Authors: E. L. Doctorow
But they grew. He had taught her how to play casino and all the chords he knew on the guitar, he had taught her to ride a two-wheeler and to do the crawl, and one day she appeared to him suddenly past the age of being taught and taken care of. There were certain needs and expectations for life that could not properly be filled by your brother or sister. That was normal. And she must have come to feel, as he did, bored or unfairly burdened by the habits of a relationship that were drying up into sentimental gestures. And added to that was what he supposed was the normal inevitable loathing for the people who look like you and smell the same as you. That experience of total dissatisfaction with the closely related: who are not smart enough, good-looking enough, cool enough, to get through a day without boring you or shaming you. Except with their parents not available for that kind of self-honing, that sharpening of independence, he was the strop; the mother, the father, the brother, the family. And it was painful and they had some terrible fights.
Embarrassingly, Daniel and Susan adjusted to the rise in their fortunes. The life provided by an assistant professor of law was, by comparison, one of spectacular wealth. At the time there was no mention of the Trust. Each child had a room of his own. Lise bought them clothes that fit. It was life in the middle class and it was unbelievably good. Bob Lewin with his kind smile and his gentle sense of humor, came on in a way that seemed to suggest it might be possible to live comfortably and yet with honor. Their new parents never shouted, life didn’t beat out that rhythm of crisis and training for crisis. There was an absence of ideology and relentless moral sentiment. They had a new name, which was like being high. The streets were new, the house was new. It was quiet. There were no intruders. There was a daily routine of school, play, practice, homework. There was a weekend routine of a planned activity or outing. There was an assumption that constantly surprised Daniel, that took getting used to: It was all right every now
and then to enjoy yourself and have a good time. It really was all right.
Less and less did my heart bound in erratic dysynchronous jumps, like the rubber band balls I used to make.
And so Susan and Daniel Lewin slipped into the indolent rituals of the teenage middle class. In order for them to do this, there had to be a dialectic of breaking free: you asked yourself why live in faith or memorial to the people who had betrayed you. For obvious reasons this too was unspoken between them. There were at least a couple of years, a couple of good years, when none of it had happened. Or if it had happened, neither of them could have cared less. They had their own bodies, their own friends, they had lives of their own.
But it was all a counterrevolutionary illusion. It seemed so easy to break free because it was what the world wanted of you. The world wanted you to forget who you had been and what had happened to you. The world did not want to visit the sins of the fathers. If, in their proud, snotty, tormented adolescence he and his sister tacitly came to the conclusion that Paul and Rochelle Isaacson were not worth their loyalty, there was, however, nothing they could do to squander it. The decision was out of their hands. Whatever they did, whatever view they took, it was merely historical process operating. And even faithlessness in their hearts, real genuine bitter-brewed carelessness of spirit, could not dissolve that. Under one guise or another they were still the Isaacson kids. “You poor kids,” all the comrades used to say. They were like figures in a myth who suffer the same fate no matter what version is told; who remain in eternal relationship no matter how their names are spelled. Or they were like those two horses in that experiment you learned about in high school who were hitched up to pull apart two hemispheres that had been fastened by vacuum; who heaved and strained, one pulling one way, the other the other way, to prove that nothing is more powerful than a vacuum.
Still, they did not talk. And when he was eighteen he went off to school and took an apartment in Cambridge, and for two or three years she might as well not have existed. And when he came to his senses, and the real life of his childhood, that had become a dream, became real again, he tried to make contact
with Susan. But Susan was now a commanding presence: too bright, too loud, too hysterically self-occupied. She gave him glimpses of herself in her underwear. She let him know that she had been laid more than once. She was very busy with her life. And he mourned the little kid sister and he thought We should have talked, we should always have talked.
