My Grandpa Abe
It was Friday night. My grandfather was in high sprits. Before the meal I watched as he chomped an onion and chased it down with vinegar!!! He probably had schnapps as well. He was a wonderful, exuberant man – larger than life to me.
At the dinner table he drew three 100 dollar bills from his pocket and offered them proudly to Dora, my Grandmother, the subject of too many hours on a couch. “Dora” he said, “this is for you.” Dora took the three hundred dollar bills, stared down at them and slowly asked where the money came from. In 1948 $300 dollars was a lot of money. “I won it” he said, “I won it at the track.” The room hushed, this was not to be a simple interaction. My Grandmother, the moral compass of the family held the cash – looked at it and contemptuously said “I don’t want your dirty money,” and with that she slowly moved the bills over the Shabbas Candles and let them burn.
Dora was a woman of principles, my grandfather was a man of vaudeville and emotion. She won. I was already a reader of faces. My wonderful grandpa was crestfallen. After dinner my grandpa asked me to follow him into the living room.
Far from the others he handed me a box – wrapped, a mysterious present presented for no particular reason. The wrapping paper went flying and a beautiful wooden ukulele emerged. I don’t think I’d ever seen a musical instrument in the house other than my grandpa’s harmonica. I had no idea what to do with this uke; there was a tuning pipe, four notes that I was told said “My Dog Has Fleas.” I blew into the first pipe and my grandpa tuned the first string to match it. Finally we got it tuned. Then there was a book. A chord book. If I placed my fingers on the strings the same way the black dots were arranged on the page I could stroke the strings with a thick felt pick and it sounded ok.
(I have been blessed with the knowing if a chord is right or not) and before the night was over my grandpa and I sang My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, the first song in the book.
Two fingers, one finger, two fingers
Two fingers, two fingers, three
Two fingerers, one finger, two fingers
One finger, three fingers, Two.
For others the rendition may have been unbearable, but for us, the Singing Felts were born.
The ukulele became our bonding. Two black sheep, a little out of step together.
I never practiced, but that didn’t mean I didn’t play. One hot summer day my grandpa had some friends over to play pinochle. He called me into the cigar filled living room to sing a song. This was my first public performance. He picked me up and placed me on the card table. I hugged my ukulele into position and began, my voice filled with pride and gusto as I soaked in the beaming faces seated below. They clapped, wanted more and I obliged with a second song my grandpa taught me “I have a little bow, his name I do not know….”
The applause still sings in my ear. My grandpa in my soul – both of us, still a little out of step together.