On New Year’s morning, I received a call from his wife, Evelyn. Samuel had gotten up in the middle of the night and collapsed at the foot of their bed. Evelyn tried to pick him up. His legs buckled. He didn’t know where he was; he didn’t recognize her. EMS took him to the local hospital.
My sister Gaby and I flew down to Florida. Evelyn was frantic. Sam’s mind was gone. Alzheimer’s, she said. A CAT scan showed no evidence of stroke, but my father babbled in French, fought the nurses and cursed the doctors. He tore the IV out of his arm. The doctors ordered him put under restrains and two days later, they sent him home.
Once home, Samuel did not recover so easily. His body, wracked with a cough from a bronchitis he had developed at Christmas, shrunken and flaccid with age, weakened by antibiotics, needed constant tending. The amoxicillin he took four times a day gave him diarrhea and thrush. Gaby and I took turns cleaning him. I held his scrotum in one hand and gently wiped his skin, as soft as a baby’s. I lifted his penis and cleaned the area between his legs. I dabbed A&D ointment on his sore anus. He cried out every time I touched him. Then it was my sister’s turn. I helped her raise his hips as she sponged off his bony buttocks. We murmured comforting words to him.
What is it like to handle your father’s private parts when everything in your head screams transgression and violation? It’s a shock at first and then distance sets in and some mechanism departicularizes the body. Gaby and I changed Samuel’s feces-filled diaper five or six times that day. We dropped the smelly plastic bags into the garbage cans in the garage. The room stank. Samuel moaned and slept and sometimes moaned in his sleep.
In the evening, Evelyn, Gaby and I huddled on the living-room sofa sipping chamomile tea and listened to the rhythm of Samuel’s breathing in the next room.
“I don’t understand you girls,” Evelyn said during a pause when Samuel’s breathing sounded shallow but reassuringly even. “How you can do these things for your father and not mind. Changing his diaper. Cleaning him. It’s beyond me.”
A look passed between my sister and me. “It’s Preidel Podselver. We learned it from him,” I said suddenly feeling giggly.
Evelyn looked blank.
“Whenever something truly unpleasant had to be done, you could count on our grandfather, Preidel Podselver, to do the job,” I said. Gaby nodded.
“Well,” Evelyn said, somewhat huffily. “That’s not how I was brought up.”
“Oh, but he did it for love, you know,” I said. The giggles had disappeared, replaced by a conviction that surprised me. “Always for love.” And then I remembered how I knew this astonishing truth about my grandfather. It was the best memory I had of him and it was the most disgusting incident of my childhood.
In the winter of 1946-47, my mother, my sister and I moved back to Paris for a year. The War was over and my mother had not seen her parents since we had left France in June 1940. My father was in Africa filming a documentary. It was his first big break in the movies and he would be gone for eleven months. My mother was left alone with two young children – I was ten and Gaby was two.
Paris in 1947 was a bleak city, with a mean, battered populace. It was a very cold winter. There was still rationing; we picked up our food and fuel coupons once a month. Lines for bread formed early in the morning in front of the bakeries; housewives at the butchers and the dairies scuffled with each other for a place in line. Our apartment on the rue Lentonnet was cold and damp. Every night I soaked my feet in warm water to relieve my chilblains. My mother kept a fire going in the living-room fireplace until I could fall asleep. It was an enormous luxury but we were Americans and fragile compared to those who had lived through the War.
I attended an elementary school for girls on the rue Milton. It was a trying time for me. We were required to wear black smocks over our clothes, to walk through the halls with our arms folded behind our backs (this was to prevent any attempt at schoolgirl mischief) and to bow our heads to the teachers as we passed them. In class, we spent hours tracing letters and maps in our notebooks. We learned poems by heart and large chunks of French history from a textbook. I was not a good student. Although I had spoken French at home in the States, I had never learned to write it. I was sloppy and could not prevent the unfamiliar nib pen from splattering ink-stains the size of small insects on my paper.
The winter was hard, but as spring came, a moderate abundance came with it. Fruit tarts and cream puffs appeared in the bakery windows, and bouchées de chocolat, chocolates wrapped in the thinnest foil, just enough for a mouthful. At the top of the Boulevard de Rochechouart an extraordinary event took place. A store opened that sold only ice cream. It was called Blanche Neige and it served coarse-textured, watery ice cream with exotic flavors: praline, peach, passion fruit. In April, the horse-chestnut trees bloomed and on the first of May, there was lily of the valley for sale on every street corner.
But what I remember most about that year in Paris was the toilets. I was ten years old and very fastidious and the French toilets distressed me. There were public toilets where the stalls for women and the urinals for men shared the same space. There were the notorious pissoirs, on every other street corner. Even in private homes, the toilets were dark, smelly closets where the flushing mechanism never worked properly. My grandparents’ weekend house in the suburbs of Paris had a toilet on the second floor that you flushed by emptying a large jug of water as forcefully as possible into the bowl. At school, the toilets were in the courtyard, holes in the ground over which you had to squat. Worse yet, the doors had no locks so that someone, maybe even a girl you didn’t know very well, had to keep guard while you did your business. It was humiliating.
