Poppa Take Me to the World Series: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

We passed through the turnstiles and took the winding ramp upwards. Higher and higher we went, the ground receding below us, until we reached the top level and stepped out into the stands. I never tired of that first glimpse of the field, and I never will.

It’s wondrous. When you’re still a kid, especially, any major-league ballfield seems impossibly green and vast and gorgeous, and at first you suspect you’re dreaming. And this was Yankee Stadium, with its classical frieze rimming the sky, the mother of all stadia. Yankee Stadium during the World Series to boot, the Yankees dominant for so long then, a dynasty.

We went to take our seats, there in the upper deck in left field, about as far away from home plate as you could possibly be without leaving the premises, maybe 500 feet away. It felt stratospheric, like being suspended over the action in a hot-air balloon.

We’d always sat closer in, maybe along the first-base line, or on the third-base side, close enough to hear the crack of bat on ball as it actually happened, close enough to hear a fastball smacking into the catcher’s mitt. Up there in the dizzying upper deck, all you could hear was the roar of the crowd, and the players looked so small. You’d hear bat on ball a fraction of a second after it actually happened.

But none of that, being so high up and so far away from home plate, made any difference to me.

I was at the World Series with my grandfather. What else counted? He loved me enough (and baseball, too) to have taken me there. All other considerations – how short I was, my lousy grades at school, my problems with my parents – fell by the wayside.

The day turned out to be as thrilling as I expected. The 1964 Yankees had Mantle and Maris and Yogi Berra, the Cardinals Bob Gibson and Lou Brock and Tim McCarver. The Yankees took a 3-0 lead, but then Ken Boyer – the brother of Yankees third-baseman Clete Boyer – hit a grand slam, giving the Cards a 4-3 win.

As it happened, he hit the homer to left field. I saw it coming toward us, sailing out from home plate, and held up my glove to catch it. Closer and closer the ball came. But it landed in the first deck, directly down below us. The stadium went wild. At that moment I turned to my grandfather.

“I wish this would never end,” I said.

He looked back at me with a smile I would call serious, outlined in a shade of rue.

“Everything comes to an end,” he said.”

I had no idea what he meant.

Even so, I doubted it was true. How could that be?

For a long time afterwards, I refused to believe him, refused, with all the brute will of an innocent, that anything you loved had to come to an end.

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Poppa Takes Me to the World Series

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My grandfather Benjamin Sheft took me to Yankee Stadium to see Game Four of the 1964 World Series between the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals. Nothing could have made me happier.

The outing had two elements I loved with all my heart: my grandfather and baseball (largely in that order). Luckily, the two often went hand in hand.

My grandfather took me to games at the stadium maybe once a year, starting in 1960, when I was only eight years old.

He once bought me an encyclopedia of baseball records that I devoured, a massive volume with every statistic imaginable. He also got me a subscription to the New York Daily News so I could read about the Yankees in the sports pages.

Poppa and baseball went back pretty far. He saw Babe Ruth play, and Joe DiMaggio, and all the rest. He lived for more than 20 years in the Bronx, where I was born. He and I could talk baseball, and often would. Which team won or lost, which player was doing well or poorly.
My own father had long since lost interest in baseball, too busy with work and other preoccupations. In any given Fall, my father would have no clue – I know because I quizzed him – which teams were competing in the World Series.

So that gave me an extra reason to adore my grandfather. He filled in for my father on the baseball front. And in the best of scenarios, a 12-year-old boy who loves baseball will be able to share his love with someone older, a brother, an uncle, a father, a Poppa. He needs someone to show him how to fill out a scorecard, and tell him how good Gehrig was at first base or why Casey Stengel was such a character.

So it was multiply lucky for me that now he was taking me to the only World Series game I would ever see in person. We pulled into the parking lot and walked toward the stadium under the elevated train tracks, the sun shafting through onto all the fans thronging in. All along the sidewalks vendors sold pennants and caps and programs, scalpers calling out to make a sale, the aroma of hot dogs in the air.

