Some nights, after working fourteen hours a day in his grocery, my father would sit in his easy chair, soaking his swollen feet in a basin. His pale blue eyes would stare, not at me, his third daughter, but somewhere far away as the Black Sea, and he would speak in a voice coming from deep within his barrel chest. He would say their names: Chaim, Yossi, Leib, Schmuel, the names of his four older brothers murdered in the pogrom that befell his shtetl in Russia in 1913. He would tell how the Cossacks slashed children, old men and women with their sabers, blood splashing like rain. They set their dogs on his neighbors. He said his mother never shed a tear as she gathered her four daughters and my father -- the one son who had survived -- and her featherbed and candlesticks to escape their burning village where the pine trees were like black fish skeletons in the smoke-filled sky. She was alone with her remaining children. Her husband had fled to America just a few months before to escape the Russian army that had persecuted him. To earn passage to bring his family across the ocean, he candled eggs in the Bronx, checking for dark spots. He had only been gone for a month when the pogrom began.
In the forest, my grandmother and her children could hear the Cossacks' dogs barking as they hunted for Jews. They had to survive on roots and berries. After the pogrom, when my grandmother put her hands through her chestnut hair, long strands came out, as if she were shedding hair in place of tears. Her hair grew back white. When she could no longer smell the smoke or hear barking, she led the children out of the forest. Farmers gave them something to eat and let them sleep in their barns. When they wouldn't, my father, only 3 then, had to steal eggs. At 4, he sold matchsticks in a town square, his bare hands raw from the cold. What town? Who knew? One with a statue of the tsar on horseback was all she could recall.
My father never spoke of hunger, but he told that story at our dinner table -- the veins rising in his forehead as he chewed, his arm like a piston bringing the fork to his mouth, no talking, just the sound of his jaws working.
My grandfather's letters returned unopened. My father said that he had begun to forget what his father looked like. "He looks like you," his mother would say, "with your dark red curls, your blue eyes," but my father had to ask her over and over.
My grandfather wrote to a Jewish newspaper. "If anyone knows where Sarah Shapiro is, a small woman, pretty woman from Berdichev, with shining brown hair, and my ten children (it took up too much space to write all their names) please write to me." He gave his name and address.
Someone knew someone over here, over there, and my grandfather found her. Through an agent, he brought her and the children to America. My grandmother didn't want to tell him that four of their sons had been killed until he was in her arms and she was in his.
My father was 13 then. He began boxing at Stillman's Gym at night. During the day he trained by hefting cases of seltzer on and off a delivery truck. By the time he was 16 he was a middleweight, fighting for money to buy his own store so he could provide for his sisters, his mother and his father.
"It's a blessing for a Jew to die of old age in his own bed," my grandmother often said. In her late 70's, she died in her four-poster bed. She didn't even resent the cancer that ate at her womb, the yellowing of her skin. The pain was nothing to her. She had gotten to America, to her husband, he should rest in peace. That's how she knew there was a God.
In the late sixties, Arverne, Queens, where my father's grocery store was, had deteriorated. He could recognize his new customers from the crime section of the local newspaper. Everyone warned him to leave, but my father wouldn't. I was so worried about him that I couldn't sleep. I took to phoning him a few times a day. If he didn't answer, I knew that once again he'd been robbed and beaten and I'd call the police. Once they found him lying on the floor behind the counter, bleeding, tied up with the strings of the apron he wore to slice cold cuts.
"Old man," one of the toughs once said to him, "I'll bounce your head around like it was a basketball."
The last time I saw my father alive was in 1974. I was a married woman by then and had driven to his store to pick him up. I had been looking forward to having time alone with him when he wasn't behind his counter. I wanted to tell him that I was pregnant. I wanted to fill him with the same hope for the future that I had now. I wanted to make him feel more grounded to the earth, to feel more of a sense of possibility. He had warned me not to get out of my car when I got to his store and I could see why. On the sidewalk, a pair of wild dogs were snarling at each other and at the side of his building, three fierce-looking men were shooting craps.
"Dad," I called to him, "I'm here, Dad."
His back was to me. He was sliding the metal security gate over the front of his store, padlocking it, then shaking the gate to make double sure it was locked. But to me, he looked like a prisoner trying to get back in.
(Abridged from version originally published in Rockhurst Review, 25th edition, Spring, 2012)
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