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?”
“My own grandfather, your father?”
Dad nods his head.
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.