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Boundless Love

Boundless Love

Grandfather at the Fair
An Unlikely Bridge Between the Old World and the New

Mother is swaddled in furs, napping. She leans to one side, snoring lightly, and her diamond earrings sparkle like headlights. Mellowed with wine, I prop up my feet, light up a cigarette and daydream about the voluptuous charms of my latest lover, smiling lasciviously to myself. I look up and notice that my father looks tired and sad, oddly shrunken inside his tall, crooked frame. His hat tilts back, exposing a large black yarmulke and high furrowed brow. The cherry-black Fleetwood limo glides past Flushing Meadow Park. Strange silhouette, a rusted unisphere rests there among the trees. The 1964 World’s Fair. Bright Disney dolls ride an assembly line, singing, It’s a small world after all….
“I have a story for you, about your grandfather, bless his memory. Maybe it would interest you?”
“Sure, Dad. Tell me about my grandfather, my “Zayde.”
“I know you think we were all a bunch of… how do you say it? pumpkins?… in the Old Country, but we weren’t. Your grandfather may sound like an old Chasid to you but he was an educated man, a cultured man. He may have worn a beard and sidelocks but still he knew something of the outside world. Some of it he didn’t approve of but some of it he did. He even visited Paris once.”
“Daddy! Your father actually went to Paris?!?”
I picture Tevye the Milkman at the Moulin Rouge, shaking my head. My father is beaming.
“He certainly did. He went there to see the World’s Fair. It was 1937, I believe, two years before the war. I was already Bar Mitzvahed by then. We were very excited about it, maybe you can imagine. Few of us had ever seen a big city, not even Krakow, but to visit Paris yet! That was practically unheard of! But MY Father went!
“When he came home he was so excited I can’t hardly describe it. Like a little kid, he was, brimming with it. He brought back souvenirs for me and my little brother, and some fancy clothing for my mother. A silk scarf from the famous Chanel, I remember. You would have approved. Also a bottle of liqueur, Benedictine. There was a cross on the label but he covered it up so we could drink it on the Sabbath and holidays. At the Fair, he told us, they had a special telephone…”
“Did you have telephones in Poland?”
“Yes, we had telephones in Poland, and indoor plumbing also. In 1937, just after the Middle Ages. Don’t be so smart aleck always.”
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry. So there was a special telephone….?”
“…with a screen attached to it and you could see on the screen the person you were talking to. Like a miniature television in black and white, but probably really lousy reception by today’s standards. My father described it over and over, it amazed him to such extent. Like looking into the future, he said. It was a strange and marvelous thing, he told us, ach, a wonderful world we would see. I never saw him so excited like that, with such joy. And the smile on his face, I remember it all my life.”
My father’s eyes are moist but he does not cry.
“Tell her, Moniek, tell her!” hisses my Mother, suddenly awake, always keen for signs of dissent, adjusting her mink collar as she turns to face us, speaking to me through my father. I am wise to this rhetorical trick of hers: the third person familiar. “So she shouldn’t think the life back home was only horror for the Jews. Just murder and suffering, she thinks. We had our happiness too, before the war, all of us did. Better even than this America she loves so much. Who knew what would come? No one. So go figure, nu, go make plans. But we were happy before. Tell her, she should understand, she should know from it. We had good times too!”
Mother, I know you had a happy childhood. I don’t mean to deny it….”
“Listen, your mother just gets upset that people think all we knew was persecution. She wants you to understand that we had happy times and really good memories.”
“I heard what she wants. I’ve been sitting right here the whole time!”
“Then listen instead of always getting angry.”
It’s hard for me to listen. Hard especially when they speak of Poland and their nostalgic longing to return. Hard for me to hear it when my father says, “People expect us to hate Poland because of what happened. But we can’t hate it , not all of it. Our childhood memories live there, beautiful ones. If Hitler changed everything, and he did, still he didn’t change the good memories into bad ones. They’re all we have left of home. Just to remember.” It hurts me to listen. The words cut deep to sorrow, always open as a festering wound. I want to hurt the hurt sometimes. And so I have. Indeed, in deed, I have. With the scars to prove it, as well.
“Daddy, do you remember anything else your father told you about the World’s Fair in Paris?”
“Not about the World’s Fair exactly, but there was something else. Probably you’ll get a kick out of it. While he was still in Paris my father met up with a business acquaintance of his and this fellow, he was a gentile what did he know from Chasidic Jews?–he took it into his head to take out my father and show off the famous night life in Paris. So where do you think they went? To the follies. To a burlesque show, no less, with women shaking around half-naked or worse on the stage. He blushed when he told me about it and whispered I shouldn’t tell my younger brother. I think he was in shock. There were women dancing there in feathers and in beads, he said, wearing very little else. One in particular danced like a wild animal, but graceful. She was totally exposed and her skin was black–I don’t know which shocked him more. Her name was Josephine Baker.”
I shriek. “Are you telling me that my own grandfather actually saw the Josephine Baker dance naked on stage in Paris?”
“Yes.”
“My own grandfather, your father?”
Dad nods his head.
“Josephine Baker?”
Dad nods again, smiling.
“You wouldn’t lie to me now, would you, Daddy? Not about something so important?”
“Important! This information she thinks is important,” Dad chuckles. “Why would I make up such a story that anyone else in the family would be ashamed of but you? Believe me, it happened. Mazel tov! Now you finally have something to be proud of us.”
I grab his shoulders, laughing out loud, shaking him.
“Why,” breathlessly, “didn’t you ever tell me this before?”
“I didn’t think it mattered that much. What difference could it make?”
“O Daddy! It makes all the difference in the world!”
And it does, somehow. In my father’s study, nestled among volumes of Talmud and other Judaic lore, there is a picture of my grandfather, a worn brown and white photograph salvaged miraculously after the war. I take it down and see a middle-aged Chasidic gentleman, elegant trimmed beard, sidelocks curled neatly behind his ears. Familiar features, my beloved father’s face: an early draft.

