You might think this machine, and the role it played in my paternal great-grandmother’s life—at first a luxury item purchased in the early 1920s, then a source of livelihood for her family through the Great Depression—is what came to mind when I read Ikshaa’s article, but the truth is that it’s a different great-grandparent I feel closest to when I explore my craft.
My maternal great-grandfather, my zayde*, was a Yiddish poet and a socialist and a wallpaper-hanger. A staunch atheist, his Judaism was a practice of pursuing justice, of creating art, of supporting his community. Our genes do not connect us through physical craft, but as writers and activists.
I learned recently that the word poetes in ancient Greek, as used to describe Homer, actually meant “maker.” Maybe this is why I’ve always felt, as a writer of words and maker of tangible objects, close to my zayde, though he died before I was born.
* Zayde traditionally refers to a grandfather. My maternal grandfather was “Grandpa” to me, though, and I was raised calling my great-grandparents Bubbe and Zayde.
When I was a child and brought home high marks in English or won a middle-school essay contest, my grandmother would declare that it’s because of my zayde that I had a way with words. I would roll my eyes, secretly wishing to be praised for my own work, but these declarations planted like seeds in my mind, and now that I’m greying and wise enough to recognize how much I don’t know, I find those seeds have grown into a fantasy city park occupied only by my zayde and me. Every so often, I sit with him there, on a green-painted wooden bench, on an asphalt path, looking out at the urban greenery. He always has food of some kind in a brown paper bag. The bag sits on the bench, and I never discover what exactly is in there. Probably an egg-salad sandwich.
I understand that this fantasy of him is entirely fiction. Pieced together from stories my mother has told me and from my imaginings of what it would be like to sit with him, I find that the older I get the closer to him I feel.
In my fantasy, my zayde would find me almost annoyingly loquacious as he would sit on the bench mostly in silence, but his eyes would smile as he humoured my ramblings. Where I might feel impatient anger at a situation, he would counsel me to be patient, to think it through. He would brook no wavering of my principles, but he would have unwavering faith that I could achieve great strides if I trust myself.
The best times we would share would be in silence. We would sit on our park bench and gaze upon the world with shared vision. We would see brokenness and crumbling; we would see sorrow and despair; we would see cracks and fissures. And into this vision of hardship we would imagine fixes and patches, smoothings-out and salves; small kindnesses that would be tremendous.
Is it strange to miss someone you’ve never met? Maybe.
But especially in this last year, which has been hard, the kind of hard that his generation knew too well, my great-grandfather’s presence in my imagination has been a balm.
In these hard times, my zayde and I, in our fantasy park in Brooklyn, sit together in the pain of crisis and loss, of disruption and rending, of uncertainty and fear. He puts his cold, dry, palm over mine, and together we conjure some light to shine out into the darkness. Some words, some wishes, some prayers of the non-believers who have unwavering faith in our human ability to overcome, to transcend.
In this publication I have once again married my love of words with my love of craft. My imagined zayde enjoying that I have finally come back to where I always should have been, he smiles with his eyes, reminding me to stay true to my principles as we explore the meaning of art and craft in our lives and in the world around us. The poet and the maker are again as one.
Some of this essay appeared originally in my email newsletter; it has been revised and expanded here.
We’re too small an operation here at Digits & Threads to have comments open on all of our articles, but we suspect these pieces about our grandparents and great-grandparents have you thinking about the folks who have touched and influenced your experience of art and craft, too. So we have opened comments here, and we invite you to share your tales, both real and fantasy, below.