The King of Hearts

They call my grandfather the King of Hearts.

On Valentine’s Day, they wheeled him over the linoleum floors of the nursing home, his red, fleshy head crowned with plastic jewels, wearing a sash across his body, now weak as empty sails. But his boyish smile is magnetic, and his lips unapologetically scoured the area for girls, his eyes seeming to say, “All I want to do is say hello!” It was very clear within only a few months of his stay: he loved women.

Of all the things that make my grandfather strange (a Polish immigrant who never came close to losing his accent) the one that was always apparent to me was the way he treated women. His mouth was something he felt should always be attached to someone else. I remember my embarrassment as a little girl when he would grab my face and yell, “Putchka! Putchka!” then drench me in kisses as he scratched his stubbly face against mine.

He always gave my sister and I money after calling us beautiful too many times. When I was born, to my mother’s disapproval, he tried desperately to name me (Thank you mom that I am not Meinke Pechman). He wizened up and increased his offer to $50 when my sister was born.

“Brooke! What’s a Brooke!” he scoffed when he was once again rejected.

I later learned that Meinke was the name of his little sister, whom he watched die in front of him at the hands of the Nazis. They executed the majority of his village in a mass shooting which my grandfather escaped. Always somewhat of a rascal, he ran off into the woods, sleeping in sheds and keeping on the move all by himself as a young teenager. By seventeen, he had false papers saying he was a Christian pole named Jan Zachwala.

His one misstep came at a train station, when a cute little boy asked him to hold a suitcase for him, claiming there were only salamis inside. My grandfather is many things, but certainly not gullible (as they say, you can’t bullshit a bullshitter). I have a hard time believing to this day that he accepted the suitcase. But whatever pleasure he took in helping the boy was quickly lost. The Gestapo asked to inspect the bag, which was filled with anti-Nazi leaflets and flyers. My grandfather was taken to Auschwitz as a political prisoner.

The gruesome atrocities he witnessed there I’ll never know for sure. After listening to years of my grandfather’s stories, my dad has made clear to me that not everything my grandfather says is absolute truth, even if sometimes he himself believes it. For years my grandfather told me that his sister died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, though this is impossible.

From the way he charms women and the joy he takes in it, one would never sense he had a moment’s hardship. His eyes light up with his tiny pupils pinpointed; he smiles wide like a kid. He even put the moves on Oprah after I won an essay contest through the Oprah Winfrey Show. I wrote about my grandfather’s story and he was flown out to Chicago to be on the show with me.

“You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful!” he said to her, kissing her hand over and over again. When it came time for me to shake her hand, she smiled and whispered in my ear, “I just love your grandfather.”

Soon after that, it became necessary for my grandfather to move to an assisted living home. But even within the confines of the place, he still remains a relentless flirt. The last time I saw him, he could barely speak or move; still he smiled his huge smile upon seeing my sister and me. He reached out his hand to my dad and whispered, “Money?” My dad, confused, gave him a twenty from his pocket. My grandfather took it and momentarily hid it behind his back. Then he gave me the money.

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