I haven’t been to New York for a few too many years. When my son was a baby we took the redeye from LA to visit my grandparents, Ella and Al, on East 72nd Drive, Forest Hills—a block east of Queens Boulevard. They seemed pleased enough to see us, but there was a sense of unpreparedness to their greeting that took me aback. It wasn’t like Ella to let anyone see her in her housecoat, let alone without her girdle. Coiffed and trussed and with her pocket book at the ready—I’d never known her to face the world any other way. It was only later that I found out what she’d been going through with Al—bearing the burden of his advancing dementia in silence and alone, most of their generation dead and the rest of us blown to the four points. I was shocked at how bony he’d become, and in his watery old-man eyes, not so much blankness as blank panic. But within an hour of our arrival, Ella, at least, was her old self again; busy loading the table with bagels and cream cheese, lox and grape jelly and pound cake and coffee cake and oatmeal and stewed prunes and juice and scrambled eggs with American cheese. And good strong coffee in the old Corning Ware pot that I have in my kitchen now. And then, slowly, Al began to come around. He began to pay attention, especially to my son, and a light came on in his eyes. It was dim but it was there, as if our visit had opened some door he would do his damndest to keep ajar for as long as he could. A smart, fighting man, my Grandpa Al.
They both fell hard for the kid, a relationship that would sustain them for the last few years of their lives and would continue in San Diego where the whole family would finally converge. I don’t why the three of them—a one-year old and a couple of octogenarians—hit it off the way they did. In one of those strange generational skipping stones, my son got Al’s enormous ears. Maybe that was it—ears like satellite dishes. Whatever it was, the love-fest began in those crystalline moments at the old table in Forest Hills with Al shoveling in prunes and Ella flapping around in her house coat and the baby cruising the one-bedroom flat just as his mom and her sisters and cousins had. Except that none of our generation got our heads stuck underneath the TV cabinet—leave that to my kid. One minute we’re all sitting around the table and I’m translating my husband’s vowels for the old folks, the next there’s a muffled howl from the living room. Followed by a thin and continuous scream. Ella was first on the scene—tugging at the kid’s legs while her old man looked down with brightening eyes. Who knows what he was thinking. Maybe it was about those big old ears—get you into a world of trouble. Or maybe just that there, writ small, was an extension of his own adventurous spirit, a wanderlust that impelled him to cross the Atlantic back in his own distant boyhood, alone and crowded into steerage on the Holland American Lines Noordam, to start a new life in a new world.
Listed on the ship’s manifest as Aaron, Al got his American name and a shot at the dream at Ellis Island on July 16, 1912. He was fourteen. He was naturalized in 1923, one of the proudest and most memorable days of his life. He used to say he was 200% American, and he wasn’t kidding. His first home was on the lower East Side. He moved to Hoboken NJ when he got a job at a Hungarian language newspaper and saved up enough to get his mother and father and the rest of the family to New York, living with them in Harlem and then the Bronx and finally— when Al remade himself into a successful American businessman—into an apartment in Forest Hills with rolling grounds and a doorman even. Quite a journey. And that wasn’t the last stop. Many many years later, in a San Diego nursing home, when his dementia was at its height, he and my little boy ran off together. A manhunt ensued. We finally found them, lost in an elaborate game of hide and seek among a forest of forgotten filing cabinets. Al was rarely compos again after that, but he knew the boy until the end.
The push to get Ella and Al out of New York had been going on for some time before I made that final visit to Forest Hills. Life in the Bad Apple was becoming increasingly untenable for folks like them. Ella had been mugged on the subway steps, a gold chain ripped from her neck. The cleaning lady was stealing from them. They were alone, trapped in the apartment. We were in Australia. My aunt, uncle and cousins were in San Diego and my aunt had found some gorgeous senior digs for them and her mom near Solana Beach. My cousins flew to New York to try and talk them into leaving. Al had very little say by that time. The pure truth of it was that everything that Ella loved about living in New York, and especially Forest Hills, was not much good to her any more. Not without Al. So she sold up, keeping only those things that they’d acquired together—the menorah, which was the first thing they bought after they were married, a few old kitchen knives with bottle corks serving as handles, a yellow and white Limoges china set and a Wear-Ever aluminum fry pan and serving tray. I have them both in my kitchen now, as good as new. And on my office bulletin board is the luggage tag that Al attached to the faux-leather suitcase that had been a gift from the bank (he loved those freebies, had a drawer full of shoehorns). The tag says Final Destination San Diego.
At the time of that last visit to New York, my husband and I were in the fashion business—schmatte, Al grunted into his coffee. There wasn’t much you could put over this old guy, even in his decline. Over the course of our visit, he became more and more definitely and defiantly Al. He and my husband got into this thing about shaving—Al had noticed the nineties-era stubble, and had always been big on good grooming. I remember he’d had been mortified when my cousins went to get on the plane back to college unshaven. ‘You look like terrorists,’ he’d said. ‘I wouldn’t be seen on Queens Boulevard with either of you.’ Anyway, so my husband was complaining about having to shave every day, and Al wasn’t having a bar of it. What’s to complain, he said, with these newfangled disposables? Had my husband heard of them? Come here, he said, dragging the six foot three fella who talked funny off to the tiny green and black-tiled head. He showed him a pristine Gillette Blue, demonstrated his rinsing and tapping techniques. Disposable, dishmosable, Al said. He’d had this baby for two years.
