As my grandson’s first birthday approaches, I think of the many firsts in his life.
In particular I think of the first time he recognized his name. We had been calling him Isaac for six months, but one time, when he heard his name, he suddenly stopped what he was doing and looked directly at us. It was as if he were saying, “Nu! Yes, it’s me. What’s on your mind?” Then it happened over and over again.
If we were talking about him and he overheard his name, he pivoted his little head to find the Isaac source. My husband and I were surprised by his consistency, so we decided to give him a little test for extra credit. When we mentioned the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he couldn’t care less about Abraham and Jacob. It was Isaac that caught his attention.
When my son had officially announced Isaac’s name at his online baby-naming ceremony, that caught everyone’s attention, too. That was particularly true for the people who had known his namesake, Great-Granduncle Irving. To be perfectly honest, his naming took my breath away. Irving died when my son was five months old. So he only knew him through stories and photos. Unky never married. Isaac was the first one in our family to perpetuate his name.
My son told the virtual guests that Unky had been an airline radio mechanic who travelled the world. How ironic for little Isaac, born during a pandemic, a time when even leaving your apartment was high risk. But this new, optimistic father envisioned a time when Isaac would visit his extended family and see the world — in person!
He recalled the legends about how Unky always packed lightly. Sometimes, a paper bag would suffice. So my son told his eight-day-old son, “You don’t need a lot of stuff. Just show up for your family and friends.”
During this last year, I have been blessed to spend a lot of pandemic bubble time with Isaac and his parents. My husband and I have front-row seats as we watch Isaac grow, and as we watch his parents also grow into their roles. If my uncle had lived to see the creation of this beautiful family, he would have kvelled.
When Isaac sits on my lap and I read stories to him, I often think about the Unky stories he will hear. Which ones will make him laugh, which will make him proud and which will teach him the dignity of hard work and the importance of family?
We never visited Unky in his one-bedroom apartment in a three-story walkup in Brooklyn when I was growing up. Instead, he visited my family. He celebrated every Jewish holiday with us, in the synagogue or at the kitchen table. He slept soundly on the sofa while the rest of us listened to his incessant snoring.
Every Wednesday and Saturday after work, he joined us for dinner. To ensure that her beloved bachelor brother had at least one home-cooked meal a week, my mother’s dinner menu was steak and baked potatoes every Wednesday.
Unky babysat for my sister and me every Saturday night. He took us to local restaurants for dinner. On summer Saturdays, we would walk to Carvel, talking about the Scrabble game we would play when we returned home. I would lick a brown bonnet ice-cream cone; he would slurp down a chocolate milkshake — until diabetes robbed him of that treat.
Just as he was our twice-weekly guest at our home, we were his occasional guests at his workplace — the Trans World Airlines terminal at Idlewild Airport (before it was re-named JFK) in Queens. The airport was a half-hour drive on the Belt Parkway, but it took us a world away from our Brooklyn apartment.
In 1962, simply mentioning Irving’s name to the guard in the employee parking lot was all the security clearance required to enter this magical universe. My sister, cousins, and I believed he led the most glamorous life working for the airline. He wore a uniform. He had an ID badge. Each visit was sure to be an adventure.
We excitedly explored every inch of the TWA hangar. Whether we inspected shiny equipment in which we could see our reflections, or greasy equipment that stained our hands, this environment, so different from what we were accustomed to, fascinated us. Yet there was something familiar in the air. The sounds of my piano playing! To test the radio equipment for the planes, Unky played my tape recordings — of show tunes!— that I had made at our living room piano. When we met his co-workers, they all knew me. I was the 9-year-old piano player of whom Unky was so proud.
The TWA runway and an empty airplane were part of our playground, too. Once on the plane, we took turns sitting in the cockpit. We pushed and pulled any lever and button in reach. We zigzagged up and down the aisle, collecting the tiny packets of Chiclets and Dentyne. Our eyes bulged when we saw newspapers and magazines written in foreign languages. Foreign languages!
As if that weren’t excitement enough, Unky treated us to lunch in the employee cafeteria. Here, we waited on line with larger-than-life characters, right out of “Mad Men.” We gaped at tall, Miss America-like stewardesses (they were not call flight attendants yet), who looked so official and beautiful in their uniforms and high heels. Each stewardess wore her scarf differently. And those caps on their perfectly coiffed hair! The pilots, by the way, looked like movie stars, as they smiled at us with cigarettes dangling from their lips.
Another highlight of the visit was eavesdropping on tearful reunions, or farewells, of travelers in the international terminal. Even as a young child, I could feel everyone’s hugs. People roamed freely from gate to gate — TSA was not part of our lexicon.
My parents were content with trips to the Catskills in their 1956 blue and white Chevy. On the other hand, as a TWA employee, my uncle flew often, and for free. My grandson has a T-shirt that says “Born to Explore,” but when I was growing up, Unky was the family explorer. Among the many places to which he travelled were Las Vegas (to see whether his $25 gambling budget would outlast his 24-hour sleepless stay), San Francisco (to see “the relatives,” including the family dentist for a free checkup), Israel (to visit more relatives), and Hong Kong (to buy my mother an authentic mah-jongg set.)
He immediately mailed us postcards from his destinations so we would know he had landed safely. Of course, we received them two weeks later, and by then he already was home. No matter; he had good intentions. His signature was always TWA, written in big scrawling letters. I saved the cards in my attic, along with his collection of black and white vacation photos, and the photos and letters he wrote to his mother and sister while serving in the Army. One day, I will show them to Isaac.
For a high school graduation gift, Unky took me on my first airplane trip, to California. Finally, I was on a plane that actually flew somewhere! From my seat, I could see the plane’s snowy white body and the red TWA letters. I was so proud my uncle worked for such a grand company.
Unky retired after 35 years of dedicated service. His framed retirement certificate hangs on my staircase wall, next to his mother’s Certificate of Citizenship, which was dated December 14, 1937. My family’s high school and college diplomas cover the wall, but Unky never earned one. He had left school to support his younger sister and widowed mother during the Depression.
Five months after he retired, he died. He was 66 years old.
As Isaac turns 1 year old, and continues to recognize and grow into his name, I think of the power of story-telling. I think about how my son grew up on stories about my beloved uncle. By naming his son Isaac, he preserves Uncle Irving’s precious legacy.
Now it is Isaac’s turn to create his own story.
Merrill Silver of Montclair is a freelance writer and she teaches ESL at JVS of MetroWest. Find her at merrillsilver.wordpress.com