But the worst toilet of all was in the courtyard of the apartment my grandparents occupied during the working week on the rue de Dunkerque. My grandfather designed patterns for woman’s clothes. He was the sole editor and illustrator of a pattern magazine called Francine for which he drew new fashions four times a year. It had been a complex and thriving business before the War. Even in 1947, most French women still preferred making their own clothes or employing a couturière.
My grandparents’ apartment was on the ground floor of a large apartment house. You entered the house through a portecochère, the outside door that led to a central passageway. On the left was the concierge’s apartment, her lodge. After you identified yourself to her, you stepped into a courtyard that was not particularly spacious or tidy. The concierge’s son kept his bicycle there and the trash bins were emptied once a week.
My grandparents’ apartment had a door that opened on to the courtyard. The apartment consisted of a narrow front room for sleeping in and a back room for eating and cooking. There was no place to take a bath; no hot water, even in the kitchen; and no indoor toilet. That was in the courtyard and locked with a great heavy key that my grandmother kept on the windowsill of the kitchen area. This toilet arrangement was available only to the tenants who had a key. The toilet had no seat and the dirty tiles on the floor tilted dangerously toward the hole in the center. There were two raised areas on which you were supposed to place your feet and squat and when you reached behind to pull the chain you had to be careful not to step into the swirls of nasty-smelling water. In 1947, toilet paper, that scratchy brown variety that you can still find in some European public toilets, was so scarce you either brought your own or made do with the torn sheets of newsprint stuffed into a crevice in the wall.
My grandparents were middle-class shopkeepers, comfortably off. Why did they subject themselves to such Spartan living conditions? Of course the war had just ended, apartments were hard to find and this one was conveniently close to their shop. But the principal reason was that my grandfather believed in the virtues of discomfort and deprivation. In the romance that is every family’s story, my grandfather, Preidel Podselver, emerges as a tough guy, “un dur.” He liked to take cold baths; he did not mind heating his shaving water every day (he shaved with a straight-edged razor that he sharpened on a leather strop that hung from a hook in the kitchen) or using a toilet without a seat. In spite of the limp he had developed in a Siberian prison under the Tsars, Grand-père walked two kilometers every night after dinner, using his cane for support and lurching like a storm-tossed ship. He was a man of middle height, with a large head, a tonsure-like band of graying hair, and a stiff mustache under his bulbous nose. His hands were thick and blue-red like his nose, but when he held a pencil between his arthritic fingers, he drew the most delicate, elegant figures. On weekends, he gardened in his house outside Paris, on his knees, his cane beside him; in the evenings he listened to Ce Soir en France on the radio and drank a little schnapps before going to bed. My grandmother was different. Refined and elegant, she had delicate hands and feet, played Mozart’s Rondo alla turca at breathtaking speed, recited Heine, and sang Schubert Leider. My grandfather was tone-deaf.
I spent a great deal of time with my grandparents that year. My mother was busy with my sister and my grandparents’ store was halfway between school and home. I often had lunch with them on school days. There was no cantine at school; every child came home for a two-hour lunch. Grand-père favored a restaurant on the Avenue Trudaine where he could get a stek pommes frites and a peach for dessert, which he cut with a knife and fork. I had a lamb chop and on special days, shared a tarte aux pommes with my grandmother. Lunch was leisurely; everyone knew Monsieur and Madame Podselver were having lunch chez Bessière. My grandmother usually rushed back before her husband to open the store and prepare it for the afternoon customers. I went with her. I liked to be in the shop, with its dress forms and fashion magazines and rows of pattern-filled boxes lined up along the wooden counter. I was also a little afraid of my gruff, taciturn grandfather and did not want to spend too much time alone with him. So I was happy to follow my grandmother back to the shop and leave Grand-père to finish his lunch alone.
After lunch, I usually used the toilet in the courtyard of my grandparents’ apartment house. I didn’t want to wait until I got to school because the toilets in school were just as bad as the toilet in the courtyard, worse even with those doors that didn’t lock. But there were dangers in the courtyard toilet as well and one afternoon the unimaginable happened.
From the back door of my grandparents’ apartment, I made my way into the courtyard and slipped the big metal key I had taken from the kitchen sill into the keyhole. I steadied myself on the two raised tiles, pulled down my panties and did what I had to do. I wiped myself with a piece of stiff brown paper I had brought with me, reached up to pull the chain and at that moment, dropped the key I had been holding in my hand straight into the unflushed hole.
