A Death and a Discovery: My Writer Grandfather

By Quart, Leonard | Midstream, April 2001 | Go to article overview
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A Death and a Discovery: My Writer Grandfather

Quart, Leonard, Midstream

During the last year and a half, my 90-year-old mother was living in a Riverdale nursing home overlooking the Hudson. She stfffered from dementia, and her health was rapidly declining. During her stay there she was hospitalized a number of times for a variety of serious ailments. On one of her last hospitalizations, this time for congestive heart failure, I saw her sedated and extremely fragile, trying to free herself from the maze of tubes and wires she was hooked up to. Her face looked ashen and skeletal, her speech halting, her spirit doused, and I could feel there wasn't much time left.

In the year she lived at the Home I got much closer to her. It's not that we suddenly poured out our most intimate feelings and thoughts to each other -- those emotional breakthroughs occur in bad movies, not in life. But at this point in her life, my mother was sweeter, more vulnerable, less judgmental and irritating, and just much easier to be with. Her face lit up with a radiant smile every time she saw us, and in warm weather my wife and I sat together with her on the Home's vast manicured lawn that slopes towards the Hudson (she took great pleasure in the river's beauty), not talking too much, but content. I joked and said nonsensical things to her, trying to get her to laugh. Sometimes I succeeded.

As I complete this essay, my mother has died. With her passing there is no family member left who had direct experience of the Russian and immigrant past. During her last year my mother could not remember what happened to her the hour before (she did not recall any of her hospitalizations, for instance), but she could recollect in rich, graphic detail a pre- and post-revolutionary Russian past filled with birch trees, mushrooms, dachas, wood-burning stoves, and a serene, comfortable domestic life disrupted by revolutionary troops and commissars.

My mother's death fittingly, even fortuitously, coincided with a rediscovery of my family's past. I was always especially curious about my grandfather, Rabbi Israel Quart, who died of lung cancer in 1942 when I was only three years old. I faintly remember my father once taking me to watch him presiding over Sabbath services in a small, poor South Bronx synagogue, whose congregation consisted of a group of immigrant garment workers, furriers, and shopkeepers. Another time he brought me to visit my grandfather when he was lying in bed very ill -- a white bearded, ruddy-looking man wearing a black skullcap, smoking a cigarette, drinking tea, barely able to speak. And there were the copies of the two books he had written, which were published by a well-known Hebrew and religious book company, lying untouched behind glass in my parents' breakfront. I vaguely knew what the books dealt with, but my father said little about their contents.

These few fragmentary memories are all I have of my grandfather, though I've always desired to know more. I especially wanted to know what lay inside those mysterious books, since their existence echoed my own wavering ambitions to be a writer. I had spent a lifetime as an academic, writing critical books and essays on film. However, it was only in the last few years that I began to fulfill a lifelong dream of writing in first person a monthly column for a western Massachusetts daily. In it I've tried to establish a voice that expressed my own feelings about subjects ranging from walking in the city, my relationship to my parents and Bronx childhood, to the nature of gentrification, and the politics and personality of Mayor Giuliani.

Still, it's only recently that I have begun to learn something more about my grandfather. At the suggestion of my daughter (who is also a writer), my older male cousins, who know Hebrew and remember him more vividly than I, led a family evening of reading aloud from his works and discussing his life.

In the early 1920s, my grandfather emigrated to New York from an impoverished, disease-ridden Russian shtetl where -- my cousins told us -- he was regarded as the wisest and most learned man in the community.

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