Joe Meyersohn and Arthur Prisman are first cousins. They are also Dena's and Yiska's first cousins. This puts them well into their 80s. When they talk about granny and grandpa I feel like they are my cousins and of my generation and this connects me strongly to them. (Granny and grandpa to them are great great granny and grandpa to me.)
Joe and I visit Arthur Prisman in a residential apartment. On the way there Joe tells me he met Arthur Joffe on a number of occasions in town when Arthur was not being mugged.
"He would keep me rooted to the spot and tell me the same story about Joel's success, relating it each time in detail, about banks and insurance companies."
When I walk in this other Arthur lies shirtless in a low bed with an oxygen machine bubbling like a jacuzzi at his bedside. A nurse sits reading a magazine at the foot of the bed.
"How are you?" I ask Arthur.
"As you see," he replies, not appreciating the question at all. Some excitement at the prospect of talking to someone about what has to be the better than now past breaks through. He asks the nurse to prop him up. As she struggles he makes eye contact with me and tells me, "she's not very good at this," making no effort to whisper.
He is overexcited and begins rattling off the family tree.
"I have all of that," I tell him, "I'm more interested in the stories that hang off it."
"I remember listening to a crystal radio in one of grannies boarding houses in Ninth St in the early 20s," is his opening gambit.
He then tells me that his family started off in Doornfontein and then he makes me guess their trajectory of social mobility. I more or less get it right but miss out a few steps. Doornfontein, Yeoville, Observatory, Houghton.
"We got there the proper way," is how he puts it.
I have learned that it is no good to interrupt an old person's train of thought. They end up forgetting what they were saying and what it is that is most interesting to them.
"Yiska was always getting married and disappearing," he continues.
He asks me if I know about the black sheep. "Eliyahu?" I say. He seems impressed. I should have asked which one. Talking to Josie about skeletons in the cupboard we had a good laugh. "Eliyahu seemed a cool guy," said Josie. We went and reframed all the villains recognising all the sheep and wild spirits in ourselves, our feet stomping the road like wild horses.
Arthur's illness seems to leave little room for any humor. When Joe cracks a joke, Arthur says its not funny. Joe remembers a few nicknames given to his cousin.
"Do you remember what they called you?" shouts Joe.
Arthur's body language tells me he doesn't want to be reminded.
"Bombala," says Joe.
He keeps deferring to Joe, "should we tell him about this or rather not?" First cousins marrying each other. A hint at an affair. Eliyahu's bigamy.
I direct him to the boarding house in Doornfontien. There were several, not at the same time, Devora started another one as soon as one closed down. He talks about the one in Charlton Terrace.
"Do you know why I don't eat chicken?" Arthur asks me.
I shrug pen poised.
"Grandpa used to slaughter chickens in the yard of that house. He would sit there with a white apron over his black garb, grab a fowl, cut its throat and throw them down to quiver and die."
A memory of a month ago intrudes. Driving not far from there, a delivery van pulled up beside me at a robot. NAIDOOS CHICKENS - this meat is foul - sign written boldly on the van.
"Do you remember what a holy man he was?" says Joe to Arthur.
"He used to make us both go to Shul," says Arthur, "and on the way he wouldn't go along Beit street because their were shops open on Shabbas. He used to make me pray the whole day on Yom Kippur when all my friends were playing nuds and marbles. I had to stand and duven beside him. I didn't know a word of what was going on."
"What are nuds?" I ask.
"Nuds like chestnuds," says Arthur's voice over the gargling brook.
"There was an annex to the house in Staid Street," says Joe. It was Pesach and he was in his bed there. Food was brought to him from the main house but he refused to eat it. Dust may have got in along the way which would have made it chomitz."
"He used to call you Yungatz," says Joe, another nickname recalled. Arthur doesn't smile.
"He didn't come to my barmitzvah because he didn't drive on Shabbas," says Arthur.
I should have asked if they have any good memories of Grampa Azriel.
