By: Hannah Dreyfus
To her childhood eyes, the endless shelves of bolts and screws rising towards the ceiling seemed to stretch towards infinity. The clamorous bustle from the street outside melted and hushed as she entered the dimly lit shop, big door, cheerful bell ringing to herald her arrival, swinging shut behind her. For a moment she would stand, back pressed against the glass, the shoulders of her small silhouette rising and falling as she breathed in the musty smell of familiarity.
It was her grandfather’s shop. The hardware store he had built as the child of immigrants, determined to make a country, that would never be his parents, his own. His mother, Hencha, the formidable monarch who arrived first in America, before single-handedly bringing over her ten siblings from the Old Country, helped to build the shop. She used to work behind the cash register, never too proud. A hardened happiness would pervade her demeanor, as she rustled back and forth among the aisles, ensuring everything in order. Her son had built this shop—her son.
Her son, Avraham, was the eldest. He did not remember the Old Country, the tiny town in Poland from whence his family had come in the early 1900’s, determined to escape the impenetrable grey and monotony of the old ways. Prepared for change and chance they came, hearing the same tale of streets paved with gold that had fallen on many a less able-bodied and sharp-minded ear. When they reached the crowded streets, pounding with the roar of commerce and merchants rolling pushcarts, pulsating with grime and raw ambition, they never once looked back. As ugly, as crowded, as riling the conditions, there was life in this new country. Life and reason to start anew, room to build. On the crowded, dirty streets where he played as a little boy, weaving in and out through the humming pushcarts and bodies, Avraham imbibed the rhythm of this new life. Learned the enlightened language his parents would only ever speak with hard, awkward edges.
He married a woman who, beautiful and wealthy as she was, could never fully hide the humble roots from which she too had come, though she tried with admirable persistence. Though she had been born in this glorious land, her parents still spoke that outlandish tongue, Yiddush. They still clung, with childlike dogmatism, to the traditions that followed them like a shadow from the Old Country. Her mother still wore a rag upon her head, still abashed at the thought of revealing her hair in public. Her father still kept his prayer shawl and phylacteries high up in a mahogany cabinet; if not often used, always revered.
When she did walk in on him, sometimes, wrapped in the white shawl, the peculiar black boxes of the phylacteries perched upon his forehead and arms, his head would be resting in his hands. He was bent over, pressing down hard on his temples. In those moments, she knew he was remembering the old days, mourning their irreversible loss. In pink ballet flats she would rush away from the glass doors, her father never knowing she saw.
But she was not a remnant of that past. It was not her past. She had no memories—not even the hazy, childhood reveries—of that country. For she, the child of immigrants born in a New Land, had nothing but the present; a present she was determined to make her own.
She married him, admiring his ambition and drive, perhaps. Or was it his willingness to be molded in her steel hands—his willingness to forget if she told him to forget.
Except for the moments that defied forgetting. On the morning of Yom Kippur, he brought his one son (and they had only one son—she had neither patience nor time for more) to synagogue, and he stood beside his father, who looked up towards the Heavens and asked God to forgive a weak man.
Their little boy, Bert, grew up, the two requests—to forget and to remember—struggling as ferociously in his heart as Jacob and Esau in their mother’s womb. The heir to his fathers business and his mother’s fortune, he was expected to expand the hardware business, a task he dutifully and successfully performed, opening a manufacturing branch in Brooklyn, to be passed down to his son. A successful, sprawling business bloomed out of the small store, once filled with nuts and bolts, tucked into a corner of the Lower East Side.
The little girl who would come to her grandfather’s shop on the Lower East side on a Sunday morning was Bert’s little girl. His youngest. She would go with her father, hand-in-hand, long, light brown braids swinging down her back, to stand behind the counter, small heart filling with pride at the importance of the small tasks she was given. Afterwards, she would go with her father to Ratner’s, the famous kosher dairy restaurant on the Lower East side, to order a large bowl of soup, served with steaming roll. While she grew up in a home, bereft of tradition, this became tradition.
But there was one more tradition her father refused to cede. He would always bring his little girl, like his father had brought him, to services on a Yom Kippur morning. And, silently, beneath a white prayer shawl, he would turn his eyes upward and plead that God forgive a weak man.