Footsteps

Grandma and Grandpa are swinging gently on the old bench that is covered with the rough remains of what was once weather resistant polyester. Rust is working its way up and down the posts. The canopy is coming apart along the middle support bar. The material on the top of the bench is crumbling. Grandpa worries that the holes will invite a wasp colony. Grandma doesn’t give a shit. Grandpa pushes gently with his bare feet to keep rocking. The deck is smooth; the planks are made plastic composite guaranteed by a limited warranty to last fifty years. For now there is no danger of thorns or splinters. The deck is one of Grandma’s construction projects, so are the Jacuzzi, gazebo, the painted outer walls, one of which is light rusty orange. ‘Made all the difference’, Grandma likes to say about the color. The rest of the house is painted off-white. Grandma also put up the corrugated plastic awning panels. They drip when it rains but are way better than the tarp Grandpa had up there. The tarp grew udders the size of bathtubs, spilled gallons of water over the deck and threatened to bring down the rafters. Grandma likes to combobulate constructions with one-time contractors using communication skills to work them close to what was meant to be. She had to use a private version of sign language instead of Vietnamese when they put down the plastic planks, so the deck warped, but grandpa replaced a board and so the deck is flat and flush with the living room. Now all Grandpa has to do to get the deck through the winters is keep the storm drains clean. People say they have never seen a couple so different get along so well. Grandma puts her hand on Grandpa’s hip. They have been married for thirty years. He strokes her hand gently. They have been grandparents for a year and a half. ‘It’s been a while’, Grandma says. ‘Yes quite a while’, Grandpa agrees. ‘At least they’re landing in San Jose’. They don’t like driving all the way to the San Francisco airport. They leave for the airport when Grandma can’t wait any longer. They sit in the waiting area at the gate holding hands, eying the arrivals screen. ‘It says they landed’, Grandma says but Grandpa can’t read the screen because his glasses are the wrong prescription. The girls show up. Mommy-Yeela is pushing an empty stroller. Baby Naama is on Auntie-Tal’s arms. Auntie is carrying a guitar on her back. They kiss and hug a lot because it’s been a while. They drive home. They have come to rest and be together. Brothers and husband will arrive in two weeks.

They get home at 10:00 PM. Auntie and Mommy are tired, but they flew from Israel so Baby is bubbly and ready for a new day. Grandpa thinks that Baby should be a toddler since she is twenty months old. But Baby has been very slow growing teeth. Last he saw her she was nine teeth behind for her age. He holds her up close and smiles while wiggling his nostrils. It’s a motoric skill – one of his few – which allows him to breath with a clothespin on his nose. Baby watches the nostrils. Grandpa stops wiggling. Baby smacks his nose. ‘More’! So grandpa wiggles his nostrils some more. Baby smiles showing a full set of front teeth. ‘How long has she had them?’ ‘They came out on the plane’, Mommy says. Mommy has a sense of humor so she exaggerates. But Grandpa knows that there was room for concern. When she was eighteen months old, Baby only had three teeth. Mommy is the eldest she had four front teeth when she was nine months old. She walked very early, stumbled and hit her mouth on the flower pot when she was ten months old. Grandpa remembers the drops of blood on her little white teeth, and her crying, and him feeling like dirt because he was supposed to be watching over her. Auntie is second. She had all her teeth piled on top of each other, kind of like the black keys over the white keys on the piano, only without the black. Their two younger brothers also had all their teeth in time – although an orthodontist had to make the youngest’s head wider so hit teeth could fit side by side. That doctor put this little car jack between the boy’s gums and cranked every few days. He kept at it for two years. Grandma wanted to sue his ass and started a big fight on dental-clinic lane in Los Altos but the family dentist called a truce to Grandma’s dismay. According to Grandpa’s multiplication, if Baby grew only two teeth a year, she could have reached puberty looking like a hillbilly and would not have been able to smile on Facebook and she could have been bullied by the entire Internet, which is bad because it’s is all about looks in this day and age. So Grandpa was pleased that Baby’s teeth caught up and went to sleep. Grandma stayed up with Baby because Grandma missed Baby very much and then some.

