Streets of Stories
It's 1920, and my grandmother has just disembarked from the train at Polk Street Station. In second-hand memory, the moment gleams with the promise of the New World, der goldene medina, where gold paves the streets. During the hard years of the Great War when the Austrians conscripted her into hospital duties, Chicago lived in her imagination, and now it stands before her as a horizon of brick and hope. Somewhere, milling in the crowd, her father has come to fold her into his life of the 15 years since he left her, four years old, to the care of a cousin who dressed her well but kept her hungry.
My great-grandfather recognizes the filth of the platform, the low sky of the city. He sees the cobble and asphalt of the streets, smells the horse manure and rotten produce. He's learned to speak the language, but it has mastered him more than he has mastered it. He sent letters to his daughter, and sometimes they contained a little cash, but he never wrote them himself, instead paying a friend of a friend to portray himself as cultured and aloof.
Those letters serve her as a photograph, and she reads the features of strangers not just for a glimpse of the familiar face but also for signs of the learned father in whose image she has taught herself English and pushed herself to read the classics of two literatures.
Let us say she notices the bent-backed, stubble-faced man of a certain age, but she pays him no mind. She is looking for her father, for a man with shoulders wide enough for both of them.
And let us say of him, by way of pardon almost a century later, that his illiteracy extends beyond words into faces. He is looking for his daughter, but he sees his wife, her beauty as arresting as when first he glimpsed her in their Rumanian shtetl. He is a man, after all, and he has desires, and he reaches for her with a hunger one should not reveal to a daughter.
Do we name it assault, or do we let gentler history soften it into merely an "awkward moment"? Almost a century later, who can stand for the prosecution and who the defense? And how can we American-born sit in judgment on these displaced, these immigrants? It comes to us, all angles of the instant, through a filter of family history, a story told and retold for the uses of a new generation. He does reach for the girl, though, and for a moment, he menaces her.
She shakes off his arm. Young she may be, but she has survived the ruin of an empire and crossed half a world, and she has turned aside the advances of men from a dozen nations. She seeks her father, her handsome and successful father, and she has no time now for such nonsense.
And then they recognize each other. Blood calls to blood, perhaps, or illusion breaks all at once for each. He stares not at his wife but at the daughter he left. She stares through the idea of her cultured father into the face of someone more broken than herself. His grasp softens to an embrace, and she lets her resistance melt until she accepts his hug.
He takes her heaviest bag and leads her toward the home they will share, but she walks in a shadow she hadn't felt minutes before. This is her home, her America, but it is not enough, not yet, and within her quickens the dream of children and a home of her own. She keeps her distance from her father and imagines the husband she'll meet soon, the son and daughter who will love her on the terms she sets.
* * *
It's 1952, and my great-grandfather has just died. In the kitchen of her first home, my aunt rehearses the story with her husband as their child sleeps in the other room. "Mother will tell you he knew who she was as soon as she stepped off that train," my aunt proceeds. "She likes the image of herself as a victim from the moment she stepped foot in this country. Let him play the villain who twirls his mustache when he sees the helpless young thing. That suits her purpose."
"Isn't that a little hard," my uncle asks, less to defend my grandmother than to push for nuance in my aunt's black and white vision. "He was a layabout. He let himself grow old before his time and she had to support him and the rest of you when your father died. She had a right to resent him."
"Oh she worked all right, I'll give her that. And see how hard she'll work with this new husband. But she dreamed of work. She craved that control. She never wanted anyone to shape her life, but she wanted someone to blame when things went against her plans. That was my grandfather's job: to play the perpetual excuse for her dissatisfaction. She took credit for her success and named her failures after him."
"She took care of you all, didn't she?" my uncle says. "Isn't that success to be proud of? She deserves that credit at least."
"I took care of us," my aunt says. "My brother brought laughter into our home, and that made him the golden child, the prize my mother sought. I wanted to laugh, too, but someone had to put dinner on the table, someone had to see to my grandfather's needs."
"She loves you, though," my uncle says. "Anyone can see that. And she loved your grandfather, too, in her way."