Horrified, I opened the door to let in a sliver of light. The key was gone, disappeared into a hole far worse than any Alice had tumbled down. I could not tell my grandfather what had happened. It was too humiliating, too revolting to think of the key lying in …
No, I could never tell. No one should ever know what had happened. I would have to run away.
And that is what I did. I closed the slatted wooden door, walked across the courtyard and ran up the street, past my grandparents’ shop, past the restaurant where my grandfather was probably just finishing his lunch, and along the Avenue Trudaine, hiccupping with terror as I crossed streets I had never negotiated alone until, breathless and confused, I turned around and ran all the way back to my grandparents’ store.
My grandparents hadn’t even missed me. The store was lively with after-lunch customers. My grandmother chirped and chattered; my grandfather was already bent over his drawing board in the back room.
“I lost the key,” I said, interrupting a conversation between my grandmother and two ladies in hats.
“What key?” my grandmother said. The ladies looked down at me, ready, it seemed to me, to condemn. “Not the key to the apartment?”
“Not that key,” I said, wishing that it had been. “The key to the toilet. I dropped it in the hole. It was an accident.”
There was a silence as my grandmother registered the terrible implications of what I had done.
“Don’t tell your grandfather,” she said. “Not yet. Let me think.”
But it was too late. He must have overheard the conversation, because he got up from his desk and dragging his bad leg behind him, made his way to the counter.
“What’s the matter?” he said.
“Nothing,” my grandmother said. “Go back to work.”
“I dropped the key in the toilet,” I said. “I dropped the key to the toilet in the toilet. I’m sorry.”
My grandfather looked down his large nose at me, jerked his chin upward and said, “Come along.” He reached for his brown wool jacket that always hung on a peg behind the counter.
“The child has to go back to school,” my grandmother said. “She’ll be late.”
My grandfather paused, shook his head. I felt all the force of his disappointment in me.
“Well then,” he said. “Let her go.”
“Go on, go on,” said my grandmother, flapping her hand.
I fled, relieved to be let off so lightly.
There were more stains than usual on my dictée that afternoon and I couldn’t remember the names of the tributaries of the Garonne. At four o’clock, I walked slowly toward my grandparents’ store, lingering in the window of the papeterie that displayed, among the notebooks and nib pens, boxes of colored pencils I yearned to own. My grandmother was waiting for me at the door. After kissing me on both cheeks, she said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Your grandfather found the key to the toilet.”
“Found it? Where?”
“Where you left it. Just in time too. Can you imagine what would have happened if we’d been locked out? Maybe Bessière would have let us use the restaurant’s facilities. But still we’d have to wait for the concierge to make us a new key. Well, it’s over. Go thank your grandfather. He’s in the back room.”
The light was on over Grand-père’s desk, his bald head glistened as he worked. I looked over his shoulder and saw the drawing he was working on, a slender figure in a crocus-blue suit. I noticed how the hand holding the pencil was swollen, thick-fingered, blue-veined. And that was the hand, the right hand he must have plunged into the toilet hole to retrieve the key I had dropped into it. It made me sick to think about it.
“Merci, grand-père,” I said.
“Ça va, ça va ma chèrie,” he said and blinked at me several times. He looked down at his hand and for a moment I thought it might be making him sick too.
“I am so sorry,” I said. I turned my head away so that he wouldn’t see how my mouth was making an arc of misery.
“Je t’aime, tu sais,” he said.
“Oh,” I said, my heart leaping with sudden gratitude. “Moi aussi, Grand-père.”
Grand-père turned back to his drawing board. I ran into the front room of the shop, stubbing my toe on a pile of magazines on the floor.
“Well?” said my grandmother.
“It’s all right,” I said. “He said it was all right.”
“Good,” said my grandmother. “Can you imagine?” She nervously fingered the buttons of her blouse. “Locked out of the toilet? Your grandfather saved us all.”
From where I stood I could see my grandfather bent over his work, glasses resting on his nose, his cane perched against the drawing table, the whole of him framed by the arch of the doorway on one side and my grandmother on the other. And I remember experiencing a rush of feeling – love, pity, awe, I could not have said which – for this old man who had to draw with those thick arthritic hands, who had to drag a gimpy leg wherever he went and who had plunged his hand into a filthy hole so that we could use the toilet without embarrassment. Love and duty, the demands and the rewards. I was too young to have such thoughts then; I only knew that Grand-père had done something difficult because he loved us.
My father has recovered from this winter’s illness. He is safe where he is – there is no alcohol at the nursing home, no easy way for him to get into trouble. His wife makes sure his needs are met and there are nurses to handle the truly disagreeable tasks.
My sister and I visit Samuel as often as possible. We bring him ice cream and Pepperidge Farm cookies and tell him cheerful stories about our lives. And when he looks serious and a little anxious, as he often does these days, one of us bends over him, pats down the wisps of hair around his ears and places a kiss on his warm, moist forehead.