When Grandpa wakes up he hears Baby’s footsteps running through the house. Grandpa smiles; it’s nice when the family is together – parting will be harder than ever this time around. Grandpa doesn’t like foreshadowing so he gets of the bed, relieves and scratches himself, brushes hit teeth, brushes the remains of his hair with the toothbrush, puts on a T-shirt and shorts and walks out of the bedroom. Grandma is asleep on the couch in the living room. Baby sees him and says ‘Boteh Kov’. She is walking around carrying a rag doll with braided woolen hair – she calls ‘Gully’ (dolly) – in one hand and a baby doll with rubber limbs she calls ‘Baby Hum’ (Brown baby) because Baby is politically incorrect. Baby calls for ‘babook’ to feed the babies and seems quite distraught that she cannot find it. Grandpa finds it and hands it to her. Baby pushes dolly under her arm and holds out her hand to grab the bottle. Grandpa helps her climb on the sofa to feed the baby. The baby is full after two seconds so Baby climbs off the sofa to grab some Barbie dolls. There are twenty Barbie dolls and two Ken’s. The Barbie dolls used to be Mommy’s. Baby decapitates her first Barbie. Mommy gives off a chirp of grief but gathers herself pretending to smile. Her face says that she is all torn up inside, not knowing what made her daughter commit such an act of violence when all she knows is love. Grandpa thinks it’s just that Baby is too young for Barbies but keeps his mouth shut because that would make Mommy unhappier. Grandma awakens and snatches Baby up for an armpit kiss. Baby giggles and holds up the Barbie torso and head for someone to mend. Grandpa looks at the severed limbs and establishes that the damage is permanent. The doll will need mechanical maintenance from this day for generations to come because the neck refuses to clasp around the plastic mushroom Barbies use for their L3 vertebrae. Auntie is oblivious to all of this. When she was growing up she played basketball with the boys and blew tapioca pellets at cars from the bridge over the freeway. Then one day she received a degree in philosophy and literature. Now she is out on the deck doing a Yoga headstand. Baby sees Auntie and shouts ‘Yoga!’ and runs to auntie. Grandpa opens the sliding screen panel before Baby runs through it, and holds Auntie’s feet while Baby tries to push her over. Auntie giggles upside down. Baby drops to all fours in a down-dog position which Auntie taught her. Her hands and head touch the mat. She looks back at Auntie between her legs. ‘Mi zeh?‘ ‘Suma zeh Kijil!’ Baby usually refers to herself as Naama, but at times chooses one of her nicknames. She calls Auntie by her nickname. Nobody in the family is called by their real name. It’s been going on for generations on Grandpa’s side of the family. His is ‘bushy’. If anything it would have been more useful on Grandma’s side where everyone’s real name is ‘Buddy’ – after their grandfather – and they just call each other ‘Buddy’ and somehow they know who is who. Grandpa marvels at Baby’s flexibility. He knows babies are born real rubbery like, and loose flexibility as they grow older, so it’s important to start Yoga when they are young so they stay like Auntie who can sit in a Lotus position, and it’s also good to teach them to speak a lot of languages because their brains are all spongy for languages at this age so it’s good that Baby is bilingual. Grandpa’s Lotus is more like the closed-for-the-night flower because he did not do Yoga at a young age. Grandma didn’t either but she is more flexible due to natural causes. Auntie drops her feet to the floor, stands up and asks Grandpa if he would like to do Sun Salutations. Auntie sets an iPhone app which counts salutations and time. Baby grabs the iPhone and demands a song so Auntie puts on the train song and everybody sings with Baby, who wants to play with the Lego train and says ‘Rotzah Rakevet’ so Grandpa knows what she wants to do. Baby will not allow Sun Salutations. Grandma’s mother – God rest her soul – used to say that you cannot plan ahead with young children. Auntie suggests that they try again when Baby is asleep, or occupied so they wait until Grandma snatches Baby for another series of hugs and kisses. Baby wiggles free and wanders into Grandma’s vegetable patch and puts a green midget tomato in her mouth. All the tomatoes are green this year for whatever the reason. Grandma ambushes Baby with a spoon of oatmeal, catches her on-the-squeal and hugs like a loving python. She nearly asphyxiates her. When Baby can breathe again she looks at Grandma and points to the sky and says ‘Shoma-at Aviron’ so that Grandma can rotate to where the airplane is and Baby can see it. The plane passes high about the fig tree. Baby sees a half-eaten fig. ‘Tzipor achla te-enah!’ Grandma hates it when the birds eat the figs. ‘Nu-nu-nu Tzipoer! Lamah achalt et ha-te-ena shel Savta?’ Baby stares at her. Only God can answer ‘Why’ questions, everybody knows that. They go to the park to swing. Baby prefers rock climbing. When she is tired they come home to feed and change her diaper. Baby sleeps, but Auntie and Grandpa do not do Sun Salutations because it’s too hot outside. When she wakes up Grandma and Mommy go after her with more food. Baby likes to feed herself cuscus. Baby half lifts the spoon to her mouth because the circular motion of the wrist is tricky for her. Baby gets half of every spoonful into her mouth – she is very precise. ‘Od off! (More chicken)’ Grandma cleans Baby. Grandpa sweeps the floor. One of Grandma’s contractors polished the floor ten years ago. He did a terrible job, and the floor looks downright awful even when it’s clean, like the disheveled fur of a scraggly alley cat. It wasn’t entirely the contractors fault. The floor needed four coats of lamination, Grandma decided that two would be enough and wanted it done for the price of one, so the contractor spread one thin layer of polish and one thick layer of water over it. Mommy comes back to the table with a piece of salmon and steps on a piece of avocado which Grandpa missed. Baby decides to stand on the chair and chews on a bagel with cream cheese. She holds the bagel through the hole with two fingers in the cream cheese. Granny cleans the hand with a napkin and then wipes the baby’s nose. Auntie washes the dishes. Baby goes to prepare her dolls for bed. She starts by covering Gully [dolly]. She tries to dress Ken in Barbie’s pink jacket, but can’t because Ken has broader shoulders, so she gets frustrated and bangs Ken to the floor. Mommy quickly dresses Ken. The TV shows a camel walking into the office on the ‘happy-hump-day’ Gieco commercial. Baby is not impressed and goes back to covering Gully. Mommy helps her wrap it up like a Burrito. Baby cradles Dolly and sings ‘Abba Halach Avoda’. People show up to see how Baby developed since they last say her. Auntie and Baby start by singing about the nasty police official from ‘Le Miserables’.

