April 06

With A Strong Hand And An Outstretched Arm

Jeremy Mullem

The story, as I have planned it, as I have imagined it over these last five years, unfolds in most dramatic part at a Passover Seder had in a dining room and around a dinner table like the ones in my grandparents' old apartment on Bailey Avenue in the Bronx. These were my mother's parents, refugees who fled Austria before World War II. My grandmother had understood early what Hitler had in mind for the Jews. She left for America, where she worked to bring her parents and her brothers and their wives and her husband across the Atlantic. My grandfather and my grandmother's brother, Rudy, were the last two to escape. After the anschluss, after the Nazis had arrested them, at a station outside Vienna, while the train that would have taken them to a camp idled on the track, a guard told my great-uncle and my grandfather to run. Then he turned his back.

The story of grandfather and great-uncle's flight east across the Soviet Union and through Japan to the United States survives only in the fragments. It is a good story, but not the one I mean to tell. So, let me apologize for what I've just done even though I must warn you that I plan do it repeatedly. If it is possible for me to tell this story, I will have to tell it through digression. This is one of the things I have learned over the last five years.


According to my mother, who was born in New York after her parents had reunited, my grandparents struggled to keep the Holocaust out of their home. Much of the story I want to tell you now takes place in something like that home, the two-bedroom apartment where my grandparents finally settled when my mother was twelve years old.
The apartment had windows that opened onto a courtyard where children played and Van Cortland Park was nearby. You could hear people on the street calling to each other. There was, as I recall, a piano in the cramped dining room, one that would have been played mostly by my mother. On one wall hung a framed picture of the Old City of Jerusalem as seen from Mount Scopus, with the gleaming Dome of the Rock so prominent. At the room's center, sat a wooden table large enough to seat eight. The table had a smooth finish. When I was young I always wanted to roll my toy cars across it. They would have rolled so much better there than on the plastic runners leading from room to room in that apartment or on the thin carpet that had been put down when my mother was a teenager. Sometimes, when my grandmother was cooking, I would take one of my cars to the table and pretend to roll it across that smooth expanse, and she would come out of the kitchen and pretend to be angry with me.

What I am trying to convey here is that the apartment was a happy home, certainly as happy as might be expected. There were, to be sure, squabbles about money. And, for many years, my grandmother did not approve of my father. (Again, another story.) But the central tragedy in my grandparents' lives, the Holocaust, was treated with circumspection. My grandparents did not ignore it but they did not dwell on it either. On those rare occasions when my grandmother would describe her girlhood on her parents' farm outside Vienna and the pleasure she had taken in going to school in that old city, as she recalled friends and relatives there would always come a point when she would sigh and say, "Hitler killed them all." And that was always the end.
When I was about eight years old, around the time of Passover, my parents brought my sister and me to the Bronx to stay for a week. This would have been not long after my grandfather had sold his luncheonette and retired to pass his days reading the Times and the Daily News and chatting with the other men at the Van Cortland Park Jewish Center. During that trip, my grandfather took me up the hill to the Center to sell his chametz through the old rabbi. The rabbi, a man who bore more than a passing resemblance to Ariel Sharon, bade me sit in one of his office chairs. Years before, he told me, there had been a woman in their congregation who had fallen on hard times. She and her children were nearly destitute. At Passover, she could not pay the rabbi's small fee for the selling of her chametz. My grandfather, the rabbi explained from behind his desk, had paid for her. He had bought her groceries as well, and had helped in other small ways. He had done all this without having been asked. "Abe Sambol knew this woman was in trouble," the rabbi said, "and he came forward."
In my mother's kitchen there is a wonderful picture of her father. The photograph is in black and white. It shows him in middle age. He is wearing a checked shirt that is open at the collar and a white apron, and his features have a central European thickness that suggests industry and good humor. In the photo he gazes directly at the camera. If you saw it, you would say that he looks like just the kind of man who would do what the rabbi said he had done for that woman.

