No one knows another's life. Certainly no child really knows all there is of a father's. But in broad strokes I will try to tell the things which I knew were meaningful to my father.
He was born in a small village in Poland. I've seen the name spelled in a variety of ways, but phonetically spelled it was Ravitz. Once in an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story, he related stopping there briefly in a train trip from Lublin to Russia. My father said it didn't even have wooden sidewalks or outdoor toilets. His father, Morris, was a master tailor. His mother, Pearl, the shrewdest, most generous woman I have ever known, was a seamstress who had never learned to read or write.
His father received a conscription notice. A pregnant wife won a conscript a deferment so my grandmother went to the police station and establishing her expectant state, my grandfather's call to his certain death was forestalled.
My grandmother told me she'd walked to a market in nearby Chelm (a village in folklore noted for its foolish residents), bought a large apple (she claimed it was a pound in weight), ate it, and my father was born.
About a year later, my grandfather received another conscription notice. Again, my grandmother proved her husband's entitlement to another postponement. Months later, my uncle Isadore was born.
By the time the third conscription notice came, my grandmother was no longer pregnant, and she paid a peasant to hide my grandfather in a haywagon and drive him over the border. From there he went like so many others of his generation to America where he sought to make a home to which his wife and two sons could join him.
Three years later, he sent for them. My father recalled with sorrow that he'd had to sell his pet calf to pay for the voyage. My grandmother made herself a dress and the boys sailor suits out of mattress ticking. My father's paternal grandfather put both boys on the table, kissed them, told them, "I'll never see you again," and blessed them.
The three made their way to Hamburg and took the Hanseatic Line to Ellis Island and from there traveled to Chicago to join my grandfather. My father remembered two things of the trip: My grandmother had brought aboard ship some Kosher Hungarian sausage, the delicious taste of which he remembered forever. And the Captain thought the two boys were so cute that he had them brought out of the fetid dank of steerage every day so that they could play on the upper class deck throughout the voyage.
Chicago was dark, hard, and cruel. My uncle became very ill. (Years later the long fever he'd suffered was diagnosed as rheumatic fever which forever affected his health.) But they had a stroke of luck. A clothing manufacturer in Milwaukee needed master tailors and my grandfather was offered the job. The needleworkers were organizing and my grandfather insisted on a provision in his contract that prevented the employer from requiring him to cross any picket line in the case of a strike but provided that in such a case, his salary would continue to be paid.
Sometime after they moved to Milwaukee, the plant was struck. With a steady income and no need to work, my grandfather and his brother-in-law, Ben Tzion, established a haberdashery in Cudahy, a working class suburb south of Milwaukee and the family moved there to live in an apartment behind the store. In the meantime, my grandmother had two more children, my uncle Sol and my aunt, Rose.
In addition to a small apartment behind the store, the building had one large and one small apartment above it. And it had a large basement. When I was older, Old Joe, a hobo my grandmother had taken in, lived there. (My grandmother was afraid he'd die on the streets, and in the absence of welfare, allowed him to live with her until he died decades later.) Isadore, who loved art and photography, had decorated the walls with Major Hoople and Betty Boop cartoons. The staircase, a creaky wooden one, remained unchanged from its earliest days. It was on this staircase that my father as a young boy heard his uncle Ben Tzion being murdered.
It was the Depression. A man who'd lost his job had entered with a bandana covering his face and a pistol in his hand, demanding Ben-Tzion empty the cash register. Ben-Tzion was a socialist and an orthodox Jew—a combination which then does not seem as impossible as it does today. He recognized the man and called out his name, urging him not to go through with the robbery, arguing that he knew the man was good, that he'd been driven to this rash act by circumstances and that he should put down the pistol and Ben-Tzion would help him. But the robber panicked on learning he'd been recognized, and shot Ben-Tzion to death. My father, about 10 or 11 years old, heard it all, unable to even run for help without giving away his position on the stairs near the basement entrance to the store.
My father and mother married when quite young, and I lived in an apartment across the street from the store for the first years of my life. How the family came to own that building is also worth telling because it tells something about the world my father lived in, the world which shaped him.
The building had a tavern and two stores on the ground floor and a number of apartments above. The owner had been unable to make the payments on it and, as it was the Depression, the bank was desperate. They approached my grandmother and proposed that if she would just take over the remaining payments my grandparents could take ownership of it, the original owner having forfeited his equity in it by nonpayment of his remaining obligation. My grandparents and my father (like all first children of immigrants, the interpreter and navigator of this new land) considered the offer and agreed to take over only on one condition: The original buyer had to agree to remain in his store and apartment free for a lifetime because they refused to take advantage of his misfortune. He agreed and the deal was struck.
