Uncle Sol wears a hairnet to bed every night like an old lady. That’s why his brown hair sticks to his head like it was painted on. He came on an ocean liner from Riga in Latvia where he grew up with Daddy, and he sleeps on a folding cot in the dinette under the calendar with the sunflower for August. Because Uncle Sol is in the dinette, we have to eat in the front hall. When anyone opens the door you push your chair in.
I finish my chocolate pudding and take my dish into the kitchen but Uncle Sol never helps clear the table. He’s already sitting in Daddy’s armchair next to the piano. He pokes his glasses up on his nose with his finger. “Why don’t you join me for some after dinner conversation, Alice.” Sometimes he talks to me like we’re kings and queens.
I lean against the chair and Uncle Sol tells me I’m old enough to learn the family secrets. Like how daddy got the scar on his lip. I know all about the scar. He stole Mr. Davidoff’s horse and wagon and the horse kicked him. Daddy always points to the little white caterpillar on his lip like he’s bragging. It’s not a family secret; it’s just the opposite.
“He was all bloody but our mama spanked him anyway,” Uncle Sol is saying, “What can I tell you, Alice, your daddy got into a lot of trouble.”
“What else did he do?”
“Well he wasn’t good like you. You know, back in Bausk- that’s the village in Latvia where we lived when we were children – the boys had to go to “chedar” to study Hebrew. One time the rabbi fell asleep and your Daddy glued his long white beard to the desk. All the boys in the class shouted. The rabbi jerked his head up and cried out in pain.”
“Ouch!” I say. “But I’m not good all the time.” Every one knows stories don’t come from being good.
“I told Mama no one can learn from someone who’s always falling asleep,” Uncle Sol says. “Every boy in the class was miserable, but only Abe did something about it. I was the one who had to make the excuses to Mama.”
“Do you have more?”
“Well, your father saved my life. I wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for your daddy. He pulled me out after I fell through the ice. The water was freezing and he could have fallen in with me, but that didn’t stop him. He was a hero.”
“I don’t know about that,” Daddy says, “but I wasn’t going to let you drown so Mama could give me that look and say, ‘Why? Why did it have to be Sol?’ She yelled at me anyway. She said I shouldn’t take you skating.”
“She wasn’t an easy woman, our Mama,” Uncle Sol says.
“She liked you better.” Daddy’s looking out the window. He’s far away in his head where he is a lot of the time.
“That’s not so. You were the man of action, not like Papa always with the books. She wanted you to take over the store. You didn’t have to leave Riga, Abe. If you didn’t like retail and the long hours, you could have gone into manufacturing like me. Did you know Alice, your father came to this country when he was only seventeen? He didn’t know a word of English. Not like your Uncle Sol. Mama pinned a piece of paper to his jacket that said, ‘Negaunee, Mich.” He didn’t even know “Mich” was the name of a state in America. Where Mama’s relatives lived. Michigan.”
Even I know Michigan and I’m only going into second grade. I can see up Uncle Sol’s nose. He clips his nose hairs with a special scissors. He doesn’t look like Daddy even if they are brothers. His nose and mouth are small and his eyes blue. Mommy says he doesn’t even look Jewish. Daddy has a big nose, big brown eyes and big, bushy eyebrows. His voice is big too, and he yells a lot.
Mommy makes me go to bed. I push my face into the pillow and close my eyes, but I can still hear Daddy shouting that Hitler is going to take over all of Europe if Stalin doesn’t beat him to it. Hitler is the German and a Nazi. Stalin is the Russian and a Communist. Both of them are bad.
“Why would any one go back to Europe?” Daddy yells. “I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. And now? When they’re herding Jews off the streets in Berlin? Burning their businesses? Don’t you see, it’s just the beginning.”
He wants every one to come and live here: Uncle Sol and his wife, Aunt Lotte and their niece Hanna. She’s the daughter of their dead sister who diedofbeedease when Hanna was little. Last year Hanna’s father married someone else and the wicked stepmother threw Hanna out of the house.
My mother starts talking about Hanna so I get out of bed and go to the door to listen.
