My Old Kentucky Homesite

So What Did Your Grandfather Invent?

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 03/08/2010

Sometimes I get emails asking me: “Who the hell are you to tell us what you think?” Well, I may not be as important to Kentuckians as Lexington native George Clooney, but my ancestors were noteworthy. After all, my grandfather discovered the sundial.

At the time, he was about 82 years old, give or take a month. Grampops was living in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, where he spent a lot of hours hanging out near the ocean. His primary interest, he’d say in his thick Russian-Yiddish accent, was “lookink at vimmen. But the sky’s not so bed, too.”

No matter how long or how often he sat out on the sand, his skin color never changed from its Eastern European pallor. “Jews don’ boin, but ve also don’ ten.” That sounded very suspicious to me, so after I voiced enough skepticism to satisfy even him —Grampops was an atheist and an anarchist — he confessed that he always dressed himself up in long winter clothing. He chuckled as he admitted that he probably looked like “a heskymo vit a sun-het.” I could see him as a sort of lascivious Nanook of the North, cruising the ladies and chewing on blubber dipped in chicken fat.

I asked him why he didn’t wear a bathing suit like everyone else did. “I got sotch a terrific chest, dey nid a semple? Believe me, brains I got. Poisonality, I got. Maybe ivven a nice face. But a body like from Charles Hetlas, I don’ got. Who nidz it? At mein age, I’ll gonna peek up dumballs?”

Still, he seemed to have a surprisingly high degree of success with Eastern European “leddies” of a certain age. My father once asked him, “You’re having a lotta dates, huh, Pa?” Grampops responded, “Mm-yah, but dey don’ all vind up vere I vant dey should.” He wasn’t talking about the bedroom; he was actually referring to his kitchen. Grampops was a sucker for homemade gefilte fish.

But I was telling you about his discovery of the sundial.

It may not be true that “behind every great man there’s a woman,” but it was for Grampops. In fact, the female in question was literally breathing down his back when he got the idea for a sundial.

“So I’m sittink on a blenkit de odder morning. Dere’s a voom’n I know a coppel towels down de byeech, an’ she kips giving me an eye like she’s maybe takink an hex-ray. So I tink, vot’s vit dis crazy goil starink at me like I’m sotch a Castle Nova?’

For Grampops, being pursued reminded him too much of his experiences with the Cossacks. He liked to think that here in America, he was in charge of all romantic liasions. This particular woman, Ida was her name, had thrown herself at him on the beach a number of times, but he’d always metaphorically tossed her back into the ocean. She was not a gefilte he cared to catch.

“So Ida gets hup and starts comink over by me, vit a vink dat I should maybe get hall egg-sided from sotch a regular Jan Mensfeel. So I’m payink no attention, playing vit de send, follink arond vit a steek. ‘Oy,’ she says, ‘dat’s some beeg tveeg you got dere.’”

Ida’s conversational gambit didn’t work. Instead, she was treated to short dissertation on sticks, and shells, and seawood, and all the other kinds of wonderful debris available there for the taking if a person was trying to avoid feminine attention. “So before you could say Jackie Rubenstein, she goes avay.”

In the meantime, though, Grampops had become completely fascinated with the shadow cast by the stick as it stood upright where he’d shoved it into the sand. “It vas just like a clock. By mein reestvotch it sad a leetle afteh vun, and lo and be hole, de sheddow sad a leetle afteh vun, too.” At two o’clock, he looked again. “De sheddow moved! An’ guess vat it sad? Not four ah clock, not three o’clock, not iffen two-thoity. Two o’clock! On de button. Ho boy, I’m feelink like a real Thomas Elvis Hedison.”

As the sun continued its journey through the sky, the shadow imitated its course. Grampops watched in amazement. At the end of the day, he took his prize magic stick home.

“So,” he told me proudly, “the next day, I got a pants’l and a piss paper, and I drew meinself a byoodiful soicle vit numbers like a clock. An’ vit a leetle Alma’s glue, I put de steek in de meedle.” Then, proudly, he positioned his contraption in the window.

“It voiked. I discovered how to make a clock vit only steek.” Grampops now had something in common with the ancient Babylonians, besides being vamped by Ida. “If I nid to know de time, I just pick at mein vindow.”

But even the greatest geniuses have to deal with obstacles now and then. “It don’ voik so good at night or ven it’s rainink,” he complained. “So ho K, I’ll batter kip mein reest votch, too ”

That’s my pedigree, and the reason why I have the right to criticize those whose grandparents did not make any earth-shaking scientific discoveries. I’d write even more condescendingly, if I had the time. But I’ve worked on this post long enough, at least according to the stick in my window.


