by: Julie Rosenzweig
Though it’s not the one I wanted, I know I’m lucky to have this picture of my grandmother as a young woman.
It’s a gorgeous photograph by any standard, a stylized portrait from the early 1930s. The sepia richness and intensity need no digital tweaking; the real-life colors are easily guessed. Against the familiar smoky-marble backdrop of such portraits, my grandmother sits on a little chintz bench with black rolled wooden arms, a foretaste of the furnishings that would later fill her iconic Ocean Parkway apartment. Her finger-waved hair is dark brown, her eyes a shade or two lighter. Her dress, stiffly tailored for all its longitudinal ruffles, is a deep burgundy that superimposes maternal warmth on her slender young woman’s frame. A white corsage raises the question of what formal occasion she’s dressed for. A sibling’s wedding? A prom? Did the public high schools of Depression-era Brooklyn have proms, and would a girl from a tradition-minded immigrant family have been allowed, or tempted, to attend? I’ll probably never know.
The color of the dress is echoed in the bloodred fingernails and in the carefully outlined Cupid’s-bow lips. It’s the mouth I usually focus on, even more than the strong nose and the almond eyes that give definition to the face, which is almost childlike in its roundness—what I imagine as a fashionable roundness of the era. Despite the unsubtle, smoochy lipstick job, the smile is faint, nuanced, and suggestive. She’s part Ashkenazi, part Betty Boop, part Mona Lisa—and all mine.
It’s not the only image I have of her. There’s an album of old family photos that found its way to me a number of years ago, against all odds. It contains a few snapshots of my grandmother, taken during my own infancy and childhood. I appear alongside her in most of these pictures; she’s holding me, playing peekaboo, etc. In a couple of instances my barely remembered grandfather is beside her. Though compelling in their way, these Kodak moments obviously lack the gravitas of the vintage photograph. What attaches me so strongly to the latter, beyond the pleasure of owning a handsome keepsake of someone I loved dearly, is the proof it embodies that my family didn’t spontaneously generate sometime in the mid-1960s; that we —I—have roots in more remote times. No other heirlooms have survived to furnish such evidence.
The portrait hangs in a hallway in my home, next to my wedding photo. When I moved as a bride into what had been my husband’s spartan bachelor pad, one of the first things I did was hang these two pictures. The place badly needed a woman’s touch, but it was also a way of laying down roots. Our hallways filled up over the years as each child arrived on the scene, our young family history unfurling across the walls in chronological progression from our wedding picture and the old sepia portrait. It’s a satisfying display. Yet as lovely as the portrait is, my grandmother doesn’t quite cut the matriarchal figure in it that I need her to. Her smile, a young unmarried woman’s smile, holds something back—or is the enigmatic opacity merely a cover for unripeness, incompleteness? It’s completeness I’m after. This isn’t the photo I wanted.
We were a family that never made it out of Brooklyn. A generation or two in from Ellis Island, the suburban upgrade eluded us. We migrated from city apartment to city apartment as our finances and familial transitions dictated.
The déménagements grew in frequency during the seventies, as my parents’ marriage fell apart. Our family’s one halfhearted attempt at homeownership—a modest brick rowhouse in southeast Brooklyn—ended after five years, ostensibly because my parents had no taste for yard upkeep, but really because they sensed the impending implosion. They didn’t want to be saddled with a property that would have to be disposed of under pressure. So we downgraded to a rented apartment when I was eleven or so, a move that caused me no end of shame.
A couple of years later the divorce finally happened, prompting a series of additional household dismantlings and reassemblings in apartments across the southern part of the borough. With each move we shed more and more stuff.
My grandmother, who was ailing and lived with us, also jettisoned most of her belongings. She’d presided over a kind of sub-household in the finished basement of our rowhouse, equipped with her ornate old furnishings from Ocean Parkway. When we left the rowhouse, we also bid farewell to my grandmother’s solid but curvaceous living room tables, with legs like swirly stairs for starlets to prance on in 1930s musicals. As we trekked from apartment to apartment in quick succession, various rococo lamps, statuettes, and other tchotchkes disappeared until all that was left of my grandmother’s autonomous existence were her clothes, her pills, and her handbag with the tiny artifact in it that she carried with her wherever she went; that I loved to pull out and handle and pore over.