“That woman won’t even let Hanna visit. Otto has to meet her one night a week in a café,” Mommy is saying. “Lotte wrote me all about it. How can he do that, Sol? He didn’t fight for Hanna, his own daughter?”
“He was always a weak man,” Uncle Sol says.
“I’m glad Hanna’s living with you and Lotte,” Daddy says.
“Of course. Where was she to go? Seventeen and with no home. But to tell you the, truth Abe, it’s not easy.”
“You must stay in New York, Sol.” Daddy says for the third time tonight. He never says anything once and it’s less boring if you keep count. “We’ll bring Lotte over and Hanna too. But we have to do it soon while we still can.”
“I’m not going to be a burden to you, Abe,” says Uncle Sol. “I’ll sell the lace factory so I can start over with some capital. I don’t want to become your poor relative from Riga.”
“God damn it, Sol. This is no time to be proud.”
“You worry too much. Remember I lived through the last German occupation. The Germans respect good work and good workers. Not like those barbarians, the Russians, who want to take everything away from us.”
“These are not your Germans. Hitler and his mob. Listen to the man, for God’s sake. It’s no secret. He wants to wipe us from the earth. Of course you know what I think of the Communists. We got enough of them trying to bring down the system right here in America.’
“Well your niece Hanna doesn’t agree. She has a goyish boyfriend from the working class. She thinks Communism is the answer. And she isn’t the only Jew who does.”
I’m getting sleepy so I go back to bed and pull the covers up to my chin. I don’t care about Hitler or the Communists, but I do care about not having a mother and being thrown out of your own house by your stepmother. Daddy would never let that happen to me. He’s scary sometimes because of the yelling, but he isn’t weak like Hanna’s father, Uncle Otto. So my cousin Hanna has a boyfriend. “Goyish” I know what that means. “Working class” I’m not sure.
We’re going to drop Uncle Sol off at Daddy’s factory so Daddy can brag about what he did in America. I know all about that too. When the relatives in Michigan weren’t nice to him, he moved to New York City. And before he had a big bakery of his own, he drove a horse and wagon and brought bread every morning to people in Brooklyn before the sun came up. That horse knew every stop on the route. If Daddy fell asleep the horse would go to the right house and shake his head so his bells would jingle and wake Daddy up.
Mommy drives the car and Uncle Sol sits next to her. Daddy’s bakery is downtown in Manhattan so we have to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. The grown-ups are talking in the front seat and they aren’t including me. I look at the skyscrapers. Such a good word I wish I made it up. Uncle Sol doesn’t think the tall buildings are anything special. Not even the Empire State. He didn’t like that we rode the elevator with “all sorts of people.” We took him to see the sights, but wherever we went, Uncle Sol kept brushing specks of dirt from his jacket and pants. We went to see the Brooklyn Dodgers ballgame at Ebbets Field. Uncle Sol didn’t like people getting up all the time for peanuts and hotdogs. “So rude. So disrespectful to the ballplayers,” he kept saying, even after Daddy laughed at him and told him a ball game isn’t a concert. He sniffed and tucked the paper napkin under his shirt collar so he wouldn’t get mustard on his blue tie.
Uncle Sol was mad at Dr. Bialkin who lives across the hall because he came to see us in his shirtsleeves. “He doesn’t even shave and he calls himself a doctor?” Uncle Sol shook his head. “You can’t tell who anyone is in this country. No one gives you a card.” Uncle Sol keeps a black case with “calling cards” and gives one to every one he meets. He makes a little bow from his waist each time. Daddy doesn’t pay attention. I do. Mommy says I’m “observant.” She’s right. I can see everything like a telescope on the observation deck at the top of the Empire State building.
We pull up the car to Daddy’s bakery on East 3rd Street where his workers make the bread and rolls they sell in restaurants and grocery stores. Uncle Sol gets out and kisses me on both cheeks. He’s going to come back for dinner with Daddy. Before we drive away, Daddy pulls himself onto the loading dock and gives us a box of sweet rolls to take home. The whole car smells like cinnamon all the way back to Brooklyn. Mommy parks in front of Florsheim’s on Flatbush Avenue where we’re going for new shoes, the lace-up kind for school, but also Mary-Janes. It’s the end of summer, and I have to go back to school. To start second grade. I don’t want vacation to end but it’s going to anyway.
