While I was cleaning my apartment recently, I picked my grandfather’s accordion up and played it for a while. I have no idea what I’m doing—I’m not musical—but it makes wonderful sounds. It’s a pleasant way to spend an hour.
My grandfather’s family came over to this country from Bohemia before World War I. At the time, Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today it is part of the Czech Republic. My grandfather was the middle of three boys: Frank, Joe, and Charlie.
My great-grandfather was a cavalryman in the imperial army, and was, up to a certain point, a loyal subject of the emperor, so he named his kids after the emperor and the emperor’s father. My great-grandfather fought for the emperor, and was complicit in holding the fractious empire together. He was away from his family for long stretches of time, and finally had enough, so when he was home on leave he spirited them away quietly and emigrated to the United States, eventually settling in Cleveland, Ohio. He became a milkman. In all of the photos I’ve seen of him, he’s a tiny, smiling man, built like a pepper shaker.
You could say that military service runs in that side of my family. The progenitor of the Ziska line was considered a military genius, and many consider him to be the George Washington of Bohemia. Mention Jan Zizka to a Czech and you’ll get to watch his or her eyes light up.
My grandfather rarely spoke about his older brother Frank. I don’t think he cared for him much. His younger brother Charlie owned a grocery store on the east side of Cleveland. My grandfather referred to him as a “mushhead.” Joe Ziska didn’t care for sensitivity. He passed this belief down to my mother, who would occasionally sneer at me, “You’re being sensitive,” which she meant as, “You’re being an idiot.”
Joe was a solitary man who never, in his 93 years, lived alone. He couldn’t. He didn’t know how to do basic things for himself like wash clothes, make a sandwich, heat up soup, polish shoes. His mother did this for him before he was married, and his wife, my grandmother, did this for him after he was married. He was like a child in this respect. There was an impenetrable bubble surrounding him. I rarely heard him speak about personal things, feelings, and so on. But some days, when he thought he was alone, I heard him playing the accordion I now own, and what came out of it was beautiful and heartbreaking.
My grandfather was a letter carrier for the post office during his professional life. He worked for the post office in Cleveland for 40 years, and for Halle’s Department Store for another ten after that before retiring completely and moving, eventually, to Nalcrest, Florida, the union retirement home for the National Association of Letter Carriers.
Joe Ziska could read and write in three languages (Czech, German, and English), four if you counted Latin, which he didn’t, and was well-read enough that he and I could converse about my favorite philosophers when I was an undergrad philosophy major at the University of Florida.
When he and my grandmother became infirm, after my sister’s murder, we moved the two of them into my mother’s house in Sarasota. There was plenty of room in there. One day we received a call from my cousin Barbara, who was Charlie’s granddaughter. She wanted to bring Charlie down from Cleveland to see Joe. We agreed. The house was huge; it could handle many guests.
So Barbara and Charlie appeared one day on our doorstep and we let them in. Charlie looked a lot like Joe. The only way to tell them apart was Charlie had white hair and kind eyes. Joe didn’t.
Joe looked up from his newspaper when Charlie came in and said, “So, you still a mushhead? Still letting people push you around?”
Joe was, in his youth, a golden gloves boxer. He also was a union organizer, and accompanied a friend of his through the Deep South in the 1920‘s, organizing steel and mill workers.
Charlie, on the other hand, gave and forgave lines of credit for poor people who shopped in his grocery store up to the point of constantly nearly going bankrupt.
The two of them instantly resumed their old relationship, not speaking to each other in the same room.
Barbara, who had converted to being a Mormon, began to grill my grandfather about the family genealogy and jotted all of Joe’s recollections into a notebook. She’d also brought along a tape recorder and taped as she jotted. We were all going to spend eternity together, Barbara said at one point, and wouldn’t that be a joy?
The next morning, before everyone woke up, we heard two accordions riffing off each other downstairs. It was the two old men, convening over Bohemian folk songs. They began to sing in their native language. It was dark and beautiful.
Barbara trotted in with the tape recorder and hastily hit record, hoping to capture this. But it was not to be. The batteries had worn out. Later on, we found her weeping over this.
“Mushhead,” Joe muttered.
My grandfather had many beliefs that did not correspond with reality. For instance, he believed that if you picked up a calf, upon its birth, and carried it one lap around the barn, and then repeated the act of carrying that calf around the barn for a year (with the same calf, mind you), that eventually you would be able to carry a full-grown cow.
