Commentary Magazine


From the American Scene: A Citizen of Syracuse

Here we find but another example of the way in which learning has been a constant comfort and solace to Jews under the buffetings of fate: Grandfather Lowe read the Encyclopaedia Britannica from cover to cover in order to keep from brooding on the tragedy of being possessed of (and possibly by) four unmarried daughters.

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Along with other depressing phenomena of middle age I have developed what is known as “trombone eyesight,” an affliction that necessitates sliding a letter out to arm’s length before being able to read it. Movie marquees are duck soup at five hundred feet, but anything within elbow length is pea soup.

And so it is with the persons and places of my young years. Of my contemporaries today, I can only say that there are some who are out of focus, and others whom I can’t see at all. But let me look back to Syracuse, New York, in 1906, when I was ten years old, and all becomes clarity itself. Events and situations which then seemed obscure and hard to understand now fall easily into a pattern, as in a winning game of solitaire. Friends and neighbors take “size places” like grade school children on a marching line, and leading them all, the biggest of the lot, is my Grandfather Lowe.

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Grandpa was a fierce, embittered old man with a hawk face and wild white hair. In his quieter moments he resembled an out-of-drawing picture of Edgar Allan Poe. During his frequent periods of Sturm und Drang he resembled a male Valkyrie riding the tempest. He lived with my four unmarried aunts and made their life a hell.

Fanny, the eldest, kept house and did the cooking. Carrie and Lottie, the twins, worked respectively in Henocksburg’s and F. J. West’s millinery stores on South Salina Street. Tracy, the youngest, taught the eighth grade in Croton School.

Aunt Fanny, who was of that breed of women known as “a perfect saint,” had the hardest time of it, since she was home all day with Grandpa, but she did the best she could. She was quite hard of hearing, and this helped a good deal, especially when the old man got to brooding on her and her sisters’ unwed and unwanted state. At such times, sitting in the rocker by the back parlor window, he would begin by muttering under his breath, getting louder and bitterer by the minute until his volume control was full up, and you could hear him clear out to East Genesee Street. At this, Aunt Fanny in the kitchen would cup her hand behind her ear, drop whatever she was doing, and come running in.

“Did you call me, Pa?” she would ask.

Grandpa would answer in the voice of one who is standing on one Alp and hailing a buddy on another.

Dumme Bahama!” he would bellow. “Get me GLA-JUT.”

Aunt Fanny would trot over to the sectional bookcase and take down that volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Grandpa would snatch it and subside, breathing fire and flame.

The encyclopaedia was his fountain and his shrine, his refuge and his escape. Hunched over in the leather rocker, the volumes piled up at his feet, he would read, chuckle to himself, mutter, call on his God, and read again.

At such times, when my ten-year-old self would come stamping in on roller skates, he would call me “gottverdammtes Kind,” and give me a nickel. The nickel was understood by both of us to be protection money which he paid to be left in peace, and provided me with a small but steady income that I spent on candy and dill pickles at Edelstein’s grocery. I brought him, at his request, STR-ZWO, ELE-GLA, and NOS-PRE, and stamped out again, no hard feelings on either side.

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The encyclopaedia, however, wasn’t the only thing in Grandpa’s life. He had friends. Two or three times a week they would drop in for pinochle and Aunt Fanny’s coffee kuchen. Mr. Bondy, Mr. Finkelstein, Mr. Wexler, and Mr. Whalen; all old men with heavy gold watch chains, unpressed trousers, and five-cent cigars. Grandpa had a low opinion of them all and made no secret of it. To him Mr. Bondy was a kayliv, Mr. Finkelstein a lump, and Mr. Wexler a jackass. Mr. Whalen he dismissed as “an educated man but a goy.” He could out-holler any of them in a political argument and never heard any of them venture an opinion on any subject whatever without trembling impatience. If the speaker continued with his thought, Grandpa would bellow “QUATCHQUATCHQUATCH!”

Yet, in spite of insults, abuse, and the fact that Grandpa merely tolerated them, his friends continued to seek him out. It may be that they were respectful of his vast store of encyclopaedic information. Certainly they looked up to him as a widely traveled man. For Grandpa in his earlier years had journeyed far up and down the Erie Canal and through the towns and villages of all upper New York State. He had been a peddler of spectacles.

To hear Grandpa tell it, it was a cultured life and a rewarding one. His clients were bankers, lawyers, and ministers of the gospel, all counting the days till he arrived on his semi-annual visit—and vying with each other for the privilege of giving him bed and board (or, as he put it, “hospital”). Refined was their conversation! Exquisite their manners! Their intelligence was surpassing. They all looked up to Grandpa and called him Doctor.

