Saturday, January 27, 2007

You shouldn't know from such suffering!

This is my great-grandmother’s favorite story. She told it to me for the first time when I was eight. She was from Lithuania. Her English was well, she was ninety-seven and let’s say she was still working on it. Most of this had to be translated by my grandfather, as I just couldn’t understand her. She’d talk, he’d interpret, and I’d hold my nose, because between the two of them, their breath could gag a maggot off a meat wagon. She loved to talk about being poor as if it were her religion. She’d say things like, “Food? Who had food? Dirt is what we ate. And not even good dirt! My mother would feed us the dirt that was left on the ground! The dirt that wasn’t good enough for those more fortunate than us!” She’d say, “Money? What was money? Nobody had money. You made due with nothing! And if you couldn’t make due with nothing, well . . .” she’d say, her voice trailing off, “there was always something worse than nothing!”

I discovered later in life that having to make due without even the barest essentials, after a period of time causes a person to suffer from a condition called “Not-enough-ness.” And there’s no cure. No matter how much they may have in the future, it’s never enough. Everything in that person’s life is touched by not enough. Their existence seems to focus on what they don’t have, what they need, and what they went without. My great-grandmother, after she came to the United States, married a butcher. They made a nice living and could afford nice things. My great-grandmother died with a substantial sum in her savings account. But she lived her life always tortured by the memory of the time when there wasn’t enough. In her mind she never stopped being poor. She wore it like a medal. And because of that, she liked to tell this story.

Once upon a time, in a little town near Vilnius (in Lithuania) many many years ago, things were not so good. Europe was embroiled in the sufferings of World War I and even without the war, things were never so good there in the first place. After all, most people made a living out of suffering. That’s what you did. You got up. You suffered all day long and then you went to bed. Occasionally, you’d take a weekend off. But only rarely. Suffering was a full time job. Hey! At least it was honest work!

Anyway, things were bad. No work. No food. No money. Thank God suffering was free, or I don’t know what we would have done! So, even though there was no food and no money for food, we still went to the market every day. Why? Because. What were we supposed to do? Give up our routine too? You go to the market because that’s what you do! Life goes on, right? Of course right! So all along the way to the market you’d see your friends and neighbors, all out doing the same thing you were doing – looking for food, trying to stay alive, and trying not to look too miserable in the process. After all, you didn’t want everyone to know your business. And your suffering, of course, was nobody’s business!

Kukelkah. He was the butcher. Do you remember Kukelkah? Of course you don’t remember him. How could you? He’s been dead fifty years and you’re only eight years old-god-love-you! (At this point, my great grandmother would start crying, I think because I was eight. She’d hold up six fingers and yell, “EIGHT!” That word I could always understand and didn’t need Pop’s help with that one. Then the story would continue). So Kukelkah. The butcher. I’d walk to his store every day. Why? Well he never had anything in there to sell, but he was handsome. And who knows? Perhaps this would be the day that his shelves would be full, god willing. And if not, well, to say hello to such a man was not a waste of time. Besides it was something to do.

So sad. His store. Empty! Every day I’d go in. Bare shelves. Not a scrap of food anywhere. Why even open the store I’d wonder! Why? For the customers that’s why. He knew they’d come in each day and to be closed was not good for business. So every day – early – he’d get up and open the store. His apron never had blood on it. It was white! Clean. Ironed flat. Every day like that it was. Sweeping, sweeping, sweeping. He was always sweeping the floors, the porch, the back room. Why? What else was there to do? His floors were spotless like his apron! So trim he was. Who ever heard of a skinny butcher? Kukelkah was thin. I mean how fat can you get eating dirt after all? Feh!

I’d open the door to his butcher shop and go in with my empty shopping bags. And there he’d be. Sweeping, sweeping, sweeping. So hard he worked at nothing, eh? Well, at least the store would be ready and clean for when the meat returned from wherever it had gone. His shelves were all empty. Nothing! The meat counter was empty. The meat hooks sparkled and gleamed with their sharp points stuck into nothing! They hung there empty. Oh. I remember back when Kukelkah wasn’t so thin and his shelves weren’t so bare. No. The line used to go out the door and around the block! People waiting and waiting. We were still hungry then, but at least we weren’t starving. We didn’t have to eat dirt to fill our stomachs.

Good morning Kukelkah! I’d say to him. How are you today I’d ask. He’d tilt his head to one side and say, “Mmmmm, you know. Why even ask?” So? I’d say to him, waiting for an answer. He never had much to say. So Kukelkah, I’d say, No milk today? He’d stare at me and slowly look around his store at nothing. Everywhere was nothing! He’d stop sweeping and rest on his broom and pause. Lena, he’d say, gesturing with a wave of his hand, here is only no meat. You have to go next door for no milk. And of course, I’d laugh and say Oh Kukelkah! I forgot! But thank you for always being so helpful!

And then of course I’d make my way back home with no meat and no milk, but at least I’d come home with a good story!

