A love story – the final installment

My grandfather told me this whole story and so, until recently, I only had his perspective on the matter at hand. However, a few months ago, over Chanuka dinner where my grandmother became uncharacteristically sentimental, she gave me the gift of her take on this particular point in the story.

With her heavy frame digging into the gray plush sofa, contrasting boldly with the family portrait  that stood above her displaying her as she stood sixty years ago, she told me that she had been looking forward to seeing my grandfather again since they had been writing to each other frequently. When he didn’t show up as planned she was disappointed. After all, she reminds me at this point, she had given up going to Madison Square Gardens with Ira Gershwin in order to meet him. To be frank, she was also a little teed-off. However, once he called and told her the circumstances he found himself in, and promised to book her a nice, clean hotel (even back then my grandmother had a thing for cleanliness – but that’s another story in itself) and take her out on the town, she allowed herself to be corrupted on the condition that her parents agreed. To be honest, she wanted an out. It was the 40s and women, never mind my grandmother who was a lady, simply didn’t travel alone. And she was scared. She had never taken a train before, never-mind ridden one alone, and she wasn’t quite sure what she was getting herself into. Nonetheless, something in her made her call her parents to ask. And, in the retelling I can see how surprised she was when amazement lights up her face as she tells me, “They said yes. So I went. Ayh what a good time we had that vacation. I had never been to Montreal alone before I’ll have you know.” When asked why she went to meet him in the end, she answers somewhat mystified herself, “I don’t know. There was just something about that Meyer. I don’t know what it is. But I’ll tell you one thing, I always had a good time with him. He sure could make me laugh!” That is the fundamental truth to my grandmother. Deep down, she knew what was what. She was on the bus so to speak. Laughter was the key and although she took herself seriously, she knew how to laugh from the belly on up.

According to my grandfather, he went all out for her that week. He booked her a nice hotel and brought her home to eat all of her meals with him and his family in the apartment above the store. He took her to the theatre and for sleigh rides in horse-drawn carriages over the frosted mountain that lay at the heart of the city. As a grand finale, they went, along with a huge group of his friends, up North to a chalet that they had rented in the Laurentians for the New Year’s celebrations. According to my grandfather, they had a great time. They went skiiing, skating and tobogganing during the day and, at night, stayed up until four in the morning talking alone in one of the rooms.

At this point, I can hear my grandfather’s voice booming in, begging to take over and I’ll allow it to. Nothing happened between us mind you, but by four in the morning we had reached some kind of unstated agreement and we both knew it. We continued our correspondence and that spring I went down to visit your grandmother in New York. Her parents, but especially her mother, loved me. Now, your grandmother always had problems with her mother, but me, I never had any kind of problems. We got along perfectly. She loved me from the moment that she walked in on me dressing. You see, what happened was, I was sleeping on the couch in the living room. She had to walk through the living room to get to the kitchen to make breakfast for the family. She thought that I would be asleep and didn’t want to disturb me by knocking. Instead, she found me in the middle of getting dressed and saw that I was wearing Tfillin. At that time, most modern Jewish young men weren’t wearing them anymore. The practice was already fading. When your great-grandmother saw that I was wearing them she got very excited. The next thing I knew I overheard her telling your grandmother that she shouldn’t let me get away since I was a great catch, even if I wasn’t a wealthy man. I only hoped that she felt the same way. I soon found out.

 On the second to last day that I was in New York, we went for a walk in Central Park. It was a gray day in April and it was damp. We walked about forty-five city blocks and talked the whole way. At this point, my grandfather tends to drift off in a haze of remembering and needs to be prodded with the question, “What did you two talk about?”

We talked about how our life would be if we agreed to marry each other. We talked to each other about how we wanted to live and the type of life we would have. I said that I couldn’t promise her diamonds and furs, but I did promise her that if she’d marry me she’d always have a good life. And I prayed that that, with my love, would be enough. As we walked into the Park, the sun suddenly came out and struck us in the eyes. And your grandmother agreed to marry me. At this point, I can see him mentally tallying the score: Schecter one, Gershwin zero. We went back to her parents that evening and told them the news. We were married that fall and your grandmother moved to Canada. Later we had the four boys and your grandmother’s mother came to live with us. But those are other stories, to be told some other time….

That was a typical ending for one of my grandfather’s stories. It left you satisfied but with enough room left for one more. As my grandmother edged into the room during the first telling of this story and my grandfather put in his last few words, I realized that it ain’t ever over until it’s over. One thing that I can tell you though is that I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. When I look at your grandmother after all these years, I know that I got the best bargain around.

A love story – part 3

As an answer to his mock but unstated question, my grandmother continued to point her finger at him and, without blinking an eye, said “Yes you,” as she turned and marched off, leaving no one to doubt that my grandfather was expected to follow her, wherever she might lead. For his part, having no inclination to do otherwise, he did as was expected.

