‘Little Grandpa’ and The List

When her grandfather died, Abigail Rasminsky learned about a part of his life she’d known nothing about.

Abigail Rasminsky | Longreads | May 2019 | 17 minutes (4,208 words)

It’s a long plane ride, so I puke in midair, grunting and coughing up the last remnants of breakfast. My mother holds the paper bag open for me, an encouraging look on her face. When I am done, she closes it up, wipes my face with a tissue from her purse, and carries the slosh to the bathroom. Down the row, a bald man in a suit looks away in disgust.

I am 10, it is May, 1988, and we are on our way to my grandfather’s funeral in Los Angeles. In the locker room at school the day before leaving, in the loudest fourth grade voice she could muster, my friend Laura announced that it was my fault that he had died. I suspect this can’t really be possible — I live in Montreal, which is in a different country, after all — but it still worries me. On the plane, lying my head across my mother’s lap, I tell her about Laura and the locker room. She glares down at me from behind the thick frames of her oversized oval glasses, then looks up and starts fiddling with the tray table. “Sweetheart,” she says. “I think it’s time for some new friends.”

My grandfather is being cremated, and I am spellbound by the word — I have learned its meaning especially for the occasion, and let it cycle through my mouth over and over again, the “eemmm” sound turning into a hum at the back of my throat. Last night, my mother explained that a lot of people didn’t like the idea of being put in a coffin and buried in the earth. Instead, she said, some preferred to be cremated, which turned out to be a fancy word for being burned into ashes. But the word seems slightly suspicious: too lovely to mean something so violent.

In bed the night before, I wondered where we’d visit Grandpa if he wasn’t lying in a cemetery next to Grandma — the two headstones side by side, their bones resting together underneath. “Cremation” made it sound like he would just disappear.

***

We arrive in L.A. in the afternoon. It is bright everywhere. Since I still feel a bit like throwing up again, the warm breeze feels good on my body. As we wait at an outdoor baggage claim, my mother yanks my long, thick hair into a tight ponytail, the tip tickling my spine. A little yellow stain, evidence of the unsettling flight, has dried on my pink-and-white striped T-shirt.

Even though she has a bad back, my mother drags our big beige bag off the carousel by herself, her red sundress riding up the back of her thighs. Once she takes hold of the handle, she yells for people to get out of the way, then drops it, the tiny wheels crashing to the cement. I stand a bit away, wishing Dad were here.

The four of us usually rent a car when we come to visit Grandpa in L.A., but since my father and older sister will arrive later in the week, we take a cab, my mother talking in a feverishly speedy tone all along the freeway. Once in the city, I roll down my window, and the familiar smell of L.A. — a cocktail of palm trees and dry grass — calms my stomach.

***

My sister and I would call him “Little Grandpa,” and unlike “Big Grandpa” — my dad’s father, who was much taller than everyone in the family and was always dressed up in tuxedos for fancy events — Grandpa Sklar could sit in the same room with you and not talk. I always wondered what he was thinking about — Grandma, maybe, I guessed, who had been dead for most of my life, or ideas for a book he was writing. He seemed so sad and lonely and small. On his last vacation in Montreal (he came for a month every summer), we were almost the same height, which made me avoid standing next to him.

My grandfather is being cremated, and I am spellbound by the word…it seems slightly suspicious: too lovely to mean something so violent.

On those visits, he would come down to breakfast in my dad’s blue and white striped bathrobe, his white chest hairs sticking out above the fold, the sleeves so long and wide on his scraggly wrists that they would invariably end up dipped in his oatmeal. He would sit in my sister’s chair — she was off at camp — let my mom serve him a glass of water with a brown powder floating in it, and talk only to her. My dad would drink his coffee, read the paper, and leave for the hospital without saying goodbye.

Occasionally we would all go to the local park, where I would dance in circles around my mother and grandfather as they meandered slowly along the paths. He had some sort of back problem — he was always stooped over — so he had a cane that transformed itself into a chair with a green seat, and he would stop in the middle of everything to rest, slumped on the vinyl butt of the chair next to a tree or a bed of flowers. I never understood why he couldn’t just sit on a bench like everyone else.

