WASHINGTON, DC, March 26, 2013 — Whether you celebrate Easter or Passover, the holiday will evoke memories of a loved one who’s not at the literal table but joins you in memory. Here’s my story about my father. I wrote it while he was alive and gave it to him. He read it, said, “That’s about right” and folded the typed sheet, put it in the inside pocket of his sport jacket.
My father bought his first car in 1938. Six hundred and seven dollars cash on the barrel head got him a shiny black Ford and two lessons. He drove home, pulled up along the curb and watched his father-in-law, my grandfather Aaron Roseman, who’d been sitting on the marble stoop, cigar in hand, hobble down the path and step up on the running board.
Aaron Roseman never drove a car. He was barely five-feet tall and had a club foot. That and his life as a tailor, the trade he brought with him from Russia, the land he left because he was a Jew, made him hard-edged, tight with money and with words. He lit cigars in the fireplace with charred wood matches saved in a jar on the mantle. He had a telephone, proof of how far he’d come, and a safe in the wall, fire-proof evidence of what he’d come from.
My father used to sit on the hill in Patterson Park after school, across from Aaron Roseman’s narrow brick house on Baltimore Street, and watch my mother’s hips sway back and forth as she scrubbed the white marble steps. He knew the way she moved before he knew the feel of her. He knew the path she took from Eastern High to home. He could tell her by her walk before her shape formed in his vision. And he began to walk beside her on the cobblestones that angled through old trees heavy with the heated light of summer, like his heart.
Aaron said, “Freda, he’s poor, no profession, a schlepper.”
“Gerson works hard, Papa.”
“With feet,” Aaron said, and turned away.
Gerson sold shoes, earned five dollars a week and gave one dollar to his mother. One whole week he ate donuts for lunch so he could buy two tickets to City High School’s play. Freda held the tickets in her palm, turned them over with perfect, slender fingers so unlike his broad thick hand, and said she couldn’t go. He went alone. In his hand inside his pocket he kept the extra ticket that she’d held.
And he took another path across the park. Two years passed.
He was standing outside Felzer’s shoe store on North Gay Street, taking a break. He crushed his cigarette under his foot, looked from the rubbed ash to Emory Zigler’s size 11 polished black oxford. Emory, a pool hall buddy from his high school hanging-on-the-corner days, punched him in the arm, “Hey, Gersh, Al Lesser’s got an opening. You know his store next to the Red Wing Movie Theater on Monument Street? He’s puttin’ shoes right out on the floor on a rack, just one shoe for each style. The girls can touch the shoes,” said Emory, “but none of them can get their toes inside.” Emory laughed. “He puts out the four and a halves.” Freda’s size, thought Gerson, remembering her tiny hands and feet, the way her head, if she should ever lean against him, would fit beneath his shoulder. “Lesser’s sellin’ them at $2.49 a pair. Go over there. Move up from this $1.95 schlock you’re pushin’. The shoes are sellin’ themselves.” Emory turned to go, “And I guess you’ve heard about Freda Roseman?”
She’d been in the rumble seat of her brother-in-law’s car when it crashed. He went to see her in the hospital. He put his hand on her forehead, white and clear like the ivory silk of his tallit. And when he held her hand, he felt the shards of glass beneath her skin and thought about the hurt inside him while they’d been apart.
So once again they walked across the park. But now he took her small, bare hand and warmed it with his own.
The day of the wedding Aaron opened the door for Gerson, who wore the black suit my mother had bought him. The white summer suit she’d also bought was in the shopping bag he carried, along with everything else he owned. Aaron stepped aside to let him in but did not speak.
Three years later, when my grandmother was blind and Aaron’s heart was ailing, he opened his door again for Gerson, suitcases in hand this time and Freda at his side. Aaron said, “I owe you, Gerson, for this mitzvah.” Gerson bowed his head and wondered how they’d find the way to live together.
It was a silent partnership until the day my father bought the Ford. He needed the car for his new job selling insurance door-to-door. He figured the two lessons that came with the car were enough. He stalled at every traffic light but made it home and pulled up to the curb, breathing hard from the work of learning what the lessons had left out.
Aaron leaned on the rolled down window and said to Gerson, “Can you drive the thing?” Gerson thought about the gearshift H, wondered if he could get it into first again, and said, “Get in, let’s see.” He drove the old man from Baltimore Street to my Aunt Besse’s house on Ulman Avenue, where my mother kneaded shabbat challahs in Besse’s big wide kitchen. Then all hell broke lose. My mother and my aunt shouted at them both.
