Sunday, February 11, 2018

Uncle Toby and the Fiddler on the Roof


Uncle Toby showed up at the base of the house in the old shtetl. Fiddler, who, of course had been fiddling, gestured for him to climb up to the rooftop.

"Oh, Uncle Toby," I said enthusiastically.  "I see you brought along your maps."

Uncle Toby nodded.

"Thanks for making the trip, Uncle Toby," I called out to him as he climbed up the ladder. "Hopefully you'll be able to settle the argument between Fiddler and me. Fiddler's a stubborn old cuss.  I know I'm right, but he needs actual evidence of what the borders were like back in the day."

Again, he nodded and grabbed his maps tighter.

Uncle Toby is a very skilled map reader.  Since he could show people where he had received his war wounds with the greatest accuracy, I figure he could show Fiddler how the shtetl had been a part of Lithuania at the time that my grandpa and his brothers departed for Ellis Island.  Fiddler insisted that since the house was now a part of Belarus, that that made me Belarusian.  I argued that I was really a Litvak. I figured that Uncle Toby could resolve this matter once and for all. That is, until someone picks the border up again in the middle of the night, the sneak. There is an old saying:  So falls the roof, so falls the rest of the house.

While Uncle Toby pores over his maps, Fiddler once again takes me over to the edge of the roof to overlook the tiny town spread out in front of us.  He stands there, perching on one foot.  Once again I ask him why he insists on standing that way. He says he has to in order to balance me out. That way he will keep me from toppling over. I will remain grounded, and he will forever lean, fiddle under his chin, whether he's playing or not.

Fiddler claims I lack perspective in regards to history. I insistently tell him I am well versed in history.  While he concedes that I may know a lot about the world at large, but when it comes to my own personal history, I leave a lot to be desired.

He points at the town below.  I am puzzled as to what I am looking at. All I see is a tiny town with horse drawn carts. A synagogue in disrepair. Some houses. On the outskirts, I see a monument. He repeatedly shakes his bow at it. "What's so important about that," I ask. He mutters to himself in Yiddish.  Something about me being a damned fool. Perhaps I am a fool, but perhaps I really am in denial about what that monument is about. I suspect it has something to do with family members who chose to stay in this God forsaken place.

Loud voices startle me.  I turn towards the middle of the roof and hear my grandpa's brothers arguing with one another. I recognize Julius and Nathan, but the rest are unknown to me. They all look enough like my Grandpa Abe for me to surmise that they are all brothers.

"Poland," one exclaims.  "Russia," one insists.  "Poland and Russia," a third one proclaims. "One or the other," states a fourth.  "I'm the eldest.  If I say it's Russia, then it's Russia!" Fiddler shakes his head and fiddles.

Uncle Toby views them all with disdain.  "Foreigners," he  thinks to himself, forgetting that he himself is the foreigner.   Uncle Toby wonders if  the brothers no longer lived there, did the house still belong to them?  Did they sell the house first or did they just abandon it, as, one by one they headed to America?   Uncle Toby smiles smugly.  Since they were long gone ghosts,  maybe he could claim ownership.  Fiddler, as if reading his mind,  fiddles furiously as if disabusing him of all schemes. Deep down Uncle Toby knows Fiddler is right, but he doesn't want Fiddler to know that.

Fiddler motions me over.  With his bow, he gestures towards Uncle Toby.  "Yes, I know, Fiddler.  Don't worry.  He will not make away with the house while I'm around."  Fiddler plays a few bars of Rue Britannia.

"Actually, Fiddler, I believe Uncle Toby is Irish, so I doubt he wants to acquire property in the name of the queen."   Fiddler places fiddle and bow over one shoulder and mimics a soldier's drill exercise.

I nod. "Yeah, I know.  Once a soldier always a soldier.  But I don't think Uncle Toby is the least bit mercenary.  I think he wants to help me solve my mysteries.  I invited him up on the roof to begin with, remember?"

 Fiddler plays an old love song about regrets.  In response I belt out "Regrets, I've had a few..."  He covers his ears.

 I relent. "I appreciate you looking out for me, Fiddler, but I think Uncle Toby could be an asset to me."  He looks at me quizzically. "On finding out the facts about my family."

Fiddler looks skeptical.

"Because he's not not family, he can be objective," I explain.

Fiddler shrugs and walks away.  What a dear man.  Too much of a romantic for his own good, I muse.  Will Uncle Toby be of help?  Maybe his map reading skills will give me a way to navigate my family history. I shrug. At the very least I will learn some history and some geography.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

I Went To a Fight When a Canasta Game Broke Out

The ladies sit playing canasta.  The fiddler gestures towards them, and gives me a quizzical  look.  

"Yes, you are right.  They are from the other side of the family.  If the roof can slide from one country to another, who am I to say which side of the family can be here?"

The fiddler thinks for a moment and plays "Which Side Are You On?"

"We've gone over this.  My Grandma S was Sarah's neighbor.  Sarah was having a family picnic, and invited her neighbors over.  My Grandma M took one look at Grandma S's daughter  and decided she ought to meet her son.You know the rest."

A smile plays on the fiddler's lips as he considers how my mom and dad were set up on a blind date. Perhaps it is my overactive
imagination but I could swear the fiddler has morphed from a bearded, tuniced Nineteenth Century peasant into an urbane
Jack Benny playing "Love in Bloom."   So sweetly rendered  I cannot help but murmur, "Thank you, Mr. Benny."

