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Published: Fri Jul 1 2005
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
To the New World and Back

I wonder how my brain will work when I’m old. I grew up hearing stories about my great-grandfather Solomon Fischbach and how his mind bent in the final years of his life. I heard how, at eighty-six, wrapping up convalescence from a broken hip at my grandparents’ house on Long Island, he developed a single-mindedness about economizing on toilet water. He opened the porcelain hood of every toilet in the place and rigged the chain and lever to pass less water. My grandparents, in turn—fans of a full flush—wired all the lids shut, but Solomon managed to pick his way through the makeshift locks. Recriminations flew. He and my great-grandmother packed their bags and returned to Brooklyn.

I heard how, at eighty-seven, after much resistance, Solomon finally admitted he was an old man. Having relented on this point, he embraced his new status with gusto and, a child of 1876, began boasting that he was only a hundred years younger than the United States.

I heard how, at eighty-eight, my great-grandfather was as enthusiastic about driving his 1931 La Salle as he had been when he first bought the hunter-green machine, thirty-three years earlier. But he began turning the car against the arrow on one-way streets and losing sense of his way home. A judge ordered him to relinquish his license and stop driving. He continued anyway. One day, my grandparents arranged for a mechanic to visit the La Salle, remove its tires, and put the hull up on blocks. Still, Solomon paid neighborhood kids to come by every week and wash, wax, and polish his stilled auto.

But the story that most captivated me was about the day, in the ninety-first April of his life, Solomon suddenly began speaking Italian. My great-grandfather was neither Italian nor, at the time, in Italy. He was in New York, where he had lived for sixty-nine years. His linguistic history, if translated into Morse code, would have featured Yiddish and English as its dashes. Italian, like German and Romanian, would have been a dot tersely wrapped out.

On the day my great-grandfather switched to Italian, he was in residence at a Long Island nursing home. My grandparents, each time they visited, told him it was a four-star hotel. He had been there about four months, since the day after he summarily dismissed the third in a string of male nurses my grandparents had hired to care for him at his home, in the elegant Seagate section of Brooklyn. According to my grandmother, none of our relatives ever considered the possibility that Solomon was only bucking for a female nurse.

That April morning, when my grandparents arrived for a visit at the phony four-star hotel, they found Solomon happy for the first time in weeks. My great-grandmother Lena had died two months earlier. Had she been around, she would have approved of the dark suit, sweater-vest, shirt, and tie Solomon wore that day. (She always criticized as garish the white linen suits her husband favored when the thermometer shoved past eighty.) My great-grandfather’s face looked easy that morning. Built in horizontal strokes—widespread cheeks, overgrown eyebrows, a broad band of forehead—it tended to appear stern and tight. His salt-and-pepper hair was parted on the right and combed back neatly. It was still abundant, even at his age, and each fiber so wiry and weighty that he would occasionally greet my grandparents with an inside joke: he would pinch a strand from the top of his head, release it at arm’s length, and, when it hit the floor, say, “Plunk!”

My grandparents were greeted this particular day with a different word—“ciao”—followed by what was for them an unintelligible stream of Italian. Solomon had returned to late-nineteenth-century Europe.

In the early spring of 1896, my teenage great-grandfather left his Bukovinian village—in what was then part of Austria-Hungary, what is now part of the Ukraine—for America. Initially, he made it only as far as Italy, where, short on money, he signed on in Naples as a stevedore to fund his ocean passage. Still young enough to pull on a new language without excessive tugging at the sleeves, he learned Italian—or at least the profanity-peppered version of it spoken on the Neapolitan docks.

It took two years for my great-grandfather to raise the passage money. In March 1898, he boarded the Tartar Prince, stood at the rail as the ship docked at Genoa to pick up more passengers, then settled in for the twenty-day transatlantic crossing. The ship pulled in to New York harbor on April 3, and discharged its contents on Ellis Island.

On the Tartar Prince’s manifest, Solomon Fischbach appeared as “Salomon Fischbach.” (Later in life, after deciding he would sound more American if he dropped one of the c’s in his last name, he signed documents “Solomon Fishbach.”) My great-grandfather lied about his age, upping the figure by seven, on the notion that a twenty-eight year old had less chance of being drafted into military service than a twenty-one year old. (The Spanish-American War loomed—the Maine having already exploded, on February 15, in Havana harbor—and Congress made its official declaration just three weeks later.) In the manifest column marked “OCCUPATION,” my great-grandfather was entered, in the officer’s spidery cursive: “country man.” Either he had spent nearly all his longshoreman’s earnings on his transoceanic ticket or he had hidden from disclosure the true amount of his holdings, because the manifest indicated in COLUMN 14 that my great-grandfather arrived with $23 in his pocket. The sum was small, but plenty enough to get him to the home of a relative, Solomon Augenblick, whose name was listed in COLUMN 16 and whose Lower East Side address, at 124 Forsyth Street, spilled over into columns 17 (EVER IN PRISON OR ALMSHOUSE OR SUPPORTED BY CHARITY), 18 (WHETHER A POLYGAMIST), 19 (WHETHER UNDER CONTRACT EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, TO LABOR IN THE UNITED STATES), and 20 (CONDITION OF HEALTH, MENTAL AND PHYSICAL).

