Wednesday, September 20, 2017

ET: Almanac

He lived for another twenty years after Grandma Shlomit died in her bath.

For several weeks or months he continued to get up at daybreak and drag the mattresses and bedclothes to the balcony railing, where he beat them mercilessly to crush any germs or goblins that might have insinuated themselves into the bedding overnight. Perhaps he found it hard to break the habit; perhaps it was his way of paying his respects to the departed; perhaps he was expressing his longing for his queen; or perhaps he was afraid of provoking her avenging spirit if he stopped.

He did not immediately stop disinfecting the toilet and washbasins, either.

But slowly, with the passage of time, Grandpa's smily cheeks grew pink as they had never done before. They always had a cheerful look. Although he remained very particular to his last day about cleanliness and tidiness, being by nature a dapper man, the violence had gone out of him: there were no more furious beatings or frantic sprays of Lysol or chlorine. A few months after Grandma's death his love life began to blossom in a tempestuous and wonderful way. About the same time, I have the impression that my seventy-seven-year-old grandfather discovered the joy of sex.

Before he had managed to wipe the dust of Grandma's burial off his shoes, Grandpa's home was full of women offering condolences, encouragement, freedom from loneliness, sympathy. They never left him alone, nourishing him with hot meals, comforting him with apple cake, and he apparently enjoyed not letting them leave him alone. He was always attracted to women--all women, both the beautiful ones and those who beauty other men were incapable of seeing. "Women," my grandfather once declared, "are all very beautiful. All of them without exception. Only men," he smiled, "are blind! Completely blind! Nu, what. They only see themselves, and not even themselves. Blind!"

After my grandmother's death Grandpa spent less time on his business. He would still soemtimes announce, his face beaming with pride and joy, "a very important business trip to Tel Aviv, to Gruenberg Sreet," or  "An extremely important meeting in Ramat Gan, wit all the heads of the company." He still liked to proffer to anyone he met one of his many impressive business cards. But now he was busy most days with his tempestuous affairs of the heart: issuing or receiving invitations to tea, dining by candlelight in some select but not too expensive restaurant ("with Mrs. Tsirine, ty durak, not Mrs. Shaposhnik!")

He sat for hours at his table on the discreet upstairs floor of Café Atara in Ben Yehuda street, dressed in a navy blue suit, with a polka-dot tie, looking pink, smiling, gleaming, well groomed, smelling of shampoo, talcum powder, and aftershave. A striking sight in his starched white shirt, his gleaming white handkerchief in his breast pocket, his silver cufflinks, always surrounded by a bevy of well-preserved women in their fifties or sixties: widows in tight corsets and nylons with seams running down the back, well made up divorcees, adorned with an abundance of rings, earrings, and bracelets, finished off with a manicure, a pedicure, and a perm, matrons who spoke massacred Hebrew with a Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, or Bulgarian accent. Grandpa loved their company, and they were melted by his charms; he was a fascinating, entertaining conversationalist, a gentleman in the nineteenth-century mold, who kissed ladies' hands, hurried forward to open doors for them, offered his arm at every stairway or slope, never forgot a birthday, sent bouquets of flowers and boxes of sweets, noticed and made a subtle compliment on the cut of a dress, a change of hair style, elegant shoes, or a new handbag, joked tastefully, quoted a poem at the appropriate moment, chatted with warmth and humor. Once I opened a door and caught sidght of my ninety-year-old grandfather kneeling before a jolly, dumpy brunette widow of a certain notary. The lady winked at me over my enamored my enamored grandfather's head, and smiled gaily, revealing two rows of teeth too perfect to be her own. i left, closing the door gently, before Grandpa was aware of my presence.

What was the secret of Grandpa's charm? I began to understand only years later. He possessed a quality that is hardly ever found among men, a marvelous quality that for many wmen is the sexiest in a man:

He listened.

He did not just politely pretend to listne, while impatiently waiting for her to finish what she was saying and shut up.

He did not break into his partner's sentence and finish it for her.

He did not cut in to sum up what she was saying so as to move on to another subject.

He did not let his interlocutess talk into thin air while he prepared in his head hte reply he would make when she finally finished.

He did not pretend to be interested or entertained, he really was. Nu, what: he had an inexhaustible curiosity.

