My grandfather stands at his own father’s grave and watches as the body is lowered into the ground. The Rabbi (young, bespectacled, over from Bloomington) tells him to add the first shovel of dirt to cover the coffin. Rushed Hebrew spills from the his thin lips, words becoming clouds of steam in the autumn air. My great-grandmother stands nearby — uncharacteristically silent. Her best friend glowers behind her, a disapproving pole of a woman. My great-grandfather’s business partner and his wife are the only other mourners. They huddle together — embarrassed, polite. Grandpa is all of fifteen — tall and swallowed by his new suit. He yearns to be somewhere else, anywhere other than the Hebrew Plot of the Woodlawn Cemetery in Terre Haute, Indiana.
My great-grandfather crosses the US border at Fort Erie, Ontario with his new wife Mary. She’s gorgeous, pregnant and Catholic. He’s left home the week before, his mother Leah in tears, his father Jacob warning him he’ll never be able to come back, yelling out of the window of the furniture shop down Baldwin Street into the Toronto night, cursing his own bekhor.
My great-grandfather takes Mary’s warm hand. To hell with them, he thinks as the train clacks south. To hell with them and all their rigidity. To hell with them and their old stories, their incomprehensible prayers, their neverending attempts to find him a nice wife, their superstitions, their darkness.
My great grandfather chooses a new last name — my last name. The one he picks is unostentatiously goy-sih — nothing too grand, nothing too special. He tries it on for size for a while — signs hotel registers, laundry receipts. He demotes the old family name to his middle name on forms — applies for jobs that way, registers for the draft. When the sky doesn’t fall, he drops it altogether. He takes a job selling furniture way out in the Pacific Northwest. Mary and the kids stay in Buffalo. He keeps moving, keeps traveling, keeps running. Then he runs away from Mary too — from all of them.
My great-great grandfather Jacob is outside of his father’s furniture shop in Telz. It’s the hottest day of the Lithuanian summer, and everyone his age is swimming in the lake. He, on the other hand, is losing an argument with a group of drunk Russian soldiers. The largest one grabs him by the hair and throws him against the wall of the workshop. Another hits him across the chest with something metal and heavy. He hears a crack, like a chair-leg snapping. Just as the soldiers circle, smelling blood, a sergeant rounds the corner from the lane. He sees what’s happening and stops, wiping his brow in the heat. After a moment he barks a few words at the soldiers in pugnacious Russian. They withdraw like disappointed dogs.
Jacob will be married in one week. At least they didn’t hit him in the head. If his whole body is black and blue, who cares, no one at the wedding will notice. He thinks of Leah and their wedding night, then suddenly doubles over. His father Bernard the carpenter comes running out of the workshop to see his son vomiting on the ground. On his wedding day, he will give Jacob two steamer tickets. To England first, then one day Canada. Anywhere but here.
After my great-grandfather’s funeral in Terre Haute, after the awkward visits from friends around town, after the strange lingering afternoons of the Rabbi sitting in the parlor, after the timid instructions on how to say the kaddish — after all of this, the uncles from Canada call. “Here,” says my great grandmother, covering the phone receiver in the hallway as my grandpa approaches, “it’s for you.”
You should come back, they tell him. He feels like pointing out that he’s never been in the first place. Free university — law school at Queens. And of course the family business — quite the furniture empire you know. You’re bekhor yourself, they say … that means it’s your birthright, get it? What, you think we’re calling long distance like this for our own health?
They have accents, especially the one who calls himself Uncle Solly. Solly’s voice is clipped and vaguely British but with a further element — something unpleasant and foreign. He uses strange words in a strange order and his sentences bend up at the end, or else trail off into nothing. What’s that? You don’t want to be a lawyer, eh. Don’t you like ice-hockey? They call and call, they write letters. My great-grandmother passes the little envelopes with the Canadian stamps to her son unopened, unmentioned, until finally one day, they stop.