It’s been forty years since I last saw it. I have an idea who might have ended up with it. Objectively it isn’t lost, though it’s lost to me. Maybe someday it’ll turn up on Etsy.
It was a purse mirror, oval, too small to see a face in whole, even my little childhood face. The kind of mirror you tilt and squint into as you primp a geometric slice of yourself. A mirror that gives you back to yourself in fragments.
But the mirror’s obverse offered completeness. I know this even though I don’t remember the picture it bore—my grandparents’ wedding photo—with any clarity or detail. If a photograph is a ghost of what it documents, then what I’m left with is the ghost of a ghost. I extrapolate. I cobble together a wedding gown for my grandmother and a dark formal suit for my grandfather from a lifetime’s store of media images; their faces are composites based on other extant photos. So the bridegroom, my grandfather as a young man, is unaccountably elderly, lined, sickly, and frail in the imagined wedding picture; his worn cheek near my grandmother’s plump one mimics a snapshot pose from three decades later.
As for my grandmother, it’s no great leap for me to conjure up a bride with a round thirties face and a slick dark finger-wave, but I delete the Cupid’s-bow lips and their unrevealing tartness. I give her a facial expression lifted from one of the later snapshots, in which a six-month-old me is perched in the crook of her arm and she’s laughing, her mouth open, expressive, womanly, and ripe.
Because her health crisis followed so closely upon my grandfather’s passing, we naturally assumed the bereavement had triggered it. That her grief expressed itself in a rare neuromuscular disease, rather than, say, a heart attack, seemed consistent with our family’s exasperating uniqueness. True to Tolstoy’s dictum about unhappy families, my brother and I grew up feeling utterly alone amid singular circumstances, though later we realized we’d also been part of a social movement—”Seventies Divorce.” In any case, my grandmother’s exotically named condition, “myasthenia gravis,” and its unpredictable, idiosyncratic symptoms (drooping eyelids, sudden respiratory crises), added yet another layer to the oppressive miasma that clung to our family. Its weirdness fit us to a T.
She’d been a jolly round grandma of exuberant orality—a smoker and a nosher. Now she had trouble breathing and eating. There were a few brief hospitalizations, then a much longer stay that seemed interminable. The hospital’s name, Maimonides, was itself exotic and somewhat reminiscent of the disease that had put her there. It was the place that had swallowed up my grandfather—was she trying to follow him?
We traveled there daily so my mother could monitor her status, but my brother and I couldn’t be brought into the ward where she lay ventilated. Once disgorged from whatever smelly car service vehicle had transported us across the wilds of Brooklyn, my mother would deposit us in separate locations at the hospital—a snack bar, an entrance lobby—before proceeding alone to my grandmother’s room. The separation was meant to “keep us out of trouble.” Would we have sought or found trouble if left together? Possibly. My mother correctly estimated that if alone, we’d stay put.
Logically, to stave off boredom I might have brought books from my ever-growing library of juvenile biographies with its heavy emphasis on US presidents. In those early grade school years, as the household implosion threatened and threatened without actually happening, I tranquillized and dignified my life with presidential trivia, which I could recite on demand the way transportation geeks rattle off train routes. But when I reach back to those hospital snack bar afternoons, I don’t see books; there’s only a vague impression of Formica, cigarette fumes, and vending machines, overlaid with an awareness of my unseen, equally bored brother pacing at his own post. I don’t know how long we spent in our hospital purgatories at any given time, probably not as much as we thought, but each occasion felt like an eternity.
I try to add some color and heft to these curiously flat eternities. I line up candies in the vending machine—Mounds, Junior Mints, Chuckles. I yank a round translucent plastic knob, hear/feel the satisfying thunk of the recoil. A Snickers bar drops down on someone else’s dime: reality is overrated.