He was not impatient. He did not attempt to deflect the conversation from her petty concerns to his own important ones.

On the contrary; he loved her concerns. He always enjoyed waiting for her, and if she needed to take her time, he took pleasure in all her contortions.

He was in no hurry, and he never rushed her. He would wait for her to finish, and even when she had finished, he did not pounce or rab but enjoyed waiting in case there was something more, in case she was carried along on another wave.

He loved to let her take him by the hand and lead him to her own places, at her own pace. He loved to be her accompanist.

He loved getting to know her. He loved to understand, to get to the bottom of her. And beyond

He loved to give himself. He enjoyed giving himself up to her more than he enjoyed it when she gave herself up to him.

Nu, what: they talked and talked to him to their heart's content, even about the most private, secret, vulnerable things, while he sat and listened, wisely, gently, with empathy and patience.

Or rather with pleasure and feeling.

There are many men around who love sex but hate women.

My grandfather, I believe, loved both.

And with gentleness. He never calculated, never grabbed. He never rushed. He loved setting sail, he was never in a hurry to cast anchor.

He had many romances in his twenty-year Indian summer after his grandmother's death, from when he was seventy-seven to the end of his life. He would sometimes go away with one or another of his lady friends for a few days to a hotel in Tiberias, a guesthouse in Gedera, or a "holiday resort" by the seaside in Netanya. (His expression "holiday resort" was apparently his translation of some Russian phrase with Chekhovian overtones of dachas on the Crimean coast.) Once or twice I saw him walking down Agrippa Street or Bezalel Street arm in arm with some woman, and I did not approach them. He did not take any particular pains to conceal his love affairs from us, but he did not boast about them either. he never brought his lady friends to our house or introduced them to us, and he rarely mentioned them. But sometimes he seemed as giddy with love as a teenager, with veiled eyes, humming to himself, an absentminded smile playing on his lips. And sometimes his face fell, the baby pink left his cheeks like an overcast autumn day, and he would stand in his room uriously ironing shirts one after the other, he even ironed his underwear and sprayed it with scent from a little flask, and occasionally he would speak harshly but softly to himself in Russian, or hum some mournful Ukranian mlody, from which we deduced that some door had shut in his face, or, on the contrary, he had become embroiled again, as on his amazing trip to New York when he was engaged, in the anguish of two simultaneous loves.

Once, when he was already eighty-nine, he announced to us that he was thinking of taking "an important trip" for two or three days, and that we were on no account to worry. But when he had not returned after a week, we were beset with worries. Where was he? Why didn't he phone? What if something had happened to him, heaven forbid? AFter all, a man of his age . . .

We agonized: should we involve the police? If he was lying sick in some hospital, heaven forbid, or had got into some sort of trouble, we would never forgive ourselves if we hadn't looked for him. On the other hand, if we rang the police and he turned up safe and sound, how could we face his volcanic fury? If Grandpa didn't appear by noon on Friday, we decided after a day and a night of dithering, we would have to call the police. There was no alternative.

He turned up on Friday, about half an hour before the deadline, pink with contentment, brimming with good humor, amusement, and enthusiasm, like a little child.

"Where did you disappear to, Grandpa?"

"Nu, what. I was traveling."

"But you said you'd only be away for two or three days."

"So what if I did? Nu, I was traveling with Mrs. Hershkovich, and we were having such a wonderful time we didn't notice how the time was flying."

"But where did you go?"

"I've told you, we went away to enjoy ourselves for a little. We discovered a quiet guesthouse. A very cultured guesthouse. A guesthouse like in Switzerland."

"A guesthouse? Where?"

"On a high mountain in Ramat Gan."

"Couldn't you at least have phoned us? So we wouldn't be so worried about you?"

"We didn't find a phone in the room. Nu, what. It was such a wonderfully cultured guesthouse!"

"But couldn't you have phoned us from a public telephone. I gave you the tokens myself."

"Tokens. Tokens. Nu, shto takoye, what are tokens?"

"Tokens for the public phone."

"Oh, those jetons of yours. Here they are. Nu, take them, little bed-wetter, take your jetons along with the holes in the middle of them, take them, only be sure to count them. Never accept anything from anyone without counting properly first."

"But why didn't you use them?"

"The jetons? Nu, what. I don't believe in jetons."

