Saturday, December 13, 1969, 6:00 PM
My early years weren’t exactly conventional, but they weren’t completely off the rails, either. As far as I was concerned, I was happy. I don’t remember ever feeling anxious, or knowing about anxiety as a child. I felt extremely lucky; my parents had a fairytale relationship, and I never tired of hearing of its origins.
“So as I told you before,” my mom half-heartedly repeated for the millionth time, “when I was eighteen your dad and I were high school sweethearts. He asked me to meet him downtown and I knew he was going to propose, so I dressed up and took the bus. As I was making my way down the stairs to the street, I tripped and fell right in the mud. He never showed up. Then he went into the Navy and we lost touch.”
“And then you married someone else and he married someone else, and his wife died and you got divorced with my real dad and, and, we moved back to Minnesota and you ran into him at the Lincoln Deli,” I rambled delightedly. My young brain held no true concept of much besides what positively affected me. I continued my fairytale recounting, “And then you two got married three weeks later! And now Linda and Cheryl and me and Margi and Chelle are like the all-girl version of the ‘Brady Bunch’.”
Because of my dad I knew that blood was not always thicker than water. When he’d married my mom I was seven years old. He firmly cemented his fatherly status from that very first day.
He was born October 9, 1931, during the warmest meteorological autumn in all New York history. The oldest child of Selma and Morry, money was scarce and so was affection. His mother had little patience for her two sons, and favored her daughters. This attitude carried over to Chelle, Margi and myself. Although we were girls we were "his" girls, and not really blood related, either. I'd always had the sense she didn't like me.
Once, when my mother and I were driving from Minnesota to California on a road trip, Grandma Selma came along. I remember her ordering a twenty-five cent cup of coffee, then looking at me over her bulbous nose and interrupting the waitress when she asked me what I’d like to drink, “We’ll just share this,” she gestured toward the coffee.
I was told Grandma Selma had something called “depression-era mentality” because she had grown up during a time when Americans had no food. At fourteen I suppose I was old enough to drink coffee, but I really wanted a diet Coke. Besides, she wasn’t spending a cent, she never did. Since she and Grandpa Morry divorced, her daughter Marilynn, who was married to a Major League baseball player, took care of her. I was livid because my mom would be paying for our meal, and I knew she’d be okay with my ordering a soda. However, she was in the restroom at the moment, and since I was typically extremely polite, and had been taught to respect my elders, I sat seething, silent and thirsty.
Grandma Selma’s disappointment of having married a liquor store merchant was etched all over her weary face. By the time she was fifty-four, she looked as though she were twenty years older. As a matter of fact, in pictures of her as a young mother, she still resembled an old, weary grandmama, nude colored stockings rolled down right below her knee, tucked into black sensible shoes. This fetching ensemble was always paired with a cotton sack of a dress that was decorated with an allover tiny, floral print. When she did dress up she'd pull on polyester pants, the kind with the seam down the middle, and a matching floral top. Her fleshy feet peeking through her white clunky-heeled sandals.
But she was the only grandma I'd had. My biological father's mother, as well as my maternal grandmother passed away before I was born. Yet, we weren't even counted amongst her grandchildren in her obituary when she died a few years back. Of course, we were estranged from my dad's side of the family by then, we'd been erased as easily as a mistake on a math quiz. There were many years of my life that I belonged to that family and I would prefer to think it meant something good.
Grandpa Morry was much kinder than his wife but with his liquor store business he had little spare time left for the children. Dad made up for their lack of attention by routinely showering his younger siblings Louise, William, and Marilynn, with Bit-O-Honey candies he stole from the corner store on his way home from Boy Scouts.
For me he continued his tradition as a savior. “Ayyy, Chachka,” he’d say, blue eyes sparkling, “come give your dad a kiss.” I’d climb into his lap and hug him with all my little might, dwarfed by his bulk. In truth he was much shorter than he appeared, but perhaps not less massive, as he did have an affinity for pie. He resembled Topol, the actor that played Tevye in one of my favorite movies, Fiddler on the Roof. Both had a gap between their two front teeth, eyes that crinkled at the corners with glee when they smiled, and a tough exterior with marshmallow insides, like Fred Flintstone, the cartoon character so popular at the time. In fact, when asked to describe my father I invariably said, “He’s just like Fred Flintstone,” and the receiving party would nod their head as if those five words conspiratorially summed up a man they did not yet know.
As I as I grew older I continued to adore him, although by this time he became a source of constant, and in my perception, old-fashioned amusement. Every sentence began with a booming yet light-hearted, “God dammit girls!” which came out in plural regardless of who was the culprit, due to the fact I also had four sisters. We would dissolve in a fit of giggles as he tromped around the house spouting his favorite sayings: God dammit girls, money doesn’t grow on trees (this always accompanied with a snap of a light being turned off), God dammit girls, keep it down to a dull roar (used during times when any voice registered above a loud whisper, therefore interrupting whatever ball game he was watching), and God dammit girls, who moved my comb (or radio, or nail clippers, or whatever else of his we'd borrowed but not replaced back to the exact same spot the object had previously been.)
He was the kind of man that called women “broads” and the waitresses “honey” and they never minded. He was colorblind and therefore wore primarily blue. He’d buy seven pairs of shoes at a time, all in differing variations of the only color he could truly see. Even his cars were in this hue. I always wondered if that was so he would not lose his vehicle in a parking lot, although I doubted anyone else had a personalized plate that read Beshert, the Yiddish word for “meant to be,” chosen due to the trajectory of his relationship with my mother. It also explained the relationship he had with my sisters and me.
I was thirty-two when he died, I was the only one present. My mom and sisters flew the coop for a short respite that morning, only twenty minutes before he drew his last breath. I figured he waited on purpose, I felt special he died while I was there.
His lifeless body lay in his private room at Nathan Adelson Hospice, waiting for transport to the crematorium. He’d have laughed at the irony of this, of a Jew waiting to be burned, not buried. He never was the traditional type. He pretended, but I knew otherwise.
It's been twenty-two years since that day. I've missed him every single one of them.
(Photo of Lincoln Deli courtesy of St. Louis Park Historical Society)