With each step my anticipation of the game grew.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.
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Me and the Boys of Alden Terrace: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Only now, though, do I realize how odd it was for us to play football in the street. We lived in the suburbs, after all, with a grassy, sloping park barely 100 yards away. Maybe it was because the street gave us readymade end zones and boundaries, whereas in the park we would have had to create our own demarcations.

Or maybe it had to do with where our parents came from, New York City, mostly the Bronx. In the city, you played mainly in the street, close to the apartment you called home. So maybe we played in the street as some kind of unconscious carryover from our old neighborhoods, an unacknowledged inheritance from our parents.

At any rate, those games represented a special moment in my life. We all came together, me and my chums, to play ball. We huddled and called our plays, our buttonhooks and down-and-outs and our going-longs, and played football all through the January and February afternoons.
Nothing else going on in the world mattered and, as far as we could tell, nothing else ever would. All that counted was to be out there playing a game in the cold with your friends. We came together almost magnetically, gravitationally, without even a phone call first, to test ourselves against each other, to see who would win, to mimic everything we saw the Packers and the Cowboys do on TV.

We all knew each other so well, knew each other’s mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, had gone to each other’s houses. We took the same classes, had the same teachers. We all loved to play – that was the real common denominator on those winter days. We all wanted to excel as athletes.

I never had anything like that again, a band of friends with whom you could kid around and burp and fart. Never again would I feel so close to other males, in friendships that ran so deep, so unquestioning. I never even came close, neither in college nor at any office.

It was the circumstances that made it possible, I suppose, the time and place and our proximity to each other, all of us the same age. We had something special, irreplaceable, a closeness.
But at least I had that once, and sometimes once can be enough.

It might have to be.

Me and the Boys of Alden Terrace

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Every Sunday afternoon, with something like clockwork regularity, we boys all gathered at Paul Solomon’s house. Me, Don, Andy, Carl, Steve, sometimes Mike and Larry. We had to be 12, 13, 14 years old, all of us living on the same block or two, in the same kinds of split-level houses built in the 1950s, going to the same school.

We watched either pro football or pro basketball, on the only color TV in the neighborhood, the football field suddenly lush green, the basketball court suddenly a golden hue. It might be the Green Bay Packers against the Dallas Cowboys, both teams then dominant, or the Los Angeles Lakers versus the Boston Celtics, also powerhouses.

After the games, we would all put on our overcoats and caps and go outside to play touch football in the street in front of Paul’s house. Our field went from telephone pole to telephone pole, probably about 50 yards, with the sidelines marked by the curbs on either side. Sometimes a car or two would be parked out on the street (most stayed in driveways) and we had to play around those (though sometimes we accidentally collided into one going out for a pass).

We played two-on-two or three-on-three, depending on how many guys showed up, and we went at it all afternoon, oblivious of time and responsibility and the world at large, our minds intent on the next pass, the next catch, scoring the next touchdown.

Paul, the biggest and strongest then, played the best (he would later be the only one of us to join the high school football team). He had the calm air of the superior athlete, and usually played quarterback.

Don, my best friend, a lefty, could run fast, and so could Andy.

Me, I could throw and catch pretty well, always equipped with better arms than legs.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.

How My Grandmother Anointed Me Prince Robert

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Look at my grandson. Just look at him. Is he the most beautiful grandson you ever saw? He’s mine, you know. All mine. Yes, I’m his grandmother, his Nana, and he’s my grandchild, the very first.

That’s how it was with my Nana, the only Nana who ever really mattered to me. That’s what she said and that’s how she thought.

Look at my grandson. He’s so smart. That’s why he’s bored in school and never does his homework and gets such poor grades. He’s so clever.

That’s why he’s always making wonderful observations at museums and in restaurants and wherever I take him. He’s so sensitive, too sensitive. That’s why he talks back to teachers and gets in trouble and everything bothers him and he feels hurt and angry half the time. Look at him and listen to him and marvel at him.

