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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Grandfathers and Cigars

My Greek Grandfather

It was the Great Depression. My immigrant Greek grandfather’s produce stand in Chicago was defunct. But he was a proud man and would not let the other Greek men know how bad things were.

To uphold his position in the community of first generation Americans, he met in the evenings just as he always had with the other Greek men to smoke a cigar and play cards. No one knew how desperate things really were for him.

My mother, only 12, adored her father Vasileios, a man who stood tall with erect, almost stiff posture, strong cheekbones and groomed moustache, an honest, hardworking man who came to America from a small village in Greece to build a new and prosperous life.

To help the family get by, my mother worked long hours at the factory and visited her father faithfully every evening where she discretely slipped a quarter into his jacket draped over his chair to pay for his cigar.

Nothing was ever said…no thank you or acknowledgement of the child’s nightly gift to her father. It would not have been fitting. The ritual continued until his death of a broken heart, according to my mother, from having lost everything, including the American dream.

That is the only story I remember being told about my grandfather, but it gave me a portrait of a proud man who kept his dignity in times of adversity.

My Jewish Grandfather

My father's father, Grandpa Harry, was a true entrepreneur who came from Hungary to also build his fortune in the new world. He started working in Minnesota for the Edward Hines Lumber Co. and soon became an interpreter for the other immigrant men.

He spoke seven languages and was a clever man who seized opportunities wherever he found them. He also became the banker of sorts for the other men helping them as they found their way in a new land.

Grandpa Harry had many businesses, some succeeded, some failed, but he never quit. After the crash, he pawned his wedding ring to pay his bills and start again. Tall for the time, over 6 feet, he dominated others, including his sons but adored his grandchildren, especially the girls.

I was one of his favorites. He gave me my first instrument, a second hand clarinet. He wanted to give me a piano but there was no room for it in our small apartment in Chicago. He also gave me a used typewriter that I still had when I went off to college.

There are many funny stories about Grandpa Harry like the time we woke up to find new bushes that he had planted in our yard while we slept in our new house in the suburbs. We never knew where the shrubbery came from. It was just the way Grandpa did things.

One of my memories of him was his cigars. Every time he took one out of the cigar box, he gave me the seal which I immediately made into a shiny ring for my finger.

 It was a game we played, a special ritual in the bond we shared. So "smelly" cigars became gifts and symbols of love in my family.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Photo of Two Cigars by Josiah Gordon