My dear Mr. Editor, you who hear the troubles of so many, and share the common misery, permit me to say what I have to say if my heart is not to burst. Surely I do not have to tell you what my life has been: first the terrible fear of flight from the Czarist maniacs who would not let us live, and who killed us in his pogroms, and conscripted our young Jewish men for twenty-five years of slavery in the Army—from this terrible animal oppression I fled by paying the same torturers money under the table to slip across the border with only the rags on my back, from the Pale, the Pale with my poor old mother and father who felt too old to go kissing my head and blessing me and calling on YHVH to protect me, Mr. Editor, and I knew I would never see them again because I was their life and with me to America, their only reason for enduring this suffering on earth, just to know I was safe, a little piece of themselves going to live in America before they would lay down and smile under the Cossacks’ horses; I kept their brown picture; across in the filth of steerage, a boat for cattle, and we were cattle, and then the terror of the Immigration Officers who would or would not let us be Americans—the woman right next to me with her trachomatous eyes not going in, staying on the island in seclusion, in America, and yet never to be in America, and to her I had to say goodbye my own good fortune being my health and my youth and my strength. And a boy from the same town with me came on the boat behind the old man who couldn’t remember the name his sons told him to say, one that the American inspectors could pronounce, and the poor old man so bewildered said piteously in Yiddish, I forget,
and named like a newborn babe, this old man, Ike Fergusson, oh I could tell you stories … But this boy and I went right away for the license and with no further ado we became married and the next day went looking for work and began our life with needle and thread, my stout young protector and me in our paid room as boarders on Stanton Street, a couple neither smart nor dumb, neither fair nor dark, neither short nor tall or ugly or beautiful, but hard-working folks and for thousands of years my people stumbling through the world in their suffering looking for paradise on earth, righteous in our adoration of YHVH, trying to find a home on earth, an earth habitable in reason and peace and humanity, somewhere. And I tell you, Mr. Editor, for children who have seen the bottom of the pagan Cossack horseshoe and the drunken grin of the Czarist bureaucrat, to sew sixteen hours a day for pennies, in bad light, and to live in a one-room, with the children bathing in the laundry sink in the kitchen and the dead rat floating in the common toilet at the end of the dark stinking hall—it can be done. And you think you can stitch a life together, penny by penny, with the small muscles in your fingers drive the metal needle through the cloth a million nimble moments each day—it can be done. And anything can be endured with hope: My eldest runs into the street and is crushed under a wagon. My two younger sisters who I have brought to this country with my pennies are destroyed in the Triangle Fire, a hundred and fifty of them burned to death in that sweatshop. And my second son, Jacob, who wanted to be called Jack, and who loved to swim in the East River, he does not survive the terrible flu epidemic in 1918. And in this country, fifteen years, twenty, my old man and me, I recognize us one day cleaning ourselves for the Sabbath: we are my mother and father, and life, terrible life, has nailed us to the ground. Oh, Mr. Editor, there have been such sweetnesses though, and God remains pure and shining over Hester Street with the peddlers selling the fish for the Sabbath and the pushcarts with their notions, and the men in dirty vests and derbies bartering in their musical voices. And I think of the children running to school and learning English and reading in the library in such great thirst. And there are everywhere lectures and meetings of an intellectual nature and I, an ignorant
woman, even I, understand the pride in common workingmen slowly admitting to themselves that their dreams are for their children. Yet nevertheless seeking in their nights or on their days of leisure the betterment of their minds, the satisfaction of mental exercise, the understanding of the universe. And that play that brought such tears to all of us of the greenhorn who came to America and had such hard lessons to learn, before, blessed G_D, our lessons, he was reunited with his mama and papa. And a glass of tea at the window with the cube of sugar in your teeth and if you listen someone will be singing a song in the alley, under the clotheslines. But what I cannot forgive, Mr. Editor, is the thankless child who becomes ashamed of his mother and father, and forsakes their ways, and blasphemes and violates the Sabbath to be a modern American; and is attracted to godless ideas in the street like a fly to flypaper. And who tells you to speak English. And who cries only when her father, my husband, finally totters to his knees like an old horse who has no more strength—
