Friday, June 06, 2014

The Tin Ceiling

I was always captivated by it; its beckoning luminescence held me in awe. 
Each time I raised my head and gazed into the silver tin ceiling I saw something new. Within its many designs and textures I’d imagine worlds unknown and places that were so secret no words could describe them. There were many tin ceilings in shops and homes on the Lower East Side. Some were painted white so they looked like plaster, and occasionally a combination of colors was used. However, the ornate silver ceiling in my father’s store was always my favorite. It was divided up into squares and within the squares were all these patterns that told stories to me. Or perhaps the wonderful raised ceiling designs and I created the stories together.

            In the corner of the ceiling facing the front of the store my grandfather Joseph had embossed his initials, “J.S.H.,” and the year he installed it — 1939.
From the tin ceiling hung four glass pendants with grapevines spread and circling around a translucent milky globe. The back wall was covered with ten racks of Singer sewing machines, arranged a dozen to a row, standing black and stately with their golden raised lettering shining into the shop. There was a walnut roll top desk, a six-drawer Coats & Clark oak cabinet to store the thread, and an old swivel wooden chair, all of which rested quietly on a well-worn dark oak floor — a surface that, when traveled upon, would creak in various tones, all of which seemed like music to me.
Handcrafted pendulum clocks ticked away on each side of the door and chimed in unison on the quarter, half, and full hour. The entire facing of the store was glass with green carved wood frames. The words “Hellman Sewing Machine & Motor Company” spoke to the street from the window. It was my father’s store and his father’s before him and it stood at 19 Pike Street in the Lower East Side of New York for over sixty years.
            I would walk to the store each day after leaving my fourth grade classroom at PS177. It was an easy two-block stroll down Madison Street; the store would come into view as I made my way through the large oval tunnel that was part of the Manhattan Bridge.
And it was there that I would do my homework or just sit and dream. I loved its musky old smell of wood, machines, and motor oil as I worked away on addition and subtraction. My father would sometimes leave me there when he went out to repair machines.
            I was never alone, because in the back of the Hellman Sewing Machine & Motor
Company sewing away were my father’s mother, Sarah, and her unwed sister, Miriam Rosenkrantz. Though I knew that Sarah’s last name had to be Hellman, I thought of both of them as the Rosenkrantz sisters. I never met Sarah’s husband, Joseph, as he had died many years before I was born.
            Sarah and Miriam dwelled in the rear of the shop like ghosts from another era. Their respective heads seemed always to be bowing in reverence to their work. They spent most of their time sewing industrial-strength zippers on cases and parcels.
            They spoke to each other in German and Yiddish and when they spoke to me it was in an interesting form of broken English. “So the numbers they are doing well for you? Maybe are you hungry a little? You want we should make you a sandwich?”
            Sarah’s husband, Joseph Hellman (my grandfather), migrated with Sarah to America in the early part of the 20th century from a small town called Parchim, which was somewhere east of Hamburg. Joseph was a master carpenter and machinist and quickly saved enough money to open the Hellman Sewing Machine & Motor Company. I was told it was Joseph who put in all the fixtures and the glorious ceiling, which I loved to wonder in. No one in the store ever talked about my grandfather and when I asked my mother what had happened to Joseph she would say, “Oh, he had a some kind of illness.”
            To which I would reply, “Was it a bad flu or a disease?”
            My mother would take a breath and say, “It’s not important, he just got real sick and he passed away. Does it rally make a difference how he died?”
Sarah was quiet and brooding and dressed in dark colors to match her mood. Her silver hair always seemed to be in contrast to her black work clothing.
Miriam was lively and very kind to me. She played the mandolin, the same one she had played in a mandolin orchestra in Germany. Sometimes she would show me her fingers and say, “You see, you see all this work with sowing and machines and now I can’t play the mandolin as much anymore.” Her new love was opera. On Tuesday nights she would stand in the back of the Metropolitan Opera House for fifty cents and enjoy classics such as Othello, La Traviata, The Magic Flute, and her favorite, Turandot. She would collect the playbills and show them to me at the store. I would sit at my father’s desk as she explained what these great musical epics were about.
            Miriam was the light of the family and loved New York, while Sarah seemed to have left her heart in a small town in eastern Germany. And there we were, the sisters in the back sewing, my father repairing a machine or doing his books, and I sitting at the roll top desk gazing at the patterns on the tin ceiling and occasionally doing my homework.
            One day Miriam and I took a walk to the corner to look at the beautiful stained glass windows adorning the Pike Street Temple. Inside the windows were scenes from the Old Testament. On one of the windows was a depiction of King Saul falling on his sword. I told Miriam that this picture was very frightening to me. “Why would this man do such a thing? Why couldn’t God save him from the enemies that were surrounding him?”
