Review by Heather Cross
A VOICE FOR MY GRANDMOTHER
by Ron Singer
Bardpress Chapbook/Ten Penny Players, Inc., 393 Saint Pauls Ave, Staten Island, NY 10304; ISBN# 0-934830-72-X, 24 pp., $12.00 (chapbook)
In the basement lurks a weighty suitcase that belonged to my grandmother. You know the kind--square, unbending, with dividers and hangers to organize clothing. Inside this suitcase reside family photos, some of their subjects lost to memory; my grandmother's diaries from the 1940's and 1950's; love letters from my great-grandfather to my great-grandmother; those sorts of things. Every now and again someone will have the idea of hauling the suitcase up the rickety basement steps to unpack it on the kitchen floor. Provided the suitcase is unearthed without incurring injury, we spend the following hours in a daze of memory, imagination, and curiosity about the foreign country of the past and its copper-plated, sepia-toned inhabitants.
Reading Ron Singer's chapbook, A Voice for My Grand-Mother, is like spending time in his grandmother's suitcase, only the items he removes and examines are memories and family folklore. This is more than a tour down memory lane, however. Singer is less interested in rehearsing memories than he is in testing them, turning them around, and probing for the untold stories within them. What happens when we take a long-accepted story and begin to ask of it new questions, questions which cannot, now, find definitive answers? What new life can open within old memories?
In "The Shoes," for instance, we hear that when Singer's grandmother needed a new pair of shoes, his grandfather would "wrap up the old ones in newspaper and ride the train in, himself, then go down to the lower East Side and buy exactly the same shoes--same style, same color, same size." After we finish shaking our heads at this eccentricity, Singer asks: "What color were the shoes? And what did she wear while he was gone?"
Singer's twenty-four page prose composition, then, is part memory, part homage to his grandmother--a Russian Jew who continued to speak a semi-mysterious language through his childhood--and partly a kind of supposing. The tone of the book is subjunctive as Singer muses about such topics as "Grandma's Bones," "Grandma Buttresses the Kosher Laws," "Personal Cows," and "My Mom's Grudges Against Her Parents." In all the questions, rememberings, and conjecture lurks Singer's dry humor. In "Two Wicked Sons-In-Law" he describes how his father and uncle would make fun of his grandmother. "The latitude of these scenes was about two degrees south of a sit-com," he says. "The boorish sons-in-law did, however, like Grandma's cooking. Is there no one to forgive these men?"
One role Singer adopts is grandson as lens examining the artifacts of family and family memory, or, to use his phrase, grandson as "the family's principal surviving earthly accountant." He also provides a simple and direct portrait of a woman who, in her ordinary way, serves as an icon for a generation--they who came to New York City from Russia and other parts of Europe in the early twentieth century, had families here, learned English, yet still called their grandsons "Ranu" instead of "Ronald"; still sent their husbands to buy shoes for them; and responded to their grandsons' narrowly avoided abductions by with, "No, Ranu! Feh! No good!"
This is a simple book produced as a kind of tribute, yet we outside the family are invited inside to share the curiosities of Grandma's suitcase and to try out "Ranu's" supposing and questioning. What if we began to ask questions of our own family's cherished memories and tales? When our family have gone, we have only their relics, concrete and abstract. We have our imperfect memories striving for accuracy (Is that how it really was?), and we have our rogue imaginations which, possessing no grounds for contradiction, can entertain with insubordinate wonderings ("Can she read? Why doesn’t she talk more?").
Stylistically, the book stymies those who would insist upon categorization, genre, and shelving determinations. Is it biography or memoir? At twenty-four pages, is not closer to a poetry volume? Is it in fact a prose-poem? A collection of snippet-essays? Or is it simply the chapbook equivalent of a suitcase, containing whimsical musings on the subject of this woman, her family, her grandson’s recollections? And is it through the lives of "Ranu" and his grandmother that we reconsider those closest to us, those whose truths we wish to possess, but cannot, entirely?