Children and their mothers are everywhere, and shoe boxes all over the place. “Alice dear,” Mommy says. She puts her arm around me and she smells like lemons. “I want to explain something. It’s really hard for your uncle to be here without Aunt Lotte. They found each other later in life. Aunt Lotte was divorced, and Uncle Sol was a dashing bachelor, a man about town. They have a great romance.”
“A romance? Uncle Sol?” I don’t believe it for a minute.
“You know Daddy is upset. He wants Uncle Sol to stay here and to send for Aunt Lotte, but Sol is worried she won’t be able to sell his lace factory and pack up alone. He’s probably right. It isn’t easy for women to manage these things by themselves.”
“Aunt Lotte is beautiful.”
“She is. She has blond hair and green eyes. And she dresses very stylishly”
Uncle Sol keeps Aunt Lotte’s picture in his breast pocket. He sometimes pats the pocket like he wants to make sure she’s still there. Once he pulled the picture out, looked at it a long time, and wiped his eyes with his handkerchief.
I take off my shoe and put my foot on the metal measuring plate. I only have a sock on and the plate is cold. The salesman gets on one knee to see if the shoe fits my foot like he’s the prince in Cinderella and I’m Hanna and my stepmother makes me sit in the ashes.
“You have big feet for a little girl,’ the salesman says.
“I know,” I tell him. “I’m going to be tall.”
When Daddy and Uncle Sol come home, they bring a loaf of challah bread from the bakery. Uncle Sol says he really likes what Daddy calls his “place of business.” They “talk shop” over dinner which is just boring so I tear off chunks of challah to soak up the pot roast gravy. My mother is busy in the kitchen and can’t tell me to stop playing with my food. I’m not playing; I’m observing. Chollah pieces soak up gravy fast. Besides, even if I play with them, I always eat them. .
“When you own a bakery, your family will never starve,’ Daddy told Uncle Herman from my mother’s family. Uncle Herman delivers newspapers for the Daily News. I was playing house with Uncle Herman’s kid, Cousin Elaine, and I told her “If things get bad, your family will have newspapers to read but nothing to eat.”
“Shut up, Alice,” Elaine said. Elaine is three years older than me and my only girl cousin until Hanna. Now I have two, one from my mother’s side and one from my father’s.
My mother brings the fruit and tea and cookies. Uncle Sol pulls out his cigarette and holder from its leather case and pats his pockets for his lighter. My father gets red in the face and goes on what Mommy calls “a rant.”
“Do you know, Alice, your clever Uncle Sol is going back to Riga next week. He thinks he has all the time in the world.” Daddy keeps looking at me like he’s talking to me so I have to pretend I’m listening. “He even thinks there will be peace in Latvia because Hitler told Stalin he will leave the Baltics alone. Uncle Sol believes this rubbish because he wants to.” He’s talking like Uncle Sol isn’t sitting right next to him. He grabs my hand and pulls me to the world globe on its wooden stand near the desk. He pokes at pink Latvia, purple Lithuania and orange Estonia, the Baltic States on the edge of the blue Baltic Sea. “You see how small they are? What chance do they have?” He twirls the globe around so hard the wooden stand wobbles and almost falls over. Daddy glares back at Uncle Sol who sits smoking his cigarette from the long black and gold cigarette holder.
Daddy leaves the world globe spinning. “Hitler is already in Czechoslovakia. He’ll attack Poland any day now.”
“Believe me, Abe,” Uncle Sol says. He sighs. His voice is quiet. “This isn’t an easy decision. Sometimes I even think you’re right. One day I may be sorry I went back but still, I need time. Sell the business. Get my affairs in order. Try to understand my position.”
“Well I’m bringing Hanna over as soon as I can get her out. I already filled out the papers.”
“You’re going to have your hands full with that one,” Uncle Sol said.
They keep talking about Hanna and her boyfriend and all the bad meetings they go to. “She’s a rebel. A Socialist. Maybe, God forbid, a Communist.” Uncle Sol says.
