Fuer Elise

The summer after the second grade (1950), we moved from Inwood to Riverdale, and my grandmother moved into our old apartment on Arden Street. The neighborhood was getting rougher: Irish and Italian blue collar families were moving up the street from Nagel Avenue, and the German-Jewish rising middle class were heading for the suburbs. My father was getting a raise, and my parents felt that I needed my own room and wide-open space to roam in. But I missed the old block terribly: the solid row of four story houses and stoops, the street that belonged more to children and dogs than to cars, the people screaming out the window, marble season in the gutter, open hydrants in the summer, mountains of snow and garbage in the winter, Abe’s candy store on the corner.

And I missed the old building: 28 Arden, a walkup with three apartments on a landing, their front doors adjoining each other. My closest friends lived right upstairs–Frankie Pershep and Ralphie Rieda. My more distant playmates lived on the top floor and in the basement. But most of all I missed the cramped three room apartment on the second floor, old 2H. Behind its sheet metal coated front door, painted to look like wood grain, was a dark, narrow entry containing a painted linen chest, a full length mirror, an umbrella stand, with a bear carved on it, a small closet and a huge door to a dumbwaiter which took the trash out every morning. The kitchen had two features which nothing in the new apartment could match: a clothes drier over the stove that could be raised or lowered with a rope and pully, and a door under the window that opened into a little cave for storing potatoes and onions.

The small living room was ornamented by innumerable moldings and a mysterious tit in the middle of the ceiling where a light fixture had once been removed. The two living room windows fronted on a large courtyard, completely surrounded by the rear walls of other buildings with their latticeworks of fire escapes and clotheslines. The courtyard might have made an ideal playground, but its carefully swept and hosed concrete surface was maintained off limits to children by a German shepherd and our super, Mister Zunderhauf. Out of the middle of the courtyard grew a gigantic Ailanthus tree that towered above our window and reached higher than the encircling roofs. It seemed to fill the whole space between the buildings with a maze of branches and leaves. Looking out the window, across the fire escape, I felt as if I were actually up in the tree, a fellow tenant of pigeons and squirrels.

About once a week, throughout my childhood, we would return to Arden Street to visit my grandmother. She loved to serve us dinner on her elegant china, one of the few possessions she managed to salvage from Hitler’s Germany when she emigrated in 1938. There was not much variety in her cuisine, but she cooked with great precision and lots of butter. The usual fare was matzohball soup, roast chicken, brown gravy roast potatoes, an overcooked vegetable, lettuce and tomato salad, and either apple or plum pie for dessert. For me, she would bake a special little pie in a pyrex bowl. All through the meal she would flutter and fidget, urging us to eat more, refilling our plates, bustling back and forth to the kitchen. However, when she finally did sit down to eat, her manner suddenly became decorous. I remember the straightness of her back, the elevation of her neck, the deliberation with which she would cut small morsels, lay down the knife, place her left hand in her lap, and lift the fork slowly to her mouth.

The living room we ate in also served as her bedroom, since she had rented our old bedroom to a boarder. Against the North wall stood a fold-top desk-bureau. On it was a picture of Rudolph, her long dead husband, and a little three drawered lacquered box inlaid with mother-of-pearl figures, a flamingo, a pagoda, an arched bridge. I brought it back to her from Chinatown in San Francisco when I was nine. On the wall above the desk was a framed photo of her parents, her father in a derby hat, her mother with a parasol. Along the east wall sat the rust colored couch we never took along to Riverdale. At night she removed the back cushions and made her bed with sheets, blankets and an eiderdown that she stored inside it. Above the couch hung a Mizrach calligraphed by her grandfather, an ornate Hebrew sign indicating the direction to turn for prayer.

Next to the couch stood the treadle sewing machine she used to make her living as a seamstress until she was over 80. The whole corner hummed along with her voice as she worked at this machine. By the light of its lamp I see her head bent forward, her mouth bristling with pins, pursed to emphasize the denture wrinkles, her left hand curved around the flywheel, index finger extended. Often she traveled by subway, bus or railway to her clients’ homes to do small alterations and repairs. Her voice swelled with pride when she mentioned going to Park Avenue to serve her wealthy customers. Several families with whom she would stay overnight when she worked were privileged to consider her a foster Grandmother, and called her ˜Omi.’ But distinctions were kept clear. I was her only ˜Enkel,’ and we were the only ones who could use her real name, ˜Oma,’ (pronounced with a short ˜o’).

