God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.—J. M. Barrie
We each have different versions of ourselves, depending on the story. There’s one of me at camp, crying in the bathroom all night so my bunkmates wouldn’t see me homesick. Another time, I was a bully, putting a frog in a sad girl’s bed. And there’s the brave me who jumped off Split Rock Gorge four years straight until, at age twelve, a cowardly me stared too long at the rocks thirty feet below and backed away.
None of these girls is false. Each comes forth, intact, from a pocket of memory—unless something, often small, shakes her authenticity like tectonic plates shifting. This happened to a friend of mine, who found old letters showing she was not the loveless high school misfit she’d grown so fond of recalling. And to another, who discovered in an album of college photos that she was way too thin, not fat at all. And to me, while writing about Bobby the beagle and my grandparents who lived together on the perfect farm, where I felt perfect, too.
Everyone called it “The Farm,” but it was actually an acre or two of meadow, an old Long Island farmhouse with a screen door I’d forget not to slam and a copse of woods big enough to hide in for a while. Plus the chicken coops by the stream, where my grandmother, Omi, went every morning and night to sing in German to her American chickens. She and my grandfather, Opi, raised chickens there for as long as I could remember in those 1940s days when I was five, six, and seven, and we visited them every weekend.
I think I already knew they once had a grand house on a hill in a city called Stuttgart, which made me think of stutter and stuck. And that my grandfather sold fine linens and lace in his store on a big plaza, until they left one night by train for Holland and then came by boat to America in 1938, where everyone—aunts, uncles, cousins, forty in all—gathered in Queens, New York, to start again.
They were my mother’s parents, but it was my father, so the story goes, who found the farm in Babylon, a forty-minute drive from our house if we didn’t get stuck in traffic on the Grand Central Parkway. Opi and Omi were “city people” and well over fifty, so it seems crazy now that he would put them out there. But back then, desperate for new plans, I imagine my father announcing with his usual conviction: Others just like you escaped Hitler and became chicken farmers here, so why not?
Evidently, many hundreds of urban European Jews reinvented themselves as chicken farmers in the New York area, though I never met any until years later in Edith Milton’s memoir, The Tiger in the Attic. There they were, in her Aunt Liesel’s living room: doctors, lawyers, and musicians from Limburg, Germany, who raised chickens by day in Vineland, New Jersey, and gathered at night to play chamber music that filled the air with yearning, “and when the room at last overflowed with it, it floated out of the windows of the little white house. . . . And the soul of a vanished world flowed out over Vineland and mixed with the scent of the honeysuckle.”
Omi, a nightly pianist, and Opi, with two violinist sisters, would have loved the Limburg group’s musical forays into a better past. But alone in Babylon, my grandparents relied on smaller dignities to remind them of who they were: Opi’s white shirt and bowtie, worn even on hot summer afternoons, and Omi’s lullabies. Guten Abend, gute Nacht, mit Rosen bedacht. My father called my grandparents “schlemiels” because they “cried too easily.” I never saw that, only patience and graciousness, especially when Omi let me, gently gently, gather brown eggs for her big basket. We had the same hazel eyes, so when everyone said, “You’re just like Omi!” especially if I cried, I didn’t care. She was strong to me.
Best of all, they had Bobby, whose black and white tail wagged like mad whenever we arrived. Bobby was a dog for the unafraid, for those who kept trust in the world and still chose welcome over anger, optimism over loss and betrayal—and Hitler be damned. Their lack of bitterness was a gift I absorbed with no understanding. All I cared about, as the first American-born in the family, was Bobby’s name. Real Americans, I announced with authority, would call him Spot. Or Sundae, because of dark chocolate on vanilla fur. Or Silky, for the softest long ears I ever put my cheek on.
Besides, we already had a Bobby in the family: my cousin, who never laughed. He didn’t visit the farm because he was from my father’s side of the family, the ones who grew up in the Schwarzwald with chickens in the street and liked chickens only in sour cream sauce.
