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The International Writers Magazine:Life Stories

My Bad Granddad
• Martin Green
It was only later that I thought of my father’s father as my Bad Granddad.  When I was a kid growing up in the Bronx all I knew is that he owned a little house in Brighton Beach and that we used to go there to escape the summer heat.  

Nortons Tram

First, we had to endure the long subway ride from Simpson Street down to 14th Street on the IRT, then another long ride on the BMT out to the Brighton Beach station.  “We” were my mother, my little sister and myself.  This was during the WWII years and my father, a plumber, was off in Tennessee working in a defense plant which turned out to be Oak Ridge.  

During the subway rides we were hot, sweaty and miserable.  When we got off the train we immediately felt the cool ocean air, so maybe the rides were worth it.  At the Brighton Beach station the legendary Mrs. Stahl had her knish stand and later a store.  To this day when I meet people from Brooklyn and mention Brighton Beach they exclaim “Mrs. Stahl’s knishes.”  
Mrs Stahl Knishes

We’d buy our knishes, which we’d have later for lunch, then walk the few blocks to my grandfather’s house.  My grandmother Bubu was always there and she always had a treat, halvah, for me.   My grandfather wasn’t often there.  When he was he’d hug my sister and me, tell us how much bigger we were getting and pretend to pull quarters out of our ears.  Then he’d disappear. He was a short man, bald with a little moustache. Family legend had it that he’d come to the States from Poland during the Spanish-American War when they were looking for tailors to sew uniforms.  I guess he’d gone from being a tailor to being a landlord.

We’d change into our bathing suits, then walk to the beach, my mother carrying a bag containing a blanket, something to drink, suntan oil, toys like a pail and shovel and of course Mrs. Stahl’s knishes.  I was vaguely aware while we were in the house that other people, strangers, were around, going back and forth.  When we returned from the beach Bubu made supper for us, usually potato pancakes, which were my favorite.  I suppose it was when I was a teenager when I found out that my grandfather rented out every possible room in his little house and that the strangers were his roomers.   The family story, as I heard it at this time, that he even rented out his and Bubu’s own bedroom and that she had to sleep wherever she could.   He was also a miser, despite his giving the quarters to my sister and me, and Bubu had to pry out money from him.  This included the gift she gave me for my bah-mitzvah.  I don’t recall that he even came for this.  It was around this time that I began to think of him as my Bad Grandad.

I was in my second year at college, not in New York, but away in the Midwest, when my mother called with the bad news that Bubu had passed away.  This was a blow.  Later, when I was back in New York there were many family meetings about my grandfather.  For some reason he’d lost his house and evidently had no source of income.  I don’t know what happened to his being a tailor; probably he’d already gotten too old for that.  At any rate, the family provided him with enough money so that he could do what many New Yorkers traditionally did, move to Florida.

After working a few years in New York I also moved, to California, and established a life there.   From time to time my parents would give me a report on Bad Granddad.   He was doing well.   He passed himself off as well-to-do and the many widows in Florida vied for his favors, keeping him in a nice lifestyle.  Then I married, much to the relief of my mother, and my wife Ellen and I went to New York that fall to see my family.   There was a big family gathering in my parents’ not so large apartment in the Bronx and everyone loved Ellen.   By that time Bad Granddad had returned to New York and was living in an apartment in Brooklyn.  He was then 90 years old and didn’t come to the family gathering, for which, remembering those long subway rides, I couldn’t blame him.

I don’t recall exactly how it happened but we were invited to visit Bad Granddad and so one morning Ellen and I rode the IRT and then the BMT out to, not to Brighton Beach, but one stop further, Coney Island.  We followed my mother’s directions and eventually found my grandfather’s apartment building.   He lived on the ground floor.   I rang the bell and there he was.  He looked pretty much as I’d last seen him, many years before, short and plump, bald, with a little moustache.  He hadn’t become old-looking and wrinkled; his skin looked as smooth as a baby’s.   Ellen later told me that he was like a teddy bear.     

He led us into the apartment and then, a surprise.   “This is Sarah,” he told us.  “This is my darling grandson from California and his lovely wife.”  Sara was a short plump lady with gray hair and a pleasant face; she looked like a grandmother.   Sarah immediately came forward and gave Ellen a big hug, then for me a smaller one.  We went into the living room and looked around.   It was small but neat and nicely furnished.   We sat down and, Ellen mostly, had to tell them all about how we’d met, in San Francisco, our wedding, in Sacramento, why we’d moved there, so I could get a promotion and we could buy an affordable house; and, yes, once we found a house we planned to start a family.   Sarah then rose and told us she’d prepared a meal for us.   “It’s potato pancakes,” my grandfather said to me.    “Your favorite.”    What?   Had he really remembered?   Or had he been talking to my mother?   In any event, the potato pancakes were delicious.

When we left Sarah again hugged us both; my grandfather hugged Ellen and shook my hand.    Out on the street, Ellen said, “I think he’s nice.  And you always told me he was so bad.”

I wasn’t so sure.    “He does seem to have a way with women,” I said.  That was as far as I was willing to go.  

Now, when I’m within hailing distance of 90 myself, I reflect that when you’ve lived so many years you’ve done some good things and some, maybe more than some, bad things.   And, after all, if that young tailor hadn’t come to America from Poland during the Spanish-American War, where would I be?   I wouldn’t think of him as my Bad Granddad any more.

© Martin Green February 2016

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