“How could you drive the old man?”
“Gerson, you could’ve killed Papa and yourself.”
“What were you thinking?”
Aaron said, “Let’s take another turn around the block.”
In the rearview mirror, my father saw them in their aprons, a semaphore of arms white with baking flour, waving above their heads to stop the rolling wheels.
Aaron told Gerson to clean out the old carriage shed in the alley behind the house on Baltimore Street. “Put the Ford inside,” he said.
On Sundays Gerson carried Freda’s bucket full of soapy water, set it on the ground, then backed the Ford out in the alley. Aaron supervised. “Careful now. A little to the left. Slower, slower. Ger-shon, Ger-shon. You’ll scratch the fender. Cut the wheel tighter, harder. Ach, at last you’ve got it,” he’d yell. But Gerson never got the hang of backing up. So Aaron was essential for the ritual of the washing.
One day, my father says, Aaron, who never carried a dish from the table to the sink, who never made himself a cup of tea, came outside with rag in-hand. Their hands bumped inside the soapy bucket. When they were done that day, they stood together in the alley and looked at their reflections in the sheen.
My father, tall and thin. Aaron, small and bent with age. Aaron took a folded piece of paper from his pocket. “Here’s the combination to my safe,” he said. “You be the one to open it when I’m gone.”
My father drove that car, and many others, all paid for with cash, in full, until he was eighty-three years old. He drove to collect premiums house by house, to sell policies for new couples, for new babies, for insurance against disaster. He drove my mother in early labor with my sister to Dr. Gutmacher’s office. He put her in the car, but in his haste and anxiety smashed her finger in the door. Dr. Gutmacher tended to the finger, timed the contractions, and said, “Gerson, I’ll drive her to the hospital. You follow.” That was the only time he didn’t drive one of us when things mattered. Whenever I saw a big dog outside, my father saved me with a ride to grade school. He drove me back to College Park after weekends at home my whole freshman year at the university when I was just sixteen, lonely and scared to live away. He drove my sister to the hospital when she lost her leg to diabetes. He drove my mother to the store for groceries and waited in the car while she picked out sweet-smelling melons. After her stroke, he dragged her wheelchair in and out of his big gray Chevy. And he drove to the cemetery every year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to visit my mother’s grave, and then later my sister’s grave as well.
He never ran a red light. He got one speeding ticket when he and my mother were driving through a small town in Vermont on vacation. A policeman drove out from behind a billboard. “Didn’t see that 15-mile speed limit sign, now did ya?” he said.
But last year my father missed a turn he always makes on his way to the Pikesville Senior Center. He made an illegal U-turn to get back to where he knew the way. The young policeman—and think how young this one looked to him that day—asked him to step outside the car and then laid down a wide strip of tape.
“Do you think I’m drunk?” my father asked.
“No sir, I don’t. But I wonder why your hand shook so when you handed me your license.”
“Getting stopped by the police can shake the nerves,” my father said.
“Yes, sir, it can. Now, if you’ll just step out.”
My father’s back is curved, his legs are stiff, his arms have thinned. He uses his hands to lift his legs above the floorboard of the car when he gets out.
He walked the policeman’s line with a shuffle in his gait. The years dragged on his foot.
While the policeman wrote the ticket that took away his license, my father stood in summer heavy sun and watched his shadow shimmer on the tar. He thought of his tallit and how he used to sit in synagogue and watch the fringes swing in sunlight, and the threads of memory flickered in his head.
He thought of the day so long ago when Aaron stepped up on the running board, and then of the day they put the old man in the ground—the day he opened up the safe. Aaron, crippled all his life, who left, instead of cash, a pile of IOUs signed by relatives and friends who’d seen bad times, old pieces of paper from worn out lives saved like burnt matchsticks in a jar. Aaron, who made sure my father was the one to stand before the open safe, to hold the papers in his hands. Aaron, who knew that he would throw them all away.
Note: This story appears in my collection of short stories The Woman Who Never Cooked, now available for the Kindle.
Mary L. Tabor is the author of the novel Who by Fire, the memoir: (Re)Making Love: a memoir and The Woman Who Never Cooked. She says, “I ferret out the detail, love the footnote, am never bored and believe it all leads to story. Best advice I ever got? ‘Only connect …’ E.M. Forster.” Find out more at http://www.maryltabor.com
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