From time to time something triggers memories of the giants of my youth -- grandparents, aunts, uncles and older cousins. They were the examples I imitated as I grew up and each taught me different lessons. I am devoting this column and next two to some of the people who shaped my development as a man, father and member of my community in hopes that it will trigger fond memories of family members who shaped other people's lives. I encourage anyone who resonates with this recounting of family history to write about their giants as a legacy to their children.
As an adult, I ask myself whether I am a "giant", or in popular parlance, a role model for the younger members of my family. As a father, uncle and older cousin I know I have failed in some ways to live up to my highest ideals; I only hope that I have given others the kinds of memories with which I was left.
I remember two generations, both of which are gone now. First, were the pioneers, who left homes and families on the other side of the ocean, and moved to this distant and strange land, never to see their parents again. My paternal grandparents and maternal great grandparents were the pioneers in our family. I knew my great-grandparents as old people, frail and mild-mannered in their retirement, but the family legends revealed they were once strong, brave and determined. We were told how a mob nearly demolished their home and store in Russia, but they were saved by friendly neighbors and how they sold everything and moved to America with several of their children. (In this respect, Fiddler on the Roof is almost identical to our family's story.)
I remember my fathers father, whom we called Papa. From him I learned that craftsmanship was something to be nurtured; that there is dignity in making things with your hands and that a good sense of humor will earn more respect than a tough, stern demeanor.
Papa celebrated the day he became a U.S. citizen as his birthday. He was grateful and proud to be an American. As a very young man, Papa ran away from a small town in Ukraine, about 200 kilometers south of Kiev, to escape being drafted into the Tzar's army for a typical 30-year enlistment that he would have never survived. With some meager resources from his family, he traveled down the Dniester River to Odessa, where he boarded a ship for America.
When he got to New York he found work as a sewing machine operator and over time became a fabric cutter, pattern maker and eventually owner of a dress factory in an upper floor of a building on 34th street in Manhattan, from which we kids could watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Papa was usually a jolly fellow with a quick sense of humor. He was the kind of man most people liked. But if he got angry, you could see the intensity that must have fueled his younger years.
My parents moved to Miami when I was six-years-old. I sometimes visited Papa and my paternal grandmother, who we called Nanny, in their Bronx home during the summers. In those days air-conditioning and television were not yet universal. Every night people would go downstairs after dinner with folding chairs and sit on the sidewalk until their apartments cooled down. Each person had his or her spot and no one would encroach on someone else's location. The old people would talk, gossip or just sit quietly watching the young people walking by. None of the young people misbehaved because the old-folks telegraph would report it to their parents within minutes and then the youngsters would have to answer for their misdeeds.
There was a candy store on the block and it was filled with the most amazing treats that were unavailable in Miami -- egg creams, pretzel sticks, sunflower seeds, indian nuts, wax bottles filled with colored sugar water and the most amazing treat of all -- button candy. Those were the days before fluorinated water and I am sure more than a few of the cavities in my adult teeth were as a result of those treats.
After Nanny died, Papa would live with us each winter until Spring came to New York. On hot days in Miami, Papa and I would sit under a tree in our front yard and he would tell me stories of his youth and how he came to America. He told me that in Russia he was apprenticed to a watchmaker, but the watchmaker wouldn't teach him anything, so Papa would sneak into the workroom at night to fix watches. He was eventually caught and the watchmaker beat him. When Papa's father learned of this, he came and took his son from the watchmaker, and though the words were never spoken, the implication was that my great grandfather avenged the beating my grandfather received.
My mother had an old Singer sewing machine with a foot treadle on which Papa would turn out the most amazing things. Slipcovers for the couch and chairs, shirts for the boys and dresses for the girls -- all beautifully sewn. Papa used to say, "Fashion is like a big barrel. You make something and put the pattern in the barrel. When the barrel is full, you dump it out and start using the patterns all over again." I found that what he said is true to this day as I see old fashions being recycled over time. I also learned that his theory of cyclical behavior was equally appropriate for social and political trends. That old sewing machine is in my dining room today and whenever I look at it I think of Papa.
The next generation was the settlers. I will describe some of them in the next column. These were people who either were born in the U.S. or brought here when very young. They were often rebellious and renounced the traditions and outlook of their pioneer parents. But they were the ones who fought for an education, started businesses and as they told my generation, they were "working this hard so you wouldn't have to."
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Henry Bassman has lived in Summit, NJ for 37 years. He has been married for more than 40 years and has three daughters who graduated from Summit High School. Henry retired from AT&T where he wrote about high-technology science and engineering. He now writes about biotechnology, medical devices and healthcare companies and issues. Articles by Henry can be seen on ABCNews.com and other business Web sites. Henry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.