All hail, Prince Robert!

He’s the smartest, most beautiful, most sensitive grandson in history. I would do anything for him – take him to Rappaport’s toy store on Third Avenue or the Guggenheim or Saks Fifth Avenue or Schrafft’s or Chock Full o’Nuts.

I’ll make him French Toast and coffee with a lot of milk and sugar and I’ll let him stay up later than his parents do and watch whatever he wants on TV.

He can do no wrong and never will. He’s my grandson, after all, so how could he? It’s genetically impossible. Moses had nothing on him. He’s perfection itself. He’s everything to me. He’s my second chance, a child who’s neither deaf nor wildly disobedient, so unlike my daughter and son, a chance to start over, a clean slate, a child to spoil worse than rotten, a child over whom I might exert full control.

Everything he does is right. Even everything he does wrong is right. Every word he writes is brilliant. He’s going to accomplish something big.

That’s how it felt with her. She hovered, my guardian angel, my Greek chorus, my personal cheerleading squad. She pulled out all the stops, showered me with compliments and peptalks, assured me I could accomplish anything. I was the chosen one. I could walk on water.
It meant the world to me back then, especially at my youngest, getting this extravagant attention, this unwavering love. Every child should at least once in life be so lucky. Every boy should have at least a moment to feel like a prince.

The Boy Who Became My Father: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My father graduated from Rutgers in 1948 – I forgot to mention he entered the Army for a spell, too, and apparently trained pilots; I saw photos of him, in his flight gear, near a plane on an airfield – and again, for anyone with so little hearing to finish college in those days was no small accomplishment.

By the way, it’s worth taking a moment to look at the decision my grandparents made to send my father away to school. It’s easy to pass judgment and call this a terrible decision, inflicting a second sense of loss in a small boy like that, maybe just to get him out of the house. But it was the 1930s, the Great Depression had already set in, and my grandparents were doing what people with deaf or almost-deaf children did back then, turning to the acknowledged experts for help. So I want to be fair about that.

After college my father went to work at a place called Three Guys From Harrison, a kind of precursor to Home Depot My father told me how the job interviewer asked him whether he knew anything about retail sales. The answer was no, but my father said yes. He had to bluff to get the job, and so he found himself hired. I guess he tended to customers in the aisles and labeled prices on products and loaded stock in the backrooms, but it was no job for someone with his mind, so scientific and inventive.

Years later, my father would tell me he probably could have become an engineer – and maybe should have – rising through the ranks at some company like IBM or Xerox or Boeing or GM. It would turn out he was good at anything mechanical, whether a clock or a car or a washing machine. He was drawn to technology, had an aptitude for it, was fascinated by it, was what marketers would be quick to call an early adapter.

Eventually, and happily for him, he would answer his calling. But now it’s 1949 or so and my father goes to some local event held for the deaf community and meets a woman named Aileen, then 21 or so. She’s beautiful – no really, she looks like Elizabeth Taylor, almost a dead ringer for her – and she comes from a solid professional family in New York City (then living on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx). I heard his advances toward her were unwelcome at first, but he persisted.

One day he climbed a ladder or a fire escape onto her apartment building in the Bronx and crawled into her window.

I always wonder how the families saw each other then. On one side, you had the Brodys, my grandfather Harry Brody an eighth-grade dropout and still a peasant at heart, owner of a bar, the son a hard-of-hearing Rutgers graduate. On the other side, you had the Shefts, my grandfather Benjamin a certified public accountant in a proper office, my grandmother Gertrude by then already putting on airs, the daughter completely deaf from a bout with meningitis in infancy.

It must have seemed a step up for my father, winning the heart of a gorgeous girl from New York City whose father, unlike his, had also graduated college). It might have seemed a step up for my mother, too, because even though the Brodys had less money and lived in New Jersey – imagine that, people living in New Jersey! – he was only hard of hearing, able to benefit from the better hearing aids now, and certainly he was ambitious. Why else would he climb into her bedroom window that night?