"Each loved an idea of the other," my aunt says, "but they spent their lives abandoning one another. He left her to grow up an orphan, and she left him as soon as she found my father. Then he lost his job, and she couldn't find another husband until now. It was history's joke to keep throwing them back together."
"I'm just saying," my uncle says, "they both had their disappointments. So he wasn't the Lothario she made him sound in that story. She was still a young girl lost in a new country. Why wasn't he thinking more of her?"
"Because she was always thinking of herself," my aunt snaps.
"Now that is too hard," my uncle replies.
My aunt checks herself with a sigh. "It is," she says. "It is too hard. All that drama, and all these stories. What sort of family would we be without it?"
* * *
It's 1978, I have recently had my bar mitzvah, and I am looking through an old album with my father when I come across a photograph I don't recognize. The old man stares back at me, sharing a smile with the camera that suggests he knows he looks odd in a tuxedo, but so what? It's a wedding, and there's liquor, and he'll take you aside and tell you stories no one else in the room is willing to share.
"That's my grandfather," my father says with delight. "I haven't seen his face in ages."
"Isn't he the one who made a pass at Grandma when she first came to Chicago?" I ask.
"A misunderstanding," my father says. "He thought she was someone else. Why would she tell you that story, I wonder?"
"She said he frightened her."
"It was more likely the other way around," he laughs. "She's still stronger than he ever was."
"But how could she stay with him after a start like that?" I ask.
"She forgave him because she had to," he says, "and he carried the weight of that forgiveness longer than you can begin to imagine at your age. But they made it work, and it shrank to nothing before I was even born. I was there, remember. They raised me together."
"But why didn't she leave him or kick him out when she could?" I ask.
"Maybe I've sheltered you too much," he says, "if you think a family is that fragile."
Then, story over, his gaze directs me back to my great-grandfather's wry and roguish face.
* * *
It's 1995, and I am walking through the Printer's Row Book Festival with the girlfriend who will become my wife. Chicago's used booksellers have convened along two blocks with precarious stacks of their merchandise filling table after table. We move slowly southward, lingering together, separating, and finding each other again.
The books call to us, and while we each acquire two or three, I hear their collective babble more than any particular claim. The newer bindings distract us as we go, but the older ones, the ones we know we may never find elsewhere, beckon. Each demands a cursory look, and I'm relieved every time I set one aside. With each story I refuse to hear, a hundred tiny fingers release my sleeve.
There are always more, though, and there is always another table, until, all at once, we reach the end. And, as I look up, I realize we are standing before the old railway station, the old port of entry. This is Polk Street, where the immigrants of a century ago spilled into the Near West Side. It's where my great-grandfather replayed a reverse Oedipal impulse, where he lusted after his own daughter. It's where my grandmother, looking for her well-read father, found her first American disappointment.
As the old story rises to my tongue, I put off retelling it to my girlfriend. Maybe I'm choosing loyalty to a great-grandfather I never knew, and maybe I'm denying my grandmother the halo of victim she cast for herself. And maybe I'm claiming the right to author my own stories rather than to feel authored by the ones my family has told.
But the story holds me all the same. Even untold, it has weight, and I know I will share it another day. We've nursed it too long to abandon it, coating the original irritant into something like a pearl. We are a family, perhaps, because we have held onto such stories even as we have lost almost everything else.
I stand, seventy feet and seventy years from the original sin of our American moment, tempted toward forgiveness I have no right to offer and proscribed by family custom from full forgetting. How can I close a book we've written, our family together, one child after another transcribing mistakes into the story a parent tells?
I turn back north, away from my grandmother's memories, away from the streets that answered so little of her dream. I walk toward the home my girlfriend and I have begun making, through a street paved in books, toward another chapter.
Joe Kraus teaches creative writing and American literature at the University of Scranton where he also directs the honors program. He's published his creative work in, among other places, The American Scholar, Oleander Review, Riverteeth, and Birkensnake. He won a 2004 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial poetry prize, the 2008 Moment Magazine/Karma Foundation Prize for short fiction, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010 by Southern Humanities Review. Like all of us, he's at work on a novel, this one about the illegitimate, unacknowledged son of a well-known Jewish-American writer who can't manage to keep a low profile at the writer's funeral.