Coda: I have collected some nice art work over the years but the one piece most visible upon entry into my home is an authentic oversized French Caron poster from 1927 featuring Mlle. Josephine Baker.
Dancing. In all her glory.
A bridge to a new world naked anew.

I dedicate this story with boundless love to my late father, David.
(1.26.1923-1.13.2013)

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32 comments

  • Susan Levine says:

    Fitting tribute my dear! Words were always your way. It’s what brought you to my attention many years ago. Sorry for your loss.

    I love you!

  • Kate J says:

    Such a beautiful piece of writing. The past and present woven together in such an evocative and powerful way. I can see it all playing out n my mind’s eye. More, please!

  • Wallis this was excellent storytelling and a beautiful piece of writing. Honestly, you may be my newest fave writer and I want to devour more of your work. I’m new to discovering your art but you will see more of me… Literature is my passion and you, my dear have certainly crossed into that realm. Bravo!!!

  • JReyer says:

    Beautiful portayal of such enduring love, during the harmful times and the good times. Father full of strength, courage, emotional knowledge and unbreakable bound to his family. You can not invision this in ones mind without the heart being drawn in. Beautiful tribute.

  • Ann Stapleton says:

    Wonderful work Wallis 🙂

  • Elizabeth Capwell says:

    A beautiful rendering of a beautiful memory. Your dialogue is as evocative as your description. I can hear your father’s voice. You’ve also drawn a clear picture of your family’s dynamics in just a few powerful sentences. I’m not a “visual” person, but for me this is a scene from movie. Writing is your path. May it lead you through your grief. This piece belongs in the New Yorker.

  • Kai says:

    Dear Wallis,
    I just got my computer to make it to FB without Crashing. This is a beautiful and moving tribute to your Father, who I know is The Rock, The Pillar, The Shining Example of what Truth is in Love. He is so proud of all you have accomplished, and all that you will achieve through the many gifts you have as a person. To honor him with such a crystal clear imagery of what was vivid moment in a world about to come crashing down, but to retain it so beautifully, as The Speaker of the Memory reminds us all of what should be, can be, and what should not be ever again. You are his legacy, and you must remember often, that the gift you give goes far out, farther then we can know. Love and Light in this sorrowful time. Help and Healing to you dear one.

  • Kat MacLean says:

    What a wonderfully revealing, heart warming story that you have chosen to share with the World at Large! I can imagine your Father’s eyes just twinkling as he relayed the experience of his Father to you! It’s great to have these “moments to remember” that are so special from one generation to the other. Some of your words, hit “home” with me as some of your Father’s comments sounded much like those of my own. For that, I deeply thank you. If you feel that you can, please share more moments like these. They are so special and enlightening. Thank you, Dear One. Thank you. I share in your loss of a Father. I believe I can safely say this as only you might understand. Our Fathers may have been confounded by daughters like us at times BUT they were never “bored” with or by us! :o) Blessings.