In Toronto, the world has flipped upside-down. Solly comes to his father Jacob to tell him that his lost bekhor is dead in some godforsaken town in the States. Some place called Terre Haute, meaning high ground. Telz is on high ground too thinks Jacob — built on seven hills overlooking the lakeshore. In his mind’s eye, Terre Haute becomes just like Telz — but with no Yeshiva, no lake, and now no Jews. At least Telz will always have the lake. Come to think of it, what good did high ground ever do for anybody?
Jacob closes the family furniture shop in Baldwin Street for the last time. The next morning he sells his tools to Levi Gordon to get them out of his sight. He donates the remaining chairs and cabinets. Solly shows up in the door of the suddenly-empty worksop, his face wearing a dazed expression. Dad, you should know there’s also a boy: your grandson, my nephew. The obligation hangs between them like a curtain. We’ll bring him home — we’ll send him to Queens — make things right. Jacob says nothing to his son, scanning his face and body as if attempting to recognize who he is. At least we’ll pay for the funeral, adds Solly. Jacob closes the workshop door in his face. Solly hears the click of a deadbolt.
In the weeks to come, Jacob says kaddish for his firstborn — because who bloody well else will. Leah brings his meals to the workshop where he’s taken to sitting alone reading scripture. He reads and re-reads the Torah passage about visiting the sins of the father on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. Without thinking, he feels his chest through his shirt, his hand finding the unhealed rib.
Jacob is old. He lies on his deathbed in Baldwin Street, in the appartment above the abandoned shop. He’s thinking of the beautiful lake in Telz in springtime. A strange thing to think of while dying, but he’ll take it. He remembers how — against all odds — he’d snuck Leah out in the rowboat that spring long ago. How he’d rowed and rowed, watching her shining face the whole time. Leah sits next to him by the bed right now. He can’t see her, but he knows she’s there.
There are differing opinions as to the cause of death. Old age — worn out, says Leah whenever she’s asked. Despair, offers Solly with a shrug. But what’s the difference in these days of war, when Telz is burning? As my great great grandfather’s body cools, the remaining Jews of Telz lie shot and frozen in the pits of the Rainiai Forest, just over the hill from the beautiful lake. Christian men don kerchiefs and cover their former neighbors with a thin layer of sand. Their wives sort through piles of winter coats, arguing over the best ones.
Leah sits shiva for Jacob in the empty workshop. None of the kids think it suitable, but she does it anyway. The boys bring down the parlor furniture for visitors but the Rabbi’s wife still raises an eyebrow at the spectacle of it. The only furniture shop in Toronto with no chairs and no heat, and this is where you sit, says Solly to Leah when the first wave of guests has gone. He returns the next day in full winter getup — heavy down coat, toque covering his kippah, massive wool gloves. If his mother begrudges the gesture, she says nothing.
My grandfather stands day-watch on the deck of an American destroyer in the mouth of the English Channel. The night before, they’d disabled a German U-boat with a series of depth-charges, but since then it’s been storming so badly that there’s been no sign of their kill. The boys under his command huddle belowdecks playing poker and passing around the puke-can but my grandfather stands outside in the full blast of the sea, alternating between smoking, peering through binoculars and squinting directly into the unrelenting rain.
He will never tell anyone this, but there are times on watch when he thinks of throwing himself overboard. It’s not suicide he has in mind, but something more akin to a test or dare. He leans forward over the low rail into the wind so that only the gale keeps him upright. If the storm were to suddenly calm, he would fall in, uniform and all.
Sometimes he hears voices at moments like this. Voices in his head, or in the howling air, it’s hard to tell which. “Who are you?” call the voices. “Where are your from? How the hell did you get yourself into this mess — stuck here in a storm on a ship so far from home? Speaking of which — and I don’t mean to bring up a sore point here — where’s your home anyway? Your true home I mean.” The voices sound like Uncle Solly on a long distance call, but older and with even thicker accents. The voices neither sing nor speak, but only something in between.
My grandfather scans the ridges of waves for any sign of the submarine that he knows is down there, a living hulk in the darkness. Needless to say he never flings himself into the sea — would I be writing this if he had? Needless to say the storm passes on its own — do storms pass any other way? And needless to say the great fish of the enemy U-boat settles unseen on the bottom of the sea, another secret grave.