I always wished my great grandmother’s story was longer, because after she would finish, she’d make me come sit next to her and she’d kiss me kiss me kiss me. She did everything three times. I think she was superstitious or something. And between each kiss she’d announce to nobody, “Love it! Love it! Love it!” Sour. Her kisses were foul, but she loved me so much. I could smell her on me during the entire hour and a half ride home. It’s funny the things we remember and even funnier how memories linger.


Natalie said...

Hi Dennis, long time no speak. Hope you are well... Your great grandmother sounds like one special lady... with very special bad breath. Some memories never to forget there:) x x

my backyard said...

You're lucky to have all these stories. I never thought to ask until after my grandparents passed away.

I've got ancestors from Lithuania, too. But they were from the Kaunas area.

Poet with a Day Job said...

This is a great story Dennis! I laughed at your description of the "not-enough-ness." My father totally suffers from that. I think anyone who lived through a depression would have it. He was poor all his life - and now, even when he very much so has quite enough, he feels afraid that it isn't enough because there could always be another depression. It's sort of sad actually...But your story is fun to read! I want to see more stories like this! I bet it was fun to write, too!

Dennis said...

Nat - Yup! special indeed. Hope you're well! Miss you!

My Backyard - SO, we're related?
:-) We probably could swap some good stories. Thanks for stopping by!

M - Thanks for the compliment! That means a lot coming from you. By the way, I think a lot of people suffer from not-enough-ness. Anyone who was a kid and saw their parent lose their job or watched their parents worry about money or who just didn't have enough!

My mother suffered from something simlar called "I've-had-enough!-ness" My brother and I always knew when the beatings were about to start because they'd be pre-punctuated by her declaration that "I’VE HAD ENOUGH!" Man! I used to run like hell anytime I’d hear that.

The story WAS fun to write! I’ll get to work on more!!

Leah said...

hey Dennis, Pwadj's L here--i swear, we have the same family. are you Jewish? i heard very similar stories growing up, only they were punctuated with "Nu?" and "Eppis?" and the like.

Dennis said...

Hi Leah! Thanks for stopping by! Isn’t M the greatest? I think she rocks! She’s so funny!!!
To answer your question, I was born and raised Jewish. Or as they say “Very Jewish!” I left my faith a long time ago for mental health reasons. I’ve been on a very different path for a long time now. It’s working for me and I’ve never been happier or more at peace. You have a good ear. Yes. This is a VERY Jewish story. “Nu” was a staple in our vocabulary, especially when I was a kid. However, I have to admit, I don’t recognize “Eppis.” Perhaps I’d recognize it if I heard it, but seeing it written, it looks strange to me. I bet we could share a lot of stories from the old days. It’s very very nice to meet you!!

Dennis said...

Leah – One more thing, I read your entire catalog of books on It is so cool that you have over 80 children’s’ books in your list! I recognize a bunch of them. I see you like memoirs and have some interesting books with psychology themes or mental health issues running through them. If that’s a genre you enjoy, I’d like to recommend an absolutely amazing book. It’s called Sickened and it’s by Julie Gregory. It’s a true story. Julie’s mom suffered from Munchausen’s by proxy, which is one of the most bizarre mental health issues I’ve encountered. It’s the only illness I’m aware of that’s considered both a mental illness and a form of child abuse! Amazing book.

Leah said...

Great to "meet" you too! I have lurked long enough. I thought it was time for a proper intro. :)

Of course I agree that M is the best! We could probably make her turn purple by discussing this via your comments section. Funtimes!!

I'm glad to know my ear is still working--I had to ask because M's Polish Roman Catholic family sometimes seems incredibly Jewish to me, too...not faith-wise, but in that innate way that never gets entirely erased, regardless of personal affiliations...

anyway, "eppes" just means "something," one of those charming placeholder words. i used to mix it up with "emmes," which literally means "the truth" but colloquially, gts used the way Young People Today use "word." as in, "word?" (is that true?) "word!" (that is so true!).

i can't believe you read my whole librarything catalog!! how cool! and you noticed my trend of psych books. i will probably check out the Munchausen's by proxy memoir...that's a condition i know more about than i wish i did! ah, there's nothing like a special blend of crushing codependency and mental illness!

on that note, have a great day! thanks for your blog!

Dennis said...

Leah - the pleasure was all mine! Don’t be a stranger. And I agree! It would be great fun to turn M purple with compliments and by talking about how lucky we are to know her! Have a great day and please let me know if you check out Julie Gregory’s book. I promise you’ve love it.

gkgirl said...

i LOVED this story...
i love when you just
kind of "happen" across
i was really here to read
poetry thursday,
but read this, too
and thought it was great!

Dennis said...

GkGirl - Thanks for reading my story and commenting! It's always fun to be surprised! And reminiscing is always sweet (and hard to spell!)

Joy said...

Dennis, this was a great story!

You reminded me of my beloved grandfather and I thank you so much! He and I used to talk for hours. He would share stories like that, some happy, some sad, but all very lovely and I so miss that...

Always treasure these memories :)

Dennis said...

Joy - I'm glad you liked my story! It's fun to pull on a thread of memory and see just how far it goes - how much you can compile! Thanks.