Grandma and Grandpa had a big screened-in porch on the back of their house.
Their little three-bedroom brick bungalow on Parrott Ave. was the first place we lived after the whole family moved to Waco from Youngstown, Ohio, in 1948. Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle Jack, Aunt Sarah, my cousins Ronnie and Alan, Mom and Dad and I all somehow squeezed in there at first. When my sister Linda was born a year later, the living arrangement proved to be impossible. Jack and Sarah rented a place a block away until construction on our house on Sleeper Ave was finished.
The Parrott Ave. house remained the center of family life even after we moved. On many a sweltering summer evening the whole family would gather and eat supper on the porch, where it was marginally less stifling.
Often we were be joined by friends of Grandma’s and Grandpa’s, old men and women I didn’t know but recognized from Shabbat services at the synagogue.
After dessert the old men would gather around the table on the porch for a game of cards. There would be tea served in fancy little cups and sweetened with sugar cubes from a bowl on the table. Fat cigars would appear, driving the women out onto the lawn, where they would circle their chairs and talk. Dad and Uncle Jack would head back to work at the Health Camp, the family’s restaurant. They wouldn’t be home until late. Alan and Ron, who were older and not interested in what their younger cousins were doing, would disappear, while Linda and I played tag and hide and seek in the yard.
The pungent smoke of the cigars would drift outside, along with the sounds of conversation. At some point the schnapps would come out, poured from a big bottle into little shot glasses, downed in a single gulp. The men seemed like aliens from another world. Several of them had long beards and wore skullcaps. Their clothes were old-fashioned. They would tell jokes and stories in a language I didn’t understand. I could tell by their laughs that some of the stories weren’t ones that they would tell to kids.
Normally I paid little attention to the goings-on on the porch. The old men and their smelly cigars didn’t interest me in the least. On this night, though, Linda was tired and didn’t want to play. I opened the screen door and went up to the table where Grandpa was shuffling the cards.
I was always a little scared of Grandpa Schaevitz. His idea of fun was to lift me up by my ears, which I hated. This time, though, he gave me a big hug and offered to pour me a drink from the bottle of schnapps. The men all laughed. One of them handed me a cigar. I was embarrassed and started to slink away, but Grandpa motioned for me to sit in an empty chair at the end of the table. He dealt the cards and the men started talking again. Pretty soon they forgot all about me.
As the evening wore on the mood began to change. The laughter stopped, and the voices got lower. They weren’t speaking English, and I couldn’t understand anything they were saying, but I was fascinated by the sound and the rhythm of the language. One of the men would speak and the others would nod in agreement.
The combination of the soft voices and the thick cloud of smoke over the table made me sleepy. I was to the point of drifting off when the man sitting to Grandpa’s right pounded the table with his fist and yelled something. The table erupted in shouts. That woke me up. I thought for a second that they were going to start fighting, but they weren’t angry with each other. It was something else.
As quickly as the shouting started, it ended. The voices lowered again, and then suddenly the tears came. What on earth was going on? First they were laughing, then shouting, now they were crying. The bottle was passed around and the glasses were filled once more. Then there was silence. The men who had seemed so happy earlier now stared quietly down at the table or off into space. They seemed weighted down with a terrible sorrow. I didn’t know what was happening, and it frightened me.
Then Mom came and told me it was time to leave. She carried Linda, who was already asleep, to the car and laid her down in the back seat.
On the drive home, I asked Mom what Grandpa and his friends were talking about and why seemed so sad.
“Nothing for you to worry about,” she said.
I wasn’t going to let that go. “Tell me,” I said.
She sighed. “It was the war. What happened in the war.”
“The war? Was Grandpa in the war?”
“No. Your Dad was in the Army Air Corps, but Grandpa was too old to fight.”
I didn’t understand. “Then what about the war? What were they yelling about? And why were they crying?”
“For people who died in the war. In the old country. In Germany. And Poland. And Russia.”
“No, not soldiers. Friends. Family. The ones who stayed behind. Parents, brothers, sisters. Aunts and uncles, cousins. The ones who didn’t get out.”
“What do you mean, stayed behind, didn’t get out?”
She didn’t answer. A tear glistened on her cheek.
“And what language were Grandpa and his friends speaking?”
“Yiddish. What Grandma calls Jewish.”
That was all she would say, no matter how much I begged her to explain. We finished the drive in silence.
When we got home she made me go right to bed.