“What do these children do without storybooks?” Naftali asked.
And Reb Zebulun replied: “They have to make do. Storybooks aren’t bread. You can live without them.”
I couldn’t live without them.” Naftali said.
—Isaac Bashevis Singer
Sadie and Della lived in a duplex in Brooklyn. My grandfather’s older sisters, both former editors for the Daily Worker, they had lived alone since their husbands had passed away, puttering around their oversized house, speaking as if with one mind. Uncle Stan was Della’s late husband. He had been the kindest of men, everyone’s favorite; he sold pennants at Shea Stadium, and as a child gifted me with a plethora of Mets and Jets pennants—the old felt ones that felt so good to the touch, and which I taped to the wall over my bed. Uncle Stan was a fan of Jell-O with milk poured over the top, a strange delicacy that was always served on those rare occasions when my parents and I visited, and which I loved. Uncle Harry, Sadie’s late husband, was a different sort; kind as well, he was more distant, and smelled of cigars—a smell I loved as a child—and always wore a yarmulke. Even when I was little, he shook my hand like a grownup, which was both painful and a little thrilling.
By the 1980s, Sadie had long since raised her children; her son Ben, a tax attorney, had moved to Westchester and raised children of his own. Della had never had children; she lived in the top half of the duplex, Sadie in the lower half, but more often than not when I visited with my grandparents they were both at Sadie’s place, having the same conversation they always had, sitting on the doily-covered couch in Sadie’s living room. There was always a bowl with broken-up Hershey bars or kisses on the coffee table—which, stoned as I was, was the highlight of the visit for me—and a bowl of sourballs or some other hard candy. Della would unwrap a sourball, and pop it in her mouth:
Della: I have a sour taste in my mouth.
Sadie: What sour taste? If you wouldn’t eat so many sourballs you wouldn’t have a sour taste.
Della: No, I need the sourball, I have a sour taste.
And so on, ad infinitum.
Visits to Sadie and Della were a regular occurrence on those occasions when I had a pass from boarding school and would stay with my grandparents in Bayside for a weekend. Saturday afternoon meant the ritual journey to Brooklyn; my grandfather would put some tools in the trunk of his Buick Regal to fix whatever plumbing or electrical problem Sadie had developed during the past week. I’d find a way to surreptitiously get high, and we’d pile into the car. On arrival, my grandfather would get to work with his handyman duties; I’d help him, or, preferably, raid the Hershey bowl and answer everyone’s repetitive questions about school, about my mother, about when my parents were getting back together (never, I hoped, I’d say).
Dinner was always sparse—Kraft macaroni and cheese, gefilte fish with horseradish, iceberg lettuce, and a loaf of rye bread with butter, the same menu every time. One box of mac and cheese for the five of us, which, even with plentiful bread, always meant my grandfather and I would need a late evening turkey sandwich when we got back to Bayside. He loved the gefilte fish, though, and especially the gelatin from the jar, which he was always served; I could barely tolerate gefilte fish, let alone the gelatin, but in the absence of anything else to eat would slather it with the horseradish and choke it down. My grandmother, when we left, would comment on Sadie’s miserliness—the miniscule dinner, her refusal to spend money to have an actual handyman come fix things, her unwillingness to buy a new refrigerator which she needed badly. Sadie had the money, but came from an era in which expenditures were limited to essentials; it was just that her perception of what was essential was perhaps a bit distorted.
After dinner we’d play poker, the five of us, but in a routine sort of way. Everyone knew what the expected bet was for whatever hand they had—a nickel for a pair, a dime for two pair or three of a kind, a quarter for a better hand than that. It wasn’t poker, really, but rather yet another weekly ritual; I would bet randomly, or bluff, just to confuse them, just because. I would shuffle faro style, which they loved: look how he teschles the cards, they’d say, Sadie or Della, it didn’t matter which one, the two of them having lived together so long they were two halves of the same person—Della, sweet and introverted, Sadie the dominant one, smart and outspoken.
The last time I remember visiting them, when my grandparents and I arrived something was different. In front of the duplex had been a small patch of lawn alongside the walk way—very small, really, perhaps eight feet by eight feet. The lawn had always before been well-trimmed—Sadie and Della paid one of the neighborhood goyim to cut it on a biweekly basis. I guess they had finally gotten tired of spending money on something they, in their uniquely predictable way, considered a non-essential; this time when we arrived, the lawn had been ripped out and replaced with concrete, but concrete that had been painted green.
To their unified mind, what was the difference?
Michael Aanavi is the author of The Trusting Heart: Addiction, Recovery, and Intergenerational Trauma, from which the above is excerpted.