Auntie: Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a… Baby: thief!
Auntie: Damned if I’ll yield at the end of the… Baby: chase.
Auntie: I am the Law and the Law is not… Baby: mocked
Auntie: I’ll spit his pity right back in his… Baby: face
Auntie: There is nothing on earth that we… Baby: share
Auntie: It is either Valjean or… Baby I a low voice: Javert!

Grandpa thinks that Baby is a better singer than Russell Crow. After the applause Baby moves on to facial expressions on demand. She can put on a ‘moofta’ (surprised) look – eyes and mouth wide open, ‘co-ess’ (angry) – frowning with lips clenched, ‘atzoov’ (sad), ‘sameach’ (happy) – a variation of surprise with an open smile – and ‘mehurhar’ (thoughtful) with her index finger on her cheek. Sometimes she puts the finger over her lips as if asking everyone to be quite. Most people forgive such errors. ‘Lichtov’, Baby takes a piece of paper and scribbles, auntie shows baby how to draw faces, with glasses, with hair, nose, eyes, mouth, baby knows all the facial and body parts, nobody asks baby the stupid questions about them anymore. On a good day Baby is willing to count the ten commandments: ‘Ehad’, ‘Taim’, ‘Shalosh’, ‘Abba’, ‘Teva’, ‘Noneh’, ‘Tesha’, ‘Eseh’, and then she makes up for those she missed: ‘Tesha’, ‘Noneh’, ‘Eseh’. After a few days Baby agrees to include ‘Hamesh’ and ‘Shesh’ as she counts ducks in the bathtub. Desperate to contribute to her upbringing, Grandpa shows her how to make bubbles breathing like a swimmer. After the water recedes it is time to go to bed. Baby tries to stall by making open ended requests: ‘Rotzah Mashu…’ ‘She is using abstractions’ Grandma proclaims. Grandma is good at making abstractions come true so she gives Baby to Grandpa who is watching Winnie the Poo hunting for honey with Roo and Kanga. Baby sucks on ‘Numi Dadash’ (new pacifier) and watches as Poo tries to steal honey without waking the bees. Then Poo sneezes and the shit hits the fan. ‘Echshav ha-dvorim ya-aktzoo et Poo ve Kanga ve Roo’ Grandpa explains perceptively. ’Et koolam’, baby summarizes, eager to help Grandpa get to the point. Grandma blows kisses into the air and thrusts Hamsah’s in Baby’s direction, protecting her from bad omens – you can never be too careful. Baby leans closer to Granpa. She is tired. He pats her back gently, stroking the back of her head with his index finger. Grandma takes Baby to bed and tells her how the cow and the dog and the cat and the horse and the duck and the sheep and the bird and the chicken and the mule and the bear all went to sleep. ‘Od pam’. So grandma tells her how all the animals went to sleep one by one. ‘Od pam…’ – and Grandma starts over until Baby falls asleep. Everyone wants to go out. Mommy and Auntie volunteer to stay. Grandma volunteers Grandpa. Grandpa knows baby will throw a shit fit if she wakes up and Mommy or Auntie or Grandma is not there. The sooner they leave the sooner they will be back and baby might sleep through it all. So he urges them to leave and have a good time, and Grandpa makes sure he knows which channel is playing ‘The Boy Who Knew too Much’ before he continues surfing the channels. Every few minutes he goes to check on Baby, partially because he is a responsible adult but more so because of his strong abstract feelings for her.

