In your eyes

June 15, 2008|By Ryan Bloom

My father's father died when my father was 8 years old - complications of tuberculosis. Sometimes, when I visit home, my father stops me and says it scares him to look at me now. "Imagine looking at your son and seeing your father," he says.

My father's hair, what's left of it, is no longer even gray. His eyes are still brown, the irises a bit darker than they were, but there's not that hard stare anymore; the stare that used to say "I know" says nothing now.

I am my father's son. I have brown eyes like my father and black hair like he used to have, like in the old photographs from Paris.

Really, that's the thing that scared him, I think: When I told my father the airplane tickets to Paris were in hand. "I'm following in your footsteps," I said.

"You're going home," he said, looking away.

I want to learn everything there is to know about my father and his parents - before there's no one left to teach me. I want to know what it was like for a young boy traveling back and forth from Paris to New York, and later to Baltimore. I want to know where in the small apartment his mother hid the Erte and Dali paintings. Why she wouldn't talk about her husband - my father's father.

I want to know what it was like to grow up without a dad.

In the closet of my old blue room is a stained, blue alligator-skin suitcase with frilly satin boxes inside. In the boxes are letters, postcards and a lot of photos - well over 300.

There are pictures of my grandmother as a teenager, my father as a toddler, the beach in Deauville, her apartment in the chic 11th arrondissement, and even one or two of my grandfather standing on the Quais.

My father knows that I will look for it when I'm there: their 11th arrondissement apartment, the one on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir; the one just past Place L?on Blum. My father's father, his name was L?on also - L?on Blum, originally Blumenstiel, transformed after he escaped to America. The L?on who has a street named after him, he was lucky. He survived.

The picture I know perhaps best is of my father and his father. In it, they are kneeling on a boardwalk, somewhere like Coney Island. My grandfather has one arm around my father's back and the other out in front of him, a white pigeon perched on his hand. The bird's just sitting there, frozen, and my father is staring at it, mesmerized.

Back then, my dad's eyes didn't yet say, "I know."

"Dad?" I asked. "What happened to your father?"

"He died." My father didn't even blink.

I pushed for more. I wanted to know. "How did it happen?"

The pieces are always moving, but what seems more than shrouded memory is this: L?on Blum was unlucky. He was forced to flee; he left all his love inside an inscribed gold ring, he left it with her in Germany thinking he'd be back soon.

It wasn't my grandmother he left.

L?on met her, my grandmother, in Paris. She helped him with his French, slicked back his hair, told him what kind of cigarettes to smoke. She had an inscribed gold ring, too - it wasn't from my grandfather. She understood running, though - she was a Jew; her parents had fled World War I. She wanted to help my grandfather hide, to get him back to love once the madness in Germany passed.

On June 17, 1939, the last boat left France, left Le Havre for New York. My grandmother's boyfriend couldn't afford the fare, so he forced my grandmother to walk away with this man - with my grandfather. L?on paid her fare, listed her as ?pouse on the boarding documents, traded kindness for kindness.

In America, my grandmother couldn't afford to live alone in New York - an haute couture millinery designer meant nothing to the U.S. She soon boarded for Baltimore, and L?on took her in. To earn extra money, L?on worked at a sheet-metal yard, knowing it was only temporary, knowing he would be back in Germany soon. L?on caught TB from his boss, who caught it from a mistress. L?on was a hemophiliac; he didn't make it. Luck was not on his side.

It's hard to say whether there was ever love between L?on and my grandmother; my father isn't talking, and government documents don't speak in abstracts - they don't record things like love, things I want to remember. They won't help me know my father - they won't keep him alive.

The government documents did tell me that my grandfather was sent to a TB sanitarium in Baltimore. The surgeons removed a lung, or a part of a lung, or something vital, because my grandfather didn't live much longer after that. He saw my dad, his son, once more in a hospital waiting room, but my father refuses to talk about it.

"What does it all matter now?" he asks, but I think he knows, even if his eyes don't. He knows we have to remember our fathers.

Sometimes, when I stay in the old blue room in my parents' house, I wonder: How can someone who never had a father make such a good one? Or is that exactly it? Is my father making up for both of us?

I look at him now, here, sitting across the table from me as I prepare to leave for Paris. His eyes, they no longer say, "I know." They say: "I knew."

Ryan Bloom teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His e-mail is

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