Winter Generation | John Rudoy
On a Friday in January, Grandpa slipped on the ice outside the Morse Red Line stop. He had told us himself how dangerous that sidewalk was. The snow piled on the elevated track, and the drainpipe was clogged, so when it melted and refroze with the alternating glare of the winter sun and the chill of the lake winds, great icicles bulged and stretched nearly halfway to the ground and a pane of mirror-smooth ice spread itself over the pavement below. Grandpa took my sister Deb and me to see it, and we regarded it like a museum exhibit. We missed a train just standing there tracing the shape and the shine. Grandpa showed us this not with anger or frustration or any sense that he wanted the situation addressed. It was merely a phenomenon of interest. He pointed it out as one points out a cardinal perched outside your window.
But now he had slipped on that ice: misjudged it or forgotten it was there. He had hit his head, and now he was in the hospital.
They pulled us out of class and we waited in the office until Mom came in and got us. Dad was in the driver’s seat, sweating in his blue parka. Its hood was crushed up against the head rest and the fake fur lining creeped back over his head like a poorly made toupee. His skin was jaundice yellow in the slanted rays of the afternoon and his black mustache crumpled and twitched. We crawled into the back seat.
“What was he even doing, taking the el? He can’t afford a cab?” dad said, as he pulled away. “I had to cancel the whole afternoon of patients. The whole afternoon,” he continued, inching down Clark Street in a rage.
“It really put Peggy out to have to find a sub for me in the middle of the day,” mom said, quietly, testing how much of her own annoyance, dad would accept. He was in an accepting mood. “Pain in the ass,” he nodded at her. “Pain in the ass.”
Dad parked in a physician space in the hospital garage, looking at his wife sideways from hooded eyes as he got out of the car, reconnaissance to see if she would say anything about this slight contortion of the rules; the physician space was for not visitors, not even if they happened to be physicians. She might have said something, usually. At the time, I was surprised she didn’t, but now, remembering it, dad’s shoulders were already dropping. The taut fighting stance was giving way to the despair of losing his last parent, and mom must have seen it, and she let him get away with his trespass.
Grandpa never opened his eyes. When we got to his floor, the doctor pulled dad to the corner by the nurses’ station and they stayed there a while, heads bowed, angled toward the wall, dad nodding every once in a while. He nodded too enthusiastically, to let the doctor know he understood, remind him that he was an MD too, that he was a professional even in this windy spray of January pain.
I had spent the car ride downtown happy to be out of school, watching Clark Street shed the low, gray, stained-awning shops, brown-brick bungalows, and parking lots for the neon bars and theaters, the red-brick townhouses, and finally the towers that, from the car, you couldn’t even see the tops of. I had imagined making fun of grandpa the way he made fun of me, punching him in the shoulder for slipping on that ice, him punching me back. I had imagined him singing the Shabbat prayer in the hospital room, in his voice that sounded like the rustling of branches, the creaking of bending trunks, the rush of leaves in some wild forest.
But Grandpa never opened his eyes. I stood next to his bed that Friday, watching his mustache, too still under his failing breath, staring at the scar along his jawline, wanting to touch it, like he sometimes let me touch it, but not sure I should. So, I stood next to his bed with my arms lifted slightly, like I was getting ready to flap my arms and fly away.
Mom only took a couple days off when grandpa died. Dad followed the traditions at first; he covered the mirrors, he sheared the bottom off one of his old ties at the service, and he sat shiva for a couple of days with grandpa’s friends from shul. But then he stopped, said he had to go to work. He had grown up with the rules, the rules guided him like currents in the air, but he knew enough to weave through them, make the right excuses so that the old men nodded, argued a bit, but then left, and left him alone.
The border crossing was a little over a mile away, up a steep crest in this wide dirt road through the forest, and then down a gentle slope until the guard post, where there might be a bored teenager, or a sleeping old man, or a handsome lieutenant, banished to the frontier to smoke and brush his mustache with his fingers. The old man, they could roll by. The handsome lieutenant would frown at their papers and shake his head and pull at his cigarette and accept a bribe. The bored teenager, he might start shooting.