"Devora Leah kept the home and the family together. Everyone respected her. She died when she was 72. At her deathbed she asked the Doctor, "can't you just patch me up, I have this and this simcha to attend?" The doctor said no, we can't do that." It sounds like the simcha was Ruth's birth. She died only a few months before.
"I never saw her in a bad mood," says Arthur. "She was an intelligent woman with lots of common sense."
"My favorite memory of her is her arguing with Walter the African man who worked for her in the boarding house," says Joe. "When she arrived in SA she could speak no English but she needed to be able to communicate but it didn't come easily to her. In no time Walter learned Yiddish and I used to listen in wonder to them argue with each other.
I also remember the peddlers who would come past with horse and carts selling things. They would shout out their wares and she would meet them in the street and haggle over prices. I remember her choosing a big piece of ice from a man who sold only ice and bargaining the price down."
One daughter Fanny died in childbirth. The child's name was Felix Amos but he became Shamos.
I pass Arthur an old photo album with shots of Eliyahu and others I cannot identify. He leafs through it and then his hands stop and the oxygen machine also stops gargling for a few seconds.
"Do you know who this is?" he asks me smiling for the first time.
His finger is pointing at a young boy sitting on its mothers lap.
"You?" I ask incredulously.
He nods and Joe says, "let me see let me see".
I show Joe and the nurse.
"Don't show her," says Arthur, "she is only here for one day."
I ignore him and he studies her face as she bends over the bed to look at the photograph.
"What a wonderful memory you gave me," he says
"What else do you want to know?" he asks caught between not being able to breathe, failing memory, depression and over excitement.
"I remember Grampa used to bless me and all future generations, literally bless me, sit me on his knee and intone long Hebrew blessings."
Arthur looks very spent but he doesn't want us to go.
"Do you have any old stories that he or anyone else told you about Latvia. They used to reminisce that is all," he says the irritation back in his voice.
"Do you remember what they said?"
"I remember one," says Joe.
"The youngest brother Joe Idelsohn was a small boy and he was drowning in a lake. Grandpa had to fish him out."
This story is related to Rona and Issy Kolvin. I used to play soccer with their son Philip and one day we jumped into the zoo lake from a rowing boat just for fun.
"I once went back as a small boy says Arthur to Libau. In 1923. I was only 2 years old. I met my cousins who all died in WW2."
"Were you two close as kids?" I ask.
Joe begins to nod, "No", says Arthur.
"My parents had a hat shop corner Eloff and Market. Here is a story for you," Arthur says pulling himself up one last time. "Someone called Miller and I forget his name decided to open a bazaar. There had never been a bazaar in Africa. It became so busy you couldn't get in. I'm talking about OK Bazaars. Next door was my father's ladies hat shop.
Because of the OK Bazaar it also became very busy. Miller said to my father expand. They went ahead but my father was very happy with one good business."
We say goodbye and leave the building. A vintage car parked in the basement I meant to look at on our way out is no longer there.
"Can we take a detour past Doornfontein?" I ask Joe.
We turn into Terrace and it looks like the houses have given way to the Africa football stadium's car park. At the very end is a business selling 4 by 4s.
I slow down to turn back.
"By golly, that's it," says Joe. The vehicles stand on what must have been the porch of the double story house that was my great great granny's boarding house.
"All my cousins lived there," says Joe. Granny used to allow lots of relatives and people who has just come out to stay. Once they were up and going, they would pay her back."
Every other house in the block has been razed but this one still stands. Down the road is an Ethiopian restaurant in a small block of flats I used to frequent when I was involved with the homeless and North African immigrant communities. We are no longer immigrants at all. In its heyday there were 180000 Jews in South Africa. The number is down to half that.
We take a turn past Min street but the tech stands where the other boarding house was.
"There is nothing more to see, says Joe.
Joe and Arthur
Wild Things to Do - Joe Meyersohn and Arthur Prisman
Copyright © 2009 Jon Seligman. All Rights Reserved.