When I was born, my uncles and aunt were teenagers and I was their plaything. They loved Benny Goodman, taught me to sing “Mares Eat Oats,” regularly tossed me onto the rumble seat of the car they shared, and drove me around town, the wind blowing in my hair. But the war was on. My father went off, assigned to Texas. My uncle Sol was sent to India. Rose's boyfriend (later husband) Gerry to the Phillipines. My uncle Isadore, too frail of health to serve, went to work in the Cudahy packing plant, a noisome place across the street.
The store remained, and my grandfather and grandmother managed it alone for the duration. When my father's hitch was over and he returned home, there was just one suit in the store. Other stores were well-stocked. My grandfather explained that he believed buying in the black market was wrong and refused to do that. Better to sit in an empty store than one stocked so basely.
I never paid much attention to what the store looked like when I saw it every day, but in retrospect it is worth remarking on. It was located in the middle of an industrial suburb. I've mentioned the packing plant. Further away were Ladish and Bucyrus-Erie. And the mainstreet was lined with taverns. Two doors away was Serb Hall (still a must-go-to spot for candidates in Presidential campaigns). The furnishings were very spiffy art deco design—big, well-made glass and wood display cases, and cut-out burled wood walls. Alongside the three-sided mirror were two chrome and leather chairs between which there was a chrome standing ashtray with a plunger you pushed to swirl the ashes and cigarette butts out of sight. The sign in front was a marvel of mid-50's neon art: a top hat, cane, and white dress gloves with lettering "Wagan's Tog Shop."
It was a major meeting place, and if the sheriff was nowhere else to be found during the day, you'd have been well-advised to look in there. Just as Clara Shrank, the town clerk who actually ran things forever, despite the passage of this or that elected sheriff, could be found in her upstairs apartment whenever she wasn't in her office.
There were, however, no top hats, canes, or kid leather gloves to be found inside. The stock was as immutable as the mid-century American man: Botany suits, Florsheim shoes, Van Heusen shirts, Swank cuff links and tie clips, Jockey underwear, Oshkosh B'Gosh overalls, Levis and sturdy boots for work, Hickock belts, Pendleton wool jackets, twill ties in various dark shades, either solid or striped. Retail then was hardly different then than it remains today in Europe, but certainly it must seem foreign to those who grew up in America later.
There were no sales. Ever. The styles didn't change and the merchandise was felt to have an intrinsic, never-changing value. And everything was fair-traded. You could go downtown to buy the same shoes and suit and shirt. But you'd pay exactly the same price, so why bother?
Sometime in the 50's my grandparents moved to Milwaukee, and we moved in above the store. In time we followed them. My father still worked in the store six days a week, and I saw him less than I had, but I was surrounded by my aunts, uncles, and first cousins—all of whom, save one, lived within one block of each other. My sister said she was 11 years old before she realized you could invite someone besides your first cousins to a birthday party. But the truth was that we were surrounded by love, and the sureness of the prevailing love of that rambunctious crew saw all of us through everything.
In time, my sister and brother and I went off to college, supported by the fruits of my father's labor and my mother's thrifty management of same. I moved to Washington, my brother to Atlanta. My sister remained near my parents.
My grandmother died. My Uncle Isadore died. My grandfather died.
My father sold the store, and my parents moved to south Florida, which was easier on his health than the Wisconsin winters. In 1992, the doctor told my mother that my father, who'd survived two heart bypass surgeries, could die at any time.
My uncle Sol died.
Last year, my aunt Rose died.
The heroic ministrations of my mother kept my father alive long after the doctor predicted his death. Bit by bit, though, his world shrank. First he could not drive. Then he could navigate only with a walker. More recently, he could manage only in a wheelchair.
When he tired, he lost his sense of time and place. Late in the afternoon he might say to me. "Tomorrow I have to open up the store. I've been away too long." Or "Did you know Uncle Sol died?" Or "Rose died, you know." Obviously these were things that could not be forgotten even if all else was.
This week we planned to travel there so he could see his 11-week-old first great grandchild, Saya. My brother and sister also had plans to see him, having been alerted by my mother that he was failing
But the Angel of Death had an earlier appointment.
My father never had to kiss his young grandchildren as had his grandfather and say "I'll never see you again." But if we would have beaten death to his bedside, I know he would have left us with a blessing, asking God to grant us a long, well-lived life, as his grandfather had wished for him many years ago.