Years shuttled by, and my great-grandfather passed nearly seven decades in the United States, speaking mostly English, some Yiddish. So my grandparents were entirely unprepared for the flood of words ending in o’s, a’s, i’s, and e’s that issued from Solomon’s mouth one April morning. They enlisted help. An Italian-American nurse was called into duty as a translator. A small crowd gathered round to witness this welcome break in the nursing-home monotony. Solomon’s language—seemingly innocuous, wrapped in a cushion of vowels—caused the nurse’s cheeks to turn color, first from their natural sepia to garnet, then from garnet to ashen. My grandmother asked what was wrong.

The nurse directed her answer toward my grandfather, thinking he was the patient’s son, not his son-in-law. “Your father is swearing.” My grandparents were quite shocked at this report on my great-grandfather’s normally refined behavior. They turned to each other, then again to the nurse.

“He’s saying some awful stuff, and he even seems happy about it.” She, on the other hand—although by now her face had returned to its natural tone—seemed less amused.

A phrase book became the intermediary between my relatives and Solomon Fischbach, even though few, if any, of the former dockworker’s salty expressions could be found in its pages. My mother, then in her second trimester of pregnancy with me, went several times to visit. She learned to say, “Come sta?” Ciao, she already knew. Five months later, I was born. Three months after that, Solomon Fischbach died.


In the years since my great-grandfather’s death, I have picked up his linguistic baton: learned Italian, moved for a time to Italy, schooled myself in dirty expressions about oxen and deaf women. Once, I described to a neurologist friend of mine my great-grandfather’s sudden reversion to Italian. She explained that his time in Italy must have been what she termed a “memory hot spot”—a particularly meaningful episode seared in like a first love.

I imagine Naples seemed a strange and exciting place to my small-town great-grandfather, and I suspect he shivered with the city’s energies, both actual and potential. Particularly along the flanks of its seaport, churning with human flight from wretched poverty and the latest cholera outbreak, Naples doubtlessly simmered with both the unrest of its desperate quarters and the boundless optimism of those fleeing it for America. Solomon must have wondered often when it would be his turn to go, and his imagination of what awaited him must have been stoked by the faraway stories that arriving mariners hoisted ashore and cracked open like crates of bananas. What a tease his littoral life must have seemed; he had come, mostly on foot, hundreds of miles—right up to the edge where one element butted against another—only to be left waiting there for two years. Did he look longingly out to sea each day and glimpse images of the New World shimmering on the horizon? Did he turn to one side and behold Vesuvius and its slow effusions, which during those years were gradually building a new dome on the mighty volcano? Did a fellow longshoreman—or perhaps a lover—introduce his ears to opera and thereby ignite for Solomon a lifelong passion for the form? Did my great-grandfather dip into his savings—and perhaps have to delay his eventual departure by a week or a month—to take in a work by Rossini, Donizetti, or Verdi at the Teatro di San Carlo? Or did he hear the rich tones of a young local tenor named Enrico Caruso, who sang at several venues around town in 1896, before other cities learned of his talent and called him to their own stages?

Solomon’s mental return to the shores of Naples, seven decades after his physical departure, suggests to me that the human spirit often draws greater sustenance from hope and promise than from outcomes—that sometimes the launching point is more important than the destination. And it reveals our memorial resilience to hold on, through layers of quotidian existence, to the most significant eras of our lives, regardless of how rough-edged the circumstances of those eras might seem to others. My great-grandfather found safety in a corner of his mind that corresponded not to a tony section of twentieth-century Brooklyn but a gritty, crime-ridden pocket of nineteenth-century Naples. I can only speculate why his brain found its greatest comfort there and, like the swallows of San Juan Capistrano, felt the imperative to revisit such a spot. Perhaps, at the edge of death, he returned to the only place that could give him the courage to push across to a new world. I like to think that this time around, he glimpsed my great-grandmother Lena shimmering on the horizon.

I often wonder what, at the end of my days, my memory’s hot spots will be. Are they experiences I’ve already had—my own years in Italy or the first time my heart ached for a girl’s affection—or adventures yet to come? At any rate, I expect that at some point when I am much older, my brain will twist itself into a knot, and my mouth will emit a never-ending stream of obscenity and orders for braised rabbit and tagliatelle with meat sauce. My relatives will probably understand none of it. They will scratch their heads and look around for the nearest Italian-immigrant nurse.

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