Whatever the case, they soon became engaged and married. They honeymooned in July, 1951, at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills – then and for a long time considered the Plaza of the Catskills – and took a one-bedroom apartment at 910 Sheridan Avenue, near The Grand Concourse in the Bronx, for about $100 a month.

Eight months and two weeks later my father and mother became parents for the first time.

Can you guess who that kid was?

The Boy Who Became My Father

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My father lost most of his hearing, the result of nerve deafness, before he turned one year old.
He grew up in a small house in a section of New Jersey called Weequahic, in Newark, heavily Jewish in the 1940s and 1940s. His parents, Harry and Anna, both from Austria, sent him away, on a train, to a special school for the deaf in St. Louis, when he was a boy, maybe only eight or nine.

He was hard of hearing, severely so, able to make out perhaps 10% of all sounds, and this was back before hearing headsets or aids were of great use. He probably had difficulty making himself understood or understanding those around him, frustrating everyone, including himself.

The school in St. Louis was expensive, all that special training plus room and board and the train trips back and forth to New Jersey once or twice a year, but somehow, I’m told, my grandparents, then still of modest means, managed to pay for it year after year. It was a sacrifice and they went without, forgoing new clothes and furniture and vacation, because they wanted my father equipped to survive in the world with the skills he would need, most prominently an ability to speak and comprehend the speech of others.

My father was an absent-minded boy at home, his sisters told me, “his head in the clouds,” a description later echoed by his mother-in-law, my grandmother Sheft. He kept to himself, in his room, and conducted small science experiments, once causing some chemicals to explode.
He went to school in St. Louis for 10 years and I’m certain it left him feeling lonely, maybe even abandoned, and I doubt he ever really felt all that close to anyone in his life, though I could well be wrong, and would like to be.

But let me stick with the little I know. He had two younger sisters, Zelda and Gail, and from what I have gathered, they got all the attention in those days. They were pretty, they had sociable personalities and they enjoyed perfect hearing. Whether my father resented this favoritism I can only guess. How his sisters treated him is purely a matter of speculation.

This much I know, too: my father was bright and athletic, and to no small degree driven. I say this because he played on his high school football team, and more important, because he was accepted as a student at Rutgers University in 1944. Rutgers was then, and still is, a highly respected school, and my father had to be among the very few students there with almost no hearing. As he later told me himself, he always sat in the first row in class, the better to hear the teacher, and also took more notes than other students, the better to doublecheck.

My father was pretty pigheaded back then, and this habit would prevail through his life, both to his credit and detriment equally. For example, it was generally accepted among his family that nobody could tell him much of anything. He was going to do what he was going to do, no matter what his parents or sisters or teachers told him.

I would later see this tendency at work myself years later, as would my mother, her mother and my sister.

P.S. — See Part 2 tomorrow.

My Mother, Disabled by the Disease of Denial

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My mother, despite being profoundly deaf since infancy, took piano lessons as a girl. It was my grandmother’s idea.

Why her daughter should play an instrument she was unable to hear is uncertain. But I can guess.

Maybe she wanted my mother to feel like a person equipped with normal hearing, same as almost everyone else. Or maybe my grandmother wanted to fool herself into believing her daughter could hear. Or both.

Whatever the case, I’ve long imagined my mother taking those piano lessons in the Bronx. She’s seated at the keyboard, her hands arched, the teacher instructing. She plays a tune, unable to tell whether she’s played it well, with no clue whether she’s missed a note.
Oh, mother why? she must have wondered. Why must I play piano? I’m deaf. What’s the point?
But there my grandmother might be, watching the lesson, even delighting in hearing her deaf daughter play piano.

Ah, yes, she might be thinking. My daughter can play piano. She’s as good as anyone else, and now she knows it.

It’s hard to decide what to make of all this.

