Wednesday, December 13, 2006

West Deal, New Jersey, 1972

When I was five, my grandmother and grandfather moved five blocks away. My grandfather hid pennies in his hands and recited a spell, eichl meichl peichl he would say, and the penny would magically jump from hand to hand -- where would it be? How would it get there? One of his arms couldn't unbend all the way, and the reason, he told us, was that he had been struck by a bullet in some war, which I believed for a long time.

My grandfather would recline in a black leather chair, his grey hair oiled back and cut short to his crown, the hair smooth and velvety. He would correct my Hebrew pronunciation, and told me of his days in the cheder in Sans, Austria, where he was a good student, where he got to taste honey when he first learned the alef bet. They studied the Talmud, and each scholar added to the text, the margins filling with interpretations.

His father was already in America, in Philadelphia for seven years, and opened an oyster restaurant before his son came. When his father met him at the dock, he pulled his son's long and curly payes falling in front of his ears, and scolded him, you have to cut these, you are in America now.

My grandfather was angry, of course, but he said nothing, merely nodded, to this stranger who was his father.

Bhuana Sari, Bali, 1981

Pasek was seventeen when his father walked him down from the mountains to the beach.

In their bamboo kubu on an arid ridge, the beds were turned so the pillows faced toward the holy peaks, and the bottom of the mattress toward the sea, full of black magic, where people could hit their heads on the coral and never come up again. It was dry up in the mountains, but the green bean and corn grew well, and the pigs found enough to eat and the chickens pecked and pecked in the dust until they unearthed seeds.

Pasek walked down from the kubu in the mountains where the banana trees and the coffee bushes brushed against his face, walked down with his feet firmly planted on the trail between the rocks, his heels digging into the mud. He would be looking at the view across the gorge, then down to where the house with so many children was, past his cousin climbing a coconut tree, then another cousin weeding the green beans, and the spring shooting up through the paddy. There was his aunt offering him a young coconut to drink, there the well where his mother would get her water to carry uphill, balancing a bucket on her head, and there his grandmother's warung in the jungle where all the plastic-wrapped mung bean cakes were always stale, but there still were customers who bought them, so they could sit and talk to her.

Further down the path were the cement houses with red tile roofs, closer to the beach.