This isn’t a story about a man overcoming all obstacles. This isn’t a story about a man having an epiphany after a momentous occasion. No, this is a story about a smelly, stinky pair of old socks.
When Jerry Czerniecki was a little boy, his father and mother would drop him off at his Grandparent’s house to watch him while they worked. His parents would leave the house early; often Jerry was still halfway asleep when he was deposited on his beloved Grandparent’s steps, with either his mother or father hurrying back down the stairs tossing kisses over their shoulder as they joined the rat race.
His parents were always on the go. Busy executives their work often spilled over into the evening hours where they’d show up looking tired, a hint of wine on their breath from the long dinners with clients or networking associations to which they belonged. Often Jerry was asleep and would be carried into the car, his limp arms and legs spilling out at odd angles, transported from one cozy bed to another.
Jerry was loved; there was never any doubt of this. If he’d had a choice to re-write parts of his childhood, it would be that he had gotten to spend more time with his parents, but his Grandparents were the next best thing.
Jerry’s Grandparents and their families had both escaped from Poland before the onslaught of the Nazi terror wave swept up the continent embroiling their motherland in war. Their own parents saw the tides of change looming, and luckily had enough means to extract the family, where they relocated in New Jersey where relatives lived. They were teenagers, and they were in love.
Grandpa Lewim liked to tell the story of how he first saw “his Greta” across the room at a local barn dance. Instantly smitten, he boldly walked across the straw strewn floor and asked for her hand in dance, and two months later for her hand in marriage. The families agreed, but told them they had to wait until they were both 18.
Grandpa Lewim had a brother, Ezof, much older than he was. Ezof joined the Polish Army in 1937 and was killed in early 1940. The family had wanted Ezof to come with them to America, begged him, pleaded with him, but he was adamant and paid the ultimate price. Lewim’s mother had packed as many of the family’s goods as she could, but much of it was not needed in their new home. Much of it was stored in boxes, neatly labeled in tiny Polish script.
One day Lewim was looking for his mother to ask her something and he found her in the attic, sobbing into a piece of cloth, a handful of mementos strewn around her in that dusty, murky room. Lewim walked up to her and saw pictures of his deceased brother. His mother was crying into a pair of socks. Lewim pulled them away from her and led her back downstairs.
Lewim would climb into the attic to look through the items – nothing much but it was all that was left of his brother. He felt a special bond with Ezof, wherever he was, and felt proud of him. He would finger the lock of hair, the leather booties from Ezof was a baby, a note from his teacher telling what a smart boy Ezof was. There were no pictures, so Lewim pieced together an image of him from his fragmented memories.
Life went on, and the family remembered to pray for all the relatives who’d died in the war at their family holidays. Ezof was always saved for last. But the memories faded, and the family talked less and less about Ezof, their lost son, and about Poland in general.
Lewim and Greta set the wedding date. They were now 23 years old and still very much in love. Lewim’s mother pulled him aside one day and asked him if he wanted anything from the attic to help start their new life. He picked out some old furniture from the house in Poland, yet he hesitated before making his final request.
His mother looked at him quizzically, “You want Ezof’s socks?”
Lewim nodded. He didn’t tell her, but he wanted HER to keep the lock of hair and baby paraphernalia, as he didn’t know Ezof as a baby, only as an older brother, a man. The socks were the only thing that reminded him of his brother like that.
His mother shrugged and packed the socks inside butcher paper tied with string. Lewim put them in the top drawer of his dresser and they stayed there for forty years, and each day Lewim would see them as he opened up his drawer to get dressed.
“Jerry was loved; there was never any doubt of this. If he’d had a choice to re-write parts of his childhood, it would be that he had gotten to spend more time with his parents, but his Grandparents were the next best thing.”
Lewim shared the socks with Jerry one day. He talked about the war – what little he knew. The elders never talked about it – ever – except when praying for the family members how were lost. He showed Jerry the socks, and Jerry was not impressed. They were dirty and had holes.
Jerry came home from school one day and told his Grandfather he had learned a joke. “What doesn’t the devil wear socks?”
His Grandfather shook his head.
“Because they’re hol-ey! Get it? Holey? Holy? The devil doesn’t wear holy socks!”
His Grandfather patted Jerry on the head, a far away look in his eyes.
This look Jerry came to know very well. As his Grandfather aged, he’d often catch him staring out the window or watching television but not really watching it. Jerry wondered about it, but shrugged it off. However, the looks became more and more frequent and his Grandfather started talking to Jerry often in Polish, which Jerry didn’t speak.
During one of these spells, his Grandfather was acting very strangely. He pulled Jerry upstairs, almost roughly, babbling excitedly in Polish. Jerry was a little scared – he’d never seen his Grandfather act this bad before. Grandma was at the store so he was alone. His Grandfather led him into the bedroom where he opened up his bureau and pulled out the old socks. He held them as a gift, in gratitude, and was clearly saying something like “See? See?” Jerry nodded, not knowing what else to do.
His Grandfather kept looking at Jerry like he’d just walked in the door from a long trip and hugging him, showing him the socks.
Later that night, Jerry’s mother took him home and told him that Grandpa was sick, in the head. He was thinking that Jerry was his long dead brother, Ezof. He had regressed into his memories and his grasp on reality was slipping. The next week Jerry began staying at a day care after school, but he didn’t understand why he couldn’t stay with his Grandparents any more. Didn’t they love him?
His Grandfather’s funeral took place several months later. A somber affair, the family sat while the Rabbi tore a cloth wrapped around his Grandmother’s neck saying Baruch atah Hashem Elokeinu melech haolam, dayan ha'emet (Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, the true Judge).
Back at the house, Jerry walked around, bored. Everyone was really quiet and kept pinching his cheeks and offering him something to eat or drink. He slipped upstairs to be alone. He opened the door quietly to his Grandfather’s room, and stepped inside. Here, it was quiet. Here, he could feel his Grandfather, not downstairs in that ceremony he didn’t understand.
He sat on the bed, looking at his Grandfather’s books, half unfinished on the nightstand. Suddenly, he remembers hearing a loud voice and looking around, startled, saw no one in the room. The voice was telling him to take the socks, and keep them. He opened the drawer and took out the old socks and stuffed them into his pocket. He went back downstairs where he was told to play quietly while the family “remembered Lewim.”
Jerry pouted. He wanted to “remember Lewim” too! Where was his Grandfather anyway? He slumped against the wall, where he heard a low chuckle. It was his Grandfather.
“Got the socks did ya? That’s a good boy. Never forget us, little Jerry. Never forget.”
Jerry never forgot. And yes, he still has the stinky, smelly old socks, tucked away in his chest of drawers where he can see them every day while he dresses.
Thank you Jerry, for sharing your Story with us.
Our Stories and pictures are the sole copyright of their Authors and may not be reprinted or used without their permission.
© 2009 by Adara Bernstein and Story of My Life ®