Loose Tiles

by

11/12/2003

Boro Park, Brooklyn, NY 11204

Neighborhood: Boro Park, Brooklyn

(A Memnoir)

In the late 1960’s, when I was a little boy, I used to go to Boro Park to visit my grandparents. I was six when they moved from there, so I don’t remember too much of the neighborhood or their apartment, and to make things worse my real memories are tangled with memories of photos which I haven’t seen for some time.

But there are two things that I recall which don’t come from pictures: to get to their apartment, which was on the third floor of a brownstone, I had to climb a long, dark narrow staircase and about halfway to the top my grandmother, a red-head who usually wore an apron, would come out of her door and appear on the landing, smiling at me, ready to hug me, ready to love me; the second genuine memory is of a small loose tile in the bathroom. The tile was a white rectangle, about two inches long and an inch wide, and it was right next to the toilet and I could nudge and displace it with the toe of my shoe, and then put it back with the toe of my shoe. I liked to do this every time I visited. I liked to see the gap beneath the tile; it was dug out, kind of like a small grave.

What was most remarkable about this piece of tile, which was rather thick and probably ancient, was that in our bathroom back home in New Jersey there was also a loose tile right next to the toilet. No one else in my family (mother, father, older sister) seemed to be aware of this coincidence, and I thought, with the logic of a child, that it must be some shared trait between my mother and her parents, that the two houses were meant to have loose tiles for me to play with. I do remember being very sad when my father changed the tiling in our bathroom and I asked for the loose tile to be returned and my father thought I was joking, or he ignored me; it was some combination of those two responses.

My grandmother was a very good cook and very neat and very unhappy. She collected little antique things made of glass and china. I think they gave her some pleasure. In the mid-1980’s, she was diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s. She ended up in a nursing home for about a dozen years, sitting in a wheelchair, not thinking, as far as I can tell, and definitely not speaking, though the first year or two, she did say one word, over and over, “What? What? What? What?”

She was fed by attendants, a spoon pushed against her lips until she opened her mouth, and she was lifted in and out of bed once or twice a day and put in her wheelchair. I don’t know how often they’d bathe her.

On her floor of the nursing home were many other living-dead sitting in wheelchairs. There seemed to be no care or thought as to how they were placed — behind a door, facing a wall. My grandmother, luckily, was always placed near a window, though she never looked out.

I’d look at the people in the chairs, about forty or fifty of them, and I’d imagine how they were young once — had jobs, love-affairs, concerns. I thought they would be disgusted to know what had become of them. And I wondered every time I visited — and I still wonder — if I will be one of those people in a chair some day.

My mother visited my grandmother every month, sometimes less often — the nursing home was in Pennsylvania. I would go once or twice a year and I would watch my mother brush my grandmother’s hair, which, with only a few streaks of orange-white, somehow stayed red up until she finally died in 1999 at the age of 89.

My grandfather was a little heavy and bald and had blue eyes. He was a very sweet, quiet man, but I guess at one time he had a terrible temper. He was about five-ten, not very tall, but there was the implication of a former great strength — he supposedly had carried a small piano on his back into our home in New Jersey, and for many years he was the foreman of a shipping yard, which he ruled with a baseball bat kept under his desk. By the time I knew him, when he was in his late fifties and early sixties, his head had a permanent wobble to it and he was supposedly a reformed drinker. He had shown up once at our house in New Jersey late at night, quite drunk — I was just a baby, this was around 1965 — and my mother told him he had to quit drinking or he would never see me or my sister again. After that night, no one ever did see him take another drink. But when he died of a rotted gut in 1981, at the age of 72, we found many vodka bottles hidden beneath his work-table.

In 1971, my grandparents, whom I called Nanny and Poppy, moved from Brooklyn to Williamsport, PA, because my uncle, my mother’s brother, lived there, and because Brooklyn was changing. They got a cute little house on a corner, and I guess there was the hope that they would be happy.

My grandmother for years had wanted a house, longing for her childhood in Saratoga Springs, NY, and the big house she had grown up in. That house in Saratoga was on Lincoln Street, and this new house in Pennsylvania was also on Lincoln Street. This was supposed to be a good sign. But I guess it wasn’t. It must have been too late to go back to her childhood, or there was no going back, anyway. Or maybe she did. If she had recalled correctly, she would have realized her childhood had been tragic and difficult — her mother died when she was eleven and she had to drop out of school and raise her brothers. So my grandmother was consistent — a miserable childhood, a miserable old age.

In 1972, my grandfather left her in the car with the engine running, he was doing a quick errand, but something went wrong — the car wasn’t in park, perhaps; this mystery was never solved — and she and the car slid through a plate-glass window of a store. Her back was wrenched, she was in pain for years — maybe until the Alzheimer’s robbed her of all sensation — and she never forgave my grandfather for this.

She had never forgiven him for anything, though, so this was nothing new, but I guess this car accident was the final blow. Whereas once they had fought, now they hardly spoke to one another; she gave him a sort of silent treatment up until he died in 1981.

So in that new house, they slept in separate bedrooms, and she made him build a shower and toilet in the basement; she didn’t want her beautiful new bathroom soiled (she had hated, it turns out, the old rotting tiles in Brooklyn). She could use the upstairs bathroom and shower — she must have scrubbed it down immediately afterwards — but he was not allowed. The Alzheimer’s may have kicked in earlier than we realized — I’ve read that one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s is an obsession with cleanliness, and she had always had that, but it got worse and worse.

My grandfather, who, like my grandmother, never went to high school, was secretly smart, I think. He’d write my mother and me and my sister two-page letters in beautiful cursive writing, always ending with the phrase — “And on we go.” To bring in some money in his retirement, he worked flea-markets, selling old coins and pocket-watches that he had repaired at his work bench. He would write in his letters tragi-comically, “I’m nothing but a peddler.”

Sometimes I’d stay with them in Williamsport. My grandfather bought me a bicycle. It was orange with a black seat. It was a pretty good bike, not great. The front tire would rub in a funny way and that was never fixed, but I liked riding it on the uneven sidewalks of Lincoln Street.

Now, when I visit my uncle in Williamsport, I walk past their little house, empty of them for a long time now, but I’d like to go in there and find them and talk to them. I always want the dead to come back to life, but they never do. I have often thought of going to Boro Park and finding the old brownstone, maybe I could conjure them up there, but I never go. The result would be the same. No ghosts, no living people, no one to love that I had once loved.

I can see it, though: a sidewalk, a brownstone, a concrete front staircase, and a closed front door. And behind the door, a narrow staircase that probably wouldn’t seem very steep to me now as I climbed it and there would be no one coming onto the landing to greet me, unless it was to ask what I was doing in their home.

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