rejection, the work went badly. Every Sunday night, I would watch him grow more and more irritable as he
gathered his briefcase and set up a TV tray in front of his chair, following the lead of every possible
distraction, until finally he would chase us out of the living room and try to schedule appointments with
prospective clients over the phone. Sometimes I would tiptoe into the kitchen for a soda, and I could hear
the desperation creeping out of his voice, the stretch of silence that followed when the people on the other
end explained why Thursday wasn’t good and Tuesday not much better, and then Gramps’s heavy sigh
after he had hung up the phone, his hands fumbling through the files in his lap like those of a cardplayer
who’s deep in the hole.
Eventually, a few people would relent, the pain would pass, and Gramps would wander into my room to
tell me stories of his youth or the new joke he had read in Reader’s Digest. If his calls had gone especially
well that night, he might discuss with me some scheme he still harbored-the book of poems he had started
to write, the sketch that would soon bloom into a painting, the floor plans for his ideal house, complete with
push-button conveniences and terraced landscaping. I saw that the plans grew bolder the further they
receded from possibility, but in them I recognized some of his old enthusiasm, and I would usually try to
think up encouraging questions that might sustain his good mood. Then, somewhere in the middle of his
presentation, we would both notice Toot standing in the hall outside my room, her head tilted in accusation.
“What do you want, Madelyn?”
“Are you finished with your calls, dear?”
“Yes, Madelyn. I’m finished with my calls. It’s ten o’clock at night!”
“There’s no need to holler, Stanley. I just wanted to know if I could go into the kitchen.”
“I’m not hollering! Jesus H. Christ, I don’t understand why-” But before he could finish, Toot would have
retreated into their bedroom, and Gramps would leave my room with a look of dejection and rage.
Such exchanges became familiar to me, for my grandparents’ arguments followed a well-worn groove,
a groove that originated in the rarely mentioned fact that Toot earned more money than Gramps. She had
proved to be a trailblazer of sorts, the first woman vice-president of a local bank, and although Gramps liked
to say that he always encouraged her in her career, her job had become a source of delicacy and bitterness
between them as his commissions paid fewer and fewer of the family’s bills.
Not that Toot had anticipated her success. Without a college education, she had started out as a
secretary to help defray the costs of my unexpected birth. But she had a quick mind and sound judgment,
and the capacity for sustained work. Slowly she had risen, playing by the rules, until she reached the
threshold where competence didn’t suffice. There she would stay for twenty years, with scarcely a vacation,
watching as her male counterparts kept moving up the corporate ladder, playing a bit loose with information
passed on between the ninth hole and the ride to the clubhouse, becoming wealthy men.
More than once, my mother would tell Toot that the bank shouldn’t get away with such blatant sexism.
But Toot would just pooh-pooh my mother’s remarks, saying that everybody could find a reason to complain
about something. Toot didn’t complain. Every morning, she woke up at five A.M. and changed from the
frowsy muu-muus she wore around the apartment into a tailored suit and high-heeled pumps. Her face
powdered, her hips girdled, her thinning hair bolstered, she would board the six-thirty bus to arrive at her
downtown office before anyone else. From time to time, she would admit a grudging pride in her work and
took pleasure in telling us the inside story behind the local financial news. When I got older, though, she
would confide in me that she had never stopped dreaming of a house with a white picket fence, days spent
baking or playing bridge or volunteering at the local library. I was surprised by this admission, for she rarely
mentioned hopes or regrets. It may or may not have been true that she would have preferred the alternative
history she imagined for herself, but I came to understand that her career spanned a time when the work of
a wife outside the home was nothing to brag about, for her or for Gramps-that it represented only lost years,
broken promises. What Toot believed kept her going were the needs of her grandchildren and the stoicism
of her ancestors.
“So long as you kids do well, Bar,” she would say more than once, “that’s all that really matters.”
That’s how my grandparents had come to live. They still prepared sashimi for the now-infrequent
guests to their apartment. Gramps still wore Hawaiian shirts to the office, and Toot still insisted on being
called Toot. Otherwise, though, the ambitions they had carried with them to Hawaii had slowly drained
away, until regularity-of schedules and pastimes and the weather-became their principal consolation. They
would occasionally grumble about how the Japanese had taken over the islands, how the Chinese
controlled island finance. During the Watergate hearings, my mother would pry out of them that they had
voted for Nixon, the law-and-order candidate, in 1968. We didn’t go to the beach or on hikes together