Scottie was late. He was always late. Even today, when I was going to get a new mother.
I had special permission to be excused from PS 90 for the afternoon. We were going to my new mother’s family house at 2676 Hubbard Street, Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where she had married my father earlier that day. My new aunts and uncles would be there too, including Silvia and Ruth (whose names from that day on would always be one word: silviandruth, or occasionally ruthandsilvia, as they wandered the world together, spinster aunts ready to fly to any destination with one small bag to fulfill their responsibilities at our birthday parties and graduations.) Uncle Fred, a gentle giant I thought, very calming: he seemed to instinctively know how to lay low and stay out of the family’s occasional arguments that blew up, suddenly, like tropical storms. I soon learned that Silvia’s preferred means of communication was the bellow, a shout with the bass turned up. But blue skies returned with equal suddenness. And of course at the center of all this mishbocha madness was Grandma Bessie.
Tiny in old age but forceful, using a fractured English (her favorite comedian was “Red Skeleton”) or, when provoked, an agitated Yiddish to direct and correct the family and break up the spats, of which there were many. She could forgive us children anything, and would ride to our rescue if she thought we were being harried by grown-ups. (“Leave them be, leaves them be,” she would say, usually in Yiddish.) If she suspected you were ill she would whip up a “guggle-muggle”, a warm elixir of raw eggs and unknown ingredients culled from old country knowledge no doubt. I held my nose and drank. Her table was always laden with good food and when she called you to eat, everybody came.
Waiting for Scottie, I thought little of this. Taking the D Train to Brighton Beach would take over an hour, so time out of school was slipping. Tall and slim, a great looking kid who became a forever-young man with a big smile and a shock of blond hair, Scottie spoke with a soft burr to credit his nickname. He was a charmer, a charming screw-up, and it was a life-long surprise to him to later discover he needed more than charm to get by. He got married, got married again (my father grumbled: again a wedding present?). Then he got married again. By then he wasn’t such a great looking kid, but a grown man who looked too much like a kid but too old to be one. A Scottish-American Jackie Coogan who was always late. He must have been 20 years older than I was but that’s to be expected when your mother or father is from a family with 18 or 21 children—-depending on who has been doing the counting. My father, who was the youngest and last to leave home, said 21; his older siblings long flown the Polish coop to Leeds, London, Glasgow, and the west Bronx, always said 18 or 17 or even fewer, but what did they know? Over the years and great distances people lose count or weren’t there to keep it. In the end it hardly mattered: Hitler made the numbers academic, for those who stayed anyway, and that was most of them. But in case you think it far-fetched remember, Benjamin Franklin was one of 18 siblings.
Once as an 18-year-old I went to Dublin to meet, for the first time, another first cousin. Eddie Miller was the son of my father’s oldest brother, Sanny, who started as a garment maker in Poland and finished as a horse player, pub regular and well-known story-teller in Dublin. A tailor, he took seamlessly to the Irish way of life. Eddie was born just as the Russo Japanese War threatened a visit from Cossacks looking for volunteers, so his father left, for Leeds, then Dublin. When we met he was middle-aged, older than me by almost 40 years, older than my father, his uncle. Also a tailor (“E. Miller, Bespoke Tailor, 2 Exchequer Street, Dublin”), he was a happy habitué of pubs, pub people and pub chat. This was when conversation was serious business in Ireland, in Dublin an Olympic sport every night at the local. Regulars came as much for conversation as for the Guinness or the Jameson’s, or even keeping warm. When I pushed open his shop door late on a darkening October evening and introduced myself, he stood for a moment to let it sink in. Then he flipped the “open” sign to “closed”, pulled down the blind and shut the door behind. Hurrying me out to meet, Kitty, his wife, he suddenly he stopped, studied me for a moment and enquired in all innocence: “Gerry, do you take a drink?” Later, having been introduced to two pubs and countless men, a few women, not a little whiskey and many dogs—-one of whom could open a pack of chips—-we fell into his flat and a bollocking from Kitty. Eddie lived a good life. He knew it. No money, but lots of friends. Dublin was his town. Unlike Kitty he had no lust for America, no need to acquire, no sense that worth would come from excess cash in his pocket. All this drove her crazy. She would have been America bound. When Eddie died in the Jewish Home of Ireland, having been put there by a stroke and certain over-eager relatives, he was 92. The home was run by young Catholic girls, country girls. They were much better Jews than most of the Jews they served. When we arranged for a birthday cake to be delivered to him they would not allow it to set foot in the door. They couldn’t be sure of the kosherness of its making. It never bothered Eddie. Nothing did, except the relentless disappearance of the intelligent married to the loquacious: his pals in the art of conversation, the storytellers and bon-mot-ists whose skills seemed heightened, not dulled, by drink. I wish I had Eddie’s self-contentment. I hope I have his genes.
Scottie, on the other hand, had the American bug: ambitions never to be satisfied. Stanley, as he began, grew up in Glasgow. His parents stopped there on the immigrant highway, Poland to the Bronx. Years later, after 4 children, all of whom had picked up Scottish accents and presumably learned to support Rangers or Celtic before they were ever aware off the Yankees, his parents eventually resumed their journey, arriving at 1820 Loring Place, off Tremont Ave. Scottie’s mother Rachel was my father’s oldest sister. Rachel must have been in her 50s but could have been 120. To me, she seemed ancient, ageless, whatever age witches are in the nightmares of 6-year-olds. She may have been kind but she didn’t feel it. She may have been acting heroically and with great goodness helping my father by taking us in and off his hands, but I had no appreciation. Her pastries, which she used to roll out in long rows on the dining room table and then roll backed having ladled on dried fruit, were the pastry equivalent of heavy artillery, Poland not Vienna. She seemed not just old, but the idea of old: she was short and wide, with underarms that sagged and swayed. And she was heavy-handed. She made lumpy porridge and made my sister and I eat it, even cold. What she wasn’t was my mother. My father parked us there while he tried to restart his life after my mother, Ida I, died at the end of a long breast cancer. He needed to find a job, go to work, pay the rent (which friends had been paying for a year), and find a mother for us who might also happen to be a wife for him. Rachel did her best as a stand-in, and we, selfish as only small children can be, remained eternally ungrateful. Meanwhile, what the new Ida took on at the not tender age of 39 after a life as a working woman and college (Cornell no less, the School of Industrial and Labor Relations) graduate, was impossible to conceive of: a ready-made but broken family. And a couple of seriously screwed-up kids who showed no mercy until long after the marriage, and far down the years when they realized how lucky they had been. Ida II was, as my sister finally nailed her, “a beautiful soul”. Scottie may have been late that day getting us to her wedding reception, but for 30 years after Ida was never late with anything important to do for us.