“Please stop,” Mommy scolds them. “The child has had a hard life. Her mother dies and this Yetta won’t let her live with them. She’s probably looking for a community. Something to be part of.”
“Hanna’s no child. But maybe you’re right, Frieda. We never had children, and we certainly don’t know much about raising angry young girls.”
“Why don’t you play for us, darling,” Daddy says.
“Yes, do play, Frieda,” Uncle Sol says. “That was a delicious meal you made tonight.”
Mommy pats her skirt, shakes her fingers out and touches the keyboard up and down like she’s saying hello to the eighty-eight keys. Then she plays. It’s Chopin’s pretty waltz again. I make pointy-toes and dance around the coffee table. I raise my arms like the ballerina in Swan Lake, but Daddy and Uncle Sol aren’t watching me. They’re listening to Mommy. Uncle Sol’s smoke curls around the waltz notes in the air. When the music stops, they clap. “Beautiful. You’re playing better than ever, dear.” Daddy gives Mommy a kiss on the cheek.
“You know Alice,” Uncle Sol says, “My city is filled with musicians and music-lovers. On a summer night like this, you can hear music from open windows...not from concert halls but from people’s living rooms. Mozart and Beethoven. Bach and Chopin. Some day you will visit us, Alice. You will love the ancient buildings and cobblestone streets, the turrets and the clock-tower. It’s like out of one of your fairy tales. They call that part of Riga the Old City.”
“Old city. Old ways,” Daddy says.
“Admit it, Abe. Our Riga is beautiful.” Uncle Sol keeps going, “and every one in our family – in your family, Alice – is a musician. Our sister, may she rest in peace, was a fine pianist like your own mother. She was only one of two Jewish girls accepted into the Conservatory. Do you play the piano too? You’re teaching her, aren’t you Frieda?”
“She’s waiting until I’m more mature. Until I have bigger hands and stronger fingers,” I tell him before she can.
“And the patience to practice every single day,” Mommy says like she always does. “But you know, Sol, Alice is a reader and she’s becoming quite the writer. Just listen. Recite your poem for Uncle Sol, dear.”
I jump up from the floor and stand in the curve of the big black piano. I fold my hands in front of me like a singer at a concert. “The Seasons,” I start. “In winter, the trees stand bare and cold/In spring, their leaves unfold/In summer, their leaves spread open to look up at the sky/In fall they change color, then crumple and die.”
Every one claps. Daddy plants one of his sloppy wet kisses on my cheek and I wipe it off with the back of my sleeve. “She’s only six,” Daddy says.
“Going on seven,” I say.
“Beautiful, honey,” Uncle Sol says. “You capture each season with a single image. That’s a skill. And you have it. Ah, I am going to miss you, Alice. You made me very happy.” He gives me a big hug and his cheek is wet from crying.
Uncle Sol walks up the gangplank and stands way up at the railing of the ocean liner. People are shoving and pushing us, but Daddy keeps the new movie camera on his shoulder. I wave and wave until my arm feels like it’s going to fall off. Uncle Sol blows me a kiss and calls something down, but I can’t hear what. The thick brown film whirs round and round inside the camera. Daddy’s doing a movie of Uncle Sol’s trip to New York that we can watch anytime we want. “It will be a record,” Daddy says. “Sol’s visit to America, Summer, 1939.” That’s the label he will stick on the metal spool of film when he puts it with the other ones of my birthday parties and the Feldman Family picnics. Daddy shoves the camera into its leather case and clicks the metal locks fast and hard like he’s mad.
The horn booms, smoke gushes out of the smokestacks, and Uncle Sol keeps smiling and waving until the white hull moves into the black water, and he becomes a dot, and then a nothing.
Marilyn Ogus Katz taught at the State University of New York College at Purchase and was dean of studies at Sarah Lawrence for many years. “Uncle Sol Comes to America” is one in a collection of linked stories, A Few Small Stones, about coming of age in an immigrant family in New York City in the 1940s. Three others have been or will be published by Writer’s Digest, Hadassah Magazine and Jewish Currents. Her novel, The Lacemaker, about a family caught between Hitler and Stalin, is in the final stages of revision.