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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Small world

You know how your parents tell you stories, and you grow up believing them, but then as an adult you find out that some of them were greatly exaggerated, so then you wonder if any of those stories were true? This morning, I was able to confirm that one of my family legends was true -- or quite likely, anyway. It’s not much of a story, mind you, but it’s a neat little bit of my family’s history that has a connection to the bigger history of the nation.

I was watching Face the Nation -- the topic was the anniversary of the March on Washington -- and Colin Powell was on. I was reminded of something my mother, who died four years ago, used to tell me: that as a teenager, Powell had worked in a baby furniture store next door to my grandfather’s grocery store in the Jewish Bronx neighborhood where my mother grew up. I always thought that seemed mighty unlikely, but out of idle curiosity, I Googled.

Sure enough, Snopes says the story about Powell working in a Bronx baby furniture store in the 1950s is true -- in fact, he apparently learned some Yiddish from the store’s Jewish owners. Even better, the source Snopes cited gives the location of the store: corner of Westchester and Fox.

Turning to Google maps, I quickly found the corner of Fox Street and Westchester Avenue -- and saw that the next street over from Fox was Tiffany, which I remembered my mother telling me was the street where she lived.

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So now the story was looking way more likely than it had seemed at first. But was my grandfather’s grocery really next door to the baby furniture store, or was it just in the same neighborhood, another example of an exaggerated family legend? Just as I was mulling that question, the phone rang. It was my father.

After chatting for a few minutes (he, checking up on my cold; I, checking up on his sore leg -- such is the scintillating conversation at our stage of life), I said, “Dad, do you happen to remember what street Grandpa’s store was on in the Bronx?”

“Fox Street,” he answered without hesitation. “Funny how I remember that. I haven’t thought of it in years.” (Truth be told, he remembers things he was told half a century ago far better than he remembers what he was told ten minutes ago.)

So there it was. Mom’s story was probably true. Young Colin Powell did work in the store next door to Grandpa’s, or at least, very close by. And here I was, some six decades later, listening to him, now a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State, speaking on Face the Nation about the state of race relations in America. That was kind of neat.

Of course, I’d like to believe that, if Powell had ever had any contact with my family all those years ago (which now seems very possible), it was a positive experience that contributed to his optimism about race relations. I’d like to believe that, but it really depends a lot on whom he talked to. My grandpa was a sweet-natured man who, I believe, would have treated everyone with kindness. My grandma -- not so much. Of course, I knew her in her later years, but from what my mother always told me, the peppery personality I called Grandma was not a late development. How peppery? I never quite recovered from one particular day, maybe 15 years ago now, when I was riding the crosstown bus with her. We were sitting in more or less companionable silence when she blurted out, for no apparent reason and at the kind of volume only achieved by the hard-of-hearing elderly, “I read that Jews are marrying schvartzes! It’s terrible!”

This is what Colin Powell said on Face the Nation: “This country’s come so far....I think we should be very proud of what we’ve accomplished, but we should not say, ‘All done.’”

I’d say that sounds about right.

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