My Grandfather Avrum: My Teenage Guru


My mother’s mother dies, and my grandfather Avrum comes to live with us. He is short and wrinkled, and covered in scars. Most of these are from surgery, but between his eyes he has a crescent moon from when a cow kicked him. As a boy, he was trying to ride the cow. He also dipped the braids of little girls who sat in front of him in school in his ink pot. Today perhaps the diagnosis would be ADD, but he always seemed completely cheery in these accounts.
He has a tremor– Parkinsonian souvenir of the 1918 flu. His mother died in childbirth with him. I don’t know her name, and never will.
 However, it is likely I inherited the condition that killed her. When my daughter was born, the placenta did not detach and come out. Since I was in a modern hospital, I did not bleed to death as she did in Ukraine.
As a child, my world is a rough one, maybe rougher than it will be when I grow up. We are tested for TB because Avrum had TB in his liver, of all places. I love him, and when he moves in with us I spend my evenings worrying that he will die.
At night, I sneak in to watch his breathing, asleep in front of the television.
“The tsar did not like me, personally,” my grandfather says. “So I came to America. In Russia, I turned the other cheek. And they hit the other cheek too. So…I came.” He neglects to mention that all his money was in tsarist gold when he left The Pale to work in the shipyards in Germany. The Russian Revolution rendered it worthless. By then he was already in Boston, working in the Quincy shipyards.
I adore him, although he is bad-tempered and apt to yell at us that we are talking too much at the supper table. He yells, inhales a piece of raw carrot, begins to choke, and rushes from the table to get a glass of water. He survives, and goes on to give advice.
“I’ll be your guru,” he tells me. It’s the late Sixties, and even the Beatles have a guru. He assumes I need one, and he is right. He doesn’t tell me to take a deep breath, but he takes my side in everything, particularly against my erratic mother.
My grandfather loves sub gum chicken with almonds and all kinds of Chinese food. He saves nails and string in glass jars. Actually he does not have much real advice for me. He doesn’t tell me how to live, or what to do. He models…something…by eating eggs and bacon, smoking mentholated cigarettes, and drinking schnapps every day.
“Look at the moon,” he tells me.”That’s not the real moon. It is a moon- sized replica of the moon in the sky. The Russians have the real moon in the basement of the Kremlin.”
My favorite story about him is that when he was about 13 he accompanied his own father, a miller, to Kiev (always pronounced the Russian way in his stories) by train. There in the station he sees two Chinese merchants in brocade gowns with skull caps and braids down their backs. Are they men or women? Unsophisticated, Avrum knows nothing outside his village. His father makes the blessing: Blessed art Thou, the Lord our G-d, who has created human variety.
Avrum dies when I am thirteen, and I will always miss him. I play an odd game of pretend. What if he had born—presumably to me—in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. Been raised in hippie Santa Fe and gone to Little Earth School? Been in a band, and had lots of sex and eaten psychedelic mushrooms in the arroyo? Maybe studied technical theater, or been an architect? Worn loud shirts and gone through a motorcycle phase?
Would he have been happier backpacking in Europe rather than running from Cossacks? Less angry if he’d had sushi and YouTube?
I can’t know, but keep imagining.

5 thoughts on “My Grandfather Avrum: My Teenage Guru

  1. Love this!! Avrum is so great!
    Wow, he had a malady carried over from the 1918 flu! There’s just not much handed down lore from that flu. We could sure use it. My great uncle died from it in a Kansas book it camp. Why weren’t there more stories about it in my family. You are preserving your stories very well, Miriam.

    • Thank you for the vote of confidence! Avrum, unlike my other 3 grandparents, was a storyteller who loved to talk. My mom was the same and passed down every tidbit she had. Some things were obviously hidden, or even lied about. But I did a large women’s history project in college and got down even details about birth control attitudes and more.

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