And when he was ninety-three, three years after my father died, Grandpa decided that the time had come and I was old enough for a man-to-man conversation. He summoned me into his den, closed the windows, locked the door, sat down solemnly and formally at his desk, motioned to me to sit facing him on the other side of the desk. He didn't call me "little bed-wetter," he crossed his legs, rested his chin on his hands, mused for a while, and said:

"The time has come we should talk about women.

And at once he explained:

"Nu. About woman in general."

(I was thirty-six at the time. I had been married fifteen years and had two teenage daughters.)

Grandpa sighed, coughed into his palm, straightened his tiie, cleared his throat a couple of times, and said:

"Nu, what. Women have always interested me. That is to say always. Don't you go understanding something not nice! What I am saying is something completely different, nu, I am just saying that woman has always interested me. No, not the 'woman question'! Woman as a person."

He chuckled and corrected himself:

"--interested me in every way. All my life I am all the time looking at owmen, even when I was no more than a little chudak, nu, no, no, I never looked at a woman like some kind of paskudniak, no, only looking at her with all respect. Looking and learning. Nu, and what I learned, I want to teach you now also. So you will know. So now you, listen carefully please: it is like this.

He paused and looked around, as though to make certain that we were really alone, with no one to overhear us.

"Woman," Grandpa said, "nu, in some ways she is just like us. Exactly the same. But in some other ways," he said, "a woman is entirely different. Very very different."

He paused here and pondered it for a while, maybe conjuring up images in his mind, his childlike smile lit his face, and he concluded his lesson:

"But you know what? In which ways a woman is just like us and in which was she is very very different--nu, on this," he concluded, rising from his chair, "I am still working."

He was ninety-three, and he may well have continued to "work" on the question to the end of his days. I am still working on it myself.

He had his own unique brand of Hebrew, Grandpa Alexander, and he refused to be corrected. He always insisted on calling a barber (sapar) a sailor (sapan), and a barber's shop (mispara) a shipyard (mispana). Once a month, precisely, this bold seafarer strode off to the Ben Yakar Brothers' shipyard, sat down on the captain's seat, and delivered a string of detailed, stern orders, instructions for the voyage ahead. He used to tell me off somtiemes: "Nu, it's time you went to the sailor, what do you look like! A pirate!" He always called shelves shlevs, even though he could manage the singlar, shelf, perectly well. He never called Cairo by its Hebrew name, Kahir, but always Cairo; I was called, in Russian, either khoroshi malchik (good boy) or ty durak (you fool); Hamburg was Gamburg; a habit was always a habitat, sleep was spat, and when he asked how he had slept, he invariably replied in Russian "Khorosho! Ochen khorosho!!" He called a library biblioteka, a teapot chainik, the government partats, the people oilem goilem, and the ruling Labor Party, Mapai, he sometimes called geshtankt (stink) or iblaikt (decay).

And once, a couple of years before he passed away, he spoke to me about his death: "If, heaven forbid, some young soldier dies in battle, nineteen-years-old, maybe twenty-years-old boy, nu, it is a terrible disaster but it's not a tragedy. To die at my age though--that's a tragedy. A man like me, ninety-five years old, nearly a hundred, so many years getting up every morning at five o'clock, taking a cold douche every morning every morning since nearly a hundred years, even in Russia cold douche in the morning, even in Vilna, hundred years now eating every morning every morning slice of bread with salty herring, drinking glass of chai and going out every morning every morning always to stroll half an hour in the street, summer or winter, morning stroll, this is for the motion, it gets the circulation going so well! And right away after that coming home every day every day and reading a bit newspaper and meanwhile drinking another glass chai, nu, in short, it's like this, dear boy, this bakhurik of nineteen, if he is killed, Heaven forbid, he have hasn't had time to have all sorts of regular habitats. When would he have them. But at my age it is very difficult to stop, very very difficult. To stroll in the street every morning--this is for me old habitat. And cold douche--also habitat. Even to live--it's a habitat for me, nu, what, after hundred years who can all at once suddenly change all his habitats? Not to get up anymore at five in the morning? No douche, no salt herring with bread? No newspaper no stroll no glass hot chai? Now, that's tragedy!'

Amos Oz - A Tale of Love and Darkness

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