This photograph hangs on the wall of my office, a Polaroid suspended by two little pieces of tape. On the left is my grandfather, Curt Herz. On the right is his wife, Marta Herz. They escaped Nazi Germany in the late-1930s, came to America, spoke almost no English, took first jobs sweeping the lobby of a New York City movie theater, settled into an apartment on 181st Street in Washington Heights, had my mother, lived, lived some more, lived some more, died.
The photo is actually a pretty accurate take on two disparate personas. My grandma was as warm and loving as a grandma could be. She made these amazing cakes with two dozen eggs. She always brought my brother, my father and I chocolate bars. When we stayed over with my grandparents in New York City, she was always taking us places. The circus. The local diner. To a neighbor’s apartment, where treats awaited. She died 20 years ago, and I still miss her.
My grandpa, on the other hand, was stern and rigid. He always thought he was sick. His hands shook. He smoked cigarillos and played classical records and would sternly reprimand my brother or I if we accidentally kicked him under the table. I can’t say i was afraid of Grandpa, but I was never relaxed around him. When he died in 1990, right before I left for college, I wasn’t overly heartbroken. Sad? Probably. But crushed? No.
Now, though, looking back, I wish I knew Curt Herz as an adult. What you learn though living, and certainly through journalism, is that people are complex. And who we are is only slightly a choice we make. My grandpa was raised comfortably. He left his home, left his life of some luxury, left the vast majority of his possessions behind. He came to an unfamiliar land, with unfamiliar customs. He arrived at a time when America was changing; was relaxing. And Curt Herz was anything but relaxed. It was square peg into round hole.
I’m thinking, in hindsight, the cigarillos, the classical music, the health anxiety—those were crutches for a man who surely needed a crutch.
It breaks my heart.
I was too young to understand.