Between the two windows on the south wall of the apartment stood a drop leaf dining table covered with the crocheted white table cloth that now hangs behind me as I write. At either end of the table were two straight backed tan upholstered arm chairs my parents sat in at dinner. Oma and I sat at the two folding chairs stored behind the living room door. Opposite the sewing machine, along the West wall, I can visualize the tea cart, painted yellow-white with black trim. It had large rubber wheels but never moved. Its bottom shelf was stocked with birthday presents I made for her: a cheese box painted blue and bedecked with crayoned flowers cut out of paper, a glass jar covered with brown and yellow stripes of coiled string. For many years the tea cart’s top shelf held a caged canary. It was known only as ˜Vogel,’ the bird. Its speed and level of nervous energy, its combination of fragility and strength, the way it darted from one perch to the other without ever appearing to pass in between, the shrill timbre of its chirp, the prominence of its beak, the curve of its claws–they all remind me of Oma: the bird conjures more of her back into memory.

I haven’t seen it in many years, but now I remember a snapshot taken when she was about 80 that captures that birdlike quality of her features. The thin white hair is drawn straight back from the prominent brow and from the sides of the face into a tight knot tucked under the sharply curved back of the head exposing the irregular bumps on her skull that my palm was drawn to magnetically. This receding aspect adds emphasis to the protrusion of the large and gracefully hooked nose and a streamlined buoyancy to the whole head. Behind the black circular bifocals her eyes are penetrating and sparkling; her mouth is pursed in a typical expression of whimsy. Below the chin two neck tendons stand out sharp and tense amidst the flaccid skin of the throat, describing a pair of curves similar to those of nose and back of the neck. The same curve describes the outline of her hands as they lie loosely in her lap. They are neither coarse nor refined; like a fine craftperson’s tools, they show their age, but they are not worn or scarred. The hard fingernails are corrugated with delicate parallel lines; each is trimmed to a point at the center. Those hands had a good feel to me–a dryness, a polish.

Next to the tea cart along the West wall was the second couch, the one with two cylindrical bolsters. Oma would sleep on it when I came to stay overnight, which I often did when my parents went out. The two of us would have parties at which we played cards and watched TV. Our favorite show was Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Elise didn’t understand most of the jokes; her greatest enjoyment, I knew, was in watching me laugh. And I laughed more at her mocking abusive commentary than at the antics of the comedians. Whenever a serious song was performed she would groan and moan along with the crooner and pity him for his indigestion: ˜O was fur Bauchweh.’ We had our own style of communicating: she spoke her South German dialect, Schwabish, and I spoke English. Neither could speak the other’s language, but we both could understand.

As I sat in my pajamas under her feather comforter and watched the screen she would go out to the kitchen during commercials and come back with yet another snack: a cervelatwurst sandwich, a piece of pie, some Barton candies, and, when I was stuffed full, ˜Ein bisschen Obst,’ a little fruit. This final dessert consisted of a plate of peeled and pitted slices of apple and orange arranged as a star in a circle. After the 11 o’clock news she would turn off the TV, make up the two couches as beds and go into the bathroom. When she returned, her appearance made me feel strange and unsettled. Her bare feet were gnarled and knobbed and covered with bunion pads and moleskin patches. Her hair was unrolled from its tight bun and formed a wild gray shock around her head. Without her glasses, her eyebrows looked bushy and coarse and her eyes looked dull and unfocused. Her nightgown was not thick enough to hide her sagging, wrinkled breasts. After she clicked the light out I could hear the splash of her false teeth dropping into the glass of water by her bed.

The uneasiness of that late night impression was dispelled by the morning light. By the time I had awakened she had been up for hours. The house was immaculate and smelled of fresh coffee. Oma was primped and dressed, in white tailored blouse, dark skirt, nylon stockings, tight girdle, pearl earrings, gold necklace, and a thick coat of my favorite color of dark red lipstick. She chirped and bubbled as she served me breakfast in bed.

