It wasn’t a question I had heard before, and I have been an ophthalmologist for many years. And I haven’t heard it since. But it began a most memorable conversation: “Are you her son?”
It wasn’t even my patient who asked, but her husband. It was 2008, and I was examining a woman at my private practice in Solon, Ohio. She had undergone a successful ocular surgery some years before (Time has erased a few details of this story, such as the nature of my patient’s ocular diagnosis).
As my patient and her husband were leaving, he turned and said the name of my mother – using her maiden name – and asked if I was her son. Surprised, I answered yes. I couldn’t imagine what would come next.
What I heard was family history, and a true tale of the kindness of strangers.
What he told me was the story of how his relatives helped my grandparents find a home for their new family.
Back in the 1920s, this man’s father emigrated from Italy to New York, before moving to Cleveland for work. His father bought a multi-story home on E. 128th St., where he planned on living on the large ground floor with his family. His son, the elderly man in my office, told me that his father would rent out the upstairs rooms, reached via a long narrow flight of stairs.
Around the 1930s, my own grandparents were looking for a place to live with their three children, including my mother, Mildred. My grandparents were also immigrants, my grandfather from Poland and my grandmother from Ukraine; their “Americanized” names were Nathan and Gusty. My grandfather sold fruit from a horse-drawn wagon.
Nathan and Gusty were interested in that second-floor apartment, but my grandfather couldn’t climb the steps easily; he had a limp. I never knew where that injury came from, but it was with him when he emigrated.
Instead of leaving this struggling family to find another place to live, the man’s father offered Nathan and Gusty the first floor, at the same price, and he moved his own family to the smaller rooms upstairs. My grandparents lived there for a year, and during that time the landlord’s young son — now the elderly man in my office — became a playmate of my mother.
This thoughtful offer allowed my then-struggling grandparents to have a place they could afford to live, allowing them the financial stability that would enable my mother to eventually attend nursing school.
Years later, when I was a child, my grandfather worked selling scrap metal that he collected in a big truck. I would ride with him when he picked up my mother from her job at the Mount Sinai Hospital of Cleveland. It was on these trips that I became fascinated by the hospital, and led to my own career in medicine.
I recalled an old photo of my then six- or seven-year old mother with her brother, both smiling, standing next to an unidentified boy. The face from that picture was now looking back at me in my office, shaking my hand as he and his wife left.
His wife had been my patient for about eight years, and this was the first time he had mentioned this story. Though it was an unusual encounter, I pushed it from my mind at the time.
Thinking back on it today, I believe this man must have been a patient of my uncle, a well-known dentist who worked nearby, and perhaps he heard my family’s history from him. My uncle, like my mother, has since passed away. It’s been 10 years since I have seen the couple.
To think that the elderly man was a playmate of my mother’s. I hope they had good times together. I know I am glad she had such a friend. OM