My grandmother lived for years in a building that smelled of boiled cabbage and damp wool. The lobby was small and dusty, with two armchairs that no one seemed ever to sit in, the elevator cramped and decorated by panels of dull brass inscribed with lines. I would trace the meaningless lines with my finger while the elevator groaned slowly upward, and my father stood silently next to me staring at the dull polish of the door. I don't recall that we ever shared the elevator with anyone when we visited, though we must have. I suppose I have edited them out of my memories. Of course there were other tenants, other visitors, I just don’t recall them. To me the old residential hotel smelled of loneliness. Looking back now I realize that it was a classic building which is likely these days to be very expensive, but when I was a child it was the strange dark musty place where Bubbe lived, and where she seemed happy, despite her penchant for complaint.
I couldn't tell you what it looked like from the outside. My father drove us there in his immense Ford sedan and somehow always managed to park right in front. So we emerged from the car to push through the brass doors to the lobby, where we checked in with a desiccated clerk behind a little window in the wall, and then waited for the elevator. The clerk frightened me, though he was neither friendly nor unfriendly, just a skinny old man with wire-rimmed glasses and a weary look on his face. There was nothing wrong with him, but he frightened me. I never mentioned this to my father nor to Bubbe. I was frightened of most people at that age and knew that it didn't make sense.
I wasn't frightened of Bubbe, though I found her affections overwhelming. She left the door to her apartment unlocked for us when we visited, since my father always arrived on time, to the minute, to any appointment, no matter how casual. The hallways of the building were dimly lit, with faded wool rugs and a glare of daylight at each end from the windows to the fire escapes; we walked silently past the dull numbered doors to the one where Bubbe lived, where an invariable ritual would begin: my father would knock on the door with his tap, tap-tap pattern; a faint voice would filter through from inside; and he would open the door and herd me through ahead of him. Bubbe would be sitting in an armchair facing the door, generally wearing a modest wool skirt and jacket over what I realize in retrospect must have been a silk blouse, very plain low-heeled pumps, and a smile on her powdered face below the wire-rimmed glasses. She kept her hair in a short gray permanent, always wore the same pair of tiny dangling earrings, and sat with her feet crossed demurely at the ankles as she said, invariably: "So here you are, you two! At last!"
We visited every week, always on the same day and at the same time, but she never failed to make a show of exalted relief that we had actually arrived, and not decided instead to run away to Mexico. My father had driven me and my mother down to Ensenada exactly once, when I was two, an excursion of which I have no memories that were not supplied to me by my parents; it had taken place on the day normally reserved for the visit to Bubbe, who had been invited to go along but had declined to. Apparently that spasm of filial treachery still preoccupied her soul. So after the standard greeting, she lifted herself from the armchair to engulf me in her arms and her scent of talcum and wool, and peck me repeatedly with kisses, like a chicken frantic for corn. Then she would hold me away from her at arm's length and conduct a detailed if smiling inspection of my face, until she seemed satisfied that I was not some devious substitution, whereupon she would cluck her tongue, heave herself up to a standing position, and lead us into the tiny dining room, where the table was set for lunch. The fare was generally soup of some sort, accompanied by bread she had baked herself, or gnocchi with butter and sage, which she knew to be my favorite, along with a salad. There was always tea to drink, strong stuff that she bought from a Russian deli at the end of a long bus ride. She had been born in Russia and lived there long enough to marry at seventeen, but she and her husband had left the Pale of Settlement and worked their way through various countries—"Wherever the trains were still running"—in the midst of World War One, eventually settling in a defeated Germany, only to leave it again when Hitler made his moves, her husband judging correctly that he would make the Cossacks look like naughty children in comparison. Eventually they ended up on a boat to New York, where after a year they boarded a train to Los Angeles and the offer of a job in the rag trade from a distant uncle of hers there. When both husband and uncle died in a car crash, she sold the business and retired to the apartment where we visited her, my father being grown by then; she had money enough to live, but still supplemented it by giving lessons in one of the six languages she could both speak and read: Russian, Yiddish, Italian, French, German, and English. It was, she said, her hobby, and kept her in touch with people yet didn't burden her with their problems. "Problems of my own I've had enough of," she used to say. "Even him, when he was a certain age…." She jutted her chin at my father, who had given up defending himself of the implication of wildness, which was unimaginable to me, then or later.
