“Which one are you?” he asked, as though his other granddaughters ever visited him in the nursing home. Without taking another breath he demanded, “Take me home.”
I was barely in the room and already it was a confrontation.
“I’m Laney, Rachel’s daughter. How are you feeling, Grandpa?”
“Don’t get old.”
“Are they treating you right? Are they giving you what you need?” As if I wanted answers. If something was wrong I couldn’t fix it. I was a smart person, an attorney-at-law, but when I entered the sickroom I became moronic.
“It’s no lakeside resort,” he said, “I don’t recommend it. ”
He always made me smile.
“You won’t be here long; you’ll be better soon.”
You lie to the dying, they lie to you, and then they’re gone. Death is too intimate to talk about – each of the guilty parties knows the other is afraid. The nursing home inmate won’t mention death and scare his visitors -- they might not return to offer him the meager comfort of their lying faces.
The air in the room was stagnant; it smelled of old bodies and closed windows.
“Mein kind,” Grandpa said, “take me home.” The Yiddish was a nice touch.
“Here they can care for you properly,” I said, parroting Mom.
Maybe he thought we could make a break for it, that I would sit him up, help him put his clothes on, and walk him out the door, but he looked too weak for such a caper. His face was gaunt, his bony nose looked longer and more arched than ever, but of course he didn’t know how he looked. Maybe he thought he was still the sharp looking guy who strutted down the street in a snappy sports jacket, attracting the ladies. It wasn’t right that he wore the limp hospital gown.
I hardly knew Grandpa, had rarely seen him except for a few months when I was a teenager. During my early childhood he lived in LA with a series of lady friends. I had pieced it together -- that he’d left his family when his youngest daughter was sixteen, after her mother died. After that, he would see his three children and their families at long, irregular intervals.
In the spring of my junior year of high school, he blew into town. Even though he commandeered my room it was exciting. This slim dapper man didn’t look like anyone’s grandfather. Until then, for me he’d meant only cheesy postcards and Hanukkah gelt, ten-dollar checks every year, as regular as the solstice. Now my legendary grandpa was really here, in from the Coast, with stories about Muscle Beach, Venice and the Santa Monica Pier. He knew Hollywood… having occasionally worked in studio costume shops. He’d fitted Rock Hudson! Once he’d even hemmed Cary Grant’s pants.
Grandpa borrowed Mom’s car one day, drove me to Walgreens, and ordered a Green River for me. I felt so sophisticated – it was like a date, and I wasn’t sipping a cherry coke like some stupid Midwesterner.
Grandpa was funny – cracked wise with the best of them. The sun shone brighter when he was around. He talked to me different from any other grownups. He didn’t instruct me but discussed world events and the movies, which we both loved.
When Grandpa suddenly flew back to LA, I was almost sad to move back into my own room after sleeping in the den, on the hide-a-bed.
Other than that time, I’d hardly seen him, and I didn’t have much contact with him as an adult, either. I was busy with school and then with my career.
A mute TV flicked colored light from the nursing home wall. There were no books on his bedside table – for years he hadn’t seen well enough to read. He’d quit tailoring when he couldn’t see the eye of the needle or the stitches. Here, in this nursing home, Grandpa had had no alternative—the boredom was punctuated with the routine indignities of aging and illness. They cleaned him up and fed him what little he would eat, they did their jobs, lying and smiling like the rest of us. After I’d been here a while, I hardly noticed the faint stench of urine and feces overlaid with disinfectant and the sweet-sickly floral aroma of air deodorizer.
Grandpa insisted again, “Take me home.”
“What home do you mean, Grandpa? Your apartment in L.A. is too far. We’re in Chicago.”
“I’m sick, maidel, not meshuggah. I know I’m in Chicago. I came to stay in my daughter’s house, but she brought me here. Take me back to that house at least, Elena, daughter of Rachel, daughter of Hannah.”
He knew who I was. This visit would have been easier if he weren’t so sharp.
“That’s not my house. I don’t live there anymore-- I live in New York. Anyway, you need to be here. We can’t take care of you at home.” There was no point in enumerating the reasons – his wandering off, his near blindness. He was too weak to wander, at this point, though a few weeks before he’d “gone for a walk” and the police phoned after he was missing for three hours. He had Mom’s phone number in his wallet.
Lying like that, sunk into the pillow, with sparse white hairs sticking out of his skinny chest, he looked harmless, but he made an uproar in Mom’s house until she brought him here.
While I stood, saying nothing else, knowing eventually Grandpa would talk, because he always did, he looked me over. He could see well enough to inspect me. Old people have gimlet eyes when it comes to their grandchildren, especially Grandpa Eli.
“Nice suit,” he said.
“Fits nice around the tush.”
