By Madge Kaplan
PROMPT—I am grateful for ...
The first bite was easy, the crunch and chewiness as familiar as gazing at my toes. On the second bite, a bit of panic. How could I make this last? I slowed down, sipped some coffee, and stared at the ingredients on the bag: flour, water, onions, and garlic. My bare feet stroked the wooden floor, a few crumbs swept away in the process. A third bite — I’m walking at a steady pace down First Avenue, my small hand in my grandfather’s larger, leathery one. He’s on a mission, and I’m good at keeping up. I like that I know where we’re going: nine blocks to 14th Street. I can tell when we’re getting close and anticipate the entrance under the faded sign, long before we push open the screen door. I remember not to slip on the sawdust and to get right in line. The count is in my head: a dozen bialys, one seeded rye, and bagels — four onion and four egg. My grandfather, my Babba, has it on a slip of paper, but wants me to place the order.
A fourth bite and we squeeze by waiting customers, out the bakery door. My Babba has the rye and the bagels, while I’ve got the bag with the loose bialys close to me, perfecting my bear hug. The bialys are warm, and the smells of all our purchases accompany us all the way home.
Ice Cream 1
It’s dusk. We’ve finished dinner and are headed out for a treat. Babba knows exactly how long this will take and tells Nanny, my grandmother, “we’ll be back in thirty minutes.” I’ve already summoned the elevator and stand halfway inside, my finger pressed hard on the button to keep the doors open. We drop two floors to the lobby, and I hurry outside into a summer’s worth of warm, humid air. Babba has me look up at Nanny, waving furiously from the kitchen window, and then takes my hand to steer us toward First Avenue. We cross and head into another complex of high-rise apartment buildings where the scene is nothing like what I’m used to. Dozens and dozens of kids run every which way on a large playground; grownups hover nearby, lost in conversation; old people fill benches with big laughs and nonstop talking. It’s all in Spanish and most of the people are black and brown. I’m mesmerized and try to slow down. Babba barely looks sideways and enforces his walking pace with a tight handhold. “Let’s keep going” he says.
In no time, still in the apartment complex, we’re in line at the Good Humor Man. He sells Chocolate Éclair, Strawberry Shortcake, Sundae Cone, and other varieties of ice cream out of a mobile freezer hitched to the back of a bicycle. He waits on several kids in front of me, opening and shutting the freezer at every request, trading ice cream for small bills and coins. Then, “How can I help you, little lady?” “I’d like a chocolate-coated ice cream bar.” Babba orders a fudgesicle for himself and a Toasted Almond Bar for Nanny, waiting at home.
We retrace our steps, only now, with both my hands tied up managing a melting bar, Babba can’t pull me along; he’s also busy eating. We walk by a group of shirtless teenage boys playing basketball and then some kids running in and out of water spraying from a big fountain.
As we cross back over First Avenue and re-enter familiar turf, I’m savoring every last bit of sweetness from the wooden stick and a different kind of nighttime that’s just blocks away. I’m thrilled that ice cream will be the excuse to return.
It’s summer. I’m ten years old and going on an errand by myself. As I walk away from the apartment building, I catch my grandparents peering down from their kitchen window. I wave, they wave back, I wave again, and then they disappear. I turn my attention to navigating the maize of walkways I’ve memorized to the point where the route feels easy, familiar, even fun. However, when I emerge from the complex, onto First Avenue, I notice that there are a lot of ways in and out of Peter Cooper Village, more than I remembered. I make mental note of a sign at one entrance: All Deliveries on 23rd Street. Twenty minutes later, two packages in hand, I find the exact spot. Relief. I’m just about home.
I don’t know where I take a wrong turn. At about the moment when I’m certain I should be back in front of their building, I’m instead staring at an unfamiliar scene: a fountain I’ve never seen before and two elderly women sitting close together, talking on a bench. I retrace my steps to the nearest intersection of walkways, look in all directions, and realize that I have no idea which way to turn. I head down one of the paths, winding up at a building that looks like my grandparents’ place but isn’t. Back to the same intersection and down another path. Same story.
Every now and then I consider asking for help, but don’t. I also don’t have another plan except to keep moving, and to get it right. My hands are getting clammy. I’m on the verge of tears. How could all these buildings and walkways look the same? Late afternoon is getting later, there are more shadows than sunlight, and I have the anxious feeling that I’ve been gone a long time. I try not moving for five, maybe ten minutes.
