It was the last Thanksgiving we were all together in the childhood incarnation of my family home. That late autumn of 1974, Grampa Rosen came to our house one last time. His wife–my Gramma–had died earlier that spring. By March of the following year, he, too, would follow Gramma into the glow of eternity…
On that night, though, amongst the billowing vapors of warm tastiness from baked turkey, fresh rolls, pies, and soft candlelight, Grampa was still very much with us. At that same moment, though, he was also ten thousand miles, and eighty years, away.
Grampa was a Russian Jew, who fled Tsarist Russia during the reign of terror known as the Ukranian Pogroms. He had been conscripted into the Russian Army, and knew certain death awaited him if he boarded the induction train. So, when he was instructed to turn left at the depot, he turned right , and arrived penniless with thousands of other Jewish Immigrants in the teeming warrens of New York in 1906. He was 17.
He met my Gramma there, where they were both sardined into the "needle trades" of the Lower East Side. They were married in 1916, and moved "out west" where Grampa’s brother had found work at auto plant. Grampa and Gramma eventually started a home in Lansing, Michigan.
Grampa attempted to enlist in the fight for his adopted nation during World War One, but was turned down for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that he had been blessed with his first son, Ralph Robert, in 1918. He was getting a little long in the tooth by army standards, but Grampa’s brother Ralph (for whom his little boy was named) was accepted into the Army.
As a child, I knew about Uncle Ralph (-he was actually my Great Uncle), because his name was on the bronze plaque at the small war memorial at the Lansing Civic Center. He died in 1918, at a European battlefield whose name I never heard.
As I say, Gramma and Grampa had their first child, Ralph Robert–whom they called "Bobby"–in 1918. Soon afterwords, in 1920, they had a second son, Louis. The family was growing, and thriving, in their adopted hometown, in the hinterlands of America’s middle west. Grampa started a little dry-cleaning business with his frugal savings, and within a couple of years, was operating three dry cleaners in Michigan’s capital city. It was the 1920’s, and the nation was Roaring. And so were the Rosen’s.
Grampa had come a long way: from a stow-away from the Tsar’s Army, to a successful businessman in the heart of Michigan. And Grampa loved –loved –the United States of America. Once, as a child, one of my brothers had a homework assignment to interview a grandparent about their lives as youngsters, and Grampa refused at first, saying he didn’t have much to say. His life, he said, started when he got to America. He eventually relented, to help his grandson with his project, but he offered only small clues and dark hints about his life in Russia. He recoiled from the memories of his life under the thumb of the reviled Tsar. He was American. Not Russian.
He was "Joe the Tailor" to most of Lansing during the inter-war years. He was one of the biggest fans of Michigan State College (later MSU), even though his own schooling amounted to roughly a fourth-grade education. He even sewed a Michigan State flag of green and white that I still have, tucked away in a cunningly hidden little drawer. He also sewed quite a few of his own US Flags, and even remodeled one in 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union. He could thread a needle without even looking at it. He was a smallish man, as so many seemed to be back then, barely a hundred and twenty pounds. Grampa had a slight oriental look, but he had one of the most lovingly expressive faces I have ever known.
Grampa achieved a successful life he could never have dreamed of by the 1920’s: A beautiful home on Main Street, just down from the gracious home of Ransom Eli Olds, father of the Oldsmobile. Their home had all the latest gadgets, including a telephone and a radio. The two brothers filled the house with laughter and hi-jinx,and they pedaled their bicycles everywhere.
They were doing this in the spring of 1926, when Gramma was shopping for groceries at the local Schmidt’s Brothers Market. A woman ran into the store screaming that there had been a terrible accident, and that a boy had been hit by a car while riding his bike. It was Bobby. Louis was running along beside him when he was struck, and the driver sped off, and was never apprehended. Bobby died some minutes later, by the few accounts that were told; and Bobby’s little brother Louis, who was only seven, tried to carry his dead brother home so his momma could heal the unhealable.
How Gramma and Grampa lived through this agonizing tragedy, I cannot comprehend. I have two little boys of my own now, Grampa’s great-grandsons, who are close in both age, and proximity. They are one another’s best friends. I cannot imagine what one would do without the other.