Of course he noticed the fit of the slacks. He taught me about clothes when I was a kid, stuff my mom didn’t care about: how to recognize quality fabric, how to inspect garments for quality construction. When he visited, practically the first thing he did was to inspect my closet.
The rabbit-hole of memory snapped open and I slipped through it.
I’m showing Grandpa my room, which he’s about to take over, showing him that I’ve decorated it in a grown-up style -- I’m sixteen, seventeen years old. From the closet, he picks out the orange, polka-dot, nylon knit dress and holds it at arm’s length. I’m hoping he’ll want me to try it on for him. I look so cute in it, with my little breasts rising provocatively at the low-cut neckline; the boys will notice me, they’ll make that mooing noise.
“What’s this?” he says.
“It’s a dress, Grandpa.”
“Feh! Doesn’t your mother help you shop?”
“I can’t shop with Mom – she wants me to wear beige, like she does.”
Grandpa’s still looking at the orange dress. “You’re working at a bordello?”
“What’s wrong with it? Everyone wears cute dresses like this.”
“Then ‘everyone’ wears drek,” he says. He glances at the other schmottes on my hangers. “We’ll go for a walk.”
At this point I already know that a walk means a lecture. Off we go toward the park. It’s late spring and the front yards are blooming. Roses are budding out. That’s why I bought a new dress with my ice-cream-shop money, to celebrate spring and look forward to the summer: parties, the beach, and boys.
Grandpa wears a tan and white plaid short-sleeved shirt, tan slacks, and a tan linen fedora. He never goes out without a hat, even though other men have tossed their hats on the top shelves of their closets by now, since Jack Kennedy has won the presidency and changed the style. Grandpa won’t be seen with me if I wear jeans, so I’m wearing a homemade cotton dirndl, white cotton blouse, and sandals. My toes are happy to be free and the sun feels good on my arms. It feels nice to dress “like a lady” for a change.
When he starts up you can tell that somewhere in Grandpa’s lineage are rabbis-- teachers.
“Clothes are advertising; they tell the world who you are. By your appearance, you say to others, and, to yourself, who you are and what you expect of yourself.”
Grandpa hears my impatient sigh, but ignores it and starts another chapter.
“So -- you’re looking at colleges now.”
“I want a scholarship to an Ivy League school. And then law school.” Everyone approves of my ambition except my mother, who thinks I can find a better husband without wasting so much time and money on school.
“At college, the kids wear jeans,” he says. “This is good. You should pay attention to your studies, not distract yourself with clothes like they used to do. You want a good degree to get into a good law school, not catch a husband. Boys don’t notice clothes, anyway.”
He’s right. Boys don’t care about a girl’s clothes, except for where the clothes aren’t – what they reveal and where they can get their hands inside.
“Still, when you wear foolish clothes you are saying that you’re foolish, too. When you come from a poor family you can’t afford foolishness. You have to be single-minded and know where you’re going – not only where you come from.”
“We’re not poor, are we, Grandpa?” I wonder what he knows that I don’t.
“It’s not money, mein kind. It’s class. If you have class, it shows in how you talk and how you carry yourself.”
“Deportment.” As usual I supply the big word.
“Deportment is how you behave. You act like a lady, gracious, dignified.” He’s really into it, but I can’t imagine myself dignified – me at five feet tall, with a big mouth.
We walk; already we’re across the park and into the better neighborhood, where the grand houses are, on the other side of the Great Divide. People who live here have maids and live-in gardeners and handymen. Some of my school-mates live over here, but they’re not friends. Either they don’t want to be friends with their poorer neighbors or else they’re not allowed. So who cares? I’ve got plenty of friends in my own social strata. Stratum.
“The young people living in these homes have advantages,” Grandpa tells me, “but you have advantages of your own: you’re hungry and you work hard. You’re as smart as they are, and you’ll be successful in your career.”
How Grandpa Eli knows this, I have no clue, but now that he’s talking about me, I’m all ears.
“When you leave here, who will know what neighborhood you come from? You can look like you live here, in a neighborhood like this, in a fancy big house, if you pay attention, spend your money carefully, and dress right.”
Money is what I don’t have.
“It doesn’t matter what a young lady from an old family wears or how she speaks or stands. Her father can get his buddies to hire her. But you, maidel, you learned how to speak good English because you have to.”
He’s right. Because I read and have a good ear I don’t sound like the other kids. I’m bilingual – I can talk like my friends, but I can also talk like an educated grown up, without the inarticulate “likes” and “uhs” and profanity thrown in to fill in the spaces where thought should be. That’s one way people see I’m intelligent – my vast vocabulary. It’s a laugh. Even in high school I can talk so intelligently that people are afraid of me.
But clothes – that’s a tougher trick. How can I wear classy clothes when I don’t have any money? I know the difference, but affording it is something else. My ice cream store money won’t buy tailor-mades.