  • timmy says:

    Splendid portrayal of a memory, I felt like I was there, thank you for sharing.

  • poetnoise says:

    A loving tribute to your father. It made me smile and my eyes filled with sadness at the same time. This is an amazing and touching memory, that I will never forget! What a loss for you, dear heart. You gave him joy!

  • Daddy Sky says:

    I close my eyes and see it all. ……. a warm, wonderful, and insightful glimpse into your world.

  • TATYANA ANDRUS says:

    A LOT OF SUNSHINE IN COLD WATER, YOU NEVER BE SAME AGAIN, FOR GOOD ONLY! BLESS YOUR SOUL, KEEP WRITING, SISTER! LOVE IT, LOVE YOU!

  • Mesmerized says:

    WOW!!! You had me at, “Mother is swaddled in furs, napping.” What an amazing acknowledgment. I wish I could write even a whisper of what you write. I was drawn in by the essence of your piece and then I was held there with a desire to hear more. I even got closer to my screen as if I were present in the limo with you.

    I am truly mesmerized by your words <3

  • Karen Semanek says:

    Great!

  • Karen Semanek says:

    You have a great talent for description and storytelling Wallis! Thank you for sharing this with us. I love this story. What a wonderful man your father must have been. Your story cuts the essence of his understanding of you. Somehow he knew that you were the one he could share his father’s experience with. It’s a big surprise at the end to find out that the dancing girl was Josephine Baker! What a risqué thing it must have been for him at the time with his religious background! May they both rest in peace.

  • Gwen says:

    Never have I read Jewish dialect so distinctly authentic. Ms. Stern puts me there – “the third person familiar” Beautiful reminiscence and sad coda to the well-lived life of a much loved father. Kudos to you Wallis.

  • Lisa Lodato says:

    Beautiful, absolutely beautiful. In light of the recent passing of my Mother, it really hit home. Fantastic writing, eloquently delivered. Keep up the great work!

  • shirley says:

    What an amazing limo ride! What an extraordinary, and sweet story. This is such a loving tribute. The story is beautiful and what a great ending! How clever! Once again, Stern shows her remarkable craftsmanship in this brilliant story. This is a memory that embraces and leaves the reader with an ache as they realize that Stern has opened a portal in time, to share a tender moment with her father, that will never be forgotten.

  • Nicole says:

    Wallis…what a wonderful poignant and eloquent memory — and I actually had written a comment the first time around when I read it so I’m sure the awesome women of Ephochalips did lose a portion of their comments because one of them was mine. I know loss and pain make it difficult to make sense of much of anything…and all we can count on is time…endless tho it often seems, but time will move on and pain will ebb — never as quickly as we’d like it to. In the meantime know you are in hearts and prayers…much love, Nicole Conn

  • Lil says:

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful memory Wallis.
    A beautiful and poingnant tribute to your father.

  • What ace storytelling, Miss Stern! How marvelously potent a storehouse of memories so moving in one brill, beautiful mind…and the facility with which you convey each is altogether breathtaking indeed! One can’t help but be astounded at the convincing woundrous manner in which you render three altogether differing voices and portray the intricacies of a family dynamic in so short a tale, indeed too short a tale as it makes one long for yet more. ‘Tis the truest of Alchemies that you have so magically spun past and future, sorrow and hope, and Old World and “a new world naked anew,” into the purest of gold! Just as you honour your father you honour us all with your prodigious gifts and one cannot help but marvel and honour you in return. Brava, Wallis Stern! Brava!

  • poetnoise says:

