Last week I visited The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My grandfather and his family lived there when they first emigrated to New York, after fleeing the pogroms in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Small dark rooms. No electricity. No running water. Four toilets in the back yard for the entire building. Family piecework factories. One of my great-uncles died of TB, which he contracted in a sweatshop. No, scratch that. He died of suicide because he didn’t want to put his family through the pain and expense of a long and agonizing death.
On our tour, I was the only American. When the tour guide asked if there had once been languages spoken in our families that are no longer spoken, I was the only one to raise my hand: “Sure. Russian, Yiddish, German, Danish, French.” My ancestors lived not an American dream but an American story, like most of us. It was a relief to emerge from that dark, cramped tenement and stand in the sunshine.
On Closing the Apartment of My Grandparents of Blessed Memory, by Robyn Sarah
And then I stood for the last time in that room.
The key was in my hand. I held my ground,
and listened to the quiet that was like a sound,
and saw how the long sun of winter afternoon
fell slantwise on the floorboards, making bloom
the grain in the blond wood. (All that they owned
was once contained here.) At the window moaned
a splinter of wind. I would be going soon.
I would be going soon; but first I stood,
hearing the years turn in that emptied place
whose fullness echoed. Whose familiar smell,
of a tranquil life, lived simply, clung like a mood
or a long-loved melody there. A lingering grace.
Then I locked up, and rang the janitor’s bell.
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