Once, before I was born, he’d belonged to the IWW – Industrial Workers of the World. Though he’d had to shift his allegiance sometime in the 1920s from the Wobblies to the AFL (American Federation of Labor) in order to work at Lackawanna Steel, never did my Hungarian step-grandfather swerve from his vehement and profane conviction that workers – (by which he meant men, and men like himself) – should manage and profit from the “means of production.”
That my swaggering barely literate grandfather John Bush could imagine that steel foundries might be managed by someone like himself, or indeed John Bush himself, was ever a source of amusement to my realistic-minded father (who belong to the UAW – United Auto Workers); but my father did not “argue politics” with my grandfather who was profane, short-tempered, and derisive.
He was called by my father, not exactly to his face, “the Brush” – for Grandpa’s steel-colored whiskers did suggest a stiff brush that stood out from his jaws. You would not want to disagree with this man whose grin of bared, badly stained teeth was a terror to behold. It was told of him that as a blacksmith John Bush had routinely struck resisting horses on their noses with his fists to subdue them, when he was shoeing them; he was that strong, and seemed to have no idea of the limits of his strength. He was graceless, obtuse, obstinate; he was a serious drinker (whiskey, hard cider drunk from a jug slung over his shoulder); he chewed (Mail Pouch) tobacco, and smoked cigarettes which he rolled hiimself with a crude device that left tobacco-crumbs scattered in his wake, always underfoot in my grandparents’ kitchen; he swung a sledgehammer in a mighty arc with a grunt and a just-perceptible swelling of the veins and arteries in his neck. Beneath bib overalls stiffened with dirt he wore long underwear of a gunmetal-gray color, that showed filthy at his wrists. You did not want to think how filthy, how stained, the rest of that long underwear was. He washed his (filthy) hands with a special grainy gray soap, 20 Mule Team Borax. (My mother cautioned me never to wash my hands with this soap, that contained tiny bits of grit – “It isn’t for a girl’s hands.”) He smelled powerfully – his tobacco-breath, with a smell of rotted teeth; his unwashed body, a palimpsest of sweats. Yet, unexpectedly, John Bush was a handsome man. He had dark, thick, tufted eyebrows and thick wiry hair. His eyes were very black “gypsy” eyes. His thick mustache dropped over his lips, his beard flared to mid-chest. His torso resembled a barrel filled with something heavy and unwieldy, like spikes. He spoke heavily accented broken English with a particular sort of vehemence as if speech, the very effort of speech, were a sort of ridiculous joke. And he could be playful; he could joke. His laughter mimicked the bellows of his smithy – sudden, expansive, loud. Though he seemed too blustering to be much aware of anyone or anything else he had a way of noticing a child who has been holding back, or hiding; for you could not hide from Grandpa Bush, ultimately. The Brush would find you.
Many times my grandfather dragged his calloused fingers through my curly hair, and laughed at my fear of him. He tickled my sides – a sensation indistinguishable from pain. How funny, to make little Joyce run away whimpering!
My grandfather was not an abuser of children. Rather, he was indifferent to a child’s feelings. He did not take notice of a child as he did not take notice of an animal; at the most, he was angered by an animal’s obstinate behavior, as by the behavior of horses he’d been hired to shoe; or, he was amused by animals, as by the strutting of Mr. Rooster.
Do I remember my grandfather twisting off the head of a red-feathered chicken? One of the panicked clucking hens? If I shut my eyes I can see this hellish scene and so, it is better not to shut my eyes. It is wisest to look away, into the distance.
There is relief, that the rough fingers are gone. And yet, there is a sick sort of fear, that the rough fingers are gone forever.
“My mother says...”
Obliquely, with a shy smile, Cynthia would approach me with these words.
My mother says if you want to, you can come for dinner anytime this week and stay for the night.
So that, if Cynthia’s invitation were to be rebuffed, however unlikely this possibility, it would not be her invitation in fact but her mother’s that was rebuffed.
Staying at the night at a high school classmate’s house was for me an experience fraught with awkwardness, yet one that could not be declined. It was with a tremulou sort of pride that I told my mother of such invitations for I knew that she would be happy for me, if perhaps apprehensive as well. When I’d been invited to a birthday party at the home of another girl friend whose affable father owned a small parts manufacturing company in Buffalo, my normally good-natured father had said, with a frown, “They sound like money people.”
Money people. I had never heard this expression before, nor have I heard it since. How callow it sounded, how mean-spirited! Though I loved my father I felt a twinge of embarrassment that he should think in such terms, crudely and cruelly reducing the complexity of my several close friendships with girls who, despite the financial status of their parents, were not unlike myself in crucial ways.
Yet it was always evident to me, as to my parents, that the distance between Millersport and the suburb of Buffalo to which I was bussed for high school was far greater than eighteen miles could suggest.
My life had been altered irrevocably when the Niagara County school district made a decision after my ninth grade year at North Park Junior High not to continue bussing a half-dozen students from northern Erie County to Lockport public schools, though we all lived much closer to Lockport than to Buffalo. At once, by fiat, this quirk of fate, that had seemed devastating to me at the time, brought me from a mediocre public school district to a superior one in an affluent Buffalo suburb in which high school students were prepared for major universities and colleges. In Lockport, high school drop-outs were common and virtually no one went to college; there, my fate would have been hope for a scholarship to Buffalo Teachers’ College where I could prepare to teach high school in a public school district not unlike that of Lockport. Without having been transferred to this superior school district I could not have made my way to Syracuse University on a New York State Regents scholarship, and from there the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where I met Raymond Smith whom I would marry in 1961; I could never have made my circuitous way to Princeton University, still less to a writing career of substance; it is highly unlikely that I would be writing this memoir now.