My grandfather's yarns string together all I know about his life. He always told the same stories. Just the facts. Using the same words, the same inflections. Any number of current events could trigger a hasty rocket launch into one of his memories. And once commenced, you would. always. be treated to the whole gantzeh megillah.
A dozen years ago, Grampy maybe had twenty tales he'd rotate through. More recently, he winnowed the lot down to about five. He must have known we'd heard every one of them countless times before. But the past held so much more promise then any present-tense conversation ever could. My grampy liked to be the center of attention.
Grampy escaped with his family from Romania after the Bolsheviks invaded and it became dangerous to be a Jew. He lived in the Lower East Side, eventually moving up to the Bronx. I got the feeling he was in a lot of street fights, but the fisticuffs always broke out in the space between his stories, so we never really got a full-frontal view.
Early on, Grampy hung with the no-goodniks. (Like the Italian kid who galloped past my grandparents strolling down the sidewalk on a date. The kid shouted "Hey Curly!", told my grandma he was pleased to meet her, and then said he had to go because the police were chasing him.)
Grampy had some sechel. He ran numbers in the backroom a poolhall for a bookie. He worked in the family fur business mid-town as an admittedly subpar nailer and as a floorboy. (Once he stuck scissors into a light socket in an attempt to fix it, shocked himself. His father ran over all farkrimpteh because Grampy ruined the scissors.)
Grampy danced in the Savoy Ballroom (with Ella Fitzgerald) and started a club called the Croes Nest on Croes Avenue above 174th street where he met my grandmother. He went into business driving a truck, went bankrupt and got in trouble with the mob.
Grampy went to war when my dad was two, came back two years later. He said he grew up in the army. I think he probably straightened up. Took advantage of the GI bill and got a college degree at age 38. Was proud of his work, his hatch-cover patents, his negotiating prowess. He was the first in his family to speak English, to graduate from high school, the first with a college degree. The first to have a white collar job and a house in the suburbs. He had a lot to be proud of and he liked to talk about it.
I have a few present-tense memories of grampy. The way he danced with grammy at our wedding. How he helped me determine whether it was better to buy or lease and measure for window treatments. Reading in Hebrew at Passover. "Chatting" with me on Prodigy. Yelling at me for being a disrespectful nudje. Singing made up songs about his old friends Tabachnic, Garonic and Moisch Mendelson while driving irradically in the car.
Grampy told me one of the biggest regrets in his life was that he never thanked his boss at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a guy named Abbyaddy. Abbyaddy let him study when he really should have been working.
One of my regrets is that I never knew my grandfather in any other time except before I was born. Although... many of the stories Grampy told happened when he was younger than I am now. And I don't have any stories of my ill-spent youth I'd think progeny might find fascinating. Even on the first telling.