September 2021

Back to Issue 10

Tsvey Abuelos (Two Grandfathers)

By Ron Singer

These days, everything seems fungible. Take dreams. In addition to so-called collective dreams, time and recurrence distort the dreams of each of us. An example:

          Aged around four, I am walking down a street in Mexico City. Holding my hand is someone I sense is my grandfather. He looks down at me and says,” It [the world] was plenty dangerous then!”

          But my grandfather and I were never in Mexico City together. Neither is the man in the dream “my” grandfather. Nor is “he” holding “my” hand. In fact, the boy walking with “him” is not “me” (or “I”).

          I have since realized that this dream conflates two grandfathers, mine and my son-in-law, Ben’s. My grandfather died in the early 1950’s, and I did not visit Mexico City, locally known as “Mexico,” until 1962. I also realized that, unlike me, who knew my grandfather well when I was a child, Ben had never met his grandfather, at least not before my dream. Neither had I met Ben’s grandfather.

          The dream had its origins in a family anecdote, which I recounted in “Grandpa Sets the Record Straight,” one of three sections of Ranu, M’zooka, a memoir about my maternal grandparents. Ranu, M’zooka has since become part of a book, Gravy (Unsolicited Press, 2020).

          In the dream version, instead of my tallish, white-bearded grandfather, the old man holding my hand is short, beardless and brown-skinned, and he wears a yarmulke. I can’t remember whether my grandfather was wearing a head covering on the day in the anecdote, but, if so, it must have been a hat, because I can’t recall his ever having worn a yarmulke outdoors.

          Here is the complete anecdote:

          “That day you stopped the guy in the car who was trying to kidnap me… do you remember that?”

          “How could I forget it?”

          “You may have saved my life. If I never properly thanked you, Grandpa, I thank you now.”

          He shrugged. “Don’t mention it! People say the world has grown more dangerous, but it was plenty dangerous, then!” He looked into my eyes. “And you know what else, Ron? I think you wanted to go off with that kidnapper.”

          “I did. According to the story, as I heard it, he lured me by promising to buy me iced cream in town.”

         “You were four years old, and that could have been the end of you. I don’t think they ever caught the bastard, either.”

         In addition to stirring up memories, the social isolation of the Covid era has given me time to indulge personality quirks, such as perfectionism. By the third of fourth month of the pandemic, I found myself mentally correcting typos and other errors in emails.

         In May 2020, for instance, Ben sent a group message to the family, informing us of an impending visit from his Mexican grandfather, who had been in Texas since 2018. At the end of the message, Ben wrote, “I can’t wait to meet my abuelo. When the visit is set, I’ll give you all a tickle.” I assumed he meant, “tinkle,” British slang for a phone call.

         Unless such an error made a communication incomprehensible, I would not generally inform the sender. I did not so inform my son-in-law, both because I could guess what he meant and because the mistake seemed funny, and might therefore embarrass him. But this was the point at which I first entertained the idea that, in my dream, I might have substituted Ben’s grandfather for my own.

        Two months later, when the Mexican grandfather did visit New York, I was invited to a socially distant restaurant meal. There were five of us at a big table in the canopied outdoor dining area: the grandfather (who had been tested and quarantined); Ben; Lisa, my daughter; Henry, my twelve year-old grandson; and I. A few days after the dinner, at which the language barrier limited my communication with the visitor to nods and smiles, I invited Ben for a five o’clock beer in my back yard. (I live eight or nine blocks from them.)

          Our conversation was necessarily loud. Since I was not part of their pod, I had set us up at small tables ten or fifteen feet apart, and we wore our masks. We even had our own bowls of pretzels (me) and peanuts (him), and separate bottles of beer –no glasses.

          “Your grandfather seems like a nice guy, Ben. What was he doing in Texas for so long?”

          “I think he was stranded by the pandemic. Yes, he’s very nice. I’d always wanted to meet him.”

          Ben was not too clear about his grandfather’s initial reason for going to Texas, but I got the idea that, like many old marriages, his grandparents’ had frayed over the years, and that Covid-19 had hastened the process.

          “How did they wind up in Mexico?”

          “It wasn’t that unusual. Jews fleeing the Nazis who couldn’t get visas to the U.S. or Canada, and didn’t want to go all the way to Asia, often wound up in Latin America.”

          “Like some of the fleeing Nazis, after the War.”

          “Don’t get me started! My grandmother, who visited my family several times when I was a child, used to go on about that. She owned a successful business in Mexico –an import-export company—and she would make unfunny jokes about how Nazi refugees were plotting to steal it.”

            “How come your grandfather never came to visit your family with his wife?”

            “From what I heard, he was sort of a recluse. You must know how it is from your own family. A lot of the men never made it in the new country. Some couldn’t even hold a job or learn the language.”