Jacob’s father motioned to the cart driver, who nodded and stopped. The driver jumped down first and lifted his hand to help Jacob’s father and mother step off the cart, then he lifted Jacob by his armpits and set him down, placing his raw-rubbed hands briefly, gently on the boy’s cheeks. His thick index finger tapped the scar along Jacob’s jaw line. “I’m sorry,” he mouthed in Ukrainian. “It’s okay,” Jacob responded, in Yiddish. The man shrugged, smiled, mounted the cart and was gone.
They walked a quarter mile down through the forest to the north bank of the Prut River. They stood for a moment, listening: thin pine trunks creaked in the wind, branches shuffled and rustled, but no human sounds intruded. They turned and walked down the river, until the night began to fall. In the darkness, Jacob’s father led them back up out of the river valley until they could see the lights of Chernovitsi ahead and to their right. They had overshot it a bit, but they were across: out of Ukraine and into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The city lights felt sharp against Jacob’s eyes, like thorns. He felt his scar, running his pinky along the raised skin down his jawline. “Almost there,” his father said. And they walked on into the city.
Dad sat outside the light, arms crossed at the kitchen table, occasionally unfolding himself to rub his jawline, mirroring grandpa’s old tic, or to turn the page of his newspaper, though I do not know how he could read anything in the dark.
Mom had lit the candles and sung the prayers, tore off the pieces of challah and let us have the few drops of wine. We stopped doing this for a while after grandpa died, but Deb and I kept asking and finally dad said okay and stopped on the way home to buy the challah and dug in the pantry, swearing, to find the box of candles. But when darkness fell and three stars bloomed above the skyline, he shook his head, “you can do it,” he said, and opened his newspaper.
I thought I had remembered what it was like: the mass of gold light against the dark, the songs filled with dust and amber, the special heat of the wine. But this time I saw not the light but the dark pushing against it, the shadows of the kitchen chairs over mom’s shoulder. With every pause, I heard the creaking of the streetlights in the late winter wind. The wilderness whipped around us, and our little candles, our meek voices could not keep it from cutting into our backs.
The coast up here, out east, was sheared off by a fleeing glacier not so long ago in geological time. It is sharp and crisp and new, not yet worn by the generational crash of the sea.
I’m walking the kids around the tide pools and dad is standing up on the dry rock, watching us and rubbing his chin, running a finger along his jawline. I’m watching him do that when Jake slips and lands elbow-first on the rocks. He doesn’t cry, but Evie does, still not quite able to separate her older brother’s pain from her own.
“You okay?” I say, surveying his face, which is red with sun and salt and embarrassment.
“Yeah,” Jake says, tightly, holding his elbow and trying to pretend he is not holding his elbow. He seems fine. He will be fine. His mother may or may not be angry with me, depending on whether there is any broken skin.
I sit down on the kelp-slicked rocks next to him, and Evie sits on my lap. The ocean stretches out east for what could be forever, if I didn’t know better. There is a sea anemone in the tide pool nearest to us, sucking what it can from its temporarily circumscribed universe, waiting for the return of the ocean and its abundance.
I say to Evie, who is still crying, that it is okay, but she is unconvinced, staring at Jacob’s face, which is, through a screen of inexpert stoicism, still broadcasting distress. So, I distract them with the story of the lion’s mane jellyfish, a massive creature of the northern waters that can grow up to six feet wide, with tentacles trailing dozens of feet behind. Their sting is deadly, even, sometimes, to creatures as big as humans. Evie has stopped crying, Jake’s hand is looser around his elbow, and the everyday pain of a slip and fall is fading in the glare of lurking sea monsters.