Certainly my grandmother had the best of intentions. That’s why she had my mother take dance lessons, too. Again, my mother learned to perform to sounds she was unable to perceive. She would pick up the steps to the waltz and mimic the teacher gliding across the dance floor to the strains of Strauss, only she would do so to silence.

Maybe my mother felt like all the other girls as she danced, and maybe her mother felt like all the other mothers there, at least in those moments.

Let’s all pretend. Let’s all pretend Aileen can hear.

This game of make-believe took other forms, too. My mother wound up educated in the so-called oralist tradition. You learned to speak the same as hearing people, with your mouth rather than relying on your hands, and to read lips. Use of sign language, whether at home or in school, was expressly prohibited. Nobody should be able to detect your deafness, lest you be stigmatized.

In those days, back in the 1930s and 1940s, deafness was still seen largely as a version of stupidity. More than a few deaf children were misdiagnosed as retarded, even institutionalized as such. So one must understand the times, the cultural context, rather than be quick to condemn.

Still, my mother and her friends used sign language in school anyway, secretly, under the desks. Nothing could suppress this elemental means of communication and expression. Nature will out. Plants will break through the soil, no matter what the environment.

I see my mother as a girl in class, perhaps wearing pigtails and a uniform. She is shaping words with her fingers under her desk for the next girl over to see.

Did you see the new boy. I think he’s cute. What do you think? They’re both smiling now, my mother and her classmate, and the conversation goes on, silent but hardly wordless, bridging the barrier of sound, making a connection. My mother is deaf and she knows she’s deaf, but she’s happy. She’s letting herself be deaf and adapting to it rather than pretending otherwise or letting her mother pretend otherwise. They’re giggling, my mother and her friend, and the teacher has no clue, and neither does my grandmother. Freedom of expression at its most basic and most beautiful, unchecked and unstoppable.

My grandmother meant well – she always meant well, no one ever really doubted that, though you know what people say about the best of intentions – but games of pretend, carried too far, can have consequences unintended and unforeseen. A deaf girl can grow up without quite accepting herself as deaf, without quite believing her own mother accepts her as deaf, suspecting society at large refuses to accept her as deaf, too. She can grow up feeling, if anything, even more apart, more an outlier, than she otherwise might.

It’s a question of identity. Who am I, that’s the question, and is the person I am different from the person my mother wants me, expects me, to be? That’s the issue.

You can hear, my grandmother seems to insist. If you just try hard enough – if you take piano lessons and learn to dance the waltz to music and speak with your mouth rather than your hands – you will be able to hear. You just have to try hard enough.

But my grandmother got that wrong, and her daughter paid the price. Denial is also a disability.

Cradled in My Father’s Arms: Part 3

Dear Michael and Caroline,

He went hunting in 1969 and slipped on a rock and hurt his back and was unable to move or call for help. This predicament gave him an idea.

Establish a network enabling the deaf to communicate with each other and everyone else, including the police and fire departments. And that’s what he would eventually do with teletypewriters, first in New York and New Jersey, then nationwide.

He was a pioneer honored at dinners and given awards and written about in newspapers, and I was proud of him, or at least I am now (his noble mission back then seemed just to be something else that took him away from his family).

Of course that’s how men acted then, husbands and fathers, because that’s how they were expected to act – all business, the kids pretty much incidental.

When my father died in February, 1997, keeling over from a massive heart attack in his girlfriend’s kitchen, my Uncle Ward had something to say. We had held the funeral service and given the eulogy and said kaddish and laid him in the soil, and now we were all going to leave him behind, alone, much as he always wanted to be. And good old Uncle Ward decided to answer the impulse to be profound and wise and enlightening.

So he said to me and Mom, as I recall, “Well, I know he could have spent more time with his family, but he’s a hero to the deaf community, so we should still think of him as a success.”
I would like to tell you I agreed, because it would make me seem generous and understanding and forgiving. But then Ward was never the baby his father never held.