Years after that Passover visit, years after my grandfather had died, the rabbi repeated his story at my grandmother's graveside. I was thirty then and had flown from Iowa, where I was living, to New York for the funeral. It was autumn and the leaves on the hills beside that cemetery in New Jersey were spectacular. The air held a last trace of summer warmth. Not two weeks before my grandmother died, I first tried to write the story I want to tell you now.

I will set the scene in a moment. I promise; I will get into things. But first, you need to know what inspired it. If you don't know where this story comes from, I am afraid its people and events will seem flimsy and unimportant. What happened was that I was thinking about the last time I had seen my grandfather. I was fifteen then and he was in his eighties and very sick. He had shrunk in his final year. Gradually, he had stopped talking. I remember my grandfather lying in his pajamas on the sofa in his living room. My parents had hired a care-giver, a helper for my grandmother whose arthritis made it difficult for her to walk. The care-giver was a pretty Haitian woman in her twenties. She was there on the last day I last saw my grandfather. His eyes were watery and his gaze rarely focused. But when this woman helped him into a chair and put a towel over his shoulders, shaved his face and cut his wispy hair, he followed the movements of her hands with absolute devotion. When he looked at her you could tell he was smitten. I remember my grandmother tottering at the threshold of the living room, holding a heavy skillet in which she had fried something brown. She fumed and pestered my grandfather to eat. He closed his ears to her, beaming at the woman cutting his hair.

It is something approximating that jealous moment in which my grandmother stood on her arthritic feet as my grandfather watched the Haitian woman's lovely dark hands that I have been trying to work toward. In Iowa, five years ago, weeks before my grandmother died, I imagined that I would tell a story bracketed by Seders that take place a year apart. Before the first, the grandfather of the boy through whom the story will be told is aging but not so old that he cannot take his grandson to sell his chametz. By the second he will be dying.

Early on, I decided to call the boy's grandfather Solomon, hoping that this name, a big-ticket Old Testament name like my grandfather's, is similar enough that a smidgeon of the man's kindness would find its way into my prose describing the character. I imagine Solomon as a cross between my grandfather and my grandfather's rabbi. He will be a bit of a frustrated academic, a man who would have worked with his mind had he remained in Austria but who came to America and had to work with his hands. I decided that Solomon won't be quite as far gone as my grandfather was when I last saw him. He will be able to talk, albeit slowly and only with great effort. He will be conscious of the nearness of death and the petty foolishness of others will bear on him like the heaviest of burdens.

The grandmother in the story will be like my grandmother, except that her name will be Ruth. Like my grandmother did for her family, she will have worked to provide the money and visa Solomon needed to escape to America.

The boy will be David. What a name for a Jewish son; I still cannot decide if I like it or hate it. David will be in his freshman year at NYU at the time of the first Seder. David's mother, Gloria, will only attend the second Seder. She is not going to be anything like my mother. She will be younger and ungrateful. She will have gone off to Berkeley for college in the 1960s (I cringed the first time I wrote that) and will have stayed in the Bay Area, and she will be divorced from David's father. David's father won't be Jewish and he won't have a role in the story.

I envision the middle part of the story, the part that takes place in the intervening year, as a time when David is exploring New York. His Jewishness, so easy to forget in California, will tug at him. I remember thinking I could tease something out of his unease that would make the moment when he sees his dying grandfather smitten and his hobbling grandmother jealous resonate in the way only fictions can. I envisioned a collision of amplified themes.

Although my mother's home was, as I have said, happy, Gloria's will not have been. The dining room in the apartment rented by Solomon and Ruth may look like my grandparents' but Gloria will be a disappointment to her father and a source of frustration to her mother. She will miss the first Seder because she and Ruth have quarreled about Israel and the Palestinians. This will be the latest flare-up of an enduring battle. Gloria will remain in California and give David money to buy matzot. She will be a bitter woman, who cannot be in the room with her mother without feeling herself compelled to fight and argue. She will have said that what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank is a second Holocaust.