By mid morning Al was back in the game and I wasn’t going to miss a New York minute of it. My husband headed downtown on business, and I took time to retread the old haunts. I headed down to Austin Street, where my mom and aunt—back then just girls themselves—would take us shopping and where Ella and Al would grab a slice at A&J’s joint. Life on the buzzy strip had slowed down a little since the time I remembered as a kid, the smell of strawberry oil and ganga thick in the air and mushroom candles stacked in baskets. The mushroom candles were all gone but I bought myself a little black dress on sale in a tiny boutique, and a slice of pie from A&J’s. Ella loved the fact that great shops and delis were within safe walking distance of their apartment. For them it was a real neighborhood until the mugging, and the family said enough already.
Later that day, or maybe it was the next one, Grandpa took the baby and me on Grand Tour—a ritual he’d insisted on whenever any of the grand-kids came to stay. Grandma didn’t stop him—smart woman. He managed fine. We didn’t talk much, didn’t need to. I knew him and he knew me and we’d been here before—I was his oldest grandchild and always would be. I pushed the stroller and we ambled past the apartment buildings and across to the grassy knoll overlooking Grand Central parkway and walked along Willow Lake. When we were kids he’d take us the longer route, west past the big Catholic Church and sometimes to the Fire Station. But we always ended up along the lake. He’d pick the crab apples and tell us to take them home to Grandma so she could make sauce. He’d grown up the son of an employee on a big estate in a village in what is now the Ukraine, and, city-savvy as he was, he’d always had a thing for the open land. He’d spend his final days with views over the Pacific, but back then he considered himself fortunate to be living in a city neighborhood with parks and a real lake and apple trees, even. Maybe they reminded him of where he was born and how far he’d come. My cousins, sisters and I bought the ‘home-made’ apple sauce deal, hook, line, and sinker— even though Ella would come out of the kitchen and serve it up minutes after we got home. Good old Motts.
Al especially liked the big occasions—the holidays or a birthday or anniversary—when both his sons and their families would be crowded into that apartment and he’d sit at the head of the table and love was literally in the air, in the smell of Grandma’s brisket and my aunt’s perfume, and the faraway grind of the city below like the sound of a dream. All five cousins in the one place. Al could sometimes be a little withdrawn, a little serious among adults, including his own sons. But with his grandchildren, he’d let down his guard and we loved it. There was that slow smile, and big ears, and teasing games that never got old, and he’d have us crawling all over him. Still, for Al life was a serious business and he was, in the end, a serious man. Grandma would eventually call us off and he’d retreat to the no-go zone of the lawn chair he kept by the window (don’t ask) in the plastic-covered splendor of their living room. Get out the Times and that was it. We didn’t mind. There was always the tiny kitchen with its window overlooking the tree-lined street, and Ella moving from table to refrigerator to stove and back again, slicing bagels in thirds with a cork-handled knife, fishing for a pickle, unscrewing a jar of Motts. As a girl, she had been an accomplished secretary helping to support her parents, earning $30 a week in the Depression. According to my uncle, when they decided to get married, her folks resisted and his parents said that, because of her prematurely white hair, she was too old for him. Both sides blew it. Al took over taking care of the old folks and Ella never worked another day in her life for a paycheck. My uncle likes to say that both he and my dad were work enough and she was grossly underpaid. Anyway that was the deal and for Ella there were plenty of compensations. Limoges dinner sets, Venetian glass knickknacks, and eventually a black fur coat that she’d proudly wear out to Hunan Chinese on Northern Blvd. With her white coiffure, generous bosom and well-turned ankles, my tiny grandma in that coat was something to behold.
I grew up in Aurora, a few hundred miles up state. But at the time of our last New York visit I had been living for some time in Sydney, and Grandpa’s Grand Tour had taken on epic proportions in my memory. As had the green and black tiled bathroom where my cousins famously smoked weed on vacation from college, first having to pry open the tiny window that which had not been opened in fifty years, if ever. I remembered the annual visits to Radio City with Grandma, the shoe sales and Alexanders with my aunt, or Chinatown with my mother and years later, cruising the Village with my sister, a couple of teenagers lost in the city.
I didn’t have time to do all that the last time in New York. But I’m glad I was there, with them in the apartment one last time. A few years later, in 2001, I was in charge of running the American table for the International Food Fair held annually at my kids’ school here in Sydney. In the early hours of that September morning, I watched the towers burn and felt, like expats everywhere, unable to breathe. It was mostly grief, but partly guilt. I should be there, I kept telling myself. How can I stay? How can I run an American food table—what’s relevant about that? But stay I did. The International Food Fair went ahead with all flags at half mast. I kept the decorations in the box—the bunting and the flags. There were tables from every nation but the American food table was mobbed, quietly and respectfully. I stood between my daughter and my mom—we cooked the wieners and poured lemonade until it was gone and the brownies were all sold out. I kept thinking what Grandma had said to me back in San Diego when I was heartbroken about having to move again. Stand by them, she’d said, by your man and your children. It’s your job. I never saw her alive again. She died in 1995, four years after Grandpa. She was ninety-three. I flew back, wore the dress I bought on Austin Street to her funeral. My cousins and I watched her being laid to rest beside Al, the F-14s from the Miramar Air Station roaring overhead. Final Destination San Diego. How far they’d come. It never seemed to matter where they were, or how far from home, as long as they were together.
I don’t know why I never went back to New York. After our fashion gig went bust there was a lack of money, I guess. A lack of guts. I go back to California because that’s where the family is now. No ghosts in California. But I have a new family of fellow writers and artists forming in New York, where my first novel is being sold. So I’ll be back soon. I’ll be a ghost on 72nd Drive, get a slice of pie on Austin Street and look for crab apple trees in Flushing Meadows Park. They say you remember smells but for me New York is sounds. Lying there at night high above the city in my grandparents’ room listening to New York sing her siren song. This time I’ll follow her call. Hit the shuttered streets. Take in some basement jazz, go dancing, maybe stop at an all-night diner. This time I’ll be an adult.