“There are no more such people now,” he would say, shaking his head sadly.

Maybe he believed it. The truth can only be conjectured. Snail-slow canal boats . . . cindery trains . . . the hitch picked up in a buggy . . . frozen ruts in wintertime . . . mud in spring . . . .yard-dogs snarling and snapping at gates . . . the musty-smelling bed in the country hotel . . . Grandpa must have experienced all of these things. But if he did, he never mentioned them. He was a proud man.

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Besides his encyclopaedia and his pinochle Sessions, Grandpa had other resources. One of these was the book agent game. This he played in a comer of the’ front parlor behind the Nottingham lace window curtains, overlooking the porch. Sitting in a Vernis Martin chair with gold balls up and down the back, he would peer out from behind the curtain and, like a spider in his web, bide his time. Sometimes he waited for days, but he was never disappointed. Because of Aunt Tracy’s school connections, her name was on the sucker list of more than one publishing house, and Grandpa had only to be patient, and a victim, satchel in hand, would mount the steps and ring the bell.

This was what he had been waiting for. Bounding out of the chair he would tear to the door and fling it open. Then in a voice like thunder he would demand to know the caller’s business.

The book agent, faced by what was obviously a madman, would take one look at the wild hair, the glittering eye, and the veins standing out at the neck, and back away, stammering something about seeing Miss Lowe.

This was Grandpa’s big moment.

“I’M MISS LOWE!” he would thunder. “STATE YOUR BUSINESS!”

The rest of the day he would walk about the house, chuckling aloud reminiscently.

However, the pitcher went to the well once too often. That day, Grandpa opened the door to a quietly elegant stranger who introduced himself as a Mr. Piercy, and intimated that he had been sent to consult with Miss Tracy Lowe on school business. Grandpa ushered him into the front parlor and there proceeded to entertain him until Aunt Tracy’s arrival. They discussed the McKinley administration and the Panama Canal, and Grandpa was informative concerning the Great Wall of China (CHI-ELD) and the construction of cantilever bridges (AUS-CHI). They passed a delightful half hour and Grandpa was genuinely sorry when Aunt Tracy arrived. He said as much to Mr. Piercy and shook him heartily by the hand. Then he presented him formally to his daughter.

Mr. Piercy reached into the inside pocket of his coat and produced a glossy paper folder which he opened up accordion-wise to a length of three feet. On it was printed, in three colors, an accurate reproduction (full size) of the backs of ten books.

“Miss Lowe,” he recited rapidly, “I represent the Home Library of Family Medicine.”

Aunt Tracy, telling the story later, would say, “So there was this book agent, talking away a mile a minute, and I took one look at Pa, and thank goodness, I had presence of mind. I said to myself, ‘My God! He’s going to have a stroke!’ His eyes were glassy, you know, and he was sort of struggling for breath. So I said to the man very quietly and quickly, ‘You’ll have to leave. My father is ill.’ ”

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Aunt Lottie said, “Pa, I just can’t understand why you act like such a devil about book agents. After all, you used to do the same thing yourself . . . going from house to house when you were peddling.”

Grandpa cast his eyes to the ceiling, and demanded of his God to be told why he, who had lived a blameless life, should be cursed in his old age with four virgin daughters aged forty and upward. Then, addressing Aunt Lottie in Hebrew as a damned harlot, he advised her (in German) to hold her flapping tongue in her stupid mouth.

They were at the supper table when this happened, and Grandpa, with a trembling hand, helped himself to some of the floating island pudding—a custard of soupy consistency with blobs of meringue swimming about on the surface. As Grandpa filled his dish, the spoon slipped and a generous portion spilled down the front of his clothes. There were gentle shrieks from around the table, and a chorus of “Pas.” The old man looked from daughter to daughter and there was an evil look in his eye. His sense of power, weakened since the Mr. Piercy incident, began to charge up like a storage battery. It dawned on him that here was a brand new field of endeavor. Deliberately he spilled another spoonful on his vest, and as Aunt Fanny rushed to mop him up, he bellowed “GEHWEG!”—it shook the bead fringe on the chandelier.

After that there was no holding him. Soup, eggs, gravy, coffee, tea, ales, wines, liquors, and green vegetables—all found a home on Grandpa’s one suit. Aunt Fanny spent hours over the ironing board with benzine and ammonia, but the old man spilled faster than she could clean.

The climax came one cold Friday in November, when Aunt Tracy was being escorted home from school by her principal, Mr. Conan. At the corner of Harrison Street and Irving Avenue, he nudged her and pointed.

