinted with permission of the author.
I never met my grandfather, which is exactly how he wanted it.
The day my mother told her parents that she was going to marry a dark, handsome Indian man from the Caribbean, my Jewish grandfather retreated into his bedroom, sat down on the bed, and said four words in Yiddish: "You have shamed us." From that day on, he refused to have anything to do with his only daughter, never met his son-in-law, and never set his eyes on his two grandchildren.
My grandparents were Orthodox Jews from Russia, first cousins whose marriage was arranged shortly after they each settled in Brooklyn, New York. They lived next door to the synagogue, ran a grocery together, and reared their daughter, expecting order and obedience in their home. During my mother's exile, my grandmother kept up a secret life--visiting us in our small apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, writing fretful letters to my mother when she stayed for months with my father's family in Guyana.
Eight years after she married, my mother received a desperate call from her mother: my grandfather was in the hospital. At the time, my brother was 7, and I had just turned 1. Upon arriving at the hospital, my mother was told by the doctors that my grandfather had, at most, six weeks to live. She and my grandmother chose not to tell him the truth of his condition. So she headed into that hospital room, heavy with the knowledge of her father's death, aware that this was her final goodbye and yet, strangely enough, her first hello since she had begun her new life. Propped up in his bed, my grandfather greeted her with a characteristically half-critical, half-approving remark: "So, I hear your floors are so clean you can eat off of them!"
She laughed. This was the language between parent and child that she knew so well--love and duty, entwined like two barbed wires, each piercing the other.
My grandfather died the day before Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, when Jews fast and pray, ask for forgiveness, and atone for their sins. By Jewish law, a person must be buried immediately after death in a plain wooden coffin wrapped in a prayer shawl. Since this was a High Holiday, my mother and grandmother could not find a rabbi, and had to bury my grandfather the day after. My mother took care of all the arrangements, listening, at the burial, to the gossip around her from family friends and relatives, the murmurs from people who had thought she was dead. Somehow, she had made her peace with her father; somehow, on that rainy, difficult Yom Kippur in 1961, she found her way to forgiveness.
I'm not sure I ever did.
Years later, when I was writing my first novel, which was partially based on my mother's early break with her family, I tried to imagine this man, who so coldly turned his back on his only daughter; who lived only a subway ride away from us, but chose not to see his own grandchildren.
I was spending a month at Yaddo, a writer's colony, and worked in a round tower room where I spread old photographs in a circle on the windowsill. I also read letters my mother had written during her time in Guyana. They were mostly reassurances to a worried mother, though underneath I could read my grandmother's sense of abandonment. In all these letters, my grandfather was oddly out of the picture. Did he hear about his chubby grandson, spoiled by his Caribbean-Indian aunts? Or his skinny daughter, gaining weight and nurtured back to health, as she was fed on mangoes and coconut milk and chicken curry?
In that bright and sunny room, my grandfather stared back at me, bald and bland, hardly the image of a fearsome, tyrannical Jewish patriarch. The photo showed him behind the counter at a grocery, a place he worked after his own business failed. He was apple-cheeked, yet melancholy, inward-looking. He was forcing the smile. He looked out of place next to the signs for eggs and cheese, the weighing scale. He wore his white grocer's coat like a costume. My grandfather hated being a grocer. If it weren't for the pogroms in Russia that drove my family from Uman, just outside Kiev, he would have remained at his yeshiva, studying in his airy citadel of words, retreating from the world of flesh-and-blood loyalties and conflicts.
Maybe we weren't so different, I thought, as I scribbled away in my own writer's tower. I understood the power of words--how they harm, how they show love, how they are also an act of faith.
My grandfather was happiest reading the Talmud, or listening to the soulful swell and rise of opera on his 78 records. America, with all its swift changeability, terrified him. There is a story that one day, soon after he arrived in the country, his younger brother came driving up in a car and invited him for a ride. My grandfather got in the passenger seat, but was so frightened he stepped out while the car was still moving. That was my grandfather: stubbornly braced against the modern world, even as events propelled him forward.
My grandfather was a Kohane, one of the priest class who perform particular rituals during the synagogue ceremonies. During the Depression, when he was forced to keep his store open on the Sabbath, he turned his back on the synagogue, and never went again. If he could not observe completely, he would not observe at all. In the same way, if his daughter would not obey him, then she was no daughter at all.
This starkness, this cold extremism, became his legacy. For I knew my grandfather through my mother's own rages when she felt wronged, and disagreement was seen as disobedience. I learned that authority could not be questioned. God demanded that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac to prove his devotion. Duty and obedience were all.
Still, there was a difference in my life. My mother inherited the language of stormy rejection, but she had also suffered through her father's barbed silence. She would never fully turn her back on me, as her own father had done. Her anger was also an expression of pained attachment.
That Jewish knot of pain and rejection remained inside me. I married a Jewish man, under a chuppah, and my grandfather would be shocked to know that he is, ironically, a Kohane, the grandson of the chief rabbi of Kiev. He is also a man who lives by the word, as an editor and a scholar, and who loves nothing better than to listen to opera. And in me, too, there is still a small, querulous, Old Testament core, a right-from-wrong ethical-mindedness that runs strong and deep. I am drawn to the mysterious beauty and purity of ritual, but I can never forgive a man who, like Abraham, loved his God, his tradition, more than his own flesh and blood.
There is a Jewish proverb: "A blow passes, but a word remains." With those four words--"You have shamed us"--my grandfather may have turned his back on us, but his words remained. His was a powerful silence, reaching across generations, damaging and shaping, teaching us a fierce, uncompromising language of pain and exile. And like it or not, my grandfather lived on with us, no matter how hard he tried to stay away.