Grandfathers – Remembered and Erased
A Guest Post by Susie Kaufman
I never knew my genetic grandfathers, but I knew of them.
My paternal grandfather was an abusive, philandering, alcoholic who would gamble the rent money each month. My father disowned him years before he died, which was years before I was born. I became very close to my grandfather’s younger brother in his later years and that was nice. There are a few gaps in the history but that’s okay. I heard the stories I needed to hear.
My mother’s father, on the other hand, was a patriarch. He died when I was just one year old but so much of our family history is built around him and his family name. This great big man was an organist, a school teacher, and bandleader. This man was gentle and kind. This man’s grandparents immigrated from a small peasant village in Silesia. This man told us we were German, just German, despite looking Jewish. This man’s brother, just before he died, confessed we were Jewish.
I have no interest in doing ancestry DNA testing. Who I am—who I know myself to be—is based on these stories, my family as I know it. And that’s enough for me.
In this month’s guest essay, Susie Kaufman speaks of the grandfather she never knew, the grandfather who is never mentioned, the grandfather she wished she had had. Her thoughts struck a chord with me, even though her experience is different than mine. It makes me wonder:
Who are we without our family stories?
Who are we when an ancestor is written out of the family history and erased from the photos? Who are we then?
What is home when some doors are locked?
Black Sheep by Susie Kaufman
On the way home from the cemetery, a crispy early November graveside service attended by many beloved contemporaries, I stopped at Tractor Supply to buy a Chanukah gift for my grandson. I was standing on line surrounded by wire fencing and chicken feed under the harsh fluorescent glare, while an ancient man, practically a fossil, paid for a fifty-pound bag of something. Then I got involved with my plastic and my receipt, so I didn’t see the hunched-over old guy shuffle out of the store. In the parking lot, I found him standing between a shopping cart and the open trunk of his car looking bewildered and apprehensive. Hey, I said, that looks heavy. How about you and I lift that thing together? You know, one on each end? I expected him to decline the offer of help from a famously puny 76-year-old woman. He did not. He grabbed one end of the fifty-pounder. I grabbed the other and we hoisted that sucker into the trunk. Lifting the bag lifted my spirits.
This man was probably not that much older than I am. Maybe ten years. But in the collected folklore of my imagination, he was The Grandfather, my grandfather. I never had any. I always wanted one and you can’t buy a grandfather at Tractor Supply. I thought, when I was a little girl, he would have brought me Tootsie Rolls and a baby doll that cried when you squeezed its tummy. He would have told me what I needed to know about the old country, about Romania in the 19th century.
My father’s father, born in Budapest, died in 1935, very long ago to be sure. But he left a boatload of children, my Rosenberg aunts and uncles, a bejeweled and boisterous group sustained by pastry. There was enough of him in their ample flesh to foster the fantasy that I knew him.
My Romanian grandfather, Louis Jerchower, on the other hand, remains a cipher. He died in New York in 1924 after various bankruptcies and at least one episode of white-collar crime wherein Jerchower Brothers allegedly sold merchandise made by prison labor, apparently a no-no.
I spoke recently with my cousin in Teaneck to determine if he knew any illuminating details. He said that whenever he asked his father about grandpa, Uncle Jerry would evade the question and refer to Louis as The Black Sheep of the Family. Still, Jerry gave his only son the updated American name Lewis in memory of our grandfather.
Just saying those two words “our grandfather” accelerate my heart rate. I don’t know if he was a Black Sheep, but he is certainly a Lost Lamb.
Here he is a year before his death with my grandmother Anna and my mother playing a game of “everything is alright,” he in his white shoes and my mother with that ridiculous bow. She even labeled the photograph “we three.” I want to cry when I read those words in her familiar handwriting. It is one of only two existing images of Grandpa Louis.
I am incomplete without him. I reach for him, but he’s not there. Like the ten years before I was born when my immediate family consisted of my mother, my father, and my much older sister, there are blank spaces, erasures in the tape. In the corner of my life story where a grandfather is supposed to be, leaning back in an overstuffed chair, there is nothing, a black hole. Only the whiff of failure and a metastatic rage left behind by years of dependency on his rich brother-in-law, Joseph. I have a vague notion that Louis ended up collecting rents in the tenements owned by Joseph, but I may have made that up. I may have needed to dramatize his despair. All I really know is that my mother always said her father was “very stern” when I tried to bring his image into sharper focus. I once asked if he ever beat her or her mother. She denied it, but she was clearly afraid of him. There is a story she once told, but later forgot, that as a child clearing the table, she dropped a stack of dishes and fainted out of fear. What is it like to be afraid of your father? What is it like when he dies at 52 and everyone sweeps him under the oriental rug and never mentions his name again?
Susie Kaufman is a retired hospice chaplain and spiritual director. Her essay collection, Twilight Time: Aging in Amazement, was published in 2019. She has been blogging since 2015 on the subjects of memory, aging, mortality, and the inner life. Her current newsletter, Seventy Something can be found on Substack. Kaufman’s writing emerges at the intersection of Judaism and Buddhism.