This is random, but a few minutes ago I was combing through old photos when I found myself face to face with the above image. It’s my late grandfather, Curt Herz.
Of the dozens of relatives I’ve had in my 45 years, through blood and marriage and all manners in between, there was only one Grandpa Curt. Which is to say, he was: Strict, depressed, cold. But also oddly endearing.
My Grandma Marta and Grandpa Curt arrived in America from Germany in the late 1930s. Grandma was a heat lamp of a woman who always had chocolate bars for me and my brother. She spoke in heavily accented English, and her apartment, on 181st Street in the Washington Heights section of New York City, smelled of warmth. I call it “her” apartment because, while Grandpa Curt lived there too, it sorta felt like we were visiting Grandma and, oh, Grandpa was also around.
Which doesn’t mean Grandpa was a bad man. He wasn’t. Not even close. He just was a really old-school German guy who spent his life complaining of the latest malady. I don’t think of him often, but when I hear certain pieces of classical music, or I smell smoke, I can picture him—brown corduroy pants, sweater, collared shirt—listening to records, sitting in a chair in the den and taking drags from a thin cigarillo. He, too, had an accent, but his words were heavy. When my brother and I were little, we tiptoed around Grandpa. He didn’t much like to be touched—especially kicked (accidentally or not) under the table during meals. Oh, there were also his hands, which always quivered. That scared me. He had fake teeth that went into cleaning solution at night. Like the hands—scary.
As I entered my teens, I started to engage more. Barks don’t intimidate at 15 the way they do at 10. So I’d ask Grandpa about his music, about his job, about the opera. I’m not sure how much of his answers I actually absorbed, but I felt close to him. And, I think, even loved by him.
He’s been dead for nearly 30 years.
I hate that.