Cradled in My Father’s Arms: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

This much I know for sure: I saw my father less during my childhood than I would have liked, and as an adult, too, for that matter. His presence in my life was defined largely by his absence. In that sense, it reminds you of a character in a play who mostly stays offstage, talked about but unseen.

He had his work to do, managing apartment buildings with his father in Newark, and that kept him busy from early morning to later at night. He took me to Newark with him a few times, and I saw him check in with the superintendents, bringing beer as a gift and explaining to me why.
We would ride to work on the Garden State Parkway, father and son, he behind the wheel of his powder-blue Chevy station wagon, and I would be so happy. Any time he had to stop short, he stuck out his arm across the front seat to keep me from tumbling forward against the dashboard, keeping me safe (this was before seat belts).

He wore a hearing aid his whole life – it might squawk and screech sometimes, like a message on a ham radio trying to come through – but he heard anything I said pretty well.
Once, while driving to his buildings, he started talking about God. He said that what was different about being Jewish was you had a choice about whether to believe in God.

Another time, as he built a bar in our den – he was always quite handy – he told me he disliked drinking alcohol because it left him depressed. He told me something about my Uncle Leonard, too, as if confiding a dark family secret – that he never really got along all that well with anyone.
He pulled the same move about my Uncle Ward, too, sharing a confidence that he never really worked, and that was because he already had so much money. He made these remarks to me, I believe, more to be instructive than to belittle anyone. He was trying to explain a little of the world to his son.

Now I find myself trying to explain my father to you, and to myself, too. Let me tell you this. He found his true calling later in life.

P.S. – See Part 3 tomorrow.

Cradled in My Father’s Arms

Dear Michael and Caroline,

I heard my father never held me as a baby. My grandmother Sheft told me that. It could be true.
Maybe he, new to babies, felt uncomfortable holding one. Maybe his own father never held him as a baby, either.

Then again, maybe my grandmother just never saw my father hold his first-born son. Or maybe my mother never saw my father hold me as a baby, and then told my grandmother. That could be the case.

If so, what might it mean?

Maybe my father held me when no one was looking. Maybe he waited until my mother and grandmother left the room, and only then, without anyone else around, with no one to tell him he was doing it wrong or should stop, he would hold me.

Or maybe he slipped over to my crib at night when everyone was sleeping and saw me awake and picked me up. It could be he just wanted complete privacy in this most intimate act. He might have wanted no one to see him as he cradled me in his arms and brought my face close to his face and told me he loved me.

He might have preferred to be alone with his baby boy, free to touch my cheek with his finger and stroke my brow and generally admire the creature he had co-created.

That’s what I’d like to believe happened.

But whether I actually do is another matter altogether.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.

My Nana’s Concierge Service: Part 3

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Much of what I have turned out to be – for good and for ill, because, I, too, am rather a snob – I am because of my Nana. She gave me her all from the very start, even wheeling me around the Bronx as a baby.

She saw so much in me, maybe a second chance to be the right kind of mother. She saw in me a child who could hear her, as her first child, my mother, never could. She saw in me, too, a child largely obedient, respectful, appreciative, compliant, descriptions all most likely inapplicable to her second child, my Uncle Leonard.

She must have seen me, even, as a kind of opportunity for redemption, for success where she felt she had previously failed.

In short, she had her reasons for treating me as well as she did, reasons that probably had more to do with her than with me.

Oh, and here’s yet another reason, perhaps the most important of all. She might have blamed herself for my mother being deaf, and so she might have held herself responsible for her deaf daughter’s son as well.

She probably saw me as a child who could never get from my parents everything she could get me, neither the attention nor the culture nor the guidance. By the same token, just as she always made me feel special – secure, loved – so must taking care of me have made her feel special, even vaguely heroic, a stature she no doubt savored.

All this is to say, if nothing else, that I wish for everyone in this life to have at least once the kind of love my grandmother had for me, a grandmother who would do anything for me, and often did. You know what I mean. You, too, count among the lucky ones in this regard. And that has always made me feel lucky all over again.

P.S. — Please tell me about your own Nana.