***

The house my mom grew up in is much smaller than our house in Montreal; everything fits on one floor. The living room, where the piano lives, is stocked with hundreds of jazz and blues records, and painted a fading yellow. The TV’s antenna needs to be manipulated like a gear shift to get a decent, and only occasionally-colored picture, so we never watch it. They only first got the TV when my mom was in high school, sometime in the 1950s — she was the last of her friends to get one. Grandpa finally bought it after my Uncle Zach said, “I know when we’ll get a TV: When Poppy dies.” I can’t imagine calling my own Daddy “Poppy.” I also can’t imagine joking with my dad about getting anything after he’s dead.

There are black and white photos in frames on little side tables next to the couch. During our last visit, my sister pointed to a young couple standing side by side outside a barn at what she tells me is an artists’ retreat: “This is Grandma and Grandpa, a long time ago.” In the picture, Grandpa looks relaxed. He’s smiling, standing up straight and proud. I had barely recognized him. He’s wearing tiny wire-rim glasses, slacks, and a belt, and is holding a black briefcase that looks like my dad’s doctor kit. Though he looks younger than my father, he’s already balding. Grandma has wavy, dark hair to her chin and wears a cardigan and a skirt that reaches her ankles. Her smile is stiff. In my favorite picture of Grandma, which hangs in our hallway at home, she is dancing barefoot, one leg extended in front of her. Her hair is flying, her eyebrows lifted, mouth slightly open. Mom told us she used to perform with a famous dancer named Martha Graham.


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When my grandfather was alive, he would sit in the armchair under the archway where the living room feeds into the dining room. After dinner, when we’d gather to listen to records, clustered around the battered coffee table at the center of the room, his legs would dangle off the ground. One hand would clutch the arm of the chair; the other, a glass with ice and a drink in it. I was always embarrassed for my Grandpa that my father’s feet touched the ground easily, while his hung like mine, a gap between his shoes and the carpet so large I could lie under it. It was the same feeling of shame I got watching him swim clumsily — and diagonally — across the pool when he came to visit; unable to swim in a straight line, his body would interfere with every other swimmer’s workout, as he cut from corner to corner.

***

“Here’s some tea, my love. I put some milk and honey in it.” My mother puts the tea down on the table and sits down with me. “Blow on it; it’s really hot.” She strokes the top of my head, setting the loose hairs back in place. “I put a clean shirt out for you on your bed in the back. You remember which one is your room?” I nod. It is her old room. “Dad and I will stay in Grandpa’s room, and Sony will join you when she gets here with Dad.” I blow on the tea and picture my parents sleeping in a room my grandfather died in only a few days earlier.

She starts spinning the Lazy Susan all the way around, making it go faster and faster, which makes me feel sick again.

“Mommy — ”

“What?” She stops the spinning.

“Nothing.” I take a sip of my tea.

“You know, Daddy and Sony are coming the day after tomorrow, and then on Friday we’re going to see Grandpa’s body before they cremate it. Do you remember?”

“I think so.”

“But you don’t have to look if you don’t want to.”

“I told you I don’t want to.”

“I don’t think you should.” We sit in silence and I take another sip. “You know,” she says suddenly, leaping to her feet, “I think I’m going to open these curtains. They’ve been closed for 40 years! I think it’s about time someone opened them!” She walks over to the windows. At first she can’t find the cords and marches back and forth in front of the window like a lost puppy trying to find a place to pee. They are yellow. She has to pull extra hard to get them to move. “These are Goddamn sealed!” she yells, grunting, forcing the cords down. When the blinds are finally open, dust bursting in all directions, she looks out the window, laughing. “I don’t think I’ve ever looked out this window before!”

