We call my mother’s mother Nanny. She has long red fingernails and wavy dark hair. Whenever she finds a gray one she makes me pull it out. There are lots of things to do at Nanny’s. We string beads, bake cookies, play cards, look at old family photographs, and Nanny likes to read me stories and play music on her Victrola. (We called it a phonograph.)
Nanny also likes to go for walks. She has a brisk and determined walk, and it’s easy to keep pace with her. One day she asks me if I want to go for a walk in the woods, back to the clearing I call Nanny’s Garden. We’ll be gone for hours so Nanny packs up the picnic basket that she keeps behind the couch. It’s woven of thin strips of wood, with a flat top and two big handles. Inside there are pink, blue, and green cups and plates, and held to the inside of the top by an elastic band are spoons, forks, and knives. Nanny fills up the basket with sandwiches cut my favorite way, in half from corner to corner, and she puts in two tins of cookies she baked, one tin of sweet cookies and one of salty ones. We’ll eat them with our tea. Nanny brings it in a big silver thermos. And because I’ve been a very good boy, she fills up a small blue thermos with her secret colored tea. Sometimes it’s bright red, or yellow, sometimes green, or orange.
The picnic basket is too heavy for me to carry, and even Nanny has to use both hands to hold it. I walk beside her all the way. We stop for a while and Nanny points out the big lake on our left, the range of tall hills on our right. The path is rocky and winding, and eventually the hills rise up in front of us. It looks like we can’t go any further. But there’s a narrow path through the hills. It runs above a gorge with a river racing through it. That’s the scary part. The gorge is deep, the path is narrow, and the water below us is loud. But we love feeling the spray on our faces, and soon the path goes downhill and we emerge at the edge of a broad meadow, covered with all kinds of wildflowers. In the distance we can see the forest, its trees so green and tall. When we get closer we can hear the wind rustling the leaves, whispering, calling out to us.
The forest is dark. I’m a little bit afraid, but I don’t tell Nanny. We follow a deer path that leads to the edge of the clearing. The clearing is ringed by high trees, but within it there is so much light. And the air smells sweet, from pine needles and wild honeysuckle. We sit on the grass right in the middle of the clearing, and it’s my job to open the picnic basket and take everything out. I ask Nanny which plate and cup she wants. To me they are pink and blue and green, but Nanny calls them rose and aqua and chartreuse. I like my cup and plate to match, but she asks me for two that don’t. Then I take out the sandwiches and we eat them, both of us tired and hungry from our long long walk.
When we are done eating our sandwiches I take out the cookie tins and the tea. Nanny pours. I put cookies on our plates. This is how we eat them. First we have a sweet cookie, and then a sip of tea. Next we eat a salty one, and sip our tea again. Soon, all the tea and cookies are gone. Then we stretch out on the grass so that we can feel the sun on our faces. We look at the clouds, and watch the birds fly overhead. And then I ask Nanny to tell me one of her stories.
“Tell me about your father, Nanny.” She clears her throat, closes her eyes, and breathes slowly for a long long time before she starts.
“My father’s father was the richest man in town. He was so rich that Papa went to school every day in a carriage drawn by four white horses.”
“Nanny, why was your father’s father so rich?”
“My grandfather owned a bank. It was the biggest bank in town and everyone kept all their money there.”
“Nanny, that’s not how you ever said it before!” You said it was the biggest bank for miles around.”
“You right, my sunshine. You’re right,” Nanny says with a nod and a little smile. “It was the biggest bank for miles around.”
“Now tell me about the fire, Nanny.”
“One day the Cossacks came into town on horseback, hundreds of them, carrying flaming torches. They set everything on fire, and the fire was so hot that all the gold in the bank melted, and it ran through the streets like water.”
I can see that golden water flowing, like on hot summer days when the big kids on our block open the fire hydrant on the corner, so that all of us can play in it. And the water races through the street, thick and as furious as the river in the gorge we passed. But there is no fire in the clearing. Only the wind in the trees, and then a family of white cranes sail past us, so thin and beautiful. We watch them till they vanish over the forest.
“And what about the pogrom, Nanny?”
“The Cossacks came another time. Mama and Papa had gone to the next town, to the market. They left me to stay with our Christian neighbors. They had a little girl my own age who I liked to play with. When they heard the Cossacks coming the neighbors hid me at the bottom of their coal bin.”
“And then what happened, Nanny?”
“The Cossacks killed half the Jews in the town. When they got back, Papa and Mama thought that I was dead, till our neighbors pulled me from the coal. Soldiers put all the bodies in a big room in the school, and Papa took me there to see them. He picked me up so that I could look over a tall folding screen. All the people were laid out in rows, bloody and dead. Papa said that those were my people, and I should never forget. And that’s why I’m telling you this now, so that you won’t forget, either.”
“How old were you, Nanny.”
“I was your age, my angel, my sunshine.” But there are no Cossacks in the woods. I know that. There are squirrels scampering and chipmunks darting over the grass. Nanny points as a large butterfly drifts past us, a pretty blue one. Then two dragonflies danced over our heads in circles, green and iridescent, a word that Nanny taught me. And all around us we can hear the music of invisible crickets, humming in the grass.