“If it’s that easy, why don’t you see people carrying cows around?” my sister asked him.
“No dedication in this society,” my grandfather said. “None whatsoever.”
It should be said: This man had read Kant and Hegel in the original German. He was well-versed in Marxist dialectic. His mind, about most subjects, was hyper-rational. But then there were the exceptions.
Like: My grandfather believed that the human body was a battery that contained one charge that lasted an entire lifetime, and that you ran down your battery through unnecessary exercise. Therefore, you should be still. He was a letter carrier for the post office who’d walked several miles a day while toting a heavy mail bag for 40 years, so by his logic he should have been dead by 50, or sooner—depending on the strength of the original charge contained within his body, of course. Or maybe he came up with that one to attempt to make me be still. Or at least less active.
“That must be what happened to the cow-carrying guys,” my sister concluded, smiling cutely at our grandfather. “They used up their batteries on useless exercise and dropped dead before the year was up.”
My grandfather, during his boxing days, was a tomato can, so he went by the name “Smokin’ Joe Dugan” because he believed that people paid extra to see an Irishman get his brains beat in. One of the few boxers he ever beat was Packy East, who would later switch to comedy and rename himself Bob Hope. My grandfather summed him up thusly: “He was a mediocre shoe salesman. And a worse boxer.”
My grandfather believed that the Cleveland Indians would eventually win the World Series. (He died soon after they lost to the Braves in 1995.)
My grandfather would say, during mealtime, that you needed to stretch out your stomach just a little more every day, which would help you keep at least 20 extra pounds on your frame—or you could end up dead like Mr. Bartleheim.
Mr. Bartleheim lived across the street from my grandparents on Valleyview Avenue in west Cleveland. Mr. B. was a thin man who ate only vegetables that he grew in his garden, rode his bicycle daily, performed (scandalously) calisthenics in plain sight of his neighbors in his front yard—in short he was a health nut before there was such a thing. And then Mr. Bartleheim got cancer and was dead within two months.
“Now, see,” my grandfather said, narrowing his eyes at me, “he ran down his battery with all that goddamned unnecessary exercise. That’s number one. Number two, he was skinny as hell. And number three, where was all the fat in his diet?”
Fat was important. Gravy was essential in keeping you alive and should be served at every meal.
My grandfather shoved a big piece of pot roast in his mouth and chewed, washed it down with the Manhattan he always had with lunch and dinner. “Let that be a lesson to you, boy. If you get cancer, you lose weight. If you got no weight on you, you’re gonna die right away once you get cancer. Plus, if you use up all your battery on useless exercise, you won’t have any energy left to fight the cancer.” It was my grandfather’s belief that we were all of us going to get cancer at some damn point.
He finished, pushed back from the table and lit an El Producto.
My grandfather lived to be 93, by the way. He died choking on an orange segment that he ate too quickly.
The four retirees loaded themselves and their luggage into my grandfather’s Dodge Dart Swinger and headed down to Florida, slowly, from Cleveland, Ohio. In the front seat were Joe and Bob. In the back, were Rose, my great aunt, and Madeline. Rose was Madeline’s oldest sister. Bob was Rose’s husband.
Bob was retired from AmShip in Lorain, Ohio, where he’d worked as a welder. He was missing an eye, lost after an errant spark pierced through his goggles, and he’d lost most of his hearing, too, from not wearing any hearing protection. The wheeze in his lungs was from asbestos, which would eventually become mesothelioma.
The wheeze in Rose’s lungs was from her pack-a-day habit. The smile on her face was from whiskey and wine.
My grandmother Madeline did not enjoy travel. This being a long trip, she had herself propped up in the back seat on a variety of cushions gathered from couches and beds around her house.
Rose blew cigarette smoke out the window and encouraged Joe to try to speed things up, while she took nips out of a bottle she kept in her handbag. But Joe always went either 45 MPH or five MPH below the speed limit, whichever was slower. It took forever, seemingly, to get to Cincinnati, and they weren’t even half way there.
Somewhere south of Cincinnati is where my grandmother, from her pillow nook, first saw the billboard for Stuckey’s. The south was littered with these little roadside stands. You could buy gas there, souvenirs, trinkets, postcards—but mostly they were known for pecan logs, which were composed of a glob of white nougat (with a hint of cherry flavoring) that had been rolled in crushed pecans. The whole thing was dunked in a sugar bath and packaged in the thinest cellophane.