That evening they went for a long walk, talking for hours. According to my grandfather, he was very respectful of her, which, at that time, meant no kissing. He claims that his only interest was in getting her to consent to seeing him again. He was successful at this endeavor and the game that had been set in place that day was in motion. All players knew their roles and were faithful to them evermore.

The next evening my grandmother was feeling better and she and her sister went out to meet the gang for a cook-out on the beach. My grandfather, as arranged the evening before, was there to meet her. They spoke with one another the whole evening, eventually finding themselves leaning against each other as they sat on a beached log strategically placed in front of the bonfire that was slowly turning to embers. Finally, the fire died and the August night air became too frigid for even the most diehard lovebirds to make excuses for staying in the open air.

As luck would have it, my grandmother’s sister asked my grandfather to give my grandmother a lift home: she was going to get a lift with a friend who only had one free spot. He willingly agreed and the two set off.

At this point I should give a little context to the situation on my grandfather’s side. It was purely by chance that he found himself in the Catskills at all that weekend. Unlike the men my grandmother was accustomed to dating, he was as poor as a church mouse. His father was a Russian immigrant who had bribed his way into Canada, eventually settling in Montreal where he set up a furniture store that catered to other newly arrived immigrant families. In other words, his life revolved around a petit bourgeois clientele. But, my grandfather was smart. He was university educated and was accepted to McGill University when quotas for Jews were still applied. Despite his love of medicine, and its seeming love of him, as he approached the hallowed halls that promised no end of rewards, he stood directly in front of the main door on the first day of classes and said to himself “If I open these doors I’ll have patients with a T. Otherwise, I’ll need patience with a C.” Without ever looking back, he turned and walked away. As the oldest son, he felt  that he could do no  less than fill his ailing father’s shoes by caring for the family and taking responsibility  for the store. As he put it, one of the younger boys would fulfill his dreams instead.

Consequently, used to working every day and unaccustomed to real holidays, he was overjoyed when his cousin offered to take him to the Catskills for a long-weekend. They drove up in his cousin’s old beater and stayed five miles away from the resort since it was the only affordable place they could find. However, it didn’t matter to them. They were on vacation, enjoying the full implications of freedom. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on whose perspective you adopt, his cousin fell sick and stayed back at the motel that starlit evening. Therefore, it was just my grandmother and my grandfather, alone, on the open road.

On the way back to the resort, they ran out of gas. It wasn’t until five in the morning that someone passed by and rescued them. While this was the 1940s and the state of New York was, most likely, not very developed, this lack of passers-by seems like a very fortunate happenstance indeed. And, while both claim that nothing happened that night (and by that we are left to mean that nary a kiss took place) I find that a little hard to believe. However, whenever asked over the years, both have always maintained that this is the truth. Although I’m suspicious of this account, I’ll let it pass without marring the story as legend currently has it. Whether or not a leak in the gas tank became their cover-up story or was in fact the truth of the matter we will never know. Fifty-seven years of living on one’s own lies tends to make them more real than the truth anyway.

After that, they began a correspondence that took some of my grandmother’s time away from her courting admirers. Although Gershwin remained a faithful suitor, his fate was doomed by the end of the year. That Christmas holiday, my grandmother went, again with a group of her friends to Vermont where my grandfather was supposed to meet her. But, business was not going terribly well at the store and it turned out that he was unable to leave Montreal. He called my grandmother at the Lodge to explain the situation to her and, instead, wound up inviting her to come, by train, to visit him in Montreal. She was somewhat hesitant, but after he assured her that he would book her a nice hotel near the station and take her about, she agreed on the condition of parental consent.

A love story – part 2

My grandmother and her sister were to spend two weeks up there with a large group of friends as their summer end holiday. They arrived at the beginning of August and, as usual, my grandmother was a big hit with the men: she went boating, ate, and danced with all of them. The Saturday afternoon of their last week, however, all of that changed. Although there were no signs that this was a fork in the road of life, with twenty-twenty hindsight, both she and my grandfather claim that they both knew it to be so. But, I suppose that comes with years of embellishment, the very fabric that makes this story so great.

The sun was bright that afternoon and, although extremely fair not to mention unable to swim, my grandmother had agreed to go boating with a nice young gentleman whom she had met the night before. As they crossed the beach to get to the raft where the boat was tied up, my grandfather, who was lying on the beach and soaking up the end of summer rays, sat up and took notice. In fact, not only did he take notice, but he was enthralled with the sight before him. The beautiful blond woman with a gorgeous figure in a black maillot sent him into a daze. Just as abruptly, he registered the figure of her male companion and he sat back deflated. Gentleman’s rules in those day stated that proper protocol entailed backing off from a woman, not matter how desirable she might be, if she was accompanied by another man.

