In the unforgiving heat of the afternoon, my grandfather and I awaited our chance to secure immortality. The cue stick—when held at my side rose nearly two feet above my head and possibly a foot over my grandfather’s—was an implement wielded by only the strongest and bravest warriors of Tamarac. We were both of us small in stature, but at this moment we were two tall, proud Jewish boys—Vernick and Goodman—our necks craned like summer flowers towards the bright sun.
My grandfather, Sidney, was a lithe, quiet man, measured though not without levity, with an ability to be uproariously funny—a combination of Cary Grant and Mel Brooks. For me he was, like most grandfathers, always an old man—though as I write this, I realize he turned fifty-nine the week after I was born, which now doesn't seem quite so old—but on the shuffleboard court with him I could almost see a youthful Sidney darting on wiry legs across Bronx streets. Later, after the war and no longer young, he was a photoengraver in Long Island City, Virginia and Connecticut, and even a shoe salesman at Shoe King Sam in East Meadow and Thom McAn Shoes in Levittown when the family needed extra money. He was a hard worker, a craftsman, a man whose fingers were calloused and whose face bore the weariness of years of commuting too long on too little sleep.
An artistic man, a lover of literature—Gore Vidal, most notably in my memory—he was content to sit and read the newspaper and listen to his classical music. He taught me about Tchaikovsky long before I would have otherwise known the nuance of such music, my parents having raised me on a steady stream of Mitchell and Baez, Simon and Garfunkel, and Long Island’s own Billy Joel. He was most at peace outside, when the heaviness of humidity and sunbeams were enough to clear the burden from his shoulders, which hunched now under an old weight, the burden of a life lived wholly yet shambolically, full of purpose and regret in equal measure.
On our opening turn, I slid the yellow disc down the court with a bit too much chutzpah, but it nonetheless came to rest in the right seven-point box. The sound of a disc gliding on the surface of a shuffleboard court, particularly those in this Tamarac neighborhood, was like a miniature jet firing down a runway, accelerating but never taking flight. I celebrated each good shot like Andre Agassi would a backhand up the line. This was met with mixed reactions from our opponents, who preferred a quiet high five, and even that felt like a pesha . There was a strange pride in these tiny unimportant games, and I had practiced, ridden my grandmother’s tricycle to the courts near their house where I’d stayed until dusk, until the brightness of the day gave way to the pinks and oranges of clouds set ablaze.
Our opponents’ first move was a defensive one—an attempt to knock my disc off court—but it missed, making slight contact yet leaving my disc in the box. My grandfather stepped up for his turn and placed the disc perfectly, blocking the right side of the court. He moved like Fred Astaire, his approach a dance, the cue stick his partner. I imagine him back in their East Meadow home when my mother was a child, when on Saturday mornings he would put on classical music and have the girls—my mother and her younger sister—clean the house, my grandfather in the background, floating to the rise and fall of the concord. “He wanted us to be ladies,” my mother writes to me. “He even sent us to charm school.”
That is not my Sidney, the sender of daughters to charm school, the demander of order and perfection. That is my mother’s father, not my grandfather. Not the easy-going man who encouraged and supported me, who asked weekly what my grades were, whose bright smile was worth the extra studying and sleepless mornings, whose death more than a decade ago and more than a decade after our shuffleboard afternoon still sits with me, lurks at the ends of my impulses to call him any time I am excited for something in my life—a new job or new writing or marrying the woman of my dreams. My father figure after my own father had died. The man who held my hand when the phone rang and we heard my grandmother wail, receiving the news from my mother on the other end that my father was gone, finally at peace at thirty-nine. My head, too heavy to hold upright any longer, came to rest on his leg. He ran his fingers over my skull and told me it was okay to cry even though I couldn’t. Everything inside of me having calcified in an instant. He said I should watch the baseball game. I always remembered it as the Marlins during their inaugural season, though I know now it was a season too early. Keep watching the ballgame , he repeated. I can still hear him, feel his hand on my head, the warmth he tried transferring to me, which, when I look back now, was the only thing keeping from breaking into pieces. My shuffleboard Fred Astaire.
The author's grandfather. NYC, 1973.
