My Grandfather’s Wooden Swing

There’s a story I once heard, and it starts like this:

A Rabbi asks his students, “How can we know when night ends and day begins? How can we tell night from day?”

That’s an intriguing question and it has an even more intriguing answer, but first let me tell you a little about the man who told me that story: my grandpa, Abe Marcus.

My grandpa was born in October 1885 in a tiny farming village in Romania. At the age of 15, he emigrated first to London, and four years later to New York City. He was a carpenter and barrel-maker, and later, he became a farmer in upstate New York.

When I was almost 6, living in the San Fernando Valley, a suburb just outside Los Angeles, I announced to my parents that I was going to spend my summers with my grandpa on his 75-acre chicken farm in New York state’s Catskill mountains. My parents agreed, and off I went to the Catskills to spend summers with my grandpa.

Grandpa had built a three-story farmhouse back in 1910 when he’d first bought the farm, and I think it was before I was born, in the early 1940s, that he built a large, wooden swing that four people could sit on facing each other. A skilled carpenter, grandpa made the swing out of white, picket fence posts. He and I would sit there after dinner each evening, swinging back and forth, sometimes sitting in silence as grandpa smoked his pipe.

When there was too much silence for my comfort, I’d say, “Grandpa?” He’d reply, “What?” Waiting a moment or two, I’d say, “Oh, nothing.” Later, I came to realize that was my way of telling grandpa I loved him.

Chicken farming was hard work, and grandpa never made much money at it, so he built seven bungalows on our farm, about 100 yards south of the main house.

The bungalows my grandfather built with his own hands were tiny, two-room affairs with a small master bedroom and one tiny room for the kids. There was also a small kitchen, not large enough for two people to stand in at the same time. Just outside the kitchen there was a room with a water heater and some electrical wiring.

Families from New York City would rent one or more bungalows during summer months.

Most often, the mothers would come up with their children, and their husbands would join them on the weekends. There was a sense of community among the families who stayed in our bungalows.

This was remarkable, when you think about it, since the families who stayed at the bungalows were either religious Jews or Irish-American Catholics. This sense of community was shared by our family — my grandpa, my grandmother, Dora, and myself.

I remember that sometimes, on warm summer nights, the families would gather together around the swing grandpa had built, and they’d sit around and tell stories. I must have been 8 or 9 at that time, and we’d join the guests. These stories often had a moral, something to ignite discussion by everyone ... by the mothers, the children, the entire group.

On one of those August evenings, still warm from the heat of the day, we gathered for a story, this time from my grandpa. I filled his pipe with the required three layers of tobacco — Prince Albert — leaving the very top layer a bit looser than the rest. Using one hand, he struck a kitchen match on his thumbnail and lit his pipe spreading a wonderful odor around all those seated, and he told the following story:

“A Rabbi tells his students, ‘Listen, class, there’s night and there’s day, right? Night … and day. But how can we know when night ends and day begins? How can we tell night from day?

“So the students think about it and think about it, and finally one of the students raises a hand, and the Rabbi calls on him, and the student says, ‘Is it when you can see two animals in the distance and you can tell which is a dog and which is a sheep?’

“The Rabbi says, ‘Hmm, good … but that’s not the answer I

was looking for. Any other ideas?’

“So a second student raises a hand and says, ‘Is it when you can see two trees in the distance, and you realize one is an olive tree and the other a grapevine?’

“‘Good answer,’ says the Rabbi, ‘but sorry, that’s not right either.’