Five-Minute Memoir: Jessica Fox remembers her quiet, reserved grandfather

 

The most vivid memory I have of my grandfather – Zayda, in Yiddish – is his silence. Not a cold reticence; he was just a quiet and reserved man, and though my six-year-old brain may have been imagining it, I felt his lack of words both calm and loving.

My grandparents lived in a typical, brick-faced Baltimore bungalow, along a street with other brick houses of various shapes and sizes. Being from Boston, adventuring down to Baltimore was like crossing into another universe. In my New England neighbourhood the houses were wooden, the yards well manicured, and each lawn rolled into the next.

In my grandparents' neighbourhood, which was constantly being born or dying – I couldn't tell which – one of the houses had no windows but instead wooden boards where the grass grew as high as the front door. The lawns were not rolling but paved. A 'Beware of Dog' sign posted on to a neighbour's chainlink fence featured in many of my childhood nightmares, but it took me years to realise the warning was all bark and no bite.

Living so far from the family, our Baltimore visits were akin to foreign diplomacy, so while I joined my mother to sleep at her parents' house, my father and my sister stayed with his mother, just a block away. Morning was my favourite time of day during those visits, before my grandmother and mother woke and the house was silent, for it was the only time I ever spent alone with Zayda.

Six years old, I would wake with the sun. Looking around my grandparents' guest room, I took in the smells and sounds. The clock next to my bed ticked like a metronome, sending a clicking pulse through the stillness of the room. My mother, on hearing me wake, would sigh as she slept (or tried to). Being away from home meant we were away from rules, and the absence of them felt like joyful anarchy. I was having a sleepover with my own mother; more bizarre, she too was the child of someone. These early-morning realisations would mix with the sound of another early riser, a quiet presence in the house whose footsteps creaked by the guest bedroom and alerted me it was time to rise.

Zayda was tall, with blue eyes and fine features, a watchmaker who had come to America after surviving Auschwitz. After the war, in 1945, he met my grandmother, another survivor, in Berlin. He was 45, she was 21. They married a week later, on her birthday. A year later, my mother was born in Germany, and five years later they emigrated to the US. As if he had left his memories in Europe as fast as he had his belongings, Zayda never talked about his life before, or during, the war.

What I know has been handed down to me – bits of stories he told my mother, or conversations he would have with my father. Zayda had repaired stolen watches and jewellery for a Nazi officer in Auschwitz in exchange for medicine, which he would give to his doctor friend who ran an underground hospital in the camp. He also had a wife, and two young sons, who were killed there.

As a child I found myself haunted by this other family. I had never seen a picture, or even knew their names, but I often imagined what they'd be like and that we'd get on very well. But survivor guilt's invisible threads weaved through the generations, and I worried that he viewed me, in the face of his tragedy, like a runner-up prize. Now in his nineties, I had little chance to ask him, for I would often find him asleep in his chair, unwilling to interact or play.

Sneaking into the early-morning light of the sitting room, I could see from the window how the steps of the bungalow extended to the street, glittering in the heat of a summer morning. Passing Zayda's empty chair, a pink, cushioned recliner, I made my way through the dining room and into the kitchen to meet the owner of the soft footsteps.

Under the bright electric lighting, my tall, distinguished grandfather would be waiting for me with two plates in hand. On seeing me arrive, without a word, he would set them next to each other at the small kitchen table. Cutting two thick slices of challah bread, he would slather each with butter – something I was never allowed to do at home.

Even at the age of six I knew not to break the silence. We would sit there, quite content, sharing our breakfast to the hum of the refrigerator. He would always wait for me to finish before clearing both plates, washing them, and then would pat me on the head before leaving the room, to spend the rest of the day in his chair.

Jessica Fox is the author of 'Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets', published by Short Books, £12.99

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