But, and this is the part I find most interesting, but where I know I will lose them, the lion’s mane can only survive in the relative warmth and calm of the summer. As the arctic currents clog with ice, the jellyfish release their spawn and die. The larvae drift to the sea floor, anchor themselves, and expand, just barely, to little half inch stubs, huddled against the winter sea. They never get bigger. These children of the great crimson lion’s mane are immobile and unremarkable. The winter generation lives merely to survive and, as summer approaches they release buds that float up, up, and in just a few short weeks spin themselves into those fearsome floating poisoned-tipped behemoths while the winter spawn wither, having seen nothing but the same dark sphere of ocean for their whole existence.
Jake has lost interest, as I knew he would, and is up, walking back to dad, and Evie is staring at some terns diving into the shallows just offshore. “Okay, let’s go back and see grandpa,” I say to her, standing up, slipping on the seaweed and plunging my knee into the tidepool. Evie starts to cry again, and we decide to crawl back to dry land on all fours.
Dad is smiling at me, so broad I can see his teeth. “Evie is scared, dad!” I yell from all fours. “I’m not scared!” Evie yells at me, and now my father is openly laughing, the big comic book “ha ha ha’s” that are too evenly spaced to be completely spontaneous but too slathered in mirth to be completely forced. “Ha ha,” I deadpan back, pulling myself up onto the dry rocks where dad is standing. I bend back down to lift Evie up as well.
Evie runs away as soon as I put her down and stands, back to us, a few feet behind dad, sulking.
“So, this is around where the pilgrims landed?” Dad says to me, and it takes me a few seconds to realize he’s serious. He has started doing this now, affecting basic ignorance of common American folklore, though he was born here, grew up here, went through the same public schools as all the kids who learned this stuff like a lost book of the Bible. He does the same thing, though, when Jake sees someone with a yarmulke, or tzitzit, or spies a mezuzah on a doorframe and asks him what it means. He shrugs. Changes the subject, refuses to tie himself to any history broader than his own lifespan.
I stare at him for a bit before I reply, “Yeah dad, somewhere around here.”
“This is not what it’s supposed to say.” Jacob pushed the ketubah, the marriage contract, back across the table. “It’s pretty, but this is not what it’s supposed to say.”
His son pulled toward his chest, rubbing his jawline, which the boy always did when he was annoyed with his father. Jacob found himself rubbing his own jawline, feeling the old scar, somehow more prominent now that when it was fresh decades ago. He dropped his hand. “Also, it’s supposed to be in Aramaic, not Hebrew.”
“She is not going to sign a traditional ketubah in Aramaic, dad, and I don’t want her to sign a traditional ketubah in Aramaic.”
“Well good,” Jacob said, and he was rubbing his scar again, “Because she isn’t supposed to sign it at all. Just the man. Just you are supposed to sign it.”
“It’s the 20th century dad, and we live in America. I’m not going to force her to accept something written by fanatics in a desert thousands of years ago that makes her my property.”
“That’s not what it does,” and Jacob was out of his chair now. But he had to pause; the spill of words in his throat were Yiddish, not English, and he had to translate them, one by one, “And who cares what it says!” He was shouting.
His son was out of his chair too, hands in the air, “Everyone! Why wouldn’t someone care what it says!”
Jacob sat back down, tired. “It’s just who we are,” he said. “It’s just to say, ‘we are still here.’ That’s all it really means.”
“If that’s all it means,” his son said, “It’s not worth having at all.”
Jacob ran his pinky along his scar, let it drop to his neck, where he felt his pulse, still there.
Now that dad was retired, we got him to come out to the coast for a long vacation, to stay with us at the cottage we rent each summer. Deb came out too. So now we are all in one place, for the first time since mom’s funeral.
Back at the cottage, dad has spread piles of envelopes and papers and brochures bristling with post it notes over the white kitchen table and I’m leaning over them while Deb stands behind me, trying not to fall asleep while he explains what each document means, who we have to call, what we have to do, to make sure we get the money that’s coming to us when he dies. I don’t know how much dad has. He’s stashed it all in a honeycomb of accounts for tax purposes, ostensibly, but really as a hobby, now that mom is gone.
“Just write it down,” I told him once, a few years ago, but I learned not to say that again. This is how he bonds with us, planning the financial implications of his death. I know now not to try to take that away.