            “Was your grandfather like that? He seemed sociable enough the other night.”

            Ben shrugged, which usually meant I had asked a question that went beyond his knowledge. Then, as we sat there sipping and munching, both lost in thought, I realized how I had managed to dream of Ben’s Mexican grandfather before meeting him.

            From the pre-Covid era, I remembered that, among the family photographs Ben and Lisa kept on the coffee table in front of their couch, was a small, free-standing, glass-fronted, black-and-white picture of his grandparents, posed with the formal stiffness of bygone eras. Each time I visited Ben and Lisa, I must have seen this picture without knowing who the subjects were. After I met the man, and now, as Ben and I were talking about him, I realized he was the substitute grandfather in my dream. What’s more, he had been introduced to me at the restaurant by name, Jacobo Umansky. His wife’s name was Daniela Saba-Umansky. Her business, for obvious reasons, was called “U.S. Import-Export.”

          After Ben left, I asked myself another question: why had I borrowed his grandfather for my dream? I sat in my backyard thinking about that for over an hour, until the evening began to get chilly. Then, I went inside and thought about it some more while I heated up leftovers for dinner, and ate. By the time I was loading the dishwasher, I had arrived at a plausible answer to the question.

          As I saw it, my own grandfather had had three main attributes. First, he was an observant Jew. Not only did he do the usual things—pray on all the proper occasions, keep a strictly kosher house, and so on—he was also the rock on which his small New Jersey circle of Jews stood. He would find the money to bring young rabbis to town, and provide room and board for them until they got on their feet. When one rabbi moved on to a bigger congregation, he would find another, and repeat the process. Services, too, were held at Grandpa’s house, with all the “trimmings”—festive meals, games and songs, housecleaning before and after, etc.

         Of course, as that list implies, a lot of Grandpa’s good works were really Grandma’s. This brings us to a second trait: he was an old-fashioned husband and father. When Grandma needed new shoes, he would go into “the city” alone, and buy a new pair of the ones she had worn out. His sons played sports, but when his daughters wanted to join in activities, such as arts & crafts, they had to do so secretly (which was not easy). You get the idea. These days, Grandpa would be considered a male chauvinist pig; in those days, he was a good husband and father.

          Grandpa’s third attribute was that he was a so-so, but resourceful, businessman. For whatever reason, he was unable to make a go of it as a chicken farmer, so he stopped raising chickens and became a middleman in the butter-and-egg business. For years, he would collect these products from his neighbors, and deliver them to homes and restaurants in nearby towns. He was successful enough to sponsor all those rabbis, as well as to buy three or four buildings. But, when the Depression arrived, he did not have the resources to hold on to the buildings.

           Toting up Grandpa’s scorecard: Religion: Excellent; Gender Studies: Excellent/Poor (i.e. Average); Business: Average (or slightly above). Oh, and Grand-parenting? Superb!

           Turning to Ben’s grandfather, what did he have in common with mine, how were they different, and finally, why did I make the dream substitution? Like my grandfather, Jacobo Umansky was apparently an observant Jew. From what Ben told me, the only exception to his failure as an immigrant was that he became fluent in Spanish. (Grandpa was fluent in Yiddish and Russian, semi-fluent in English, and could read biblical Hebrew.) According to Ben, Jacobo never held a steady job. The closest he came was that, during peak periods in his wife’s business, he would help out with undemanding tasks. Ben never specified what these were, leaving me to imagine Jacobo sweeping the floor or running errands.

          And, finally, was his wife’s success as a businesswoman a sign that Sr. Umansky was an enlightened husband? I doubt it. Among the immigrant generation on both sides of my own family, there were several successful women, but their success was by default. The men failed to assimilate, and someone had to bring home the bacon –beef bacon. If anything, Daniela’s success was a sign of Jacobo’s failure.

          So Jacobo got these grades: Religion: Excellent(?); Gender Studies: ?; Business: Failed. And Grand-parenting? Probably not very good, either, given that Ben had never even met him before the current visit, by which time the grandson was forty-three.

            In sum, Jacobo Umansky was a failure. So why did I dream about him? Going back to Freud, the substitution may have been driven by a fear and/or a wish. If Mexico represented danger, I may have wanted a local protector. If Mexico represented the exotic, I may have preferred an unfamiliar escort, which would leave me open to adventure. Combining the fear with the wish, my revised dream was a way for my four year-old self to jump, belatedly, into the stranger’s car. This was a dream for the plague year, during which, if excitement was in short supply, danger certainly was not.

          Those were the inconclusive conclusions I had reached by around eight-thirty, when the phone rang. This time, it was Lisa. Our conversation was accompanied by dishwasher continuo.