It’s the veil that stumps me. It must have figured prominently in my grandmother’s wedding photo, but I’ve got nothing. I google bridal veil 1930s, but those overwrought headdresses, like lace-smothered cloche hats with mosquito netting attached, seem all wrong.
I supply a favorite image from my own wedding album.
We’re standing under the chuppah, the Jewish bridal canopy, set up under the open night sky. It’s been a day of hundred-plus temperatures, rare for Jerusalem, where I’ve lived for years now. Fasting per religious custom, I’ve nearly fainted in the pre-wedding bustle. By now, though, cool evening winds have set in. A strong gust suddenly blows my veil up and back, twisting it into an almost cubist formation around my head, all odd planes and angles.
Was it a random shot, or did the photographer have time to cock his head at the distinctive composition before clicking? Another gust blew the veil back over my face just a moment later.
In the photo, my husband is placing the ring on my finger; he looks grave and decorous, immersed in protocol, intent as always on getting things right. That’s why I’m marrying him. I convey a different but complementary mood: smiling slightly but with eyes closed, as though viewing a dream sequence or inner vision running in tandem to the ceremony. I look like I don’t need to see what’s going forward, and in fact I don’t. The photograph will be there, later, to show me.
The awkwardly twisted veil should make the image ridiculous, strike a discordant note. But our facial expressions, earnest and beatific, turn the absurdity to advantage. Or is it the other way around? I think of the wedding scene in Anna Karenina, Levin and Kitty solemnly blundering over their rings. How precarious our dignity. But if it weren’t human, it wouldn’t be dignity.
The chuppah, too, would be less touching if less fragile. A symbolic home, almost an abstraction—a cloth stretched over four poles—there’s no stuff in it to shed. A huff and a puff would blow it down. Its ghostly power is to recall every other chuppah that came before it and to hint at those to come after. It’s complete in itself but also a link in a chain, a fragment, or a portal.
One day my mother came to me in the snack bar and told me to follow her: my grandmother wanted to see me. By this time her status must have improved some. I didn’t go as far as her room, though, or even the ward she was in. My mother led me part-way up a stairwell and bid me wait while she fetched my grandmother to the stairwell door. In fact she positioned me at a mid-flight landing, not wanting to risk my presence anywhere near the ward.
“She can’t speak,” my mother warned as she left to get my grandmother.
I recognized her well enough when she arrived. By now I was prepared for the sight of a frail old woman who’d dropped, perhaps, a quarter of her body weight since I’d last seen her. I wasn’t alarmed by her skeletal frame under the hospital gown, nor did I attend to whatever tubes or bandages came attached. What arrested me was the emotionalism, the way she alternately blew kisses down at me and clasped her hands to her chest as though trying to staunch an overflow of feeling. Her former fleshy solidity had transmuted into energy—a stifled energy seeking its release in exaggerated gestures. Stifled speech. I love you, she mouthed soundlessly, over and over.
When she came home, to our home, it emerged that her speechlessness hadn’t been a symptom of her illness, but the side effect of a tracheostomy—another exotic addition to the family lexicon.
I don’t recall my first close-up glimpse of the stoma. She spent the immediate post-discharge period in an upstairs bedroom, where my mother ministered to her behind the closed door. A home nurse came once or twice; I remember whirring or gurgling sounds—suctioning, I suppose. Eventually my grandmother left the bedroom and moved down to the basement that had recently been finished for her use, and into which her dark heavy furniture had been decanted sometime during the hospitalization weeks. The hole in her throat then became a regular household presence—normalized by day, though it haunted my dreams at night. It burned a hole in my consciousness; a part of me never stopped seeing it.
In order for her to talk, the hole had to be plugged. Though the speaking valve restored her voice, it made her speech seem inauthentic; I could almost imagine that the movements of her lips and the sounds coming out of them weren’t in synch. I came to prefer the soundless speech of the stoma, a shadow mouth with its own message to convey.
