I don't have any photographs of my paternal grandfather. Harry Zeldman arrived in America around 1914, and was instantly drafted into the American Army. He returned from the Great War with plates in his head and legs. Mustard-gassed, shell-shocked, and diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, he beat my father every day on principle, and once threw a man down a flight of stairs during a dispute over a card game, breaking the other man's back. He wed six women, marrying my grandmother twice, for a total of seven marriages.
When he worked, he was a watchmaker, but he rarely worked. Once he defrauded a team of lawyers representing an estate; they were searching for an heir who could be identified by the engraving on his watch. My grandfather forged the watch, got the dough, and split town, leaving my eleven year-old father to support the family.
I saw him only a few times during my childhood. He would show up unannounced and uninvited, and would soon begin fighting with my father. My mother would insist that he leave the house, and my father would sadly drive him to the train station.
On one of these occasions, I rode along, the three of us uncomfortably wedged together in the front seat. At the train station, my grandfather pressed a small coin into my hand. "Nothing is better than money, right?" he said.
I knew this was not what I believed, and not what my father believed. But I did not want to hurt my grandfather's feelings, so I mumbled something noncommittal, noting as I did so the look of pain on my father's face. I was seven or eight at the time, but it may have been the beginning of my adulthood, if adulthood means fumblingly coping with complex emotional situations .
My other grandfather was a doctor who rose from poverty to become a respected surgeon, then came home late one night and discovered his wife, my grandmother, in the arms of his best friend.
He decided to move to California and start his life over, but died in a plane crash enroute. My mother was eleven at the time.
It had been the kind of family where the father favors the daughter and the mother favors the son. My mother, having lost her emotionally supportive parent, lapsed into a resentful feeling of fear and abandonment, from which she never recovered.
Her father's picture stood atop the piano, staring down at me while I practiced my scales. I was named for this grandfather, and for many years believed that I too was fated to die in a plane crash.
Unresolved childhood tragedies probably had a lot to do with bringing my mother and father together, and keeping them together during the hard-money times, the bad-marriage times, and the tragedies visited upon the heads of their friends and their children.
(More to come)