FREE PECAN LOG WITH A FILL-UP.
My grandmother said, “We should stop there and save the candy for the kids.” Meaning my brother, my sister, and me.
Joe saw nothing wrong with that. The tank was empty. So he stopped at one, filled up, and was rewarded with a pecan log. Into the car trunk it went.
Twenty miles later, another Stuckey’s. “Joe!”
“No,” Joe went.
“For the kids!”
And Joe stopped, topped off the tank, and was told he didn’t buy enough gas to qualify. So he did something he’d regret: He bought the pecan log and told my grandmother he’d gotten it for free.
This sequence continued until a wooden peach basket had to be procured in order to contain all the pecan logs.
Rose glared at my grandmother. “Goddamn it, Madeline. We’re never going to get to Florida at this rate!”
It took almost a week to make it to our little house in Tampa. My sister and I ran out to meet the car when it pulled into the driveway.
My grandmother, from the backseat, shouted out to us that we had a special surprise in the trunk.
“Yes,” Rose muttered. “Real special.” She lit a cigarette, stretched, and asked us to tell her where the liquor cabinet was.
My grandfather toddled behind the car to pop the trunk.
The trunk opened to reveal a peach basket containing a crisscrossed mass of melted pecan candy, oozing. The Florida heat had done its work.
We looked up at my grandfather. “Jesus Christ,” he went. Then he smiled at us weakly. “Don’t tell her,” he whispered. “Don’t say a thing.” He dug around in the trunk and found a towel, which he tossed over the top of the mess. He dug around in his pocket and found his wallet and gave each of us a five-dollar bill. “Hide it,” he went. “Somewhere.” We each grabbed a wire handle and toted the peach basket away, into the car port, peering back to see if our grandmother had managed to extricate herself. She hadn’t.
A year or two later, both my grandparents and Rose and Bob had departed Cleveland for good and had installed themselves in Florida. Rose and Bob ended up in St. James City, which is near Fort Myers and Cape Coral on the west coast.
My sister and I were taken down to see Rose and Bob, to hang out in their retirement trailer. They lived on the water and the old couple had bought a boat. Bob liked nothing better than to tie one on and take us out into the gulf. The engine on the boat was way too big for the boat itself. My sister and I sat on a little bench seat on the starboard side, each wearing an orange floatation device, as Bob ripped the little boat around, doing turns that had us, seated, looking directly down at the water, and screaming, as Bob cackled. My sister looked at me and shouted, “Uncle Bob is cool!” I nodded in agreement.
We’d come back and Rose would be waiting for us, a tumbler of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other. We had no idea that that trip would be the last time we’d see Rose and Bob for a decade and it was all Ron Popeil’s fault.
Rose and my grandmother, independent of each other, had seen the same infomercial on WFLA in the middle of the night for the Pocket Fisherman. Both had the same impulse to call the 1-800 number and buy it. And when Joe and Madeline came down to visit, Madeline brought hers along, intending to use it on Bob’s boat.
Instead, wine consumption ensued. Madeline, drunk, dug her Pocket Fisherman out of her luggage, and decided to go fishing on the little pier. Rose, seeing her with the Pocket Fisherman, pursued her outside and demanded to know where she’d found the thing. “On TV!” my grandmother shouted.
“I didn’t give you permission to dig through my things!” Rose shouted. “Give it back!”
The drunken argument didn’t come to blows, but Rose did demand that the two thieves exit her trailer immediately. Joe and Bob looked at each other, confused, and then Joe complied. He loaded everything back in the Dart, save the Pocket Fisherman, which had become the object of a tug-of-war between the two sisters. Rose won and hugged the thing to her chest.
“Fine, keep it!” my grandmother shouted. She got into the back of the car, where she always sat, nestled in her pillows, and grumbled to her husband that she’d never talk to her big sister ever again. And she didn’t, until ten years later.
Rose, widowed and alone, was going through her things in the trailer as she prepared to move into assisted living and found two Pocket Fisherman’s. Two!
She looked up my grandmother’s number in her address book, called her up, and begged her forgiveness.
My grandmother forgave her instantly. How could she not? she said to us. “She’s my sister!”
My grandmother was still in love with Joey Zeno. She’d married, over half a century before, the wrong Joe: Ziska. The wrong Joe was in the other room, reading the Bible, or Sports Illustrated.
