Chapter 3

I might as well tell you about Nana and me. Nana’s parents emigrated in 1906 from Russia. They settled in New York City, like many other Eastern European Jews. Her family wasn’t impoverished, but they lived modestly. My great-grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi, and Great-Nana raised six children, while helping other families in the community. Her selflessness was clearly a legacy to Nana, one she’s continued, through her volunteer efforts, to the present day. Nana was (and is) a strong-willed woman. She was groomed to be a housewife while living in her parents’ home. But while at school, she prepared for another life. She was sharp, at the top of her class. To this day I’ve only won a handful of the thousands of gin rummy games we’ve played. She never forgets a thing. I’m pretty sure she counts cards, which she vehemently denies. To her credit, she has never let me win, which I appreciate, because it has made all five or six of those wins all the more meaningful. I celebrate a bit more than I should. You’ve probably heard “Act like you’ve done it before.” Well, I never do. Each win always feels like the first, and I’ll spike the ball and be damned.

The bottom line is, Nana’s smart as hell and could have done whatever she wanted. What she wanted was to become a nurse. My great-grandfather couldn’t stop her, as much as he might have wished. I’m sure he preferred to have her married and out of his house. But it wasn’t going to be any of his doing. Nana left the house when she became one of the few contemporary women to be self-sufficient. You’d think, as parents, they’d have been proud of her and her potential. Great-Nana probably was; Nana hasn’t spoken about it much, so I can only guess. But her pops, the revered rabbi from the Old World shtetl, wouldn’t listen. Before he could focus too much of his anger on Nana and her growing career, he had a new place to focus his wrath. Nana walked straight into an unexpected wall. Love can stop the best-laid plans. The man, the myth, the legend: my Gramps.

Gramps was a man’s man. A man among lesser men, you might say. He was more than six and a half feet tall in a time when men rarely broke six feet. He walked around New York City like a Goliath in his day. Nana was already in nursing school and was treating patients in a small clinic (much to the rabbi’s dismay) when the strapping young Mr. Garstink waltzed through the door. I don’t recall what brought Gramps through that door on that particular day—maybe I’ll run it by Nana. Perhaps it was fate. Theirs was a quick romance. He was handsome and strong and intelligent; she was charming and beautiful, with a cheeky wit. They were wed within months, and my pops was on the way shortly thereafter. Great-Nana thought Gramps was a fine man and that he treated Nana just as she deserved. But the rabbi was always reserved in his judgment. According to Nana, he liked to say he could smell a bad egg before it went rotten. Gramps and Nana were wed in spring 1939, and everyone knows what happened in Germany in September 1939. That was also about when Gramps joined the German American Bund. And that was a really big problem. As far as the rabbi was concerned, my grandfather, his son-in-law, was now an American Nazi.