Sometimes Grandpa Sol would drive Velvul back home in his beat-up old Studebaker Commander. The big green car had a wrap-around rear window that fascinated Velvul. He could turn backwards and watch all the cars behind, and his grandparents never told him to turn around and sit properly (like Tookie always did). The passenger door frequently got stuck, and Grandma Yeti had to throw her weight against it to get out. Wails of “Oy, oy, oy!” accompanied each attempt. Yeti had just about every affliction known to Jews, but the two main things she dealt with (complained about) were her arthritis (she used something called “gold needles” that sounded very expensive to Velvul but seemed to make her feel better) and diabetes (the only sugar she would ever use went into her over-percolated coffee). When things got really painful, she would moan, “Oy, gevalt!” Upon arrival home, Tookie attempted to assist his mother open the door, but she just rolled down the window and said, “That’s all right. I don’t need no help.”
A visit to his father’s parents usually meant coming home with more toys. Tookie did not like the way his folks took care of his son. “You’re spoiling him!”
But Yeti would raise a hand to her complaining son, “Stop hocking me in chinik! He’s our grandson.” Velvul could never understand why Tookie would want to trade his mother at a Chinese pawn shop.
His father would then accuse Velvul, “You’re spoiled rotten!” The boy had no idea why or how something like that could be his fault.
“Luzzem aleyn,” came the words of wisdom from Yeti.
“Ma, you spend money on him that you and pop don’t have. I should be the one buying these things for him.” The sizzling glare from his mother’s eyes could have almost burnt a hole in her favorite son’s forehead.
Tookie’s fix-it shop did not bring in much money. He had dropped out of college as soon as he figured out he was smarter than any of the professors. Without a university degree, there were few opportunities, unless he wanted to perform physical labor or work in a factory, both beneath his dignity. However, he had learned many technical skills during his two-year stint in the Army Signal Corps and could repair almost anything. “Tookie’ll fix it!” Electrical, mechanical, even electronics were child’s play for him. The only thing he couldn’t fix was his own fakakta family. The nickname came from the grandmother who could not pronounce his given name (Tuvie), and Tookie was the closest she could get. Of course it came with endless teasing about sounding like the Yiddish word for butt (tuchus).
Yeti had raised Tookie like a little prince, and he didn’t have to eat anything he didn’t like. All his food had to be separate on his plate, not touching (most likely a holdover from his Army days). His home had no cheese, fresh fruits or vegetables. Razel never learned to cook from her mother, and supper was limited to a few easy-to-make meals or packaged dinners. Fortunately, he liked the meat-and-potatoes diet his father imposed, especially when augmented with doughy breads and chocolaty cupcakes.
Every so often they would have what Tookie liked to call “Honeymoon Salad” (“Lettuce alone without dressing”), but on special occasions Razel stirred catsup into some mayonnaise to make cheap, home-made Russian Dressing. It was hard to believe that Tookie even tasted the food he ate because it disappeared so quickly. By the time Razel sat down to the table after serving the tasteless meal she had worked so hard to prepare, her husband would invariably drop his knife and fork on the plate and say, “That was good! What’s for dessert?” Sometimes, when Tookie was in a good mood, he would look across the table and say to his son, “Young man, you will not be getting up from that seat until you finish every piece of meat and pea on your plate.” Velvul’s funny humor genes must have passed from Razel’s side.
His first day of school turned out to be the third day of school. When Razel dropped Velvul off at Kindergarten on day one (fifteen minutes after the start of class: “One more thing”), a minute later the teacher came running after her with a wailing, inconsolable Velvul in one hand. The next day worked out about the same, but on the third day, the teacher asked Razel to stay for a while. Once Velvul calmed down, she could then leave her discomfited child and get back to her stories on the television.
So many strange faces! None of them looked like any of the members of his family. Velvul and Tookie had raven hair and light olive skin, like the hint of a tan. The other children had scary white skin and terrifying blond hair. Only the teacher, Miss Anne, a brunette, vaguely resembled someone from his familiar family.
Once class activities started, Velvul could focus on tasks instead of faces. He enjoyed coloring with crayons (although the one labeled ‘Flesh’ seemed too pink) and cutting out designs for decoupage. Other children licked and ate the glue, but not Velvul, as he found the wintergreen mint flavor repulsive. Because he performed every chore with maximum efficiency (Tookie’s genes, no doubt), Velvul always completed his tasks early and sat staring at his spot on the table while the others finished theirs.
One day, he decided to challenge himself by taking the scissors meant for left-handed people (stamped ‘LEFT’ on one blunted blade). It took so much more time, he finished last for once, and when she discovered the reason for his sudden, uncharacteristic sluggishness, Miss Anne gave him a stern warning about using the wrong tools. However, because of this, Velvul became fascinated with left-handed people.
Tookie and Razel believed their son to be the smartest kid in the world, and it came as a shock when Velvul’s second-grade teacher contacted them about their child failing math. Tookie reviewed the completed homework and found it to be correct. Miss Kent insisted the answers Velvul had turned in were wrong. Then the awful revelation came: Velvul had copied the problems from the chalkboard incorrectly. The math problems he had solved were, indeed, correct; however, they were not the ones the teacher had written on the board. A visit to the eye doctor disclosed a case of near-sightedness, and prescriptive lenses ensued. How could this be? No one in the family, on either side for generations, needed glasses. It must have been all that newspaper reading in the dim room with grandma Yeti that caused his precious little eyes to form improperly.
Velvul detested the idea of appearing in public with eyeglasses. Only Jews wore glasses, and that would certainly announce to the rest of the world that he, Velvul, was, indeed, Jewish, anarchist and exorbitant. Razel tried to persuade the boy to wear the glasses, but he would only put them on when in the classroom and had to copy from the chalkboard. She even stooped to bribing him with gifts (model cars) to get him to wear the glasses. Eventually, other students began wearing glasses, and, of course, none of them was Jewish, and so it was finally acceptable to appear in public with spectacles.
Up next: Family Matters (Relative madness)