Special Collections January 2002

Grandfather's Box


In the spring of last year my parents sold the house in which I grew up and were cleaning it out when they came across a cardboard box in the basement. No one knew where it had come from or how long it had been there, but when they opened it, they were astonished to find my grandfather.

It seems that my father's father, Abraham Rubin, who was born in Minsk in 1891 (or 1890, according to some documents) and died in Miami Beach in 1978, saved things. He started early: The box contained coins from czarist Russia, pocket notebooks filled with Yiddish words written out in one column and Russian in another, a color drawing dated 1905. An Imperial Russian passport dated January 16, 1906; a piece of stationery from the Amerika, on the Hamburg-Amerika Line (annotated, years later, "the ship that I came here"); a ticket for passage to New York. Letters and cards addressed in Yiddish, Russian, and English, sent to nearly a dozen addresses in Manhattan and the Bronx.

There was a draft notice dated June 15, 1917; letters to him at Camp Upton, in Yaphank, Long Island; his dog tags and shaving kit and belt and rifle case and cigarette case and spare brass buttons and lighter and company flag and furlough train passes to New York City and a cloth face mask ("1918 epidemic and had to wear this all day") and a letter from one D. Chauncey Brewer, of The Order and Liberty Alliance, calling on him to assist in "building up a loyal spirit in the Army" among "foreign speaking men." And a life-insurance policy.

And there were discharge papers and cards from a dozen or so businesses, most of which failed (The Riverside Art Furniture Co.: "Where I invested $500.00 and lost every cent"), and finally one from the business he would operate successfully for forty years. A passport for his parents from Republique Socialiste des Soviets de Belarousse, dated October 30, 1924. A calling card from the woman who would become my grandmother, and a wedding announcement. An invitation to the bar mitzvah of his eldest son (my uncle), in 1940. A warranty for a 1946 DeSoto. A U.S. passport. A driving-license learner's permit, issued when he was already sixty-two years old.

When I got my learner's permit, at the age of sixteen, I felt that my life had begun. By the time he got his, my grandfather had already lived several lives.

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