As he leaned down on the beach, sun glaring directly into his eyes, with his mind on how he had definitely missed the boat, he suddenly heard a commotion and bolted upright. The woman that he had been smitten by only moments before was now flailing about in the lake screaming for help. The boat had capsized and it took only seconds for the fact that she could not swim to imprint itself on his brain. Although he himself was no more able, he dove in and dragged her to shore. In essence, he saved her from drowning. Or maybe, in reality, she was the one who saved him. Since we’ll never know the truth, let’s stick to the official version.

As soon as they reached the shore, staff whisked my grandmother off to the infirmary where her sister soon collected her. Her family brought her back to her cabin to rest up and my grandfather soon showed up at the door. My grandmother’s sister answered the door. After explaining who he was and his role in the saga, she thanked him profusely and told him that her sister was fine but needed to rest. With that, he left, sensing that the next move was now up to her.

That evening, before dinner, a bunch of men were all sitting on the porch of the main house reading the paper, smoking pipes and shooting the bull as men are wont to do when my grandmother stepped onto the scene. Heads turned and all conversation stopped as she mounted the porch. They created a human pathway, without necessitating her missing a beat. One man standing close to the staircase suddenly leaned forward eagerly asking, “May I be of assistance?”

“Yes, I’d like to speak to that gentleman over there.” She responded, pointing directly at my future grandfather. All heads quickly swiveled, as at a tennis tournament, from her finger, to my grandfather and back to her. Meanwhile, my grandfather pointed to himself while raising his eyebrows as if to say, Who? Me? with all the false modesty that he was able to muster.

I’d like to insert here that my grandfather was not only a storyteller but was also an amateur actor whose talents could be viewed during his telling of stories. His face often took on the emotions that he was verbally portraying while a constant underlying joy of being back in the story pervaded his choice of words. In the end, the story would become alive and the possibility of a new surprise ending would arise from the fact that it now had a life of its own. It was for this reason that when my grandfather told me this very story, at this particular point I anxiously asked “Then what happened?”, completely on the edge of my seat with curiosity and utterly oblivious to the fact that I knew they subsequently fell in love and were married for 57 years. But, that comes later. In response to my question, he told me the following.

A love story – part 1

My grandfather was born a storyteller. He was the type of storyteller who would enthrall you, keep you on the edge of your seat begging to hear more. It didn’t matter if you already knew the ending to the story. Over the years, I was lucky enough to hear many of my grandfather’s stories, not the least of which was the one about how he met and fell in love with my grandmother.

It was the 1940s. My grandmother, in her mid-twenties, had already been living in New York with two of her older brothers, an older sister and her mother and father for some time. Now, it’s important to remember that although my grandmother was a dish and could appear to be stupid, she had two secret weapons in her arsenal: she had balls and she had a brain. These weapons were secret in the sense that she only revealed them to select individuals and only under very certain circumstances. That was what made her such a good businesswoman and, later, a revered card shark.

Primarily, my grandmother was in the business of getting what she wanted, be it in love or money. And in both realms, she had excelled from day one. To give you an example of what I’m talking about, she worked for her older brother for a few years and knew her stuff through and through. However, when she asked him for her well-deserved raise, he refused. She didn’t take no for an answer though. Instead, she made an appointment with the man who owned the competition and, that evening, when she came home she calmly announced over dinner that she was quitting to work for Joe’s competitors at one and a half times her current salary. Naturally, Joe was aghast and quickly promised to pay her the same salary if she stayed. Knowing that she had him on his knees sinece he couldn’t function without her, she held out for a 100% raise. It didn’t take long for him to acquiesce.

Although my grandmother was an immigrant who had spent two years of her young life living off and on various boats, she behaved no less ruthlessly in love – she always aimed for the best with a ton of success. As a result, she had a trail of rich and powerful men after her who constantly sent limousines to fetch her on her off-hours, and invited her to New York Society’s finest galas.

Eventually, she narrowed her circle of admirers to a few, one of which was Ira Gershwin. By all accounts, he was nuts about her. He composed songs for and about her, took her to the finest restaurants, and brought her to the theatre with his seasonal tickets. He wanted to marry her, and was willing to court her until the stars came home if that’s what it was going to take. And she was weakening. A little…

But here’s where things get interesting. That summer, my grandmother and her older sister went to one of those family vacation resorts that existed in the ‘40s. It was located in the Northern part of the state of New York and was, as I imagine it, akin to the one in which the movie Dirty Dancing takes place. For those of you who have seen the movie, you should have no trouble envisioning the setting. But, enough of the editorial comments and back to the story.