A friend, thumbing through my old family photo album, once commented that our home life looked like one big party. I could see where she got that idea: my tenth birthday occupies a strangely excessive share of the album. The festivities start at a bowling alley, then migrate to our basement. A folding table is laden with cake and snacks against the seventies faux wood paneling, my grandmother’s furnishings visible around the edges. Girls frolic. Background details—an old analog radio atop my grandmother’s mini-fridge, a bronzed baby shoe displayed on her dresser—lend an air of stability and permanence to the scene.
My grandmother appears in a couple of the party photos, looking almost normal. She’s put some weight back on. The ptosis is barely perceptible. A high collar covers her stoma which, I believe, was left permanently open, though it’s possible that what I remember from the later years is simply a scar. By the time I was ten she’d been on a treatment regimen that sort of worked. The party was likely scheduled for one of her “on” days: she took cortisone every other day. I have no “off” day picture of her from that period.
Her last appearances in the album show a woman of no noticeable infirmity. She sports a polyester pantsuit of the era; her thinning hair is dyed an upbeat ginger. Her lips are bloodred and so are her nails. A red pendant, possibly a heart, hangs over her bosom. Her own heart will be giving out soon enough.
I’m the age now that my grandmother was in those peekaboo snapshots from my infancy. Amid the wear and tear I detect a small upgrade: a scar on my throat that used to be visible is now camouflaged by the wattle of midlife. If I stand before my bathroom mirror and stretch the skin taut as women do, the scar stands out once again, near the point where throat meets jaw, my own alternate mouth, a subversive guillotine smile.
I google cyst throat child, come up with thyroglossal duct cyst. I suppose it would have appeared without a trigger. Playing in my room a few months after my grandmother came home from the hospital, I noticed a protrusion on my throat. It didn’t hurt, nor did it register as something that merited reporting or investigation. It was just a new bodily particularity to be palpated and picked at, like a scab. My mother saw me fingering my throat one day and nudged my grandmother: “She’s pretending she has a tracheotomy.” After getting a better look, she hauled me off to the doctor.
The cyst got me my own bed at Maimonides for a few days, a bit of attention, and a heavily advertised, long-coveted doll. By coincidence, something else made its way to my hospital bed from an unexpected quarter: my father handed me a large, heavy envelope that had come in the mail, addressed to me from the White House.
I turned the envelope over and over, wondering how the President had heard about my surgery, until my father reminded me that I’d sent a homemade birthday card to Richard Nixon a few months earlier. I’d forgotten about that—my presidential preoccupations had lately been on the wane.
The envelope contained a form letter from the President thanking me for my card and a kid-oriented booklet about the White House and the First Family.
I remember laying the envelope out on the blanket that covered me so the nurses could see the official insignia and be duly impressed, but the contents are a blur. I do recall a picture of Nixon dancing with his daughter at her wedding reception in the East Room. It’s a famous photo—I might have seen it elsewhere, not in the booklet.
Though Dick and Pat stayed together, their household imploded a few years before ours did. By then I was reading the papers, watching the TV news. I saw the First Couple treading the red carpet on their way out, Nixon’s farewell V-sign outside the helicopter. There was no moving van; it seemed that, in their disgrace, they’d packed nothing, left with only the clothes on their backs. They didn’t shed their stuff so much as leave it behind. The White House kept it, along with the belongings of all those who came before and all those who came after. I understood the White House to be a heavy, cluttered place that left nothing to the imagination.
I’m with my grandmother on Kings Highway. I’m five, or eleven, or eight. She’s not sick yet, or she is, but it’s one of her “on” days.
Did I ever walk with her alone on Kings Highway, just her and me? Probably not. That’s okay: reality is overrated.
We pass the Rainbow Shop with its pastel-swathed mannequins, the smoke shop with its iconic Te-Amo sign, the pharmacy with its curvaceous Rx. A pizza place, a luncheonette. The F train rumbles above. I peer into the window of a tchotchke store. My grandmother smiles and we go inside. We make our way down the aisles, chuckling over the Sillisculpts and novelty mugs with their cheeky-raunchy sayings. My grandmother buys me a necklace with a plastic apple pendant, chewed to the core as is the fad. Or maybe it’s a fish pendant with shiny articulated scales, bendable into different shapes. She really did buy me that fish pendant on Kings Highway—I’m not making all of this up.