“And tell me about the witches, Nanny.” When I ask for that story, Nanny clenches her jaw and her fists tighten.
“There are three witches. One of them lives very near by. One lives a short distance away. And the third lives on another island. But all of them are evil. And any one of them could come and steal away my sunshine.”
Then I climb in her lap and curl up there, feeling scared but safe. And we listen to the wind in the trees, to the birds, singing. Then a family of deer wander out of the forest, come to nibble on the grasses and flowers in the clearing. And later on we see the wild horses that live there, so strong and beautiful, brown and white and black, their shiny manes blowing in the wind.
“And tell me about the old man, Nanny.” The old man is in a photograph that Nanny keeps in her desk, printed on thick cardboard. Whenever I am there she takes it out so I can see it.
“The old man was my great grandfather, and your great great great grandfather. He had the same Hebrew name that you have, Shabtai. He lived to be 137 years old. When he was 113 the town gave him a second bar mitzvah. That was when the picture was taken. The czar sent a telegram to congratulate him. And when I die, you will get the picture.”
I can see the old man in my mind, sitting in his chair beneath a tree. Nanny says it wasn’t a real tree, but a painted one, in a studio. But the tree is real to me, real like the trees all around us, so tall and shimmery green. But eventually, the sun starts to sink in the sky. Before it drops below the trees we gather up all our things, put them in the basket, and head back to Nanny’s.
One day I came home from school and found my cousin Eileen in our backyard, playing. As soon as they saw me, Mom and her sister, my Aunt Myra, came out and told me that Nanny was very sick and in the hospital. They wouldn’t let me or Richie or Eileen go to see her, and she died two weeks later. They said the three of us weren’t old enough to go to the funeral, either. But afterwards, all of our relatives came back to our house. One of them was Auntie Luba, who lived right across the street from Nanny. Whenever we left Nanny’s house, she would sit in her window, waving good-bye. Mom would drive around the corner, park, and we’d sneak back to visit Auntie Luba. She was Nanny’s younger sister, but they hadn’t talked to each other in years.
I liked Auntie Luba, but Eileen took me aside and told me that she was one of the witches. And there was another aunt in the house, one who I’d never seen before. Her name was Auntie Manya, and Eileen let me know that she Nanny’s youngest sister, and another one of the witches. The third one was my grandfather’s second wife, I found out later, the one he married after Nanny threw him out, when my mother was five.
After the funeral my mother and Aunt Myra gave away almost all of Nanny’s possessions. But I did get the picture of the old man. When Auntie Manya found out, she was furious. No wonder Nanny thought she was a witch. She wanted to have it and my mother tired to talk me into giving it to her, but I refused. So Mom had a copy made and gave it to Auntie Manya. And years and years later, when Auntie Luba was dead, Aunt Myra was dead, and my mother had begun her own slow journey toward the grave, I started visiting Auntie Manya, the oldest person in our family and the only one still alive who was born in Russia. One day I asked her, “Is it true that your father came from a very rich family?” Other than Nanny’s stories, all I knew about my great grandfather was that he’d been a Communist, thrown out of the party in New York for being too radical. And that he’d owned one laundry after another. All of them failed.
“Yes, my father’s father was a very rich man.”
“Did your father go to school in a carriage drawn by four white horses?” She chuckled. “I think it was an old black one.”
“And did your family really own a bank?” Here Auntie Manya threw her head back and her raspy laugh poured over me. “Your grandmother must have told you that. She was such a liar. My grandfather owned a saloon, a tavern.”
“What about the fire. Did the Cossacks set it?” She laughed again. “There was a fire. Half the town burned down. That was when we left Ostrog for Odessa, where Mama’s family came from. But the Cossacks had nothing to do with it. It was an accident, a chimney fire, I think. There were lots of them back then.”
“And what about the pogrom?” Auntie Manya turned and stared out the window. Then she told me the very same story that my grandmother had told me, as if it had happened to her and not to Nanny. About the coal bin, the screen, her father’s words.
“And did your great grandfather really live to be 137?”
“I know he was old, but who could live to be that old?”
Gone the sweet and salty cookies. Gone the colored tea, made by stirring a teaspoon of Jell-O into hot water. Gone the picnic basket. Gone the silver thermos. Gone too the river of gold and the four white horses. Gone everything except the photograph of the old man, which hangs on the wall beside me as I write. Only sometimes, I find myself back in Nanny’s Brooklyn apartment. Picnic basket in hand, she and I walk out of her kitchen and into the dining room. We stop for a while beside the round wood table on the left that Nanny turned into a lake, the tall bookcases on the right that became a range of mountains. We pause at the gorge of an archway that divides the dining room from the living room, bathed with light. There are two couches in the living room, on opposite walls. Nanny kept the picnic basket behind one of them. A copy of the 19th century French artist Rosa Bonheur’s painting The Horse Fair hangs over the other. Next to it sits a table with a marble top that’s held up by three cranes carved from mahogany. And on the floor between the two couches, in the middle of the living room, is an old red faded Persian carpet. It has a thick border of leaves around it, a wild forest, and a clearing in the center, a wild garden, where Nanny and I sit barefoot in the grass and open the picnic basket.