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Memory Lane: Remembering my ancestors

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I remember meeting Grandma and Grandpa Heimoff for the first time. I must have been three years old and was lying on the little sofa that faced our old Admiral television set in the room we called “the foyer” of our four-room apartment at 760 Grand Concourse in The Bronx.

Of course, I must have met them both earlier than that, since they were my paternal grandparents and lived in the same building! But I have this memory of them knocking on our door and my mother letting them in and saying, “Steve, these are your grandparents.”

We were very close. My grandmother, Rose, used to rub my back when I lay in my crib as a little baby and she would sing lullabies to me in her native Russian. She was the only adult in my childhood who gave me nothing but love, who never got angry with me or scolded me or made me feel guilty. Grandpa Max was far less demonstrative than his wife; he died when I was only seven, so my memories of him are scant, although I do distinctly recall us walking, on a fine Spring morning, to the kosher slaughterhouse, on the other side of the railroad tracks, where he picked out a live chicken for Grandma to make into soup. She always made her chicken soup, including the matzoh balls, from scratch, and she once told me the secret of great broth was to include the chicken’s feet. I never tried that.

As I said, Max died when I was still a little boy. He’d been sick for a few weeks. I would go visit him in 2-P and read the Daily News to him. Finally, he went to the hospital (I think it was Columbia-Presbyterian, on the East Side, where his son, my Uncle Lennie, was an attending physician). My parents and I went to visit him but for some reason, the nurses wouldn’t let me into his room, so I had to wait in the hallway. A few days later, my sister (six years older than I) and I were having breakfast, getting ready for school, when my mother suddenly stood silently beside the kitchen table and then she said, “Kids, I have some bad news.” She told us Grandpa had died overnight. My first reaction—I was only six or seven—was to burst into laughter. I thought my mother’s dramatic seriousness was hysterical. Of course, I did not then have the concept of “death,” or of loss or bereavement. But then, quickly, I noticed that my sister was crying, and I thought to myself, “Oh, I guess laughter isn’t such a good idea.” So I too cried.

Grandma and Grandpa were very old-fashioned. Their English never was very good; they were far more comfortable speaking Yiddish. They’d both been born in Odessa, in southern Ukraine, which in the late 1880s was part of the Russian Empire. Grandma had apparently been a midwife. We never knew quite what Grandpa’s occupation had been, even after he’d lived in New York for decades. He would go off every morning impeccably clad in a three-piece gray pinstriped suit, with vest, derby, walking stick and gold pocket fob. Where did he go? A cousin once told me she had heard that he never did have a proper job and went off every morning pretending that he was off to work because he was embarrassed to be unemployed. But I cannot confirm this. One thing that startles me to this day is how little we kids knew about our grandparents. We asked them nothing about Russia, or why they had come to America in 1913. Of course, that was the height of Russian-Jewish emigration to America, but as to the particulars of Rose and Max Heimoff, it remains a mystery. Today, grandkids would be peppering their grandparents with questions, doing 23andMe and compiling genealogical charts.

“Heimoff” was not their real Russian name. It was given to them at Ellis Island, somewhat in the same manner as young Vito Andolini was mistakenly given the surname “Corleone” in “The Godfather Part 2.” Rose and Max lived in apartment 2-P at 760 Grand Concourse. My family lived in 6-M. In 2-O were Uncle Lennie and his family; next door to us, in 6-L, were Uncle Teddy, Aunt Ruth (Lennie’s and my father’s older sister) and their kids. On the third floor, on the other side of the building, lived Grandma’s younger sister, Raye, while on the first floor, in 1-M, my Tante Frieda lived. She was Grandma’s Aunt and was the oldest person I ever knew when I was a kid. We thought she was easily 100 years old, although she must have been in her 80s. Tante Frieda lived alone, in an antique-filled apartment with doilies and antimacassars on the chairs. A large woman with an ample breast, she always dressed in black, with a black hat, veil and stickpin. She was very kind and funny and I still see her twinkling blue eyes. I used to enjoy stopping by and eating her cookies.

Grandma died while I was an undergraduate. The last time I saw here was in her apartment. She was losing her mind, but the family, under Uncle Lennie’s guidance, allowed her to stay there on her own since so many other family members lived in the building. I had come down from university, in Massachusetts. When Grandma let me in, the apartment was dark and silent. She sat in a chair, and I sat in a chair, and we said nothing for a long time. Nor did we need to. I felt that we had a full communication in the darkness and silence and nothing needed to be said in words. Shortly after that, Grandma died. I mourn her to this day for the simple, kind woman she was.

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