My love for Elise was fueled by the way she spoiled and flattered me, but it was based on qualities that I and many others found admirable and inspiring. She had the Joy of Life, despite her ample portion of frustration and infirmity. As she grew older, her spirit waxed brighter. She had an aristocratic sense of her own worth that she conveyed by her bearing and her exaggerated pride in her personal appearance, her home, her family. There were only four of us–my father and I are only children; my mother’s relatives went to Brazil–but she gave the family a sense of fullness and importance. During my adolescence she was exempt from the resentment I felt toward my parents for being ˜bourgeois.’ Despite her fastidiousness and propriety she had a naughty and rebellious streak that was a source of our intimacy. When we were alone together we would wallow in sarcasm; we would giggle and gossip about people we knew or public figures or mere names in the news. I would chortle and echo her Teutonic indecencies: ˜Leck mich am Arsch,’ [lick my ass] ˜Dieses scheiss Ding da…’ [that shitty thing]

It is June of 1964. My parents are spending the summer in Europe, visiting Germany for the first time since they left in 1937. I have just completed my first year of graduate school at Stanford, where I have been pursuing a Doctorate in English and Comparative Literature in order to avoid the Selective Service and earn a meager living allowance. I have recently discovered the antidote to my post-graduate malaise in pot and rock music. The war in Vietnam and the student movement are brewing, but they will not erupt for another year and a half. I am back in New York to patch up my relationship with Ellen, my college girlfriend. She has agreed to let me share the rent of her top floor tenement apartment on the Lower East Side. The bathtub is next to the kitchen sink. Our neighbors are forgotten pensioners and Puerto Rican welfare mothers. We can often hear muffled shrieking from the Woman’s House of Detention across the way. To me this place, this way of life has a grubby glamor that compensates for the sordid affluence and respectability of my academic life amidst the California palms. Allen Ginsberg lives down the block. At night, above the humid exhalations of the street, Ellen and I pass thin joints, play Mozart recorder duets on the fire escape, and argue bitterly in bed. In the morning I put on my sport jacket, take my briefcase with my notebook and my purple College Outline Series Latin Grammar and ride the subway uptown to 28 Arden Street. Oma greets me with an embrace, a cup of fresh coffee, a plate of buttered toast. We sit and talk. I tell her about racial oppression and imperialism; she tells me about Mrs. Heilbrunn’s hip injury. I describe my life on the Lower East Side. I offer her marijuana and am disappointed when she declines. I take out my books and sit in the straight backed armchair by the open window. I repeat the declensions and conjugations–amo, amas, amat–and puzzle out the translation from Catullus. When I complete thirty lessons I can pass my last language qualifying exam. Elise has finally retired, but her spirit still hums. While I study she prepares our afternoon dinner or darns my socks or irons my shirt or reads the German language edition of Reader’s Digest, or just watches me, admiring the gravity of my endeavor, the dedication of my efforts. In the late afternoon, my lesson completed, I take my leave and head back down to Avenue A.

One day toward the end of the summer, I invite Ellen to join us for lunch. I promise her a delightful encounter with a captivating old lady. But Elise is quiet, cold, unsmiling. The visit is brief. Ellen and I take a walk to the Cloisters and avoid discussing what happened. The next day I am back on Arden Street with my briefcase. When Elise opens the door there is no embrace, no smell of coffee. Her face is ashen; her legs tremble; her eyes are foggy; her glasses are smeared with a yellow discharge. She has to sit down. After a long pause she begins: I am throwing away my life; she is no longer proud of me; she cannot tolerate my living in that neighborhood with that woman; I’m becoming a drug addict; my long hair is disgusting; I must stop putting her through all this; she is old; it is making her sick. I am taken aback; until now she has never let on; she has led me to believe I am still her darling Enkel. I am nauseous with the realization that I have been deluded and self indulgent. She can love the aspiring student, the dutiful grandson but not the budding radical and freak. She is a small minded German matriarch, not the ageless free spirit of my invention. I try to say something, to apologize, to explain, to make her understand that between us it really doesn’t matter; but she closes her eyes, nods her head, points with her index finger and cries, ˜Nein, nein, nein, I’ will nix mehr hore–no, no, no, I don’t want to hear another word.’ I long for someone to appeal to , for my parents to be there to mediate, for a way to unhook from this bitter moment of truth. We sit silently facing each other. She is 83; I am 22.

A few days later my parents returned from Europe. I had completed chapter XXX of Latin Grammar and my head was a brimful pitcher. Ellen let herself be convinced to join me in taking a driveaway back to California, where she would visit her father. I saw Elise twice more before we left, both times in the protective company of my parents. Nothing more was mentioned of the incident.