"Would you like some ice cream," Cousin Anna asks me as if I were nine once again.

"Thank you, Anna," the grown up me responds. "But unless you have a special way to keep ice cream cold, I think I''ll pass."

Anna looks around.  "Oh, I forgot.  This is not our apartment on Jeffrey Boulevard."

"Uh, Anna, how did you all manage to lug a card table and four chairs up here?"

Anna smiles sweetly.  "I just go along with what my sister Mary and your grandma want."

"I get that, Anna, but you all came a long way."

The old woman peers at me from over her glasses. "We do have an advantage," she explains.  "When we fly, we don't have to check baggage."

The fiddler shakes his head.  A pushcart.  A card table.  What next? He decides better to have four women playing canasta than that pesky Uncle Toby under foot.  Speaking of which, he wonders where the old blowhard has gone off to.

The women gossip among themselves while Uncle Toby sits at his laptop and consults various websites. Before he can examine the map more closely, he is  interrupted by a commotion. My Grandma M rails loudly in Yiddish that her cousin a cheat.  Cousin Mary denies it.  Toby loudly clears his throat.  The women look over at him, and resume their argument.  Toby unplugs his laptop and moves to another part of the roof.  The  women pay him no mind.

Uncle Toby likes how he can zoom in and zoom out on this map.  Beats paper that way. What he likes about paper, though, is that things like rivers stay in one place.    The fiddler wanders over to where Toby is seated. Uncle Toby points to the river on the map.Then he motions to the north side of the house.  The fiddler wanders to the north edge of the roof and looks down.  Sure enough the river is to the north.  Perhaps, Uncle Toby reasons, the canasta players have caused the house to rotate. The fiddler makes
a spinning gesture.  Hard to imagine that four women  could have caused the house to spin 180 degrees, but Uncle Toby can find  no explanation as to why the river was south of the house just the day before.  

Uncle Toby once again consults the maps.  He unfolds the paper maps, inadvertently causing the paper to rustle. The canasta players shush him.  He shushes them back.

Sliding borders. Rotating roofs.  The fiddler looks over at me and raises an eyebrow.

"This is all your doing," I say to him.

 His face breaks into a wide grin.  He knows I have found him out.

"You do this for your own amusement."

He smiles more broadly and then slyly puts his finger to his lips.

"I am not yet sure how you do it," I say, playfully shaking a finger at him.  "But don't worry.  Your  secret is
safe with me."

The fiddler pulls out a pouch from his tunic.  He carefully opens it up.

I peer inside.  I dip a finger in and bring some of the powder to my lips.  "Capital, old man," I say in my best
Gomez Addams voice.  "Best pixie dust I've ever seen.Or tasted, either, for that matter."

He nods and quickly puts the stash out of sight.

"Keeping me off balance.  Never mind.  I love a good challenge."

"Uncle Toby will not be pleased, but I will not spoil your fun."

The fiddler plays "Spinning Wheel."

'"What goes up, must come down," I belt out, "Spinnin' wheel, got ta go round."

The ladies are folding up their table and chairs.

"Finished so soon?  I hope you come back again.  Especially you, Grandma."

Grandma M fixes me an icy stare.  I involuntarily avert my gaze. After all of these years, the old lady
still gives me the willies.

The old ladies fade.  I curse myself for looking away.  Next time, I tell myself, I am going to
finally get some answers. Who knows, I think to myself, maybe I'll even learn how to play canasta.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Pushcart on the Roof

The old man rolls his pushcart on the roof.

I am aghast.  "Grandpa.  Really?  A pushcart on the roof?"

The old man ignores me..  "Banana!  Banana!  Banana!"

I wonder if that is the vestiges of an long dead and buried knock knock joke, when I realize he really is selling bananas.

"Grandpa," I explain patiently.   "There's only four of us up here.  How many bananas can we eat?"

He shrugs and goes up to Uncle Toby.  "OK.  No bananas.  Could I interest you maybe in a fedora?"

Uncle Toby, ever the proper military man, brushes him off.

"Apologies, Grandpa..  You have to forgive Uncle Toby.  He's an Englishman in a strange country." Maybe
even two strange countries, I think to myself.  "Got anything in a military dress hat?"

Grandpa folds a piece of paper into a sailor's hat, and offers it to Uncle Toby who shreds it to ribbons and scatters the remnants over the side of the roof.

"Uncle Toby," I stammer angrily..  "That is littering!  Good thing there is not a police man near by to write a

Insulted, Grandpa shambles away cart and all to another part of the roof.  The fiddler plays something mournful.  I sigh and call after Grandpa, "Please come back.  It's been many years, and I have so many questions."

"I will, Debele, when, this man apologizes," Grandpa says as he points an accusatory and gnarled finger at Uncle Toby,

I look over at Uncle Toby.  He looks recalcitrant.  I can tell this rooftop diplomacy is going to take a while.

Thankfully the fiddler is good for something other than klezmer music.  He knows military marches as well.
Given he is but one violinist, his rendition of Stars and Stripes Forever was particularly stirring.  Uncle Toby
is favorably impressed.

A short while later Grandpa is telling Uncle Toby about his millinery victories.  Uncle Toby listens with
rapt attention while occasionally consulting his maps which seem to change terrain to suit the story..  They
toast their armistice with the contents from a brandy bottle.

Grandpa snores softly.  I pull a light blanket over him to keep off the chill air.  The questions can wait until