“I’d love to have fine clothes,” I tell Grandpa. For a moment I see myself in the brand name stuff the kids from this tony neighborhood wear. In my dreams. “Grandpa, no one wears elegant clothes anymore.”
“You don’t need fine clothes for school or parties. But when kids dress up for events the girls look like they’re wearing their mothers’ clothes. They don’t know how to walk in good shoes” (he means heels) “or how to tie a scarf. And the boys! When they put on a suit they hunch their shoulders, they crane their necks, and look like they have the itch.”
Where he’s seen the kids in my school, I don’t know, but he’s right: when they dress up for “an affair” they look miserable.
“You have to learn how to wear clothes. You’re not a hanger in a closet,” he says. “You need a nice suit that fits and makes you look good.” He gazes down the avenue of leafing-out oak trees and I shut up for once.
After we’ve gone to the end of the street and turned around, he declares, “Tomorrow we’re going shopping. We’ll find a nice piece of wool and I’ll make you a suit.”
“You can’t make ladies wear!” I’m so excited I go native and contradict him.
“Compared to trousers a skirt is simple, and… a little jacket for you will be easy peasey. We won’t need much goods, you’re a little doll. We’ll get silk for the lining.”
The next day we go downtown to a fabric shop catering to the trade, a dim old place with shelves climbing to high ceilings, smelling of wool and sizing. The people must have worked there since the thirties.
Some of them know Grandpa. “Eli! It’s been a long time!” He shows me off, but I just stand there -- I can’t follow the jokes in Yiddish pinging back and forth. Nods and handshakes.
He shows me bolts of fabric, makes me pet the cloth. “Feel the goods,” he says. “You don’t see this anymore.”
When I point to a bolt of black gabardine he laughs at me. “Maidel, you want a sincere blue suit. People will trust you in navy, not black.”
The man in glasses on the other side of the counter nods. If this is gospel, I’m not about to argue.
Hardly any tailor can make a great suit from start to finish, but Grandpa can, because he once was a neighborhood tailor, and had to do it all. Later he worked as a cutter for a big outfit downtown, but he didn’t like it as well as when he knew the customer, and was all kinds of tailor: the cutter, the coatmaker, the trouser maker, the finisher, even the alterations man. He tells me about his glory days when I come in to visit with him while he works.
The suit takes time to make. Working in my bedroom, Grandpa measures me and cuts out the skirt – a tailored style they used to call “straight”, but that never looked straight when draped over my curves. Reaching the knee, a touch long for the fashion that year, it makes me look taller and shapely but modest. The fittings for the jacket are more involved. There are many careful measuring sessions, and Grandpa spends hour after hour at the table, sewing by machine and by hand. His fingers, knotted with years of work, are deft, but slower than they used to be. He works only in daylight, and even then he can barely see to work by the window, with two lamps behind him.
Layers of materials structure the jacket, so that, while limber and comfortable, it will hold its shape. Grandpa cuts the scyes, or sleeve openings, so that the sleeves lie smoothly and comfortably in them, shrinks the shoulder caps of the sleeves to fit the scyes, and hand-stitches buckram to hair canvas for the lapels. He makes and tacks in shoulder pads. When he is done, the front and back of the jacket are balanced, so that my tush doesn’t follow me like a caboose, but looks fine. At the time I take the fit for granted, but later, when I try to buy ready-made jackets, I will find balance elusive.
I hurry in after school every day to see how my golden suit progresses. Grandpa stitches and talks about the old days, how at first he worked downtown where he did tailoring on expensive suits for powerful men. Later, he made suits for men in the neighborhood, in his own shop.
“They couldn’t afford my best work,” he tells me, one day, while he works. “To make a living, I had to work fast, take shortcuts.” When I reach for a piece to look at it, he swats my hand away. “I’m doing my best work on this little suit for you.”
Before I try it on for the final time, to show off the finished ensemble, I take a shower and do up my hair special, too, as if I am going to a party. I put on my newest bra and slip to show I appreciate his work.
“Clothes make the man – or woman,” Grandpa has always said, and I can see, after the suit is done, how it is true.
The jacket is perfect. It flatters my figure and fits so well I can wear it comfortably for hours. When I wear the suit I am taller and older, more competent.
At a sale at Nordstrom’s I find a pair of elegant black leather pumps to wear with it. Grandpa helps me find the pattern and silk for the blouse I make to wear with it, because of course I sew. Since my mother never sewed I have a choice: sew or wear children’s clothes. For a while I have felt like a midget with tits and ass, but now, wearing this suit, I’m not a child or midget any more, but a woman.
