It was no wonder that I longed to spread my wings, to live somewhere foreign, someplace exotic, after growing up on a steady diet of my grandfather’s stories. And he had some doozies. Poppy came from Austria by himelf to the US at the age of 16. It was the late 1800’s when he joined an uncle already living in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, which was still Indian territory at the time. There the two Jewish young men with heavy Yiddish accents and rudimentary English opened a dry goods store where they sold brightly colored cloth and other merchandise to the native Choctaw population and the white settlers who worked as loggers in the heavily forested area.
When Poppy was 21 another merchant came through town and showed him a picture of a 17-year-old Mary, a Russian born Jewish immigrant who was living in Fulton, Missouri with her widowed father and brother. “Your grandmother was beautiful,” my grandfather said with a devilish grin. “I got her address and wrote to her and she answered. We kept writing back and forth, and then I proposed. Right away she wrote back, “yes.” They met in St. Louis for the first time, and got married the next afternoon. “The day after that we took the train to Broken Bow,” he said.
Over the 23 years they lived in Broken Bow, along with raising three young children, they ran the store. My grandmother worked the cash register while my grandfather schmoozed with the customers. On Saturdays, my grandfather would often come home from a buying trip to St. Louis bringing bagels and lox with him to share in the store with his customers who had become his friends. The scene was vivid in my mind—-Poppy, a slight man with large ears and a contagious smile, my grandmother, a petite, serious young woman sitting with the chief and his squaw, all grunting and nodding over the deli food from the faraway world of St. Louis, Missouri. In return for the deli spread, the chief invited my grandparents to their dog feasts, and they went.
I think those years in Broken Bow, with unpaved streets, horse and buggy wagons and hogs wandering through the middle of town were my grandfather’s happiest years.
From my relationship with him, I developed a yearning to live somewhere other than the place where I had been born and grew up knowing as well as I knew the back of my hand. Poppy showed me that there is more than one way to live. Because of him I fell in love with stories and accents and a simpler way of being. I saw him move through the world with a light touch, open to and accepting of change, embracing the foreign.
Poppy and I played Canasta together sometimes. He ‘d stare at his hand of cards, then at me, then back at his cards and say, “Should I take a chance? Columbus took a chance!” deliberating about what card to thrown down. His words came back to me as I thought about moving to the Yucatan, and as I look forward to another year living in a very different part of Mexico. I still feel Poppy in my bones. “Take a chance,” he’s saying to me now, with that inimitable smile and an accent, which was the first music I ever heard.