My granddaughter Lilly visited me in Florida last week with her mom and Billy, my grandson.
During their stay, Lilly made a point of asking me to have a special lunch with her, just the two of us. Her request took me aback as it was unusual coming from her as it would be from any typical teenager. I thought she might want to discuss her college selections as she is a high school junior, and the application process is on the horizon. We ended up going to that “exclusive club,” Greene’s Pharmacy, which is the local coffee shop here in Palm Beach. I figured a counter lunch is a good way to have a nice chat with Grandpa. We found our seats next to a couple of regulars who I noticed were indulging in the daily special of Philly Cheesesteak with grits. Just the thought of it makes me reach for my Pepcid. But I digress. “Grandpa,” she asked, “what is your earliest memory?” What a question! Where was this coming from, I wondered. Perhaps our after-dinner conversation the night before had stoked her curiosity. We had talked about my youth, and how I left upstate New York for college in New Jersey. We discussed my parents and the difficulties experienced by my grandparents, whom I never knew. My grandmother, Lena, sent my mother to live in an orphanage after my grandfather died in a train accident within days of their arrival in America from Lithuania. The trauma of losing her husband caused her to have a miscarriage. She had no money, did not speak the language and fell into a deep depression. My mother never discussed with me or my siblings how long she was in the orphanage. My paternal grandparents died at the hands of the Nazis who invaded the Ukraine. My father escaped, fleeing alone at the age of 13 to Hamburg, Germany, where he stowed away on a ship to Argentina. He lived in Buenos Aires for several years before making his way to the U.S. as a young man. Very little is known about my grandparents and what history I do have was gathered over the years through the Ancestry website and from the National Archives, which holds immigration records from 1800 to 1950. Both my father and mother were tight lipped about their lives as youngsters. I understand now it was because their childhoods were fraught with pain and loss. I know neither had any education and my mother became a United States citizen only when I was old enough to drive her to night school to study for the citizenship test. My father cared solely for work and supporting his family and he passed his drive and work ethic on to his three children.
But I have strayed from Lilly’s initial question. My earliest memory. Perhaps the question was a test to see if Grandpa’s long-term memory is intact. Yes, I could recall back some 75 years. I remember being carried down a long flight of stairs by my father. I was six years old. He was was dressed in his work clothes – black leather jacket, leather chaps and polished shoes. He carried me into a shiny black car for the ride home from a hospital where I later learned I had an emergency appendectomy. Lilly peppered me with more questions: “What was your childhood like? Who were your friends? How did your parents treat you? How did you get along with your brother and sister?” She was determined to learn as much about me as possible. With her grandmother gone, I was now the sole custodian of our early family history. I had the sense Lilly was moving on from her own childhood and looking at her life as it fit into the history of our extended family tree. As she continued to probe the past my memories surfaced like headlines in a newsreel. We talked about the big moments in history– I recalled the mourning over the death of FDR and watching the soldiers parade along Main Street in Rochester on VE Day; also the assassination of JFK and seeing the photos of the soldiers who had perished in Vietnam on the evening news. Lilly took in every detail and followed up with questions until it was time for us to let the next customers take our place at the counter. My lovely Lilly prompted me to recall all those early moments of my life and sharing them with her was an affirmation of who we are and where we come from. Occasionally you need to step back in time to check your pulse.