At my house in Queens, an old Dutch Colonial on 110th Street, cars crashed on the corner on 70th Road, and the wounded ended up in our living room. Twice. At my house, I played dead at night so that robbers in black boots, who might climb the stairs (the first bedroom door was mine), wouldn’t take me away. At my house, my sister and cousins, all much older, bossed me around.
But none of that happened on the farm. Opi and Omi sold eggs at the farm’s gate, with Bobby at their side. But when I came to visit, he and I would head off for grand adventures, his short legs a perfect match for mine as we ran all over the place.
We’d hide under the porch, his head on my lap as we listened to the thump of family above us. Heavy boots, the efficient tap of heels, skittish slippers—they didn’t matter. I’d stroke Bobby’s fur beneath the shaking floorboards, he’d lick my face now and then, and then we’d head for the fields and for the cave in the woods. Not exactly a cave, more like a large rock beside a fallen tree, but it was fine for lying down on the pine needles, looking up for slivers of sky as the birds sang. Maybe I thought of a wolf or two lurking, but I don’t think so. These woods were for chipmunks and squirrels, and Bobby and I could handle them.
One day, we crossed the stream—so shallow my mother didn’t mind—and headed for the chicken coops. Once inside, Bobby growled, something he never did, and gave me a shove that knocked me flat onto the dirt floor. Something black darted through the air from a high shelf and disappeared into darkness, and we were alone again, except for chickens flapping and clucking. “It was a giant black snake!” I announced to everyone eating kuchen and drinking coffee in the farmhouse. “And I’d be dead if it wasn’t for Bobby!” The men came with sticks and hoes, and, yes, something had been there. A chicken was dead, and someone, sometime, did kill a black snake. I never saw it dead, but that was OK. Bobby was a hero, braver than Lassie and Rin Tin Tin combined.
And he loved me best; that was indisputable. Every time we headed home to Queens, Bobby’s short legs would fly down the gravel road to reach me. I’d beg my parents to take him with us, but my mother would say, “No!” She had enough to think about besides walking a dog. “I’ll do it!” I swore, as every child does, an oath no parent (wisely) ever believes. But my mother held fast until we were going home one night and were stuck, bumper-to-bumper, on the Grand Central Parkway, and there was Bobby in the rearview window. I can still see him running between the cars, panting hard. “Bobby is here!” I shouted. “Stop!”
“It’s true!” my sister said, for once on my side, and my father pulled onto the shoulder. My mother grumbled, but he insisted, “Geddle, we have to take him with us!” And then Bobby was in the backseat beside me, licking my face all the way to 110th Street. How he ran miles on the parkway without getting hit, I don’t know. Maybe we were closer to the farm than I remember, maybe still on the gravel road. I do know that Bobby slept beside my bed every night, and I never pretended to be dead for robbers again.
Bobby had to behave, my mother said, or he couldn’t stay. So I took out books from the library on how to train a dog. Sit, stay, lie down, heel. He learned all of them—and what power I, the youngest, felt from being obeyed. He never did learn to fetch the newspaper, but he sat patiently tied to the post in the schoolyard for hours—and then we’d race the six blocks home.
Then Opi and Omi moved to an apartment house on 71st Road, three blocks away. Was that why Bobby came to live with us? I wonder now. The farm was too much to handle, my father said, after Opi got diabetes and Omi had thyroid surgery. I would help mow and weed and clean the chicken coop, I pleaded. We all could. But the farm was quickly sold, and my dad, not a man to linger on what was over, took up golf on the weekends.
From then on, Opi came to our house every morning and afternoon, wearing his blue suit and bowtie, to weave on a big loom on the third floor. He made fabrics full of fine silver threads, like the ones he had sold in Stuttgart, and Omi sewed them into slipcovers, runners, and pillows for every room of our house. I still have two in blues that don’t seem to fade.
