Having decided to divorce our father, my mother left my younger brother and me in the kitchen of her mother's apartment on the way to the airport and a flight to Mexico City. When she returned she brought back a baseball bat decorated with brightly colored, carefully carved, undulating images of birds and other animals, and half-animal/half-human creatures I did not know, come from a world nothing like our own. No one played baseball in Mexico, of course, and the bat was just my size, about a foot long. I was six. This was 1953. Getting a divorce, then, guaranteed a torturous, complicated, protracted legal process unless you traveled to Reno or Mexico. She went to Mexico because she could not live without exotic passion, and Mexico City was a place where, I can imagine now, she could get lost—she could forget who she was as she allowed herself to be swept up in a phantasmagoria her life had denied her until this moment.
She was gone for a week. During that time my brother Seth and I played and played, lost in our own sublime dream. We were away from home and yet we knew our grandmother and we trusted her. She was a round, gray-haired lady with false teeth too perfect for her mouth and too large when magnified by the water in the clear glass she left them in at night on the kitchen table. She was the superintendent of her building on Herzl Street in Brownsville, deep in the heart of a huge, bustling shtetl in Brooklyn. During the Depression she had arrived there from Chicago with her sick husband, a house painter, and four children, one of whom, Yossell (whose Anglicized name, Joseph, I bear), was killed in France by a German sniper, in the last days of the War. On Friday nights I watched my grandmother light a candle in his memory and, for a moment, sob softly.
My grandmother's apartment faced the street named after the great Zionist Theodore Herzl, though I doubt she really cared about that, if she ever realized it. Her windows were located to the left of three short stone steps and a heavy glass and wrought iron door. That was the building's entrance. There was a central hallway on the other side of her door, which led to a stairwell rising six flights. From within the apartment we could hear whoever came and went, their voices bouncing off the concrete walls. On occasion, for one reason or another, someone yelled down the stairs or along the hallway to her from the doorway of another apartment—in a typically sing-song, "Oh, Mrs. Leviiiiine!"
Seth and I would often visit for a day, a weekend or, as we grew up, even longer. In the warm weather, we played on the sidewalk, running up and down and, as we got older, into "the gutter." The old people watched us; they observed everyone and everything, seated in their beach chairs arrayed along the length of the block, the buildings' identical brick façades squat behind them, perhaps like the scenery in the Yiddish theatre they might have attended on a special occasion, traveling by subway to lower Manhattan. At lunch time our grandmother, once I was tall enough, would set out a sandwich and chocolate milk on her low concrete windowsill, so I could reach up for a bite or drink without having to cease playing.
In the winter Seth and I stayed in the apartment and sometimes rolled around on the linoleum floor of the kitchen while our grandmother read the Yiddish newspaper through her thick reading glasses. When she had finished mopping she would leave yesterday's paper, covered with its odd lettering (which I tried but failed to make sense of once I started learning to read), on the floor so we didn't muddy it. And even then we would wrestle on the floor, next to the white ceramic oven door giving off its heat, rolling in the crinkled and soon torn papers.
My grandmother baked dry, almost tasteless cookies, which I grew to love, and she always kept hot food on the stove, usually slices of beef, potatoes, carrots, celery and onions, in a rich dark sauce, and a chicken soup with the chicken's feet poking through the surface of the broth. Perhaps there would be a lukshen cugel, a sweet noodle pudding festooned with raisins. The food was ready for anyone who stopped by, as people frequently did, to tell her their problems or to gossip, or to argue over what a character in a daily radio or later TV soap opera such as The Guiding Light or Search for Tomorrow had done or said or should have done or said. My grandmother was the super and thus an authority of sorts in the building. Her word meant something, and people's lives were important; these people had to plan, to calculate.
That week without my mother, when I was six, I lived within the maelstrom of a kind of freedom I was not used to; the hot summer took its hold on me. I lost track of time. My brother and I quickly fell into the routine of our grandmother's household, of being pampered. In the cooler late afternoons we played to the rhythms of the adults who argued vociferously, raising their voices and gesticulating over real or imagined human travail in their own lives or not, in surges and lulls of a dialogue that I guess no one hoped, really, would ever end—their hypnotic words, mostly in Yiddish, here and there in heavily accented English. Once in a while, when my grandmother caught me watching and listening, she would turn to me, pausing from the debate at hand, and with a slight smile ask, "farshteysh"?" ("do you understand"?), and maybe she would laugh. Then she would turn back to the fray.
And so we quickly ceased thinking of our mother's absence—until, one day, while we were rolling about in the kitchen, two small boys, our grandmother sitting at her table watching us, we heard the front door open and there was our mother, her two large suitcases at her feet, and we jumped up yelling "Mommy" and hugged her legs. When I looked up into her face it was covered with tears, and I knew how much I had missed her.
Burt Kimmelman is the author of several books of poetry, including There Are Words (Dos Madres Press, 2007) and As If Free (Talisman House, 2009). His literary studies include The Poetics of Authorship in the Later Middle Ages: The Emergence of the Modern Literary Persona (Peter Lang Publishing, 1996; paperback 1999), as well as many essays on modern and contemporary poetry. He is a professor of English at New Jersey Institute of Technology.