Madeline Ziska, née Allan, told my sister and me about her lover from the 1920’s as we sat there in on our grandparents’ bed in their one-bedroom apartment in Nalcrest, a retirement home for senior-citizen mailmen in central Florida. Joey Zeno was a proper gentleman who dressed for dinner, who took her dancing or to the movies. He was an elegant man with elegant ways. “He was sweet,” my grandmother said. “And so handsome.” She had stashed in her sewing a secret photo of him, hidden away for 50 years and taken out on rare occasions.
Joe Ziska, sitting in the other room, was not elegant. He was a mailman and a union organizer. On their first date, he’d taken his future wife to a smoker, where she witnessed an endless parade of sweaty, half-dressed men pummeling each other, and later they went to a speakeasy, where everyone smoked cigars.
The Allans, despite the name, were not descended from Englishmen. The family came over on a boat from Lithuania. Her father was a first-chair violinist in the Czar’s orchestra, an overly sensitive man with delicate features who had to get away from Lithuania for reasons that no one ever mentioned—certainly not my grandmother. On board the ship, her father and mother decided to change their name. They looked around, saw the name of the steamship line, and had a new name.
They had four girls and two boys.
We had a radio playing to obscure our conversation. If Joe Ziska overheard Joey Zeno’s name, he would become incensed. Abba was on the radio. It seemed strange, I remember now, to hear Abba singing while my grandmother was talking about the Jazz Age. Thinking back on the 1970’s now, everything about it seemed off-kilter. I remember how much I wanted the 1970’s to end. It was all orange polyester and green paisley wallpaper and end-of-the-world cults and Phil Donahue freak-showness and Presidents who were sweaty and clumsy and uncomfortable. It was a dizzying decade, even to a child who never experienced anything else. The straightjacketed 1980’s would make up for it, eventually.
One of my grandmother’s brothers became a Seabee in World War II and fought his way across the Pacific. The other never had a chance to grow up. When he was only seven, he bought a hotdog from a street vendor, scarfed it down, and died within a day. He was sensitive, like his father, my grandmother said.
My grandmother’s eyes glowed talking about Joey Zeno. My sister and I were there with her, back in the 1920’s. We were rooting for Joey Zeno. My grandmother was a figure rollerskater, entertaining people in music halls. Joey Zeno saw her there, rolling elegantly to the organ music and fell in love with her.
She worked in a sweatshop, too. Her whole family went to work early. Their father had died shortly after coming to America.
My great-grandfather was a violinist, but there was no job playing the violin for him in Pennsylvania. He ended up with the other Lithuanians, in a coal mine. He did not last long.
So their mother had to take care of all those kids alone. She took in washing, cleaned rich people’s houses, anything to make ends meet. They moved to Cleveland, Ohio.
The choice was between Joey Zeno, the proper gentleman without a proper job, and Joe Ziska, who was employed by the Federal government to deliver the mail. Both Joe’s gave her an ultimatum. She chose one.
But she almost changed her mind.
My sister cried out loud, “Joey Zeno!” She was in love with him, too.
My grandfather heard. “That son-of-a-bitch! He tried to steal my girl!” he shouted from his barcalounger.
My grandmother said, “That’s me. His girl.”
Joey had come over to the Allan home, all brokenhearted, and begged her to take him back. But she couldn’t do it. She’d promised Joe, and she’d promised her mother. Great-Grandma Allan saw too much of her own husband in Joey Zeno to allow the marriage.
Joe Ziska stood in the doorway. “Joey Zeno!” he bellowed, his rage renewed. He was usually an unemotional man, stoic. But here, at the mention of his rival’s name from so many years ago, he was boiling. His fists were balled up.
Should I tell you now what I found out many years later? That my grandmother had once tried to kill herself, in the 1940’s, by swallowing lye? Her tiny scratchy voice was the result. She had to eat bland food and swig liquid Gaviscon because of all the scarring in her esophagus and stomach.
She told us, as Joe stood in the doorway, what Joe had done when he found out that Joey Zeno had been over, begging for her hand. Joe drove around the Lithuanian neighborhood looking for Joey Zeno, looking at every mailbox for the name, intending to beat him down. But he couldn’t find him and eventually gave up.
“And I married him,” my grandmother said, waving toward my grandfather.
“Joey Zeno!” My grandfather spat out his name with fury.
“Joey Zeno,” my sister whispered, smiling at my grandmother and taking her hand.