Gramma and Grampa tried to put things back together again, and had another child, my mother, in 1927. Some of my earliest and keenest memories as a kid were of visiting Gramma and Grampa in Lansing, and asking about the photograph of the small boy that hung starkly and singularly on the wall in their home. It was a sepia-tinged thing, in a very antique-looking oval frame, and seemed very old and rather frightening to a small child in the mid 1960’s. My mom said simply of the old picture: "that’s uncle Bobby". It was many years before I found out what happened to him, but it is so heartbreaking to know, here in these afteryears, that Bobby’s picture was the only one my Grandparents hung, and in such reverence and solitude.
By 1974, Gramma was gone, and Grampa, as I say, was at our house for Thanksgiving. He asked to give the blessing before the meal, and he arose, his now-frail body steadied by his thumbs on the edge of the table. He began softly, speaking in Ashkenazi Yiddish, not a word of which I understood, having been raised a catholic by the religious tradition of my Dad. But, Grampa’s prayer had a power I have seldom heard before or since, and he was quite spent by the time he quietly sat down, with his head nearly on his chest. He was sobbing, and all he said afterwords that I could hear was, "I’ve had a such a wonderful life here".
He scarcely ate a thing.
Another man I later came to know, also removed from his native and distant land, came to Mid-Michigan to find work in the auto plants. By the time I knew the old gent, he had a thick knot of regal-looking white hair, and a beaming smile that let you know that he just loved people. He loved them.
This man was another grandfather, the grandfather of a very good high school friend named Mike. My friend was (-is) Cuban, and thus, so was his Grandpa. Mike’s grandpa loved to drink Sangria of his own making, and regale us with stories of life in Cienfuegos before the 1957 revolution. The island was a paradise, he’d admit. "Was the paradise" MIke’s Grampa would say, in his thick Cuban accent, and he would swallow hard. "Now", he’d say, "paradise is here ."
Quite suddenly, Mike’s grandpa turned quickly away from where we were sitting, and Mike followed, putting his arm around him. By the time I knew Mike’s grandpa, Mike and I were in high school, and Mike somewhat towered over the old man. Then, Mike hugged him, and came back to where I was sitting. "Grandpa sometimes cries when he talks about how much he loves America", Mike said to me.
The little episode was over quickly, and Mike’s grandpa was as merry as before in a matter of minutes. But, it was not the last time I would see Mike’s grandpa shed real tears for the nation he loved, or watch his lower lip tremble at the sight of an American flag. He was one of the most patriotic people I have ever known.
Like my Grampa, Mike’s grandfather didn’t like to talk much about life in Cuba before the arrival of Castro, whom he regarded as a living monster. And you wouldn’t talk about it either, if you knew half the horrors his family endured, before they literally washed ashore, just south of Miami, in 1962.
I had an English teacher in High School, named Mr. Mueller, who was known to have been held prisoner by the North during the Korean conflict. He was much less stoic about his life as a POW than many I have know, but he was a rather expressive guy to begin with. Mr. Mueller was a big man, completely bald, with menacing-looking eyebrows that gave him the look of an angry owl, but his heart was gigantic. He was the boys basketball coach for years, and was known a man that lived and died with his team.
One of his self-appointed duties was to visit various classes which were teaching the relevant parts of recent American history, and give a little talk about his experience as an American POW. He’d always get through the parts about the attempts at brainwashing, and the grisly torture (-after which, he’d sometimes show the scars on the lower part of his back where he was whipped with a piece of angle metal) with amazing aplomb and humor. But, I remember when he visited our 11th-grade Government class, and some smart-aleck asked him during the question-and-answer portion of his talk why he didn’t hate America now that they had forced him to go to some war in a place he’d never heard of, which got him tortured and nearly killed.
Almost like a shade being drawn on windows, Mr. Mueller’s eyelids shut while he was standing there, in full lecture mode, in front of a bunch of pimply-faced eleventh graders. When he opened his eyes, (which seemed like a thousand years later to those of us in the class), a couple tears trickled down his cheeks. There was no hiding them. "I love this country because we don’t do that to our prisoners", was all he said.
* * *
The detestable Los Angeles Times columnist Clarence Page recently wondered about the tears that Speaker John Boehner sheds when he talks about life as an American.
My Grampa, even though his brother was killed defending this nation during the First World War, and even though he had suffered the immeasurable loss of a vibrant little boy, still wept at the blessings, and the thought of being an American, even at the very sunset of his life. Mike’s Cuban grandfather cried when he thought about how blessed he was to make it to America’s shores, and wake up in a place where his sons and grandsons were safe. Mr. Mueller, a man who towers even in his death well above the loathsome little Clarence Page, cried openly for the values of his nation, even though he paid a terrible price defending them.
Clarence Page wonders about these tears. I don’t.