When I wasn’t pillaging the dessert case, I was inserting plastic forks into electrical sockets. Yes, this happened. I knew not to go near it, but my mother wasn’t looking, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. So, I experimented with a plastic fork. Just as I was about to go in, plastic prong poised above the opening of the outlet, my mother stopped me with a loud and resounding “Don’t do that!” My investigation was over. She was a buzz kill like that, always preventing me from hurting myself or burning the place down. It was at this point that she began to let me socialize with the customers. They usually got a big kick out of playing with the roaming toddler, and it was out of this social time that I eventually became the adopted granddaughter of Sidney and Myrtle Goldblatt. Don’t misunderstand, I spent an inordinate amount of time with my mother’s parents, who, also, owned a restaurant, but when I could no longer stand the boredom or my parents needed a break, it was Sidney and Myrtle that rescued me as they only lived two minutes down the road from the deli.
Sid and Emma, I called them, were a Jewish couple that used to frequent the deli before my father bought it. Emma was actually a sweet southern gal that had converted when she married Sid. They had a daughter, whom they had adopted in infancy, but since she was in her teens, I didn’t see her much. However, she had a devil dog named Abe. He was a poodle from hell who was not used to children, and on more than one occasion he would trap me on Emma’s reclining chair. So, it was to be that on most days, after they came in for their coffee, which they drank black with sweet n’ low and are the very reason that I, also, drink my coffee black, I was whisked off to their house, where I was allowed to play and eat to my heart’s content. I drank coke with crushed ice, and ate matza crackers. I, even, had my own shelf in the snack cabinet that was at my eye level. In fact, it was during one such day of rummaging in the cabinet that I let out my first expletive. I was hungry, as usual, and I was looking for something delicious to eat when I found nothing to my liking. To this, I slammed the cabinet door and yelled “Fuck It!” Emma wasn’t happy, to say the least, and she had a very long talk that afternoon with my father about watching his language in front of his two-year old daughter.
I knew the dradle song by the time I was four years old, and during Hanukkah, Emma would give me chocolate gold coins. One year, she gave me a guitar! I loved that thing, but my mother wouldn’t let me play with it. She thought I was still too young. Most of my childhood is wrapped up in the Goldblatt’s. However, I did not have Sidney for very long. He passed when I was five rather suddenly of acute lymphatic leukemia. He was gone in a matter of weeks. From what I can remember, Emma took it pretty hard. I started spending more time with her after that. There are three things that I will never forget about Sid. He held me in his reclining chair and would rock me to sleep for my naps. He took me fishing on their dock. Their house was on a lake. And I had a rather nasty habit of picking my nose, so, whenever my finger found its way up a nostril, Sid would ask me if I was “digging for gold”. There’s a portrait of him hanging in my parent’s home.
As I said, I spent more time with Emma after Sidney’s death. She would take me up and down the south coast, all the way to Myrtle Beach. We visited her sister’s cabin in Clayton, GA quite often, and we would sing on the way. She took me to the Cabbage Patch hospital to visit, and she bought me my first pair of moccasins and cowboy boots. The moccasins stuck…the cowboy boots, not so much. She bought me my first pair of ice skates, and it was because of her volunteering and running the concessions at the, then, coliseum that I learned to skate. Although, I used to get yelled at for walking on concrete without my blade guards, skating became my favorite thing to do. I was heartbroken when the city stopped putting ice down. She took me to visit the home she was born in. Emma was one of seven brothers and sisters. Her mother passed away when she was sixteen, and she sort of raised herself and some of her siblings. Although, for her sixteenth birthday, her mother had bought her a small wrist watch and she kept it until she later passed it on to me. She told me it was a tradition her mother had started with her brothers and sisters. I’ll never forget what she said to me when she gave it to me. She said that she wanted me to have it because she didn’t know of anyone that would take care of it. Even at ten years old, I remember thinking it was odd because Emma had a daughter. She wasn’t wrong, though. The watch rests in my jewelry box still in the bag she handed it to me in.
I not only seemed to fill a small void in Emma’s life, but it seemed that she filled a void in my young life, as well. I was turning six when my father’s mother had passed away. I did not get much time with her as she and my grandfather had only moved to Jacksonville from San Francisco a few years before, and she spent much of that time sick. At the time of her death, my grandmother was only sixty. So, it was Emma that filled the void I felt in my grandmother’s passing. In fact, I was with Emma the day my parents got the call, and it was Emma who broke the news to me. From then on, if my mother’s mother couldn’t attend, it was Emma who came to every Grandparent’s day at my school. As time went on and I grew up, I saw Emma less. I wasn’t going to the restaurant as much because I had started driving, and school was taking up more of my time. When I would see her, she would kind of guilt me for not seeing her enough or coming to stay with her. Emma had always wanted me to live with her. She hated being alone, and I wasn’t ready to leave my mother. So, when it came to Emma, my feelings became muddled. Teenage guilt and frustration kept me from seeing her as often as I should have.
Emma eventually stopped coming into the diner…yes, she was around for the deli to diner transformation. She loved it! We lost track of her, and no one knew where she was. My parents couldn’t get in touch with her family. Until one day, a niece visited the restaurant and informed us that Emma had been put into a nursing home, but we didn’t know which one. The search for Emma lasted a couple of years, longer than it should have, before my parents got the call. I was working in my father’s current business, Johnny Angels, when my mother pulled me to the side. She said, “Nikki, we got a call about Emma…” I’ll never know what she was going to say because I didn’t give her a chance to finish her words. In that split second, I knew what she was going to tell me. Emma was gone. I would never get to say “goodbye” or tell her that I loved her. I would never get to apologize for abandoning her because that’s what I felt like I had done. The tears didn’t stop for a while, but I had tables to take care of so I had to get my emotions under control. I had let Emma down. Sometimes, I still feel that way. During one of the toughest times of my adolescent life, during the period Emma had gone missing, I would drive by her home and remember the safety and serenity I always felt in the two-story structure. I have very few memories that do not include the woman who started out as a customer but ended up as family.