In ways I couldn’t have predicted, and maybe Grandpa didn’t foresee, either, the suit changed my life. After I had the suit, occasions to wear it cropped up, and after I wore it, some girls, and even some boys started dressing up for gala occasions. Once in a while, jeans were not appropriate, and none of the kids I knew had as good a suit as mine. One of the girls, a nosy bitch from across the park, marched up to me and flipped the front of the jacket open to look for the maker’s silk label.
“I don’t wear advertising,” I told her loftily. “He’s out of town, anyway. He can’t make you a suit.” as though the maker were a New York tailor. Let them think what they wanted.
I wore that suit to college interviews, and then I picked which college to attend, because they all accepted me. By not eating potatoes and bread in the dorm dining room and skipping dessert, I didn’t gain the “freshman fifteen” my college classmates did. I couldn’t gain weight and wear the suit.
I took good care of it, brushing it after each wearing and airing it before storing it in the brown paper tent I made to protect it in the closet. I got it cleaned by the best dry cleaner in town. I wore the suit to college events, concerts, banquets, and interviews I did for the college newspaper, and I wore it to my law school interview, too. Of course they admitted me; they had to.
It was a magic garment, a cloak of invincibility. Though it wasn’t new by then, it was still quality, and I knew I could do whatever was needed.
When I entered the firm, I had to buy new suits, of course, but I was spoiled. I spent a mint on clothes, and always had suits professionally altered – the sleeves shortened, the pants or skirt hemmed. I always knew there was no point in wearing clothes that didn’t fit. My boss never had to advise me on the dress code the way he did the other new hires, who tried to get by without investing in professional clothes. I had enough to worry about without that. It isn’t easy being a woman in a law firm; you have to be tough. I thought I was tough until I got to New York.
“So you’re doing OK in New York,” he said, “You’re not married yet? Or engaged?”
“No Grandpa. I haven’t had time, I’ve been working.”
“And you’re a fancy-pants lawyer now?”
“Yes, in a firm.”
“You’re not chasing ambulances? I can’t stand shyster lawyers.”
“I work in torts, civil law. I wanted to be a public defender, but if I did, I couldn’t pay my student loans. The head of the firm likes me; I’m doing OK.”
“So you came back to see me. The fancy-pants lawyer came back to see her old zaideh.”
We never called him Zaideh. Zaidehs don’t make their aineklach, their grandchildren, tailored wool suits.
A newly fledged lawyer, I worked hard in New York, establishing myself. We didn’t get much vacation, and most of us didn’t take whatever vacation they allowed because it was a sign of weakness or lack of dedication. When Grandpa showed up at Mom’s, he threw a kink into my plan. I sent some dough for the nursing home my mom couldn’t afford, but that wasn’t enough. She got on the phone and whined, complained, and threatened until I agreed to spend my vacation days on this November trip to Chicago, as though New York’s November weren’t ugly enough. Mom said I could go to Bermuda after Grandpa was dead.
“So, Fancy Pants, take me home.”
He lay horizontal in his bed, skinny and helpless, but I remembered him fifteen years earlier, bent over the table in the lamplight or kneeling to fit me, with pins between his lips. He didn’t lie to me then. He never called me pretty, “shaina maidel,” because I hated to be lied to. I owed him for that as well as for making the suit.
“Grandpa,” I said, sitting on the edge of his bed, “we can’t take you home. You’re in too bad shape. They want you not to hurt while you’re dying; they give you pain killers we can’t give you at home.”
“They told you I’m dying?” Now his pale blue eyes looked at me straight. “Why don’t they tell me?”
“I don’t know,” I said, but I did know.
He considered for a moment. “They think I can’t take it.”
“Maybe they wanted you to figure it out for yourself.”
For a moment we both thought about it.
“I did,” he said. “I figured it out.”
“I didn’t tell you anything you didn’t know?”
“There isn’t much I don’t know.”
“You’ve seen it all,” I said. I wanted to believe he’d had a good life, but who was I to tell him so?
“I’ve seen a lot, but not enough. There’s a big world I haven’t seen.”
“Even with the misery, you don’t want to die?”
“No one wants to die, maidel.”
I took his hand. I hadn’t held his hand before, but I knew it was never skeletal like this, the veins blue, the knuckles big and the bones clothed only with skin. His nails were ragged. These worker’s hands always had trimmed, clean finger nails. They shouldn’t be long and unkempt.
“I’ll be right back, Grandpa,” and I went out to the nurses’ station for nail clippers and a file.
The nurse said, “We’ll do it when we get a minute.”
“No, I’ll do it. I want to.”
I took each curved hand onto my lap and bent over it, clipped the thickened, yellow nails, and filed them smooth, so Grandpa wouldn’t scratch himself. At least he would feel his hands were his own.
When I was done, I kept his hand in mine. Grandpa gripped my hand.
“Mein kind,” he said, “my child.”