            Miriam paused a moment and replied, “Oh well, you see, even though he was a king he still had to have faith and listen to God, and he didn’t. He also betrayed the trust the great prophet Samuel had in him.” As she spoke about Saul, the color seemed to disappear from her face. The lines on her brow and cheeks were pensive and she was slightly stuttering.
            Still confused I asked, “Why couldn’t God forgive him? After all he was the king of Israel. Surely the Lord of the Jews could forgive a great leader like Saul.”
            Miriam took my hand and replied, “Well this is just my opinion but I think when Saul realized what he had done he could not find a way to forgive himself. You’ll understand this story better when you’re older.”
Many of the Old Testament stories seemed mysterious to me, but they did have the power to make my eight-year-old mind wander into places that I had never been before. Those, along with stories I heard my relatives tell over Passover and other high holy days, were part of the folklore I grew up with.
Around 5:00 my mother would come by to pick me up. For reasons unknown my father’s store seemed to make her uncomfortable. There was some serious bad blood between my mother and my grandmother that I could see only in the prickly way they eyed each other. If there was an exchange of words it might be my mother saying, “Did he eat?”
And my grandmother would reply, “He had sandwich, big sandwich.”
To which my mother would shake her head, gather me up, and make an exit.
It was easy for my parents to keep secrets from an eight-year-old. If the subject were serious they spoke in Yiddish or German. I had picked up some words, but not enough to comprehend exactly what they were talking about.
My mother’s domain was elsewhere, namely our ninth-floor apartment at 40 Monroe Street. It was one block from the East River, and from our living room window I could see both the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. I would sit on the top of our sofa and watch all the many types of ships moving north and south on the river.
I’d see freighters, ferries, tugboats, occasionally a destroyer, and sometimes a great battleship traveling north to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. My father had told me the story of the HMS Hussar, a twenty-eight-gun British warship that sank in the East River a long time ago. It was carrying millions of dollars in gold to pay the British soldiers. I’d sit on the edge of that sofa and pretend that someday I’d be the one to find the golden treasure of this lost legendary vessel.
One morning as I was getting dressed I overheard a conversation in English between my parents. My father was upset about something. It almost sounded like he was crying. I opened my door and as I did my mother said, “Sol, please, 1939 was seventeen years ago. You’ve got to stop thinking about it.”
My father replied, “Every time I look out the window it’s there, it’s always there.”
To which my mother said, “So stop looking. It’s not going to change anything.”
The next day as I was lost in the maze of the tin ceiling I once again noticed the year 1939 and my grandfather’s initials. I asked Miriam why my grandfather put his initials and the year 1939 in the ceiling. “Well, he was proud of the work he did and so yes, that’s why.”
I lifted my head and replied, “Didn’t he die in 1939?”
A moment of silence, then, “Well yes, that’s why we always light the Yahrzeit candle every October 15th. But this is not conversation for young boy.”
Something in me persisted. “Did he know he was going to die and is that why he put his initials in the ceiling?”
Miriam stood up and shook her head. “Such questions. Not to ask such questions. Where do you get such ideas from?”
My first experience with death came that year when we found one of my beloved parakeets at the bottom of the cage with his little feet up in the air. Each member of the family had a different reaction. My mother said, “It’s only a bird,” and my father told me I still had two left.
Sarah commented, “Everything dies, so what is big deal? It could have been worse.”
Miriam was the kindest. “Your bird has flown to heaven to be with all the other birds that have died.”
I replied, “Miriam, tell me what happens when you die.”
“Well it’s simple. You just go back to the place where you were before you were born.” 

           “Is that where my grandfather is? And all the other people in our family who are dead?” 

            “Yes. Joseph is there with his parents and his parents before them and maybe your bird is with them as well.”

            Most family truths were revealed to me when I overheard my mother on the phone. One spring afternoon as I was leaving the apartment to play baseball I heard my mom say, “You would have jumped too if you were married to that German witch.” 
All at once everything seemed clear to me and I understood how my grandfather died. 

I now knew why my father never drove over the Brooklyn Bridge. For some reason he’d always take the Manhattan Bridge even if it took us out of our way. That bridge spanning the East River was the ghost haunting Solomon Hellman each time he looked out our ninth-story window.

            On October 15, 1939, as war spread in Europe and The Wizard of Oz was playing in theaters around America, my grandfather Joseph Hellman decided to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. I never told anyone in my family that I knew. For the first time in my life I had what I would later learn was a feeling of compassion for my father. I wanted him to know I knew and how sad I felt for him, but I couldn’t tell him.
            I continued to love the tin ceiling, as it was probably the last thing Joseph created before he took his life. I’d gaze at all the designs and look at his initials and wonder if it were his way of saying hello to a grandchild he would never meet.

            Or perhaps it was just his way of saying goodbye.