Visiting my grandparents in Long Island was a monthly ritual in my childhood. We drove from New Jersey to the Staten Island ferry, where my sister and I had a contest to see who would guess which of the seven ferries we would get. There was the Hamilton, the Hudson, St. George, the Victoria, the Verrezano and two more which I’ll probably remember later today. Later in our monthly visits, we abandoned the ferry for the newly-built Verrezano Bridge, which made the trip faster, but less romantic. On the ferry, we often would get a fresh-baked salted pretzel and stand out on deck to as we passed by the Statue of Liberty. Then on to various turnpikes, past the parachute jump on Coney Island, past some small apartments that we called “Tinyland” because it seemed that it was built for some mythical fairies and finally arrived at my grandparents’ house in Levittown, one of the first planned suburbs built in 1947. Checking it out on Wikipedia, just discovered it was a purposefully segregated community closed to people of color. Boo hiss.
But apparently not to old Russian Jews, because that’s what my grandparents were, emigrated from Vitebsk, Belarus at the turn of the century, raising their five children in the upper East Side and then the Bronx, where my grandfather was a housepainter and later a landlord before moving to Levittown.
My uncles, aunts and cousins would all converge at this monthly gathering and we’d hang out in the backyard with its large weeping willow tree, the adults playing pinochle, the kids playing ball and eating meals that included some disgusting (to me) pickled herring and some more appealing fresh-baked honey cake. My grandmother had Parkinson’s and I don’t remember too much about her (she died when I was 8 or 9) and my grandfather had a gruff exterior, but was a nice enough person. I don’t remember any conversations between the two of us or doing a single thing with him except for a brief game of catch one time.
Such a contrast to the grandfather I have become. I’ve done more and talked more with my grandkids in one day than my grandfather did with me in 12 years (my age when he died). I just took them to the airport this morning after another glorious six days together spent playing music, reading stories (both ways), telling stories, playing cards and board games, biking, hiking, visiting three different playgrounds, cooking, playing catch/ Paddleball/ Frisbee/ Spud, watching old movies and so much laughter and so much delight in their sparkling personalities and deep intelligence and surprising insights. Several times in the visit I got the physical sensation of a love so strong that it hurt!
And none of this is praising my own grandparent skills or my wife’s (she’s wonderful with them as well). For I need them as much as they need me. And perhaps more.