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This page is fondly dedicated to and profiles my maternal grandparents -- the only grandparents I ever knew -- Joseph and Henrietta Letterese.  They lived in the Parkchester ("A City Within A City") section of the Bronx, in the same apartment since, it seemed, the start of the Woodrow Wilson Administration. Indeed, some of my grandfather's siblings have lived (and did live) their entire lives in the house where they were born, suggesting, at the very least, a strong familial aversion to packing materials.

My grandparents were great cooks, specializing in veal (later chicken) cutlets, meatballs, lasagna, and, on occasion, beef stew. My grandfather would also bake all kinds of breads, constantly experimenting with ingredients ranging from the traditional to the unusual. When we visited my grandparents' house, we invariably sat down to eat within a maximum of 60 seconds after entering their apartment.  Even if we got there before mealtime (itself a nebulous term essentially defined in my family as "during waking hours"), my sister and I would (and would be expected to) "steal" a few "samples" before the main feeding event began.

When the meal finally ended, signaled by my parents, my sister, and I falling back into our chairs from exhaustion, two final rituals occurred. First, my grandfather would finish off whatever remained of the huge salad he had made, no matter how much was left (since, he claimed (despite advancements in refrigeration technology over the past century), it could not be kept). Then, my grandmother would immediately begin packaging all the leftovers (which existed only because they had cooked an enormous quantity of food that could have sustained a firehouse for a week) for us to take home as "CARE packages." Perhaps making up for having never packed her possessions to move, she tended to go slightly overboard with her packing of the food, utilizing stacks of the kind of tins and covers take-out restaurants use (although I have no idea where she got these, since they would never sink so low as to order in or take out), rolls of aluminum foil, landfills of plastic bags, and yards of twine and rubber bands, before labeling each parcel with its contents. I had no doubt that, were New York City ever hit by an atomic bomb, the only thing that would survive would be the leftovers my grandmother had carefully packed (assuming we had not already eaten them).

Sometimes, when we visited my grandparents for a longer time, I would go shopping with my grandfather. He would take pleasure in introducing me to every person we passed (apparently whether he knew them or not), frequently taking the time to share with them -- of all things -- a detailed description of my circumcision (during which procedure, he always reported, he had held me), which I was obviously delighted to hear repeated to total strangers. The passage of time did little to reduce his interest in increasing public familiarity with this tale; he continued this practice well into my 30's. (I remain thankful he didn't own a movie camera at the time of my birth.)

On some visits, my sister and I would sleep over at my grandparents' house, with the women taking the bedroom and my grandfather and I in the "T.V. Room." On such occasions, it was critical that I fall asleep before he did, to avoid being conscious for eight hours of snoring that would rival the decibel output of a circular saw testing facility.

My grandparents had a few other idiosyncrasies. They always kept, stacked in their surgically-arranged pantry and behind every pair of curtains, a survivalist-impressing "emergency" warehouse of groceries (including the largest hoard of olive oil in North America), over-the-counter remedies, and various other products -- despite the fact that my grandfather went out shopping each day (always returning with an exponentially-larger number of items than he had been sent out to obtain). Had the entire national economy ever suddenly and completely shut down, my grandparents would not have felt the effects of it for at least a year.

They only read the New York Daily News; no copy of the Times ever made it into their apartment. Although they apparently never went to church, they (particularly my grandmother) never missed watching the weekly Sunday Mass on television. They brushed their teeth with powder. They seemed to prefer clocks with audible ticking mechanisms. They had never experienced the sensation of sitting on the upholstered surface of their couches or chairs, having encased them in thigh-liquefying plastic covers for as long as I had known them. They went to bed no later than 10:00 p.m. (and often earlier), even on New Year's Eve. They had cabinets of crystal I had never seen opened. The contents of their living room end tables suggested they had saved every paper clip, twister tie, rubber band, and plastic bag they had ever come across (except the ones they used for the aforementioned leftover transport protection).

And they remained married for nearly 65 years.

 

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