That October I got a letter from my father saying that Oma had a stroke. She was left completely paralyzed on the left side, unable to speak, but mentally alert. It was a permanent condition; she would have to remain in a nursing home. It would all probably be over soon.

I returned to New York at Christmas to face my grandmother, and to give it one last try with Ellen, who was now seeing a jazz musician. My parents drove me out to the converted estate in Scarsdale in their large green car. The winding driveway was lined with old chestnut trees. My mother pointed out the hunched figure in the wheelchair at the end of the dingy corridor. It appeared like a wounded bird. As I drew closer I saw the head bent over the chest, the left shoulder drawn sharply inward; the arm twisted down in a spiral toward the tightened wrist, three fingers coiled like a spring, the thumb and index finger rigid, erect, pointing upward to the obscured face. Standing before her I saw everything shimmer, as if we were inside a dream. I dropped onto one knee, placed my hand in her good right hand, and said ˜Oma.’ Her head lifted slowly, eyes vacant, balls in sockets, skin drawn across the cheekbones. I felt my hand gripped tight, tighter. Her eyes focused; the corners of her mouth rose to smile, and then her face collapsed into violent weeping. Her shrunken shoulders shook with sobs. Her head bowed down and rocked on her knees. My mother bent over and put her arms around Elise. I stood up and stared at the thinning, kinky hair loosely tied at the nape of her neck. I felt dulled and sleepy. After a few moments she looked up at me and began to speak: ˜Nein, nein, nein,’ she said, and stopped abruptly. She gave me a desperate, questioning look, and now began crying with a high whine. My mother whispered that ˜No’ was the only word she could articulate; she intended to say something else. It was a frequent symptom of stroke.

A year and a half later my graduate study was finished. This time I returned to New York with a teaching position at Columbia University and a new wife. I had met Janet at a poetry seminar at Stanford. She came from a Missouri farm background and grew up in L.A. We’d moved in together after our first acid trip. We had spent three days in jail for camping on the beach at Big Sur. I proposed to her after reading a paper she wrote on Wallace Stevens’ ˜The Auroras of Autumn.’

For this visit I got a haircut and wore a suit and tie. Janet acted compassionate and prim. I wished to please, to propitiate, to expiate. Elise looked at us and smiled. We all hugged. Then she drew Janet’s hand to the inside of my white wash-and-wear shirt, and rubbed it up and down. She stared sternly, raised her index finger and shook her head. My mother translated: ˜Ironed, the shirt isn’t properly ironed. When I married your father she sent me to ironing school for six weeks.’

After that I usually visited Elise myself, about twice a month. I didn’t tell her when I got arrested at sit-ins and demonstrations. I hugged her alot, and played my recorder and tried to read to her, but she wanted none of it; nothing to distract her or distract me from the metaphysical despair of her condition. With her lips and brow held tense, her eyes concentrating inward, she would grip my hand and nod. In that mute nodding I heard a repeated injunction: ˜Look at me; this is life.’ As she nodded, her expressions changed–as if she were shifting roles from victim to defendant to prosecutor in a strange trial before a remote and omnipotent judge. My visits gradually became less frequent.

Janet and I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in a University owned building for three years. In June 1970 we left our teaching jobs, sold or gave away most of our possessions, outfitted a big red Ford Econoline van, and went in search of land where we could raise vegetables animals and children. We felt the instinct to nurture life; we felt ready for new beginnings. Our direction was Northwest, our destination unknown. We drove out of the city through Scarsdale, but we didn’t stop at the Nursing home. I knew I would never see Elise again.

Eight months later Elise finally found the release from suffering for which she had been longing for six years. She died in her sleep the night of December 17, 1970. A few hours earlier on the same day Janet and I found our destination 3000 miles away. We went to a lawyer’s office in Powell River, British Columbia and signed an agreement to Purchase an old homestead of 30 acres situated in the middle of the forest a half a mile from the end of the Pacific Coast Highway. While Elise was dying we were unpacking our pots and pans and photograph albums from the red van and moving them into the dilapidated farm house that would become our home. Janet was radiant in the sixth month of pregnancy. As I built a fire in the barrel stove, she nailed a lacy crocheted tablecloth onto the hand hewn log wall.


One Response to “Fuer Elise”

  1. Peter Behr Says:

    Wonderful detailed description of Oma, the buildings, your life at that time. Nice writing.

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