I can’t end the conversation, so I interrupt, change the subtopic, though I stick with the overarching theme of death. “You’ve never said what you want done with—you know—what kind of ceremony you want.”
He looks at me the way I looked at him when he asked about the pilgrims’ landing site. “Just set me on fire and be done with it,” he says, and turns back to a chain of post-its chronicling the evolving constituents of some retirement fund or another.
“Is that allowed?” I ask, but dad just rolls his eyes. “I’m not sure there is anything in this one anymore,” he says, tapping the last post-it.
Mom wasn’t cremated. A rabbi spoke at her service, but dad didn’t cover any of the mirrors, didn’t sit shiva, only wore a yarmulke when someone handed him one. Dad did tear his coat, standing there at the graveside; he pulled a button loose and rent a seam, but he said it was an accident, that he’d just forgotten to unbutton the coat when he tried to open it to get some breeze on that unseasonably warm November day.
Dad pushes the post-its aside and begins searching through the pile for the next trove of scrawled account numbers, passwords, phone numbers.
“What’s that?” Deb asks, pointing to a large envelope, dark matte blue with glossy white trim.
“What’s what?” Dad replies, not looking up. But dad knows what she is pointing at, and Deb knows what it is, and I know what it is. “That,” says Deb, jabbing her fingers at the envelope.
“I’m not sure why it’s even here,” he says, trying to slide it back under the other papers, but Deb takes it, opens the envelope and pulls out the thick parchment. Mom and dad used to keep this in the closet in a wooden box with diplomas and old letters, our birth certificates and a gold letter open shaped like a rapier with a ruby-colored globe on the hilt that they bought on their honeymoon. I would sneak in once a month or so and open the wooden box, pull the paper from its blue envelope and look at the Hebrew script, which whispered woody sounds without meanings. I would trace the vines and leaves and clusters of grapes illuminating the borders, and I would look at mom’s signature, and dad’s signature, marveling, the way children do, that these were written by my parents, but versions so much younger, versions before me. Only after I was off to college did I find out Deb used to do the same thing.
Dad is standing up, trying to pull this paper out of Deb’s hands, but she is up on a chair holding it out of his reach. “You’re going to rip! Dad, you’re going to rip it!” He has his hand curled around the back of her knee and for a vertiginous second I think he is going to pull her down on top of him and kill them both, but he lets go. “Who cares if I rip it!” and that tea-soaked accent of grandpa’s is in there, laced in the rage somehow.
Deb climbs down from the chair. “I care if you rip it,” she says, but she hands it back to him, and he sits back down, tucks it into its envelope in silence.
“I fought with grandpa over this,” he says, holding the envelope up, staring at it like he is reviewing one of his investment documents. The accent is still there, hiding among the words. “He wanted it more traditional. The customary words, in Aramaic, no space for your mother to sign.”
“And you won?” Deb asks.
“Yes, I won,” dad says, lifting the envelope and letting it drop back down onto the table. “Or mom wouldn’t have agreed to marry me, and you wouldn’t exist.” I smile, expecting him to smile, but he does not. He looks at us now, “So much wouldn’t exist, if we did things the way dad—the way grandpa wanted.” He puts the ketubah under the pile of papers, rearranged the stacks of paper, and says, his voice again Midwest clean, clothesline fresh. “Now let’s keeping going through what I’ve saved for you.”
Jacob stood on the deck every day and watched, rubbing his bayonet scar, even when, as was the case most days, there was nothing to see. Once the shadowed coasts of Northern Europe rolled below the horizon, it was simple gray sea until America rose, weeks later, blue and gold and green. Seeing it there, still distant, he remembered only a feeling like walking from an overcrowded house into the still and frosted air of autumn, a lightness pulling at his skin. Gone from one continent, not yet in another.
About the Author:
John Rudoy is a scientist and writer interested in migration, tradition, and assimilation and what these broad concepts really mean for the individuals who go through them. His writing has appeared in publications as varied as Science Magazine and the Maine Underground Writer’s Anthology. He lives with his family in Portland, Maine.