On the road trip Max and I were taking across the United States in the red VW Beetle, we finally arrived in Washington DC. We didn’t know DC and were pretty sure there’d be no place to camp, but I remembered my mother’s Uncle Ben Bojankosky, who had moved to Silver Spring MD after his wife died. I didn’t know whether he’d let us stay with him, but got the number from my father and called.
“Come right over,” he said. “You know how to get here?”
We bought a map at a gas station and arrived just after dark.
Great Uncle Ben—my parents always called him The Uncle, because he was the only surviving relative of that generation—was a large, warm-hearted guy, balding on top, with soft brown eyes and a Yiddish accent that had hardly diminished over the years. I always admired his courage. He and his brother (my grandfather) were originally from Nowy Dwor, Poland, and were both in the kosher meat business. After the World War 1 they moved to Havana and then, during the Great Depression, entered the U.S. without papers. Grandpa was caught and deported–actually he was betrayed for bounty money by another guy in the synagogue he went to–and I guess was too disheartened to try again. Ben tried a total of four times, was deported three times, and succeeded in remaining on the fourth. He worked in a sausage factory and saved money to start his own kosher meat dealership. Three times, in business for himself, he went bankrupt and returned to the factory. But as with immigration, he succeeded on the fourth try and was able to retire in relative comfort.
Now he owned a one-bedroom condo in a middle-class neighborhood. The building was nice enough and the apartment clean, though sparsely furnished. No doubt his late wife would’ve hung curtains over the window shades and put a convertible sofa in the living room, but Ben seemed indifferent or at a loss when it came to home décor. A large ironing board with a box of matzos sitting on one end dominated the kitchen.
We unloaded the car and unrolled our sleeping bags on the living room floor. “It isn’t very comfortable,” Ben said apologetically. “Tomorrow I’ll take you to my daughter Sarah’s place. You’ll have your own bedroom.”
Mom’s cousin Sarah had visited my family once or twice, many years ago. I was sure we wouldn’t recognize each other if we fell over each other in Macy’s lingerie department. “But Uncle, she doesn’t know we’re coming—you sure it’ll be okay?”
Ben drew back a little, his frown a mix of pride and puzzlement. “Of course,” he said. “You’re a relative!”
In the morning Ben instructed us to follow his car—a late model Cadillac. He always had to own a Cadillac, he told me. Perhaps it was to impress customers, or perhaps to make up for the poverty of his childhood. In Nowy Dwor he had had only two spoons, both wooden, one for meat dishes and one for dairy. A nail through the handle distinguished the dairy spoon, and he hated it because it scratched his hand when he ate.
We parked in front of an enormous house in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Ben’s daughter had married up. Her husband, Sidney Brown, had a law degree but made his fortune in real estate development and management. As we were walking toward Sarah’s front door, Ben told me there’d been a recent tragedy in the family. Their 24-year-old daughter had committed suicide. I asked why. Ben said Susan had been living with a roommate that her parents disapproved of, and shortly after the parents forced the two girls to separate, Susan overdosed on sleeping pills. It seemed obvious what the problem had been, but I didn’t inquire further, not wanting to probe an open wound, and also because Ben was already ringing the bell.
Sarah’s welcome was pleasant but not enthusiastic—understandable, given the circumstances. She looked a bit like my mother, around 5’2” and average weight, but blonder than the other women in the family. Max and I were shown to our room, told we could use the swimming pool, and invited to join the family for dinner that evening.
We spent the day at the Smithsonian, as planned, while Max took photos of the Native American exhibits. Then we drove back to the mansion for dinner with the family: Sarah and Sidney, and their son Stuart, home from college. I remember Sidney being not much taller than his wife, a bit on the pudgy side from lack of exercise, with coke bottle glasses. Stuart, maybe 20 or 21, was quite handsome. The dining room was as large as Ben’s entire apartment, with high ceilings and Balinese art hanging on the walls. An elderly Black maid waited on us.
Max complimented the family on the Balinese paintings. Sarah said they’d been purchased during a trip to Indonesia. “But those people have no culture,” she said flatly. “They’re primitive.”
“What do you mean, no culture?” Max looked up at the art work again.
Sarah replied that, among other things, they didn’t have flush toilets. “Black people have no culture either,” she added, right in front of the woman who’d been serving our food.
Max and I were horrified. We couldn’t let that pass and began to argue. Then Stuart spoke up. “I think Max has a point.”
Sidney rose to his feet and bellowed at his son. “Is this what I pay the university to teach you?” The discussion ended there.
The following morning Sarah informed me that she and her husband would be away much of the day, inspecting their properties. After she left I looked around a bit. Well, I snooped, actually. Lining the hallway were shelves filled with thick leather bound books, all legal tomes except for a paperback tucked between them that confirmed my suspicions about the daughter: Lesbian/Woman by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.
Max and I checked out the master bedroom. A king size bed. On one side, a closet the entire length of the room filled with men’s suits. On the other side, a similar closet filled with fur coats. I couldn’t imagine what anyone would want with that many furs. Not even a movie star could need that many. Max and I selected one—mink, I guess—spread it across the bed and made love. Then we hung it back in place.
It was a lovely summer day. We grabbed our swimsuits and went down to the pool. The maid, Mrs. Johnson, was standing under an awning in an alcove beside the pool, doing the ironing. I tried to apologize for Sarah’s remarks the previous evening, saying I hoped she didn’t think the whole family was like that. She smiled and said it was okay.
A young Black girl sat nearby, looking bored. She introduced herself as Bernice, Mrs. Johnson’s granddaughter. “Why don’t you join us?” I asked.
“Miz Brown says I can’t,” Bernice replied, “’cause they don’t have a lifeguard.”
“I’ve got a lifeguard certificate,” I lied. “If anything happens I’ll save you.”
Bernice put on her suit and jumped in. She was on the swim team in her high school, fast and graceful as a dolphin. “You’re much better than I am!” I exclaimed. “You could save me.” Bernice grinned.
We weren’t in the water for an hour when we heard the Browns’ car pull up in the driveway. The three of us leaped out of the pool, ran inside, and were back in our street clothes before our hosts could discover us.
Ben came by to check on Max and me that afternoon. After he had chatted with us for a bit, he went to the kitchen and spent some time talking to Mrs. Johnson in his thick Yiddish accent, while she responded in her Southern Black dialect. Sarah, in the next room, obviously disapproved of her father’s low-class associations. “I don’t know why he talks to her,” Sarah said. “They can’t possibly understand each other.”
Sarah sat on the couch, chain smoking, and told me how terrible the year had been—first her daughter’s suicide and then her own diagnosis with breast cancer. She was obviously in pain and wanted my sympathy. I said something about being sorry, but I was too young and self-righteous to drum up much compassion for her.
Next morning it was time to leave—and at 1500 miles from South Dakota, time for another oil change. I was just tightening the drain plug when Ben arrived, so I crawled out from under the car to greet him. He smiled and nodded approvingly. “You’re just like a Jew from the old country,” he said. “Not afraid to get your hands dirty.” He directed a significant look at the Brown mansion.
We packed the bug again, said goodbye to The Uncle, and left. We made two more visits, to my father and sister in New Jersey and Marge Piercy on Cape Cod, and then headed back to California.