Also, I decided that this story will be funny. This story of Solomon and Ruth and bitter Gloria and David and the Haitian caregiver—I decided to call her Josephine, but made a promise to myself to think of something better—will allow for the kind of good lines we never speak in reality. The dark past and the present anger will yield to mundane humor. Ruth will be a little thick. Gloria will be self-important. Rather than having David study something of obvious weight like religion or philosophy, I decide to make him a Film & Television major. For all the great lines I am going to give him, I might as well have him pursue a special concentration in comedy.
I worked out the first scene and a quasi-metafictional ending and I strung together three passable anecdotes as a middle. Then my grandmother died.

I had known she was sick. She was ninety. She had suffered a series of minor strokes and had developed an infection while in the hospital. The day before I left for New York, I told another writer about what I had been working on and what had happened. We stood in a university hallway as others walked past on both sides. I tried very hard to keep my voice steady.

"You didn't kill her," he said. His face was solemn. He was a notable writer, a man who had written a tough and honest memoir. "You did not kill her."

"I know," I said. Then I did something that I have written about many times but never quite believed was possible: I tried to laugh and instead choked up.

I was sure I had killed her, that in stealing a bit of my grandmother's history, of her character, I had plucked a thread in some great, mysterious web that connects us, our physical beings, to everything that we have done or said or that has happened to us, that connects us to the people who love and hate us and the things that they have thought about us, that connects us to those who know us well or just remember us obliquely as unnamed persons passing in and out of their lives. I believed that web to be as fragile as my grandmother's health. In plucking one thread, I had caused a rupture, a tear. Age had set her up and then I had finished her.
I flew to New York. When I returned, I closed the file I had opened for this story and did not open it again for more than a year.


I keep drifting away from David and Solomon. I am sorry for that, again. I will come back to their story. I want it to mean as much to you as my grandparents' stories mean to me. And, with the expression of that hope, I understand that this is slipping toward cliché. Metafiction was old when I was a baby. Every graduate student in creative writing I have ever known has written something about a particular struggle to craft a fiction that does justice to the characters they have imagined, something worthy of the sentiment we invest in our creations. Most of those writers have had the good sense to put what they've done in a drawer. I have tried to put this story in a drawer too, but I keep returning to it.


Originally, this was going to be called Next Year in Jerusalem. If you know the Passover Seder, you know where that comes from. Jews say that phrase at the end of the Seder. It is meant as an expression of hope, a statement made by exiles on the cusp of deliverance. Reading from the Haggadah, we say that in every generation, every person must feel as if he has personally come out of Egypt. As I was growing up, around my parents' table, as we remembered the plagues visited upon the Egyptians and the Exodus, my father, who led, would look to my mother, my sister and me. He knew all the words by heart. "This," he would say, "is on account of what the Lord did for me when he took me out of Egypt."

My father was a barrel-chested man and the son of an abusive father. He knew before he had begun kindergarten that he wanted to become a doctor and so he became a surgeon, started working seventy-hour weeks in medical school, and kept going at that pace until just a few years before his death. Alone among people on both sides in my family, my father had blue eyes, eyes so pale that they often seemed gray. For many years, in the rural California county where my family eventually settled, he was the only surgeon within fifty miles. We lived in a house in the forest, ten miles outside of the county's one real town. So many times, when I was in high school, I heard my father up in the middle of the night, the sounds of doors opening and closing, and him starting his car to make his way to the hospital in response to some emergency. He saved the lives of three of my friends. He delivered, by caesarian section, the children and grandchildren of several of my teachers. Once, when I was seventeen and a sheriff's deputy found me with my girlfriend on a beach with a bottle of wine, the deputy, who was known to take special pleasure in arresting teenagers, let me pour out the wine and take the girl home. The next day, he called my father.
What I am getting at with all this biography is this: when my father looked at you and said a line like that one from the Haggadah, it gave you chills.

Images: Andy Curtis, Botanical Reflections
Andy Curtis, Leaves and Rain
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