My grandfather, near the end of his life, after owning a chicken farm in New Jersey, after immigrating from Paris, and before that, his place of birth: Kharkov in the Ukraine, owned a notions store in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. The store sold yards of cloth, spools of thread, sewing needles and buttons. In the front, buttons were displayed in packets of six and 12, and I was not permitted to touch those buttons.
Past the bolts of cloth, which were laid out like bodies in a catacomb, in the backroom was a curio stocked with more buttons, hundreds of buttons, thousands of buttons. The curio had a dozen drawers, and inside a panoply of buttons of every color and size. Some were smooth as river stones, some smelled smoky, a few were dotted with pearls or diamonds, fake, but not to me.
Up front, neighborhood ladies, who hailed from the Caribbean, haggled, buying cloth for the cataclysm of winter months. The women’s voices rang high, my grandfather sprinkled French, Spanish and Yiddish with English, and somehow cloth was cut, sewing needles selected, coins parsed. Sales were made on a register that rattled every time a sale was rung.
“May I have a button, Pop?” my 7-year-old self would ask my father, who had come to borrow money and was put to work on this Saturday afternoon. “Ask your grandfather,” he’d say.
This grandfather, with his bent back, with the white hairs spiraling out of his ears and nose, with the accent, often forgot that his granddaughter only spoke one language. He’d growl at me, and my father would scream: “English, Pop. English.”
Grandpa looked like he didn’t know how this girl with a bone-yellow wood button cupped in her hand could be related to him. His family only had sons. He was one of his seven brothers, all of whom stayed behind in Kharkov except for him, all of whom were murdered in the Second World War. By luck, he had two sons in America. No one he knew had girls, so who was this little one? How could she have survived the war that took his mother and all the others? Where did she come from? She has his mother’s high cheekbones, her eyes like a doe from the Duke’s forest. He glanced about—his store was on a bustling street in Brooklyn, the forest far from here.
The girl has a smell about her like autumn, like apples. Every Jewish New Year his mother would make apple cakes. As the youngest, he’d climb the highest branches and toss down the fruit to his brothers before the Duke’s men and their dogs caught the scent of the boys and the stolen ripe red apples. His hand trembled over the cash register. What can I offer her to go?
“Grandpa? Can I have this button?” I asked.
“Take,” he said, finding his English, and dismissing me. “Take all the buttons.”