A few days later, my father and sister arrive. This makes me happy, even if it is because my grandfather is dead, and I hope it makes my mother happy, too, but she seems too distracted to really care. We go out to lunch on Melrose Avenue, and I insist on sitting next to my sister, who I never see anymore because she is away at college. Before our food arrives, I play with her shiny bangles, pulling them on and off her wrists and putting them on my own. Then I go for her earrings — she wears the chunky silver kind that dangle down to her chin. I wish they were clip-ons so that I could steal these off her body, too.

***

There is one room in the house on Fuller Avenue that I’ve never been in, and that’s my grandfather’s study. Until this visit, I barely knew it was there, tucked beside the dining room, facing the other small homes across the street. The door was always closed.

After lunch, when everyone else is busy in another part of the house, I peer in. It is narrow and coated in dust. Because the beige curtains are closed in here, too, the room takes on a dreary, orange glow when the sun pushes its way through. A desk faces the windows, and there are papers stacked everywhere — all over the desk and in piles on the floor along the opposite wall, lined up like bricks about to be laid. Filing cabinets and bookshelves hover along the edges of the room. A pencil sharpener like the ones affixed to the classroom walls at school is parked on the side of the desk. Lots of pencils are scattered around.

Two unframed posters hang crookedly on the walls, the corners of the glossy paper turning up as if to salute me. One says, And People All Around; the other, Laura. I trace my fingers across the capitalized words GEORGE SKLAR, written in small letters along the bottom of both, and feel a sudden rush of delight and surprise that my grandpa’s name is on posters in his own office. I open my mouth to call in my mom but then remember that I shouldn’t be snooping, and that she’s probably seen the posters already.

I know that Grandpa was a writer, but unlike my mother who writes for magazines and travels around interviewing people who have been burned in fires or had miscarriages, he wrote books and plays. They occupy a whole small bookcase in my mother’s study at home. He also used to write for the movies — that’s why my mother and uncles grew up here. Grandma and Grandpa lived in New York before that, where Grandma was a dancer, but they moved to L.A. right before my mother was born in 1940. Then something happened, and Grandpa stopped writing screenplays, but I’m not sure why — my mother told me it had something to do with bad people, but I don’t know who these people were, or if they still exist, or if I should be afraid of them while we’re here.

I never saw him writing, but when he came for his summer visits, he would spend hours in the small guest bedroom, sitting at the desk near the window. The room was next to the bathroom I shared with my sister, and sometimes, on my way to pee before bed, I would peek in and catch him sitting like Humpty Dumpty, his back to the door, his feet dangling there, too. He looked frail, his shoulders hunched, one lilting more than the other, his bald head splattered with sunspots, leaning over something in front of him.

I had known he was sick. A few weeks before he died, I had overheard my mother talking on the phone about it, many nights in a row. I was supposed to be in bed, but from the hallway, where I’d stand in my bare feet eavesdropping, I found out that he had pneumonia and wouldn’t go to a doctor.

One after the other, the old people from across the circle get up and talk about a list of some kind — it sounds like a ‘bad list’ or a ‘black list,’ which makes no sense — and I start to wonder what kind of list this was, and whether Grandpa was on it.

My mother didn’t go out to visit him after those conversations, but I worried that she might, and I hated being alone with my dad. He put too much salami in my sandwiches and didn’t know that I was scared to go to school on Wednesdays because school let out so late, it was already dark out when the final bell rang.

Then, a few days later, she and I were in the back alley of our house. It was one of the first warm afternoons in Montreal, and I was jumping on a pink and green pogo ball when my father opened the back door and said in a plain voice, “Judy: Daniel’s on the phone — your father died.”

I immediately started to cry, but my mother didn’t. She just climbed the stairs to the house, leaving me to stumble over to my father and abandon the pogo ball, tilted on its side between two cars.

***

I wear my prettiest dress to the memorial service — a pastel-colored, ruffled number that hangs past my knees — and my jelly shoes. It’s the same outfit I wore to my sister’s high school graduation the year before. My mom lets me wear my hair down, and it clings to my neck in the heat.