They call it Brooklyn’s mother road. Official documents, maps, and photographs trace its incarnations from colonial times, and Google Street View keeps me updated, decades since I last walked there. But documentation is beside the point. I know what the street’s essence is, the time period that defines it, and that would be the 1930s. This, despite the evidence of my own recollections and the virtual memory aids available at a click. I personally have seen a bell-bottom Kings Highway, a disco Kings Highway, a shoulder-pad-and-big-hair Kings Highway. I remember McGovern and Nixon campaigners heckling each other from opposite sides of the street. None of that matters.
I follow my grandmother into the revolving door of Dubrow’s Cafeteria. Revolving doors are a thirties thing, and so is Dubrow’s. It’s full of old people, and so obviously a relic. Where else do you shuffle in a line along a counter, lifting tuna salad plates and pie out of an endless display? I close my eyes, try for an olfactory rush, but all I get is a wet-metal smell, a smell of steaming, just-washed silverware.
“Try the apple strudel,” my grandmother says.
We take a booth (surely there were booths). The din of talk wraps around us in our womblike space. From the depths of her beige pleather handbag my grandmother pulls a tiny enameled box. She opens it, takes out a saccharine pill, drops it in her coffee. Suddenly the image flickers and the saccharine box becomes a plastic pill box; instead of sipping coffee in a Dubrow’s booth, she’s leaning over our Formica dinette table at home, slicing pills in half. I blink, and the saccharine box is back.
We finish our strudel. My grandmother’s coffee cup bears the red of her mouth, an after-mouth. She takes her purse mirror out of her bag, squints as she reapplies lipstick. Her face is partly obscured by the mirror but her wedding face looks out at me, whole, from the mirror’s other side.
We head upstairs to the ladies’ room. Whether Dubrow’s actually had an upstairs, let alone the sweeping, glamorous, Hollywood-musical staircase I imagine for it, hardly matters. The staircase gets us there in style, and once in the ladies’ room I’m in the realm of actual memory, though even here I can’t be entirely sure it’s Dubrow’s I’m recalling. But where else on Kings Highway would we have used a ladies’ room? The memory is real; by process of elimination it must be Dubrow’s.
It’s the floor tiling that’s stuck in my mind all these years—the dingy, black-and-white checkerboard tiling that is the essence of the thirties. Dingy even when clean. However glitzy the staircase I’ve remembered or imagined, however suitable a platform for starlets waltzing in satin evening gowns, the restroom offers harder truths about its era. It speaks of tough times, low expectations, making do. It’s a dim, close world of seepage and gush; water sounds wash over me and are washed away, woman upon woman, year upon year, emotions discharged, dreams gurgling down drains, all leaving their residue.
My grandmother approaches the sinks where I wait—I’ve conjured up a row of white pedestal sinks. They’re chipped and cracked but have the good bones of classic design; the wear and tear only add to their dignity and charm. Above them: Hollywood dressing room mirrors, framed by those little round lights. Just because I can.
She stands before the mirror and I, standing beside her, gaze into her reflection as she gazes into mine. She’s a vigorous laughing grandma, and a bride in a cubist veil; a closed-mouthed maiden, and a frail old widow with a drooping eyelid and a hole in her throat. I pass with her through all her instantiations, as she is embedded in mine. The stuff is lost; this remains. This interpenetration, fleeting and repeating as I make my standstill journey, a rapt visitor to her time, almost at ease in my own.
Originally from Brooklyn, Julie Rosenzweig has been based in Israel since the early 1990s. She is a translator and former academic librarian. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Literary Mama, the Jewish Literary Journal, and Peacock Journal, among others. Website: https://julierosenzweig.wordpress.com/.