The holidays are coming. Uncle Osmo and Uncle Tintin show up tall, wide, tan and cross-fit. They have not seen Baby for six months but have remained omniscient thanks to WhatsApp. They handle Baby gently. They kiss her. She hugs them. Baby hugs willingly. She calls them ‘Ono’ and ‘Titin’. Titin sits at the piano, puts Baby on his knees and plays Chopin. She knows the piece. At first she listens, then she raises her voice ‘Lo!’, pushes his hands off the keys ‘ze shel Naama’ and begins to play her own interpretation. Granma bought the piano twenty years ago and they all played. Auntie plays a lot of Nuctorno in C minor by Chopin for Baby. Ono doesn’t like middle C’s so he brings a melodica and plays Halleluiah. Baby blows into a harmonica which Uncle Tintin grabs from the bookshelf. Ono and Titin hug Mommy and Suma. They are very close. It is a very cheerful iPhone moment. Grandma overflows with emotion and takes Baby to the park where she crashes an Astro-Jump party and refuses to leave before Baby is done hopping. She comes home fuming and has trouble convincing anyone that she is in the right. ‘First they asked me to leave, and when I didn’t they asked for ten bucks, and when I was willing to pay they pulled a liabilities argument out of their hats.’ Granny was livid. ‘So I asked how come ten bucks were enough to indemnify them of any liability, to which they had no answer, but they were so unwelcoming that I decided to leave.’ Everyone was happy that Grandma was not arrested for causing a public disturbance – lest they would starve during the holidays. Auntie offers ice coffee to everyone. They have as much ice coffee as the ice maker will allow.

The kitchen is now Kosher with two sets of dishes and hot plates set with timers. Daddy arrives and baby is very happy to see him. Grandma and Mommy and Suma prepared enough food to last for the two days of Rosh Hashanah which is followed by Shabbat. Mommy lights the candles, Daddy returns from the synagogue and Baby calls ‘Bo-u kaparot’ – calling to the table. Baby asks for a ‘pikah’. Mommy is too far. ‘Zrok’, baby signals with her hand stretched forward. Baby settles down with a kipah on her head. Grandpa blesses over the wine. Baby puts in an ‘Amen’ after every sentence. She watches the wine cup closely as it goes around the table. She knows she has to wait for her turn. Daddy blesses over the bread. Baby says ‘Amen’. Daddy observes the mitzvot. Nobody else does, but everyone is respectful. They eat a lot. Next morning Baby greets everyone with ‘Bote kov’ as she continues to mutilate the Barbies. But she has learned to handle them more gently. It seems that half of them will survive. ‘Titin rotzah mitz.’ Tintin brings her water. ‘Savta tavii li mashu aher.’ Baby wants ‘Dabass café’ (Starbucks coffee). Suma hands her ice coffee. ‘Mmmm, taim, Imma, kash! .‘ Daddy spends Rosh Hashanah at the synagogue, Ono and Titin watch Cincinnati beat Chicago. Grandma made kebabs and looks for someone to cook them. Uncles are tied up with their responsibilities to the game so Grandpa goes to barbecue the kebabs. He lights the flame with a match let from a Yahrziet candle. Apparently the lord allows cooking on Rosh Hashanah provided the fire was lit ahead of time. When football is over the Yankees play the Red Sox so Ono and Titin cannot find a free moment to help but they manage to find time to feed themselves. Everyone fasts on Yom Kippur except Mommy who is expecting Baby’s sister in December. Ono prepares for the fast by swallowing a bottle of Pedialite which according to the label is three times richer in electrolytes than the closest sports drink. Grandpa doesn’t blame him – it’s been a while since Ono or Titin had a chance to have any real supplement, but Grandpa doesn’t understand what’s to replenish before the fast. Everybody goes to the synagogue for Kol Nidrei, but only Daddy attends the full ceremony. The following morning Daddy leaves for the synagogue, Ono and Titin wonder out of their dens at noon to watch UCLA beat Nebraska. Auntie points out that the fast allows the ice maker to finally catch up. Everyone atones in their own way and pass safely into the new year. Grandpa takes Ono and Tinti to break the fast at In-and-Out. In Grandpa’s mind it’s kosher if you avoid the cheeseburgers. Grandpa believes that everything in the world can either be explained by science or to Grandma working the system,so there is only so much that he will observe out of respect for an even greater power guiding things. He does not believe in miracles even if he struggles to explain the fact that foreskins are not created like fingernails.