“Miss Lowe,” he said, “just look at that picturesque old beggar.”

“I looked,” said Aunt Tracy, “and, my God, it was Pa.”

Something had to be done. The aunts got together and next day Aunt Tracy went to Dey Brothers and bought Grandpa a new suit. It was of black serge, and of a cut and texture generally associated with public monuments, but it was whole, clean, and free from foreign matter. That night, while Grandpa slept, they cremated the old suit in the furnace, and laid the new clothes on a chair beside his bed.

“He’ll never put them on,” said Aunt Carrie.

“He’ll put them on or stay in bed,” declared Aunt Tracy grimly.

But she was mistaken. Grandpa didn’t put on the new suit, nor did he stay in bed. For one solid week he walked about the house, read his encyclopaedia, received his friends, and took his meals in his long gray underwear. It grew very cold and the feeble heating plant struggled as always to heat eleven rooms, but Grandpa held on. Cursing scarifying curses in German, Hebrew, and English, he sat on the warm air register in a corner of the back parlor floor, and held out.

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He held out until Saturday, when he realized that if he didn’t put on the new clothes he couldn’t go to shul. Shul was one of the red stones in Grandpa’s week, and neither ill health nor the elements had ever kept him away. So with language unbefitting the Sabbath, he hooked his suspenders into the new pants and put them on.

At five o’clock that afternoon Mrs. Gasman, the rabbi’s wife, came to call on Aunt Tracy. She was a large woman with adenoids, and she looked nervously at Grandpa sitting by the window with his books. She indicated that her business was of a private nature, and asked Aunt Tracy if there wasn’t a place where they could talk undisturbed. Aunt Tracy escorted her into the front parlor, and there, behind closed doors, she broke down.

“Tracy,” she said, her large chin quivering, “you’ve got to keep your father home from Temple.”

“Well, I guess not!” said Aunt Tracy, bristling. “We pay for our pew, and I guess Pa has a right to go if he feels like it.”

“Doctor is on the verge of nervous prostration,” wailed Mrs. Gasman. “Your father answers him back.”

“What?” said Aunt Tracy, aghast.

“Yes,” said Mrs. Gasman, “and he says the responses so loudly that everybody looks at him, and he pounds with his cane, and today Doctor preached a beautiful sermon and your father ruined it.”

“What did Pa do?”

“Well, at the end, Doctor said, ‘I could speak indefinitely on this subject,’ and your father pounded and yelled out ‘Genug! Genug!’ “

Aunt Tracy looked at her shoes for some time. Then . . .

“I’ll do what I can,” she said, “but it’ll just about kill Pa.”

It just about did. Try as they might, the aunts couldn’t move the trustees of Temple Israel. Grandpa was not suspended. He was expelled.

He took it hard. He became much quieter about the house, took to his bed for longer and longer periods, and refused to see his friends. His spirit was not yet entirely broken, but tiny cracks appeared on the surface, like those on an old platter that goes too often into the oven. While he still called his daughters “Dumme Bahama” and “verdammte klafta,” his heart wasn’t in it. His fires were dying down.

“We might as well face facts,” said Aunt Tracy. “After all, Pa’s eighty-three. We can’t expect him to live forever.”

And then, suddenly, Grandpa secured a new lease on life. He became, or so he said, an atheist. However, his was not the cold, impersonal atheism of Ingersoll. Grandpa didn’t deny God. He was just mad at him. God was boss of Temple Israel, and God had allowed Temple Israel to exclude Grandpa. Grandpa killed two birds with one stone. He cursed God and Temple Israel in one breath.

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Grandpa died in 1907 at the age of eighty-four. The Syracuse Post Standard gave him a full column obituary with his picture at the top. It was headed early resident passes on. It told how Grandpa had emigrated from Germany in 1849, and had settled in Syracuse, where he had entered the optical business. It went on to say that he was survived by five daughters, and ended: “It was Mr. Lowe’s oft-expressed wish that he might be taken from this vale of tears.”

It was. I distinctly remember Grandpa sitting up in bed in his white nightshirt, and shaking his fist at the ceiling.

Du gottverdammter Gott!” he would holler. “Come on! Smite me! I dare you to smite me! I’ll fool you . . . . I WANT to die. How do you like THAT?”

I often think how fine it would be if Grandpa Lowe could have been alive today. Radio quiz programs would have been his meat. With that store of knowledge gathered during the long years with PRI-STO, AUS-CHI, and GLA-JUT, he might have kept us all supplied with refrigerators, pressure cookers and wrist watches—to say nothing of innumerable complete sets of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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