My mother used to tell me we were descended from Russian princes, that I was royalty. I don’t know where she got this idea—what with her blue collar Queens upbringing and the fact that neither of her parents had roots in Russia. Her mother’s family came from Riga, in Latvia, by way of England, and her father’s from Ostroda in Poland, and before that from Prague. And then there’s the obvious dissonance between Jews and Russian nobility—Cossacks, bombs, intellectuals, revolutionaries.
My maternal grandfather, Saul, was a mensch—but a baffling, enigmatic sort of mensch. He fixed things for everyone; he was the person to whom everyone came with emergencies, problems, clogged plumbing and busted radios. He always helped—sometimes intrusively so—and typically responded to whatever came his way with his own little snippet ofdharma: “Don’t worry. Everything’s gonna be all right.”
A projectionist by trade, he grew up in a cinematic era in which men wore trenchcoats and fedoras and women looked hard and smoked constantly. As a young man he’d left his parents’ farm in upstate New York to “seek his fortune,” and had meandered from job to job fixing things, doing a bit of boxing, winding up in the army where, as he explained it, “I just showed them some movies and they let me go.” A true farm boy, he worked hard, had conservative ideas about life and gender, and got into everybody’s business whether they liked it or not. My grandmother apologized for him—a lot. “It’s okay,” she’d say, “he means well,” immediately followed by, “Sit down, I’ll make you something to eat.”
Grandpa lived in a fantasy world in which there was a right way to do things and people acted as they ought—a world in which marriages lasted and love was eternal, like in the movies. After my parents split up, he’d often say to me, “So, when are your parents getting back together?” I’d reply, “Never, I hope.”
My father and grandfather never got along, never understood each other. I think the conflict started when my mother ran off to Hawaii with my dad, got married, and got pregnant with me—in that order, but unforgiveable nonetheless. My grandparents had never met my father, had no idea who he was, and certainly had never heard such a strange—and to their ears clearly not Jewish—last name. To make matters worse, my father was an academic, and contrary to stereotypes of Jews being the “people of the book,” being concerned with knowledge for its own sake, my practical, working-class grandparents had no use for an art historian. To them, the purpose of education was stability, security—fine if one were to become a physician, attorney, dentist, something safe, lucrative, and with status. But my grandfather, a life-long staunch union man, reader of the Daily News, eater of meals on the clock at 7, 12, and 6, neither related to nor respected a man who didn’t work with his hands, and who had education but no profession. Grandpa was baffled and, I think, insecure in the face of anything not fitting just-so into his world, and this made him afraid, and even sometimes unkind.
Every year or two my grandparents would come from New York to visit us in Hawaii. They’d stay a couple of weeks, typically showing up with a suitcase full of bagels, kosher salami, and other delicacies that were unavailable on the Big Island. Grandpa loved Hawaii, but mainly simply because he loved warmth, and sun; he would have spent as much time in Florida as he could, except that my grandmother hated the place. When visiting us, he’d find things to fix around the house, argue with my mother, but most often sit outside, in a folding beach chair, with the sun on his face.
At home in Bayside my grandparents kept kosher—kosher meat, separate dishes for meat and dairy, clearing out everything for Passover. Meals were either fleischig or milchig, and when milchig were really milchig: butter, cream cheese, and the ubiquitous sour cream, my grandfather’s favorite, reminiscent of fresh dairy from his youth on the farm. These dairy meals often revolved around lukshen and cheese: egg noodles drenched in butter, cream cheese, cottage cheese.
Outside the home, though, all rules were off, and in restaurants my grandfather would rush to order his favorite thing: pork chops. My father, knowing well his father-in-law’s proclivities, wanting for once to please this man with whom he’d had a decade-long standoff, found a recipe for pork chops in sour cream sauce—my grandfather’s two favorites, trumped only, perhaps, by duck. That year, when my grandparents came for their pilgrimage—I must have been eleven—my father made that recipe for their first night with us, as a welcoming meal. We sat down to eat, and my father proudly began to serve, thinking, perhaps, that my grandfather would be pleased, even touched.
