Kudos to Hawaii’s US District Judge Derrick Watson who ordered the government not to enforce the ban on grandparents, grandchildren, and other close relatives of people in the United States. "Grandparents are the epitome of close family members," the judge declared. In my book, he’s absolutely right.
The book I refer to here is my first essay collection, Telling It Like It Is, in which I included a piece called “Under the Willow Tree.” It went like this: When I was small, the childhood classic The Wind in the Willows was my favorite. That was because of my willow tree, the weeping giant by Belle Tract Lake under which my maternal grandfather used to tell me and my siblings a bubbachka when he came to visit us on weekends.
“The ritual began with my Zayde walking slowly up the street toward our house having disembarked from the bus which had brought him from Philadelphia to our New Jersey home. He smelled of cigarette smoke, old newspapers, and the scents of the bus that had brought him and he always carried a small bag that included some chachkas for us kids.
“Yayde’s here! We shouted to our mother who was already making him a glass of tea. The two of them would settle at the kitchen table and before long one would say something to outrage the other and a Yiddish shouting match would ensue until both contestants repented. Then Zayde would go to his room until dinnertime when all was forgiven and conversation turned to the updated trials and tribulations of my mother’s two brothers and their families.
“On Sundays one of us kids would suggest, as though it were an original idea, that we should “make a picnic” and go to the lake, all as pretense to hearing a bubbachka, a story, under the willow tree. Bubbachkas always lost their magic, their credibility and romance when they were told anywhere else but under that mournful, majestic weeping willow. It was also an unspoken truth that bubbachkas only wove their spell if no grown-ups went along.
“And so our entourage would assemble, my older sister carrying the brown grocery bag of food (wicker baskets being for goyim) me following with a cloth to sit on, and my baby brother, nubby knees sticking out of short pants, holding Zayde’s hand as both of them struggled to keep up. At the corner of Delaware Street, I became the Safety Patrol, nodding solemnly with the all-clear. We appeared, no doubt, to have stepped straight out of a Normal Rockwell painting.
“Our picnic lunches were always the same: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, carrot and celery sticks, graham crackers, and fruit juice in a red plastic container. We’d settled under our weeping willow, which miraculously no pigeon or person ever sat under when we wanted it, and wait for feast and fable to begin.
“The bubbechka Zayde told was also always the same. ‘Once upon a time in a shtetl in Vilna, there was a boy called Jacob (or a girl called Sasha)…’ Just as it was coming to an end, my sister or I would jump up to announce that if we didn’t get back, Zayde would miss his bus back to Philly. While we groaned and cleaned up, Zayde promised to tell us the happily-ever-after part, and another story, next time he came to see us. And so it was until my beloved Zayde died when I was seven years old.”
My two grandmothers had passed away before I had a chance to know them, and my paternal grandfather, who we only saw once a year, lived in Canada and spoke not a word of English. And so all my childhood love for a grandparent was lavished on my Zayde, even though in later years I learned he had been a difficult and not always kind man.
The memory I wrote about happened more than sixty years ago, and yet it is as clear a remembrance as if it had happened only a few weeks ago. Such is the depth of such connection, the place of ritual in our lives, the unconditional love between an elder and a child.
No grandparent should ever be denied the right to that love, and no child should ever have to wonder why the stories they tell have disappeared. None of us should be made to grieve the absence of a beloved relative and no willow should weep for our absence.
Judge Watson did the right thing. So did the Supreme Court when it let stand for now the court order from Hawaii that grandparents and other relatives who want to visit family members in the U.S. can be admitted while the case is pending appeal. Let’s hope that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco reaches a sensible decision when it decides the larger case regarding enforced restrictions on refugees still under a travel ban.