The service is in a big room at the local library. There is a skylight that turns the room bright, so it doesn’t feel very sad inside, and there are flowers on the librarian’s desk. The tables have been shoved to the outer edges of the room, and chairs are set up in a big circle. Despite being in a library, everyone speaks in regular voices, which I find unnerving.

A few skinny elderly women scurry about, like little old mice in a labyrinth, moving chairs and directing people to their seats. One of them leans in and asks me whether I’m Mr. Sklar’s granddaughter. I say yes. She gets a little too close to my ear and whispers what a sweet and smart man he was, and how sad she is that he’s dead. I look around for my sister, who doesn’t seem to have a librarian spitting in her ear.

We settle around the circle, a gaping hole separating the people I know on my side from the old strangers across the way — a curved row of white and grey hair, wrinkled faces, tissues, and glasses.

At first, we just sit there. I look up at my dad, but he simply pats my knee. I trace the flowers on my dress with my index finger.

Finally, Diego, Mrs. Gonzales’ son, who helped take care of Grandpa for the last few years, gets up and starts talking about how much Mr. Sklar liked eating bagels at night, and suddenly, standing there in his dark suit and shiny shoes, he’s crying. When he sits down, I start to clap, but I’m the only one, and my dad quickly takes my hands in his.

Another silence. The books sit tall and still in their stacks. The sun starts to veer away from the skylight, turning the hall a faded beige. I wonder when my mother will speak, and what she’ll say.

A big man stands up, wanders over to a gap in the circle, and says that he read in the newspaper that Mr. Sklar had died. In a booming voice, he tells us that he was in one of Grandpa’s plays a long time ago, and I wonder whether his name is on either of the posters hanging in the house.

Then, one after the other, the old people from across the circle get up and talk about a list of some kind — it sounds like a “bad list” or a “black list,” which makes no sense — and I start to wonder what kind of list this was, and whether Grandpa was on it. What did he do? I tap my dad’s leg, eager to ask him, but he ignores me, so I go back to fiddling with my dress.

Later on, a small old lady wearing a fanny pack and Reeboks yells, “George! You son of a bitch,” while shaking her fists at the ceiling, which makes everyone laugh. She says something about how Grandpa always kept the blinds closed and never answered the telephone or the door because someone was onto him, which worries me because we’ve been talking on the phone, and opening the door and the blinds since we arrived — are people going to come get us?

Hardly anyone cries, but my dad has tears dribbling down his face throughout the service. My mother doesn’t cry or speak at all. She just smiles mechanically on cue after each story.

When the service ends, I go to the bathroom and hear my uncle’s girlfriend crying quietly in the stall next to me, which I find odd, since she has never met Grandpa.

The crowd thins out, and my father finds me looking through a book on a far shelf, and asks if I am ready to go.

“Where?” I ask, though I already know.

He puts his hand on my back and leads me away, book still in hand. “Mom said you didn’t want to look, which is fine — you don’t have to. You can wait while everyone else does, okay?” I nod and set the book down on a chair as we walk out.

I picture a coffin resting on a big wooden table in the center of a small, carpeted room. The walls will be painted white, and it will be sunny and calm, like the inside of the small synagogue we go to on the High Holidays. The whole family will walk in a row to take a last look at Grandpa, who will be dressed in a suit and tie, even though I’ve only ever seen him in polo shirts and worn-down pants. He’ll be lying calmly with his arms by his sides. His eyes, his mouth: finally serene. I will stand in the doorway and wait without risking seeing anything scary.

Then the coffin will be closed and burned. We’ll have to stand away from the flames, for fear of catching on fire ourselves.

We drive for 45 minutes, my father in the front with Uncle Dan, my mother in the back with me. All the windows are open, so the warm air gushes in, making it hard for me to breathe. I lean over and poke my mom. Several jabs later, she turns her face toward mine.

“Mommy, can you ask Uncle Dan to roll up his window a bit?”

“What?”