          “Hi, Dad. Ben says he enjoyed the beer with you.”

          “Me, too.”

          “You realize, don’t you, that Grandpa Jake has been staying with us?”

          “Actually, I wondered about that. With the pandemic, and …”

           “He’s in the guest room. We keep the windows open.”

           I anticipated that she was about to ask if Jacobo could move over to my place. After all, in the six-plus years of my widower-hood, I had had the big house all to myself. But I was wrong.

          “He seems to be a nice guy,” she added. “Ben likes him.”

          “Well, Ben hasn’t had a grandfather for a long time, right? And since his Dad died …” Ben had mentioned once that his other, paternal grandfather had passed away when he was in college; his father, whom I had met, died in 2010, or 2011. I got to the point. “Do you want him—Jake—to move over here?”

         “No, no, we’re okay with him staying with us. Henry likes having a great-grandfather. He brags about it to his friends.” There was a pause. “But we do need your help.” I had no idea what she was getting at. All I could think about was my dream. It occurred to me that I, too, now had a grandfather (again) –of sorts, since Jacobo was probably no more than ten years older than I was. “He wants to apply for asylum, for U.S. citizenship. Since you work for that Sanctuary outfit, we thought you might be able to help.”

          I immediately thought of objections to this idea. Two big ones were that the pandemic had drastically curtailed the group’s operations, and that, on the face of it, Jacobo was a poor candidate for asylum. But experience had taught me not to be dismissive of my daughter’s requests, even when they seemed unreasonable. Not only did such dismissals make her furious, there was often something important behind even her most quixotic-sounding requests.

           I temporized. “Hmm, I guess I could ask Sonya.” Sonya was the Program Director, whom I knew fairly well from five years of volunteering. “But why does Jake…”

          Lisa interrupted. “We have trouble understanding what he says. Ben only speaks a little Spanish, and my French doesn’t work. But, as far as we can tell, he doesn’t want to return to Mexico. Daniela is apparently an abusive spouse.” That was a shocker! I had heard of the phenomenon before, of course, but it still surprised me to meet it so close to home.

          “Well,” I said lamely, “that’s a new one.”

          “I know. It’s why he stayed in Texas so long.”

           “Was he specific about the abuse?” I realized I was just being curious. In 2018, as I knew, domestic abuse had ceased to be grounds for U.S. asylum.

          “He told us she hits him, sometimes, and says really nasty things.”

          With that, I ended the conversation, which I thought would deteriorate if I expressed my doubts. I promised to speak with Sonya and get back to them.

          “Thanks, Dad,” Lisa said. “See you.”

          The quick goodbye gave me the idea she may have understood that Jacobo’s wish was a non-starter. As I hung up, it occurred to me that he should probably do what so many other immigrants were doing: just stay in the country, and when the authorities came after him, keep delaying. How old was he, anyway? Even if he and his wife had married and had children young (the one I knew, Ben’s mom, who lived in Maryland, was in her late sixties), Jake had to be at least in his mid-eighties. And how was his health? Did the INS even bother with people like him? In my five years’ volunteering for the Sanctuary movement, I had not heard of a single elderly person who had been deported.

           The upshot was about what I had anticipated: Sonya confirmed that Jacobo was not eligible, but added that the rules might change, and he could apply, then.

           As time passed, like the rest of us, Jacobo Umansky managed to get his two shots of the Covid vaccine. In 2022, there was a huge surplus, which made the Feds relax strictures against immigrants. A few months later, the old man returned to Texas, and, in 2025 Ben got word that he had died, at the age of either ninety-one or ninety-four. (His papers were missing.) The Texas relatives also said Daniela had paid for the funeral and been present, but she had apparently remained dry-eyed.

          Well before all that, by 2020, “the new normal” had been fast approaching. Vaccination began, and the U.S. elected a responsible adult as President. In the fall of 2021, my dream recurred. This time, I could not see my grandfather’s face, and I interpreted the dream politically. The kidnapper was Donald Trump, so Grandpa must be Joe Biden. I even had an idea about the “I,” the little boy. Now, he was our still-young, credulous nation, which had been, and perhaps was still, in danger of succumbing to the blandishments of Trumpian charlatans (iced cream in town). But even I, with my lively imagination, realized that one was a stretch.

          Sometime in 2022 or 2023, I had the dream yet again. (Was this the third, or the fourth, incarnation?) Two things changed. My own grandfather, Sam Kaufman, was back, and we were walking down the same road in New Jersey where, seventy-five years earlier, he had saved me from the real-life kidnapper.

          My final thought about all those versions of the dream, before I vowed to put it to bed forever, was that, combined, they may have been a very roundabout, labor-intensive way to leave the fear of molestation behind me for good. Grandpa(s) to the rescue!