My father was a gambler who was off six months a year to follow the ponies and dogs. My mother was a probable borderline personality. My liberal German grandmother loved me in her way, which unfortunately did not include warmth.
And then there was my grandfather, William Schacht: orphan from Vienna. Violin player. Cigar store owner on New York's Upper East Side, almost 100 years ago. There is a photo somewhere of him standing next to a cigar store Indian, the carving as tall as he was.
He and my grandmother had met at a dance hall in Yorkville, on the Upper East Side of New York. Grandma loved to waltz, and would swing around the room whenever she heard the music, into her 90s: "One-two-three. One-two-three." Her favorite waltz was "The Blue Danube."
By the time I was born they had been separated for years, but then in his 70s, when Grandpa became ill with heart disease and later colon cancer, they both moved in with their daughter, my mother.
And I was blessed by that. He was the kindness of my young life. My father figure.
Despite growing up in sunny Miami Beach, my childhood was covered in shadows. We lived in crowded, dark apartments and bungalows until I was seven. Cockroaches scattered inside the radio where I heard President Truman give a speech. I learned early to shake my little patent-leather Mary Janes before putting them on to check for scorpions hidden in the toes. I got hives from the mangoes that fell from the dark trees outside in the yard.
I felt alone, although the two-bedroom places we rented were filled with seven of us -- my parents (or at least one of them, half the time), my grandparents and eventually me, my brother and sister.
I felt that grandpa was the only adult who really liked me. I remember a time that I had a tummy ache and was left to suffer through it. He came to my bed and whispered, "This will make you feel better." A magical elixir: a glassful of Alka-Sletzer.
"They don't mean to be mean." He said that often. Maybe they did, and maybe they didn't, but mean they were.
We would walk hand-in-hand to the Art Deco post office that still stands on Washington Avenue in South Beach, now across from clubs and tattoo parlors. When we lived near there, on Tenth and Euclid, many of the new residents were older folks, some of them refugees from Europe, some of them with tattoos on their arms, not of decorations, but of numbers.
My grandfather taught me to read when I was two. He saw no reason not to. I was curious and verbal, he was patient, and we both had lots of time together to read books.
Grandpa was ill for as long as I knew him and that meant sacrifice in many ways. He had his own bedroom, which meant that my baby sister shared a room with my parents and my brother and I slept in the living room/dining room with my grandmother.
He would close the door of our one bathroom for uncomfortably long times, doing something called "irrigating," which included a brown, rubber hot-water bottle that hung from a hook on the back of the bathroom door. The rooms we lived in smelled of sickness.
And then, in 1950, my father hit the daily double, and we moved to a light-filled mansion. But by that time grandpa was often spending the day in a darkened room, in a hospital bed.
Grandpa sometimes made omelets he would fill with grape jelly. He would turn the gas on high and inevitably the eggs would burn. One suppertime when I was eight, he burned an omelet, and I refused to eat it. The next morning, which looked like any other, cries and whispers confirmed that death could take away someone I loved.
And my mother reminded me then and for a long time after that I had made grandpa feel hurt because I didn't eat that burned omelet. I was a "bad girl." And I thought for years that I had precipitated grandpa's death.
It's only recently in fact that I realized while grandpa brought much joy and love to my life, I probably brought the same to his.
Grandpa, I hope you knew how much I loved you. And more than 60 years after your death, I am proud to let others know that as well.
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