It is time to part again. Tintin spends a few more minutes playing the piano and heads back to UCLA to continue studying computers and stuff. He has two years to go. Grandpa makes sure he had his pocket liquor bottle with him. Naama, Yeela and Elad leave next. Naama departs waving ‘Shalom shel malkah’ (royal wave) moving only her wrist and calling ‘Peace and Love’. She asks Yeela and Tal not to cry. For eight years they lived door-to-door in Jerusalem. Now Tal is moving to Chicago. It’s been a while – almost seventy five years – since a family member lived in Chicago. She will study comparative literature, a PhD program. Most people in the Silicon Valley don’t understand what it means to study ‘complete’. Many question what Tal will do once she is done studying. For once Grandpa is not worried; literature has been the family business for generations. At times he wonders why he didn’t follow in his mother’s and father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. Tal doesn’t remember her great grandfather; she was Naama’s age when he passed away in Jerusalem. Back when in Chicago they lived on Woodlawn Avenue a few miles south of the University of Chicago. Tal will live on Greenwood – the parallel street, a few blocks north of the campus. Of all the choices that Tal made – trying four universities, two sides of the world, three professions, two countries, four states and she ended up on her great grandfather’s doorstep. Grandpa doesn’t believe in divine tosses of the dice.

There is little time to lose. Grandma’s role is put on hold. There is chaos in Chicago which needs to be arranged. Imma will run the project with the family as her contractors. They fly to Chicago with all they can carry. Imma, Tal and Osmo fly with seven overweight bags and excess hand luggage. Imma knows that if all the bags are overweight she can blame the scales at the airport. It is dark in Chicago when they arrive and the wind is blowing over the water and there is much to be done but for now they sleep overlooking the water. The next day there is light, and there are keys to the apartment, and a moving van. They use the light and van to find IKEA and pick the sofa, armchair, desk, carpet, lamps, double bed, double mattress, dishes, silverware, folding mattress, curtains and some tools. There is no time to wait for a delivery, Osmo is cross-fit and Suma can do one hundred Sun Salutations so they carry the new belongings and hull them up the stairs and Osmo assembles them. By the end of the second day there are beds to sleep in and a desk for Tal to work on, and Bushy flew in, and they had pizza for sustenance and Imma said that the day was good. By the end of the third day there is a kitchen table and chairs and the curtains are up, and there is a computer and a large extension screen, and a leather covered boutique chair in front of the computer and all that was good, but it was all furniture and had little soul so and they went to watch ‘The Book of Mormon’. Imma did not have a ticket but she was seated in the theatre before the three of them. They were not surprised and enjoyed the show and told Imma that it was a very good day. On the fourth day the internet came and connected the phone and the computers, and Tal received a student ID card – her fifth – and they visited the Campus and the Navy Pier, and rode the waterfront-architecture tour on the boat, and learned of the magnitude of the Merchandise building which the Kennedy’s sold for dollars on the pennies. The river flows through the city, and the boat glided through the waters. They found life in the river and the waters will no longer walk the fire from west to east, and the river is connected to the Mississippi. At the end of the day they viewed it all from the top of the Sears Tower and took pictures silhouetted against the earth and sky and Imma said that all was well. On the fifth day they decorated the kitchen and the bedroom. They hammered nails into the walls and drove screws into the old mantel pieces and did it no harm. They hung pictures and silk drapes, said Kidush over Sriracha sauce – because they forgot to buy wine – and sat to have the Shabbat dinner and they thanked Imma that all is well. Bushy and Osmo left on the Sixth day, and Imma and Tal swept south to St. Louis for garage sales. They did not get that far because the land along the way was plentiful. They bought flowers and dressers and a rocking chair and a trunk and a bathroom closet – for pennies on the dollar. They turned back when they could carry no more. The rooms were complete and the abode was ready and all was well and Imma flew home. On the seventh day Imma rested. Now Tal will set her own path, however many times she crosses the family’s footsteps.

Grandpa adjusted the ladder and climbed to clean the storm drains.