—under his pack of clothes, America, on the street to his knees under the day’s piecework going to his knees and he coughs and drops of his blood spatter the sidewalk and someone calls me Mrs! Mrs! your husband is dying, and his friend tuberculosis, which is bits of thread on the lungs, my young man from the same town where the truth is we were married for safety by our parents before we crossed the border, my young man who has never lifted a hand against me and who bore all his sorrow in the Synagogue, is at this moment old enough to die. And he dies. And I am alone in America with only my daughter, Rachele, born 1919, and the terror of my life is yet to begin—
A thin, small, caved-in woman dry to the touch,
Grandma gave me pennies and called me a good boy
Snapping open the tarnished brass clasps
Of a flat and ancient purse of cracked leather
And withdrawing one penny with her thumb and forefinger
You get the picture. Good boy, Daniel. I tried not to offend her by giving any sign that she offended me, because she really smelled bad, my skinny mad little grandma, she smelled of her asthma grass which she burned like incense in a blue tin in
her room. The sour smell, always with her, like a stink shadow—peeyouwee!—was on her fingers, in her change purse, in her black dress, in her wavy grey hair. She lifted my hand and pressed the penny into it, and then while I took a deep breath and held it, she leaned forward, about my height, and by the back of my neck pulled me forward for the dry kiss on the forehead. Daniel is a good boy, she said. That is for a good boy. I thought she meant the penny, the kiss being for her—her reward for having a good boy for a grandson. The very words she pronounced not as a judgment but as if good boy was a category of being, a species in nature which she was privileged in her old age to have living in the same house. There was a generation between us which we never discussed.
My grandma had spells. She used to accuse my mother, her very own daughter, of trying to poison her. My mother always had to taste the food she put on the table before the old woman would eat it. So my mother got into the habit of tasting everything, even a glass of milk for me, before she put it down. Grandma was the neighborhood crazywoman. When she went into one of these things, she would put a shawl over her head and run away. She would stomp down from the porch, bringing her high lace shoes together on one step before the next step was taken. And on the sidewalk, before rushing off, she would turn and shake her fist at the house and curse it in Yiddish, calling down cholera and Cossacks and typhoid and wholesale terrors of the burning fiery furnace, and if someone passed in the street she would curse him too. Suppose little Daniel was out there minding his baby sister in her carriage: Grandma would curse him out too, her eyes burning, lacking all recognition, her grey hair all uncombed, undone, the waves of it sticking out from her shawl, shockingly, like electric wire. Then she’d scurry away, describing with gestures toward the sidewalk the extent of her bitterness. Daniel was always glad to see her go. What worried him was when, a half-block away, she would turn with a raised fist for a parting blast, and it would become a very rhetorically involved curse, and she would forget in what direction she had been going and come back toward him and the house and the whole thing would start all over again. She ran away all the time. To Claremont Park. Down the hill
to the New York Central tracks. In her black dress telling the world all the mad family secrets. Sometimes she went around the corner to her one friend, Mrs. Bittelman, also a widow, but a younger woman, perhaps in her late fifties, a kindly red-faced woman who seemed to Daniel to be the only person who liked Grandma and who had the patience to take seriously the stream of imprecations coming out of Grandma’s mouth, and to sit with her and nod solemnly and with sighs, until the spell was over. And to bring her home. Mrs. Bittelman had, beside her kindness, impeccable credentials: her only son, Jerome, had been killed in the war. Mrs. Bittelman’s apartment was on the ground floor of the apartment house around the corner on 173rd Street. The Venetian blinds were always drawn shut. In one window was one of those service stars. During the war a blue star in a window meant that that family had a soldier serving somewhere in the Army. A gold star meant that the boy had been killed. Mrs. Bittelman’s star was blue, but the boy had been killed. She had never had the heart to set the matter straight. She was an old Jewish lady, though not as old as my grandma, and the faded blue star on a shield of white cloth with a red border and gold tassels hung from a stick in her window years after the war was over.