By the end of the twelve frames, my grandfather and I had secured victory. We shook hands and wished our opponents a good night. After a swim in the community pool, for which I donned my grandmother’s pink bathing cap, and a visit to the ice cream store, we walked back to the house. We stayed in the middle of the street—there was no sidewalk in the neighborhood—and moved out of the way whenever cars slowly approached. My grandfather waved to everyone; he knew everyone. I imagined him the mayor of this crazy place. Who’s that? I asked him endlessly, and he would answer not just with a name, but always with one interesting fact about the person: That’s Al, he used to work for Grumman building airplanes . That’s Miriam, she owned a clothing store and once made a dress for Judy Garland . That’s Alice, she and her husband don’t like each other. And everyone, somehow, was from Long Island. How did they all get here? I wondered. I was fascinated by it, by all of these people, by this quirky place called Tamarac—a hamlet of grandparents sandwiched between the Everglades and the Atlantic Ocean. Years later, I remember so many of their friends in this manner, some specific detail but nothing more. Like Shirley Sweet, who would take out her dentures and slip the wrapper of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup over her gums, her wide smile unforgettable.
Most of the houses in Greenhaven Twelve were one story, leaving the horizon unobstructed, a cerulean and fuchsia firestorm. My grandparents lived in a modest two-bedroom, white with brown-salmon accents like every other house on the block. I took off my shoes and walked through the crabgrass to the front door, the too-sharp blades edging up against my skin but not breaking through. Inside, the house was smaller than the one I lived in with my mother and two siblings, yet it felt expansive, full of drawers and closets to explore, their secrets to reveal. Nothing in that house, though, was so mysterious, so captivating, as my grandmother, Estelle Vernick: a Portuguese Wonder Woman, a superhero from the first moment I remember. Although she worked setting up furniture deliveries at Fortunoff in Westbury, Long Island when my mother was a teenager, the Estelle I knew was a homebody, someone who enjoyed the simple pleasures of South Florida and retirement, morning swims, and endless games of mahjong and canasta. She had strong shoulders and cropped salt-and-pepper hair, her skin a perfect olive. She was the kind of person who, when she spoke, I had no choice but to listen.
The author's grandmother. The Bronx, early 1940s.
She stood at the stove stirring, angled so she could see the television in the living room, which, unsurprisingly, played Murder, She Wrote. I tiptoed in and sat at the kitchen table, where I was able to watch her cook. If I could paint I would have painted that scene, her hand and arm moving in a weightless circle of muscle memory, Angela Lansbury’s detective smile peeking out from behind my grandmother’s small but mighty frame.
She had a theory about Murder, She Wrote. One night a couple of years earlier, we were at the dinner table—my grandparents, my mother, my siblings, my father—and my grandmother declared to us all that Jessica Fletcher was absolutely a serial killer. My father laughed—the deep, bottomless kind—and my grandfather nearly choked on his brisket. My grandmother calmly explained her reasoning, that there was no way all of those murders just happened around Jessica Fletcher, who had to be orchestrating the murders herself, as fodder for her writing. She then framed the most likely suspect, or as she was quick to point out, the least likely, and thus easiest to misdirect. Maybe she even shared a portion of her royalties with these innocents, my grandmother posited, to keep them quiet. We ate dinner after that, a swirl of brisket and zucchini pie and gravy and sweet baked yams, and I am sure my grandparents told us a story, because that is what they did at these dinners. They shared with us, showed us the very shapes of their lives.
Tamarac, 1990. The author's grandparents, parents, friends, and himself.
I am certain of many things regarding my grandparents: their love for their family, their stubbornness and energy, the necessity I came to find in their smiles. It is this sine qua non that led me to revisit these moments with them, even so narrow as was my view. What I knew about them then seemed enough to fill every hidden closet, every secret candy drawer. They were, for as long as they were both alive and maybe still, the most interesting people I’d ever met.
What I didn't know back then was that those years in Tamarac would be my best years with my grandparents. That I had so little time left with my grandmother. That a December would come not long after when I would sit weeping inconsolably at my grandmother’s funeral, my appendix secretly swelling until its rupture, my body’s attempt to produce perhaps the most obvious of physical metaphors. Four years removed from my father’s death, my grandmother would continue my education in loss, in missing every day the people I had never imagined could be gone, in celebrating what I did have, what no one, not even death, could take away: the stories of these necessary people.
As a hurricane approaches South Florida, I send my mother a message asking for a few more details about my grandparents. I hope the momentary distraction from the impending storm does her well, as it has me. Somewhere in the recesses of my memory, I already know these things, but I want to share this process with my mother, share that I am thinking about her parents, missing them, diving into my past with them, in the hopes of bringing all I can back to the surface.
After a long string of messages, my mother apologizes. “Sorry for going on and on,” she writes, “but this brings back a flood of memories.” It’s what I hoped for. I want us both to stay in this place, to feel connected, whole, somewhere in these remembrances. I beg her not to apologize. Not to stop. To keep the gates open, to go on until there is nothing left. Until all the beautiful and not-so-beautiful moments of these lives are shared between us. Until they are no longer artifacts but something alive again. Until we are the five of us—my grandparents, my mother, my father, and I—together again, basking in our kingdom under the weight of the Florida sun.