    The mother’s furs, diamond earrings, snoring and napping is juxtaposed against the daughters propped up feet: lit cigarette and lascivious daydream about a voluptuous lover, creates an image of unforgettable descriptive beauty. Stern writes in a language that is delicate and lyrical that speaks to the heart of the reader. She reveals the age-old love and tension that exists between all mothers and daughters. In contrast, the easygoing banter between father and daughter speaks of the bond that only “daddy’s girl” can claim. Stern, shares her family in a tapestry of memory for all to see. It is an honest and poignant tribute to her father, gently woven into the fabric of time. She retells her father’s story and each paragraph unfolds drawing the reader into the artistic word -wizardry that aptly proclaims her “the wordsmith”. The reader is embraced by the love and humor delivered with aplomb by Stern, in light of her overwhelming grief. The father’s indulgence of his daughter is touching and the story about his Chasidic father’s venture into the world of burlesque and encountering the sublime, Josephine Baker brings a smile and chuckle to the reader’s lips. Stern’s tribute to her father is also a tribute to those who lost their lives or survived the Holocaust. What stands out, “is the the indomitable strength of a people rising like a phoenix when the world stood by and let them die. Stern takes the reader off balance, as she delivers them to the heart of her tribute with these powerful words, “Listen, your mother, just gets upset that people think all we knew was persecution. She wants you to understand that we had happy times and really good memories.” The reader will never forget this loving tribute. Stern reminds us that we are fragile, and what made us strong are the memories of our loved ones. The strength and courage that created the man, her father, will live on in his daughter.

  • Hellen says:

    Why didn’t my own commentary get printed? Gad, I swear it’s not blooming likely I’d say anything cheeky what with your Dad’s passing and all! This story is wicked genius from A to Zed and I felt myself right there in the cab with you and right vivid too, wanting to read it over and again just to hold fast to the memoir in my mind’s eye quite like a flick but over too soon. And the ending of it all, with Josephine Bakker dancing, it’s such a mad surprise! Brilliant, I say! I’m chuffed just to know you an doff my hat to your talent and personage, Wallis! If it’s true that you’ll be coming to the LDN as the lady from the BBC says, I’d be pleased to carry your baggage an even yourself. Cheers to your Dad and Cheers to you, Wallis! Well done!

  • I wanted to post it to my Facebook page, but the source is too limiting. There is nothing particularly Lesbian in this story and although the details deal with your Jewish family’s memories, the story is universal, as is all great literature. So, W querida, I hope you publish it more widely. Soon.

  • Marina Nicolau says:

    Como disse eu já tinha lido antes, adorei a historia e acho que deves continuar com o alegado cedido por ele. Por isso que te admiro e te adoro.

  • Já leu o que escrevi antes? ADOREIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII minha irmã.

  • K. Lloyd says:

    Wallis, My apologies for being so flip. The first post I read of yours today, was the loss of friends. I didn’t see the one before that. I in fact read this story when it was written and have thought of it a few times since. (Isn’t that what a good story is?) It stuck it my mind, for several reasons, one that I lost my Dad in the last few years as well. The second reason was how loving and filled with integrity your parents were, to acknowledge that they had happy times in Poland too. This is the part that stayed in my mind and I’ve turned over and over. I’m sorry if I’ve added to your grief in any way. And I’m sorry I didn’t reply in the beginning. A case of computer illiteracy more than anything. In fact this will be the second time I’ve submitted this, the first didn’t work…lol Kathy

  • Liz Dreams says:

    This is an amazingly written story that bring me to tears and it’s so deeply touching that I can’t stop thinking about it. Every time I come over to visit you at home this huge Josephine Baker poster is really the first thing I see but I never thought there was such an incredible story related to it! I’m deeply saddened about your father’s passing, as you already know, and know how close to hime your were, but I’m glad that I can be there for you as a longtime friend and give you support. But wow, I think it’s a great story and the best possible way you can honor your father’s memory, doing it with a smile instead of tears. We’ve known each other since our good old Punk Rock days at CBGB’s and I hope we’ll still be friends in our rocking chairs but still rocking away every bit as your writing does these days LOL! You’ve become such a talented writer and I’m very proud of you. I love you, Liz

  • Michael Karp says:

    What a wonderful memory turned into a great memoir… You capture perfectly the confused clash of the old and the new, the worldly and the pious, the survivor and the lost as generations try to communicate. Very witty, too… Thanks.

  • nevertellanyone says:

    Thank you for dancing me through a kaleidoscope of scrumptiousness with your weave of words – a literary soul massage. From the grief activating realization of your father’s aging body to the adorable kibbitzing about prehistoric Poland and then stirring us so-called eccentrics to yearn for or to celebrate those more irreverent validating similarities we have with our relatives bringing to light our connectedness. Mazeltov for a truly masterful work!

  • Gwen Feldman says:

    Again, you pull at my heartstrings with your emotionally-charged, well-written piece here. I hope Epochalips continues with your writing as you surely carry the standard for all writers. Thanks again for sharing such a meaningful piece of your history.

  • tammylleanne says:

    more

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