Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 114 in 2007.
A Voice for My Grandmother,
by Ron Singer
(Staten Island, NY: Ten Penny Players, 2007), 24 pages, $12, paper.
Review by Jim Feast
Ron Singer's A Voice for My Grandmother is a slight book -- in pages not in merit -- that takes a very interesting tack on "emotional economy." By this last term, I refer to the set of compromises we each make in divvying up our time and attention between the demands of family, friend, work, love, politics and other concerns.
Singer lays out how one such demand, his grandmother's, is met by her extended family. When grandma came to visit, the speaker's father "would also ask how long my Grandma was going to stay [at his house], then rip into his favorite topic, inequity, in this case the alleged fact that the other relatives didn't shoulder their fair share of Grandma time." As the author cogently adds, his father's kvetching would bleed into his ideas about the world situation.
Dad would also complain about inequity on a global scale --
racial, economic, and so on -- and he would use the same tone
as when he complained that last year this or that relative had
only let Grandma stay at their house half as long as she had
stayed at ours. ... Social justice may have suffered from being
made to share the stage with petty complaint.
This passage deserves special highlighting because (I would say) it stands behind Singer's emotional economy. Where the last generation hemmed and hawed over who would look after her for how long, now that she has passed away, it would seem there would be little to do in respect to her, aside from visiting her grave and reminiscing. But Singer, being a writer, and perhaps in contemplating his life through the objectifying mirror of prose and poetry, has found, as if he uncovered a forgotten I.O.U., that he owes his grandmother a special debt. He has come to appreciate how she contributed to his sense of history and family continuity, and he's determined to repay her by offering up memories of her in an affecting memoir.
It is a straightforward task, yet one that has its twisted, ironic side. He presents a story playing up the one thing his grandmother lacked while alive: words. "Grandma never had a word to throw at a dog. She'd sit there smiling and nodding, and, once in a while, reach over and pat my head." Perhaps she would drop a few Yiddish phrases, as Singer recalls, "Ranu, M'zooka," she would say. .. Was that Swahili she was speaking?"
This gentle book conjures up the little-known world of the Jewish farmers of Staten Island. Singer's grandfather raised hens. "Among the Jewish-American Diaspora, failure at chicken farming was practically a tradition." After giving up raising them, grandpa, more successfully, began selling other farmers' eggs, backed ably by his wife. Perhaps, there was a mercantile streak in his family. The author writes:
I, myself, played Store with the little granddaughter, my age,
from across the road. ... Pebbles, sticks, grapes, flowers, and
pine cones and needles were purveyed across a marble
counter in our sun-dappled arbor. ... At least once, Grandma
must have walked up the hill to look on in approval, nodding,
smiling, and wiping her hands on her apron.
As these excerpts suggest, Singer, though compassionate, is not sentimental. As he himself puts it: "There are few things I hate more than stories about lonely, impoverished oldsters sitting by their windows feeling bored and bereft."
For him, an unvarnished portrait is best, one that gives words to an untalkative woman and -- in another irony -- allows that a place in his memoir must be reserved for what he has forgotten or never learned. For instance, when his grandfather went through a protracted disease, leading to death, "it was Grandma who must have borne the brunt both of Grandpa's care and of the household." He says "must have" because he is speculating about things he didn't realize at the time. And, after all, aren't some of the most significant events in life, the mitzvahs, unwitnessed?
In A Voice for My Grandmother, Singer at least makes present to readers something of his grandmother: a quirky, combative spirit, and in doing so, clears his emotional economy so as to be solvent again.