My grandfather knew everything there was to know about delicatessens. In Newark New Jersey he owned Bendett's, one of the great ones back in the 1950s and early 60s. When it ultimately closed he worked for decades in Irvington, New Jersey at the storied Kartzman's throughout the 60s and 70s and 80s.
Not much remains except for stories, including a brief telling on the site of another deli where he worked his final years. But try as I might, those stories are fading too, like painted seasonal special signs hung in deli windows faded after a few weeks facing the sun.
We have some photos, of course. We have lots of stories, too. But my family also keeps two peculiar artifacts from my grandfather's life. When I see them, I'm aware how they've become more talismanic than useful, quasi-magical implements for trying to forestall time's passage and memory's inevitable decline. We have a spool of heavy string, used to tie up packages and bakery cake boxes, and we have a roll of heavy-duty aluminum foil, used for wrapping sandwiches or platters of pastrami. They are finite, of course. The will not last forever, and loony as this may seem, we only use these expendable items for special occasions.
Someday they're both going to run out, and as a result, I can already see how these things have begun to exert a measurable force on our present behavior. As our stocks run lower over years of parsimonious use at holidays or other specially approved events, the self imposed requirements for use will tighten. Will we be left with a symbolic inch of string, mounted on a foot of reflective foil?
Thanksgiving inevitably has me covering the turkey for it's last 45 minutes in the oven with a precious sheet of foil. A precious piece of string from the last remaining spool recently served as a vital element in a 2nd grader's end-of-year science fair experiment.
The enterprise is endlessly creative, and I hardly mean the ways in which the foil and the string are used. The creative moments are always about how my family and I will traverse the emotional terrain. The moment of invention is how we explain or latest rationalization to ourselves. My grandfather the deli expert was not simply a competent sandwich maker. In attitude and expression, in philosophical outlook and style, my grandfather was an artist through and through. That his medium often required Russian dressing is merely a quirk of circumstance.
Someday…someday…maybe in my children's life, maybe beyond….these artifacts will also disappear. Everything does, ultimately; there's no escape. But as I try to pull the past into our present and even our future, I'm aware that the effort in itself is not only a creative one, but a deep description about why any of us creates in the first place. In creating anything we're all trying to make the forces of entropy and inevitable decline forestall their march upon our gates, if only for a fleeting moment. Being creative is about trying to preserve something meaningful, even if it doesn't make complete sense to everyone else. Being creative is about holding on.
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