Wednesday, September 20, 2017

ET: Almanac

In a picture taken back in Odessa in 1913 or 1914 my grandfather is wearing a bowtie, a gray hat with a shiny silk band, and a three-piece suit whose open jacket reveals, running across the butoened-up vest, a fine line of silver apparently connected to a pocket watch. The dark silk bow stands out against his brilliant white shirt, there is a high shine on his black shoes, his smart cane hangs, as usual, from his arm, just below the elbow; he is holding hands with a six year old boy on his right and a pretty four-year-old girl on his left. The boy has a round face and a carefully combed lock of hair peeps endearingly from his cap and cuts a straight line across his forehead. He is wearing a magnificent double-breasted coat with two rows of huge white buttons. From the bottom of the coat sprouts a pair of short trousers beneath which peeps a narrow band of white knee that is immediately swallowed up in long white socks presumably held up by garters.

The little girl is smiling at the photographer. She looks as though she is well aware of her charms, which she is projecting very deliberately at the lens of the camera. Her soft, long hair, which comes down over her shoulders and rests on her coat, is neatly parted on the right. Her round ace is plump and happy, her eyes are elongated and slanted, almost Chinese-looking, and there is a half smile on her full lips. She has been dressed in a tiny double-breasted coat over her dress, identical to her brother's in every respect, only smaller, and wonderfully sweet. She too is wearing little socks that go up to her knees. On her feet she has shoes whose buckles sport cute little bows.

The boy in the picture is my uncle David, who was always called Ziuzya or Ziuzinka. And the girl, that enchanting, coquettish little woman, the little girl is my father.

From his infancy until the age of seven or eight--though sometimes he told us that it went on until it was nine--Grandma Shlomit used to dress him exclusively in dresses with collars, or in little pleated and starched skirts that she ran up for him herself, and girls' shoes, often in red. His magnificent long hair cascaded down onto his shoulders and was tied with a red, yellow, pale blue or pink bow. Every evening his mother washed his hair in fragrant solutions, and sometimes she washed it again in the morning, because night grease is well known to harm hair and rob it of its freshness and sheen and serve as a hothouse for dandruff. she made him wear pretty rings on his fingers and bracelets on his pudgy arms. When they went to bathe in the sea, Ziuzinka--Uncle David--went to the men's changing rooms with Grandpa Alexander, while Grandma Shlomit and little Lionichka--my father--headed for the women's showers, where they soaped themselves thoroughly, yes, there, and there too, and especially there please, and wash twice down there.

After she gave birth to Ziuzinka, Grandma Shlomit set her heart on having a daughter. When she gave birth to what was apparently not a daughter, she decided on the spot that it was her natural and indisputable right to bring this child, flesh of her flesh and bone of her bones, up as her heart desired, according to her choice and taste, and no power in the world had the right to interfere and dictate her Lonia or Lionichka's education, dress, sex, or manners.

Grandpa Alexander apparently saw no cause for rebellion: behind the closed door of his little den, inside his own nutshell, he enjoyed a relative autonomy and was even permitted to pursue some of his own interests. Like some Monaco or Liechtenstein, he would never have thought to make a fool of himself and jeopardize his frail sovereignty by poking his nose into the internal affairs of a more extensive neighborhood power, whose territory enclosed that of his own Lilliputian duchy on all sides.

As for my father, he never protested. He rarely shared his memories of the women's showers and his other feminine experiences, except when he took it into his head to try to joke with us.

But his jokes always seemed like a declaration of intent: look, what how a serious man like me can step outside himself for you and volunteer to make you laugh.

My mother and I used to smile at him, as though to thank him for his efforts, but he, excitedly, almost touchingly, interpreted our smiles as an invitation to go on amusing us, and he would offer us two or three jokes that we had already heard from him a thousand times, about the Jew and the Gentile on the train, or about Stalin meeting the Empress Catherine, and we had already laughed ourselves to tears when Father, bursting with pride at having managed to make us laugh, chraged on to the story of Stalin sitting on a bus opposite Ben Gurion and Churchill, and about Bialik meeting Shlonsky in paradise, and about Shlonsky meeting a girl. Until Mother said to him gently:

"Didn't you want to do some more work this evening?"


"Dn't forget you promised to stick some stamps in the album with the child before he goes to bed."

Once he said to his guests:

"The female heart! In vain have the great poets attempted to reveal its mysteries. Look, Schiller wrote somewhere that in the whole of creation there is no secret as deep as a woman's heart, and that no woman has ever revealed or will ever reveal to a man the full extent of the female mystique. He could simply have asked me: after all, I've been there."

Sometimes he joked in his unfunny way: "Of course I chase skirts sometimes, like most men, if not more so, because I used to have plenty of skirts of my own, and suddenly they were all taken away from me."

Once he said something like this: "If we had a daughter, she would almost certainly be a beauty." And he added: "In the future, in generations to come, the gap between the sexes may well narrow. This gap is generally considered a tragedy, but one day it may transpire that it is nothing but a comedy of errors."

Amos Oz - A Tale of Love and Darkness

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