My grandfather wouldn’t eat it because it was milk and meat together. A kosher feaux pas. Despite the fact that he would happily have eaten the (anything but kosher) pork chops on their own, he balked at flesh slathered in creamy white sauce; it was simply too much for him to handle, too great a strain on his sense of rightness. And, too, it probably felt to him like a jab in the face from his egghead son-in-law who had attended orthodox yeshiva until the age of fourteen and who certainly knew what was kosher and what wasn’t. A massive argument ensued, culminating in my grandfather shouting, “I don’t have to take this shit from you!” and storming off. My grandmother, I’m sure, said, “It’s okay, he means well.”
I ate the pork chops in sour cream sauce. They were really good.
My fondest memories of my grandfather are of time spent with him in the basement of my grandparents’ duplex in Bayside. Down there, amidst tools, stored boxes of camphored clothes, and my grandmother’s laundry area, my grandfather’s projector lived, his folding screen, his file cabinets full of film. He’d show me movie after movie: cartoons, when I was very young, although after his death I learned that at least one of the cabinets was full of “blue” movies—classic black and white porn. He read to me before bed, too, on those occasions on which I stayed over—my favorite story being A Gift Bear for the King. I would ask him to read it again and again, until finally he recorded himself reading it on his reel-to-reel and simply sat with me while he played it over and over until I fell asleep. But there was something special about the cartoons—about sharing with him his private space in the basement, watching his peasant, thick-fingered hands deftly thread the projector, sitting with him while we watched together, helping him rewind the films by hand, turning the crank as the film flipped from one reel to the other, as the end slapped against itself making that telltale sound of cinematic ending.
I sometimes wish I’d made the film Cinema Paradiso. Giuseppe Tornatore must have had a grandfather like mine.
After his first stroke—likely from the combination of inactivity and sour cream that eventually killed him—my grandfather’s speech was a bit limited. My conversations with him had never been deep nor lengthy, but now when I visited I simply sat next to him and watched TV. Sometimes we’d go out for a bit, for pizza or to put gas in the Buick Regal he barely drove any longer, and I’d watch his hand fumble and shake when he pulled out his wallet to pay the gas station attendant. No more fixing things for him; no more talking about the state of the world and how everyone would be better off if they stayed married.
I was in college when his health started to fail. It was the mid 1980s, and the crack “epidemic” was in full force, figuring prominently in almost every news show. We’d watch the news together, my grandfather and I, and he’d turn to me and say, haltingly, “So, you smoke crack?” Assuming, I suppose, that everyone my age did so—especially hoodlumish, black leather clad, chain smoking kids like me. I’d say, “No, Grandpa, I don’t smoke crack,” and he’d sit back, apparently reassured—but he’d ask again at the next newscast, and the next.
I’d wait for my grandparents to go to bed, then go down into the basement—the place in which my grandfather and I had shared so much time, so many movies, such connection—and I’d get high on whatever I’d brought with me: in high school, pot, sometimes speed; later, heroin. But no Grandpa, I don’t smoke crack.
My grandfather died of his final stroke while I was in Phoenix House. My mother had told her extended family that I’d left New York for L.A. to work on a movie; meanwhile, in treatment on West 74th Street, I talked about how I’d been unable to function in the film industry because in heroin withdrawal my hands had been too shaky for me to work as a camera assistant—I couldn’t pull focus smoothly. I was given a pass for the day to attend my grandfather’s funeral, somewhere in Long Island where they keep the dead, and I kept up the family fiction that I’d been in L.A., that I was a good grandson who had taken leave from work and flown in to say goodbye.
“No, we are not descended of Russian royalty,” I’d reply to my mother’s fantasy of nobility, to her need to be something more than her blue-collar Bayside origins, something more than lukshen and cheese, Buicks, and the Daily News. “Mom, we’re not even Russian,” I’d tell her, even while understanding full well her desire to leave her background behind.
And me? Me, I’m anything but noble.
Michael Aanavi is the author of The Trusting Heart: Addiction, Recovery, and Intergenerational Trauma, from which the above is excerpted.