I think my father was as surprised as I was when she announced that she had found a boyfriend, and that they might get married. I was dumbfounded: to me, Bubbe was a tidy old lady who waited for our visits with cakes and tea; in the way of the young, I had never imagined that she herself had once been young and possibly pretty, that she had perhaps danced to live music, and that, of course, she must have had some romantic feelings, spontaneous, or manufactured for the sake of her heart's ease, for the grandfather I'd never met. I didn’t know what to think. Of course I'd never had a romantic attachment of my own at that age; I had my parents and Bubbe, who were a sort of protective furniture in my life, and I had my teachers and a few friends, but I was shy and lived mostly in books and magazines and the television. Of course the books and magazines and television were full of at least implications of romance, if not centered on it, but my emotional inexperience left me incapable to correlating the incidents in narratives with my actual parents, let alone my grandmother, who presented herself as the cliché of the East European Bubbe. Yet here she was, telling us that she had begun to date.
My father was at first furious: he told me years later, when both Bubbe and her second husband were dead, that he had felt it was a betrayal of his own father, and of himself. At the time he firmly declared himself a member of the opposition, to which Bubbe quietly responded: "But Sammele, you have nothing to say about it. What little money I have is yours when I die; of course there will be no other children. And Giorgio is rich anyway, at least compared to you and me. He owns an entire building! We will live there if it all goes through. You can't imagine the view! The ocean you can see from his bedroom window. Even that famous island where you've never taken me. The few years I have left, my darling Sammy, are mine. Now sit down and have some tea."
My father sulked for, I believe, two months after she told us about her beau. It turned out they had been dating—does one speak of people nearly in their eighties as "dating"?—they had been seeing each other for two years by then. "So you see, Sammy, you've lost nothing by it. You didn't even notice!" For a while, Bubbe and my father would lapse more frequently into German or French, their voices tenser than usual, which probably meant they were discussing my father's rancor with her "new life," as she called it. But then, one day, Giorgio was in the apartment when we arrived: a trim little man, hardly bigger than Bubbe, wearing an expensive suit and an immaculately-trimmed short white beard; he bore the graceful manners of a man who truly loved the world and the people in it. He did not act in any way possessively of my Bubbe, and treated me as a sort of miniature adult, rather than a strange creature to be assaulted with contrived affection, as so many grownups seem to see other people's offspring; and he acted with a precise lack of formality which was exactly the right approach to use with my father. In this he may have been coached by Bubbe. And he was Jewish, though from Italy originally. "We met in Europe, during the hard times, your father and Giorgio worked together now and then. Who knew he'd end up here? Who knew I would? Life is very strange sometimes."
My father was silent for a long while, and even I, though I was a child, could tell that he was sulking. Bubbe sighed, and got up to serve us all tea.
Bubbe's sovereign remedy for anything was tea, and we all sat at the table in her tiny dining nook and drank the fragrant brew while Giorgio told us stories of the war, and of his business dealings with my grandfather—which included, apparently, monkey business. "But our best deal ever had nothing to do with fine suits at all. It was getting hot for Jews there, as you can imagine, so we finally liquidated our assets before the blackshirts stole them, and made our way to France. But the last deal we did together was a truckload of rifles for the partisans. A little something for Mussolini to remember us by. And your grandmother drove the truck."
Bubbe smiled. "I'll bet you didn’t even know I could drive, Sammy. And a truck no less! Giorgio and your father were friends as well as partners. So you see, he's family. One of us!"
My father still looked sullen, so Bubbe leaned across the table towards him and spoke in a tone of voice I'd never heard her use before, at least not in English: "Sammele, listen: I ran from the Cossacks. I ran from the blackshirts. I ran from the brownshirts. I ran from the Vichy flics. But I am not going to run from happiness. Your father is dead, Sammy, bless his soul. But I am not."
She moved into Giorgio's apartment six months later, though she did not let go of her former home; instead, she sublet it at a small profit, keeping the lease "just in case." We made our weekly visits there, and Giorgio often had "business" to take care of which absented him for an hour or two, a kindly lie that fooled no one but pleased us all. The view from the window was indeed spectacular: the blue bulge of the Pacific soaring away to distant Asia, its white hem eternally wrinkling on the beaches far below Giorgio's balcony. She lived there six more years before she died of a stroke, "The happiest," she said in her hospital room, "of my life."
Whether my father ever accepted Giorgio I could not tell, and he would not tell. I didn't know what to think about it, so I didn't. Bubbe looked happy, as she always had when we visited, and that was enough for me.
Cover by Esther Avdokhina.