“I’m cold.”

“Oh. Daniel — can you close your window? ” Both he and Dad roll them up, and my hair stops hitting me in the eyes.

We turn into a parking lot next to a big building in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing else around, no houses or stores or people, just the sound of leaves sweeping up against each other up in the trees, and our feet crunching the gravel on our way across the lot. The sun is scorching hot and blinding, so I tilt my head to the pavement, but can still barely keep my eyes open.

I find my way over to my father. “Daddy, remember I don’t want to look, okay?”

“That’s fine,” he says, taking my hand. “We said you don’t have to.” We step inside, but it’s nothing like what I have prepared myself for. This is not a small, quiet, carpeted room, with nice people at the door escorting us in. It’s a dark, massive factory, with vast, vaulted high ceilings, steel and metal beams criss-crossing above our heads.

We walk up a flight of metal stairs one after the other, clanging as we go, to a viewing platform that overlooks the whole ground floor. At first I shuffle around in my jelly shoes near the top of the stairs. I don’t see a coffin, so don’t know what to avoid. But nobody is watching me, nobody makes me stand back. My father lets go of my hand. My mom, sister, father and uncles wander up to a railing a few yards away, hold onto the metal, and peer over the edge, down to the ground floor. After looking over for a moment or two, they bring their heads up; nothing dramatic happens — nobody cries, or screams, or gasps, even. They just stroll away, and let other people take their turn.

Fifty feet below, in a dark empty space, with cement floors and walls, is my grandpa. He is on a metal stretcher, wrapped tightly like a mummy — all that is visible is his head, popping out of the top. His eyes are closed.

Nobody asks me if I want to look, so I walk over to the railing, grip the metal edge, get up on my toes, and strain my neck so that my head reaches over the top. Fifty feet below, in a dark empty space, with cement floors and walls, is my grandpa. He is on a metal stretcher, wrapped tightly like a mummy — all that is visible is his head, popping out of the top. His eyes are closed. The few white hairs he has left on either side of his head are sticking up, like the person who wrapped him up forgot to comb his hair down. Even from here, his bushy eyebrows look strained — restless, alive.

To his left is an enormous oven that looks like the ones at the pizza parlor back home, where, for years, I have watched the pies slide in and out on long, smooth wooden platters, the inner flames of the cauldron invisible. This one makes a deep grumbling noise, like it is about to eat him up, turning his eyes and hands and heart into ashes.

***

In the car on the way to the cemetery, my mother holds a small cardboard box on her lap. It takes a long time to find Grandma’s grave amidst all the green and the stones, and we set foot on many dead people in the process. When we’re finally all gathered in a circle around the headstone that reads MIRIAM BLECHER SKLAR 1912-1979, Mom passes the box around, and one at a time, my parents and uncles and sister reach a hand in and caress the grey ashes in their palms and fingers. Some bend down to rub pieces of Grandpa into the grass growing over Grandma’s body. Most just sprinkle the fine dust over the grave, but because it’s windy, the particles float away, landing on strangers’ graves, which makes everyone but me laugh. I refuse to touch anything, including anyone’s hand after they’ve touched the ashes.

When they’re all gone — my dad turns the box upside down and shakes it brusquely to make sure — we meander back through the cemetery to our cars. I walk alone, a clump of people ahead of me, and a clump behind, wondering whether pieces of Grandpa are stuck to my dress.

At night, we eat burritos around the lazy Susan, spinning beans and cheese and sour cream around and around as usual. After dinner, I squeeze in between my father and sister on the living room couch, making sure that parts of my body are touching parts of theirs at all times. While we listen to Grandpa’s favorite blues records, my uncles and his old friends lob stories across the room at each other. I refuse to turn my back to the breakfast room, terrified the mummified ghost from the cement room might emerge out of the darkness.

* * *

Abigail Rasminsky has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Cut, Epicurious, O: The Oprah Magazine, Guernica, and Dance Magazine, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles.

Editor: Sari Botton