And before he climbed the stairs and after he came down, Opi walked Bobby. Theirs were long, unhurried walks (no two-minute affairs like mine), taken with great respect and pleasure, up and down the sidewalks of Forest Hills. Lucky for me because Bobby, like my grandparents, was slowing down—and I was speeding up. I still came over for Omi’s teekuchen with extra raisins for me, but I didn’t stay as long. I had discovered Sultan, a wild (to me, anyway) black horse at Stanley’s Stables in Forest Park, ten bus stops away, and went to ride him whenever I could, feeling adventurous and brave.
I still loved Bobby, of course, and one day, I crowned him king, like King George VI of England. I wanted a coronation with a chariot of white horses and Bobby in a gold crown with capes of fur and velvet, but settled for a long silky scarf tied to Bobby’s ears and a red paper crown. We marched on 110th Street, his white tail wagging wildly as my friend Paula brought up the rear, and it was all honor and solemnity—with strangers stopping to smile like loyal subjects. A favorite memory.
Strange how I don’t remember Bobby dying, as if he were still out there somewhere. I remember burying a gray box in the backyard, but it held something small like a goldfish or a sparrow. I remember the day Opi collapsed after eating matzo balls. (Too many and too heavy, everyone said.) I remember the call about my father, dead within minutes from a failed heart. But Omi, like Bobby, just slipped away. She was ninety-nine; she’d been in a nursing home for ten years, a fact without a memory. Did Bobby get that infirm? Did he die after I went to college? There is no one left to ask.
I call a cousin, the only one left, besides me, who remembers the farm in Babylon. She reminisces about “everyone always eating eggs—hard boiled, scrambled, fried, egg cakes—because Omi and Opi had to use every egg with a cracked shell.” She remembers Opi dropping a crate of eggs on the cellar steps and Omi baking cakes for two days to use them all up. And Omi refusing to eat chicken, ever. She remembers a black snake coiled in a giant yellow gourd on the front porch, scaring her to death. I want to say, There was no snake there. It was in the chicken coop, remember? And I saw it, not you! But she insists on her version of the snake story, and I can accept that, but then she goes too far. She doesn’t remember Bobby. She didn’t even know Opi and Omi had a dog.
“That’s because I got him and you didn’t!” I counter, deep in shock.
“Probably,” she agrees. “And you got more rides on the rubber tire swing.”
“I forgot about that swing.”
I always believed that good memories, like the farm and the house on the hill in Stuttgart, were safe. You called them forth as needed—lullabies, bowties, and coronations—so you could live with optimism. But Bobby’s good coronation is gone, vanquished by a fact I discovered while writing this: King George V died (and King George VI was crowned) before I was born, and the only coronation of my childhood was that of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. That made me thirteen, not nine or ten, and way too old for pretend coronations. Impossible! I first thought. Maybe I heard about George on the radio . . . Maybe I mixed up George’s coronation and death . . . Maybe we studied it in school . . .
No logic helped. In an instant, the same dog, same outfit, same cast of characters morphed from a scene of tribute to one of parody. I, the loyal nine-year-old, was a silly thirteen-year-old, half dragging an old dog down the sidewalk. My friend Paula was now laughing—Mimi, you are really crazy!—while strangers scowled, making us giggle more. I knew it was true. The only part of the memory that held up was Bobby, ever the good sport, trying to please with a wagging tail.
My grandparents’ house on the hill is sturdier. There it is, intact, in an old album on my third floor. There are photos of Sunday garden parties, my mother and aunt in pigtails, performing plays with Omi at the piano—all within its thick garden wall. True, the Nazis were gathering beyond it, black and red flags waving, unseen. But those grand afternoons still crossed the ocean to a Long Island chicken farm, nourishing a life of reinvention with dignity.
I wish I could reinvent the coronation, so I could again be the American girl, full of tribute for Bobby and my grandparents. But all I can hope is that sometimes I did walk Bobby the way Opi did every morning and evening—with loyalty and no betrayal, right to the end. And if not, then maybe I can be close behind, still catching up.