And then, there he is. I stand still and watch my Babba walking towards me, his eyes squinting behind thick glasses, not quite sure if it’s really me he’s staring at but approaching my lonely scene like it’s a good bet. He’s got on his big-soled dentist shoes and moves fast. As he gets closer, he breaks into a big grin. I can’t seem to budge but smile weakly and let him scoop me up into an enormous hug. His scratchy mustache brushes my cheek and smells of his favorite, sweet pipe tobacco. “It can get a bit confusing around here, can’t it?” I nod. He takes my hand and leads us home and doesn’t make me feel badly for getting lost. “Maybe later, we’ll go out for ice cream. You can show me the way there and back. But first, let’s go reassure Nanny that you’re fine. Did you get your game of jacks?” I show him one bag. “What’s in the other bag?” he asks. “I got you a hot pastrami on rye with mustard. It was supposed to be a surprise, but now it’s kind of cold.” “We’ll just have to heat it up,” he says. “And we can split it three ways.”
Ice Cream 2
I’m a visitor now. I know Peter Cooper Village like the back of my hand, but I’ve been away at college and everything feels strange. The elevator has been modernized, there’s new carpet in the hallways, and the downstairs lobby has a new, tiled floor. I don’t recognize any of my grandparents’ neighbors and there are more young families.
Nanny and Babba don’t live alone in their apartment anymore. My mother’s moved in and sleeps in the living room on a foldout couch. There are too many things that can go wrong, like Babba boiling an egg on the gas stove and forgetting to keep an eye on it. He burned the pot and smoke filled the tiny kitchen. He was lying down in the bedroom and Nanny was settled in her rocker in the living room watching TV when the fire department arrived. Babba was stunned by the commotion and ashamed. Nanny took in the excitement from some far away place. Her growing dementia keeps what’s not going smoothly at bay. There were a few other incidents —Nanny slipped in the bathtub — and some weeks later, my mother moved in.
Having her around is a big adjustment for Babba. He can’t take care of Nanny and the household on his own but finds the new arrangement frustrating. He’s not supposed to use the stove or the oven or the toaster anymore. My mother has multiple reminders up in the kitchen that say, “Don’t touch!” He hates losing his independence. Babba and Nanny have now lived in their apartment for over forty years.
On my summer weekend visit I try to be helpful. Babba needs to go to the pharmacy to pick up some prescriptions and my mother suggests I go along. His shrug says, “Suit yourself” but I’m already grabbing my jacket. It’s Fall. Babba doesn’t hear so well anymore, unless he’s looking directly at you, so when we walk to the pharmacy, we’re both quiet. At eighty-eight, he still moves quickly though arthritis has stiffened one leg. As always, he’s focused on the task at hand. I don’t dare slow him down.
We arrive at the pharmacy on 23rd Street, and Babba heads straight down one aisle to Prescriptions. I follow, straightening out or picking up fallen items from shelves that he knocks into. It’s the way his torso lists to one side that causes the trouble, but he doesn’t notice. He starts speaking to the pharmacist, loudly, long before he reaches the counter. A few customers look up, but the pharmacist is unfazed. “How are you, Dr. Lichtenberg?” he asks, also bellowing. I stand off to one side and watch the two men handle the transaction with ease: the medicines are ready, Babba takes off his glasses to check the fine print, the pharmacist makes small talk, asks after Nanny, and waits patiently. Then they both nod in agreement that everything is all set. No money is exchanged — Babba has an account. I’m never introduced, but the pharmacist smiles in my direction. Babba heads back down a narrow aisle. I’m again a few steps behind, spotting for falling goods, and just as we reach the door, he turns to me: “Didn’t you need something?” “No, I just wanted to tag along.” He bats away the very idea as I follow him out onto the street.
Silent companions, we head for home. I’m flooded with memories of walking these same streets with Babba holding my hand. I can’t bear the sadness and take his arm. To my surprise, he pulls me closer and stops. “Maybe we should get everyone ice cream. What do you think? There’s this new ice cream store called Ben and Jerry’s. Have you heard of it? We’ve got one in the neighborhood now."
Throughout her careers in teaching, broadcast journalism, and communications, Madge Kaplan has had opportunities to work on memoir vignettes, essays, poems, and short plays. Many of her pieces have hit the airwaves, appeared in online publications, and been performed. Writing prompts have often surfaced the first brush with topics worth developing further. Kaplan loves to sing and hopes to get back to taking lessons and singing with others when the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. She writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.