17 Responses to “So What Did Your Grandfather Invent?”

  1. Linwood said

    Hilarious. You dona gotta stick, Larry, you gotta shtick.
    We don’t have any ground-breaking discoverers or inventors in my family, but my paternal grandfather did get a certificate from the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board for rescuing an unfortunate who’d fallen in the murky Mersey.

  2. Linwood:
    … my paternal grandfather did get a certificate from the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board for rescuing an unfortunate who’d fallen in the murky Mersey.
    Yeah, but did your grandfather know what time it was?

  3. As an amateur linguist (not too long ago, a professional), I love the wacky old world accents. I can’t quite wrap my head around the mixed Yiddish-Russian-Brooklyn accent. That is part of what makes NYC such an interesting place to visit.

  4. Des:
    I think you have to hear an accent in your head to get full humorous value out of it. Because I have a near-phonographic memory, I can still imitate mein grendfoddeh well enough to crack up my sister and my old friends.

    The truth is: Because I was raised among Old-Country Jews in the Bronx, I was convinced that a person just naturally developed a Yiddish accent as he aged. By the time I was a teenager, I realized that my impression was wrong. I figured out that some of my friends from other parts of the city would probably wind up with an Italian or an Irish accent instead.

  5. My grandfather did patent a better mousetrap. On April 1st (yes!, true!) 1934. No-one ever told the mice though.

  6. I had one grandfather who tried to invent Protestant Italians in South Philly, but eventually gave up and moved west. I came along too late to enjoy the Italian accents of my grandparents, but I do have a distorted Italian vocabulary that was handed down which I’ve slowly been trying to reconcile with actual Italian. For instance, gaba-gool = capicola, and aga-dina-pep = acini de pepe. Luckily the curses handed down have been spot on, though.

  7. ildi said

    My great-great-grandfather was a mining engineer in a part of Hungary that is now the Ukraine (Aknaszlatina). He came up with a new mining technique to use in the salt mines and as a reward he received a letter of nobility from the king. (Hey, that meant something back then.)

  8. the chaplain said

    If it’s any consolation to you (I doubt it will be), my grandfather had better luck than yours; he invented his Italian Protestants in Queens instead of Philly, though.

  9. It turns out my mother’s side originated as Spanish Jews escaping the Inquisition (and probably this guy) by fleeing to New Spain (Florida). I doubt the Spanish Jews spoke Yiddish, but it is still kind of funny to think about Castillian Spanish with a Yiddish accent.

  10. J-Co:
    Maybe your grandfather didn’t cut the cheese enough. (I don’t know if you use that expression Down Under, although there’s no more appropriate place.) My grandfather was a champion cheese-cutter.

    Sounds like your grandfather was from bas Italia, where c‘s are voiced to become g‘s and p‘s are voiced to become b‘s. Also, they often drop the final vowel. Did your grandfather say “vafangool”? In “real” Italian it’s “vaffanculo,” which is literally “go do it in the ass.”

    Maybe we should bow and curtsey when you enter a thread.

    How do you say “Salvation Army” in Italian? (esercito di salvezza?)

    Spanish Jews spoke Ladino (also called Judezmo), which was a mongrelized version of Spanish, and wrote it with the Hebrew alphabet. Here’s a simple sample.

  11. Postman said

    My great-great-great-grandfather didn’t, (as far as I know), invent anything. But he did come up with a novel way of saving the family plantation from Grant’s fire-happy army. When the Gawdless Northern Hordes™ hove into view he high-tailed it to the woods with the family silver and left Gramma Francis to face them alone. As the troops were lighting the torches, Grant noticed that Gramma Francis looked a great deal like his sister. On that basis, (and presumably her Southern Charm™), he used the plantation home as his headquarters while in the area and left it intact when he marched on.

  12. the chaplain said

    You were pretty close. It’s Esercito della Salvezza. Actually, my grandfather was Catholic when he emigrated to the USA. He converted to Protestantism and The Salvation Army when his kids got involved with The Salvation Army in Queens (Astoria, actually, which I think is/was in Queens).

  13. Postie:
    So does your story mean that you resemble U.S. Grant?

    Ah, those goddamned foreign prepositions. They need to be correct even in Astoria, which, last time I looked, was still in Queens.

    Just think. If not for your grandfather’s conversion, you’d be a lapsed Catholic today.

  14. Postman said


    Bite your tongue, sir! While Gramma Francis may have resembled Grant’s sister, (who, presumably, was not short, stocky and bearded), I most certainly look nothing like him. In fact, (as far as you know), to imagine my phiz you should take a line along Brad Pitt and Jeremy Irons*.

    *Actual appearance may vary depending on level of drunkenness and/or mental illness.

  15. Postie:
    OK, I can see you now.

  16. MacNutz said

    That’s a good story. Thanks.

  17. Mac:
    You’re welcome.

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