According to family legend, Ferguson's grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, traveled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century. While waiting to be interviewed by an immigration official at Ellis Island, he struck up a conversation with a fellow Russian Jew. The man said to him: Forget the name Reznikoff. It won't do you any good here. You need an American name for your new life in America, something with a good American ring to it. Since English was still an alien tongue to Isaac Reznikoff in 1900, he asked his older, more experienced compatriot for a suggestion. Tell them you're Rockefeller, the man said. You can't go wrong with that. An hour passed, then another hour, and by the time the nineteen-year-old Reznikoff sat down to be questioned by the immigration official, he had forgotten the name the man had told him to give. Your name? the official asked. Slapping his head in frustration, the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I've forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.
He had a hard time of it, especially in the beginning, but even after it was no longer the beginning, nothing ever went as he had imagined it would in his adopted country. It was true that he managed to find a wife for himself just after his twenty-sixth birthday, and it was also true that this wife, Fanny, née Grossman, bore him three robust and healthy sons, but life in America remained a struggle for Ferguson's grandfather from the day he walked off the boat until the night of March 7, 1923, when he met an early, unexpected death at the age of forty-two — gunned down in a holdup at the leather-goods warehouse in Chicago where he had been employed as a night watchman.
No photographs survive of him, but by all accounts he was a large man with a strong back and enormous hands, uneducated, unskilled, the quintessential greenhorn know-nothing. On his first afternoon in New York, he chanced upon a street peddler hawking the reddest, roundest, most perfect apples he had ever seen. Unable to resist, he bought one and eagerly bit into it. Instead of the sweetness he had been anticipating, the taste was bitter and strange. Even worse, the apple was sickeningly soft, and once his teeth had pierced the skin, the insides of the fruit came pouring down the front of his coat in a shower of pale red liquid dotted with scores of pellet-like seeds. Such was his first taste of the New World, his first, never-to-be-forgotten encounter with a Jersey tomato.
Not a Rockefeller, then, but a broad-shouldered roustabout, a Hebrew giant with an absurd name and a pair of restless feet who tried his luck in Manhattan and Brooklyn, in Baltimore and Charleston, in Duluth and Chicago, employed variously as a dockhand, an ordinary seaman on a Great Lakes tanker, an animal handler for a traveling circus, an assembly-line worker in a tin-can factory, a truck driver, a ditchdigger, a night watchman. For all his efforts, he never earned more than nickels and dimes, and therefore the only things poor Ike Ferguson bequeathed to his wife and three boys were the stories he had told them about the vagabond adventures of his youth. In the long run, stories are probably no less valuable than money, but in the short run they have their decided limitations.
The leather-goods company made a small settlement with Fanny to compensate her for her loss, and then she left Chicago with the boys, moving to Newark, New Jersey, at the invitation of her husband's relatives, who gave her the top-floor apartment in their house in the Central Ward for a nominal monthly rent. Her sons were fourteen, twelve, and nine. Louis, the oldest, had long since evolved into Lew. Aaron, the middle child, had taken to calling himself Arnold after one too many schoolyard beatings in Chicago, and Stanley, the nine-year-old, was commonly known as Sonny. To make ends meet, their mother took in laundry and mended clothes, but before long the boys were contributing to the household finances as well, each one with an after-school job, each one turning over every penny he earned to his mother. Times were tough, and the threat of destitution filled the rooms of the apartment like a dense, blinding fog. There was no escape from fear, and bit by bit all three boys absorbed their mother's dark ontological conclusions about the purpose of life. Either work or starve. Either work or lose the roof over your head. Either work or die. For the Fergusons, the weak-minded notion of All-For-One-And-One-For-All did not exist. In their little world, it was All-For-All — or nothing.
Ferguson was not yet two when his grandmother died, which meant that he retained no conscious memories of her, but according to family legend Fanny was a difficult and erratic woman, prone to violent screaming fits and manic bursts of uncontrollable sobbing, who beat her boys with brooms whenever they misbehaved and was barred from entering certain local shops because of her vociferous haggling over prices. No one knew where she had been born, but word was that she had landed in New York as a fourteen-year-old orphan and had spent several years in a windowless loft on the Lower East Side making hats. Ferguson's father, Stanley, rarely talked about his parents to his son, responding to the boy's questions with only the vaguest of brief, guarded answers, and whatever bits of information young Ferguson managed to learn about his paternal grandparents came almost exclusively from his mother, Rose, by many years the youngest of the three second-generation Ferguson sisters-in-law, who in turn had received most of her information from Millie, Lew's wife, a woman with a taste for gossip who was married to a man far less hidden and far more talkative than either Stanley or Arnold. When Ferguson was eighteen, his mother passed on one of Millie's stories to him, which was presented as no more than a rumor, a piece of unsubstantiated conjecture that might have been true — and then again might not. According to what Lew had told Millie, or what Millie said he had told her, there was a fourth Ferguson child, a girl born three or four years after Stanley, during the period when the family had settled in Duluth and Ike was looking for work as an ordinary seaman on a Great Lakes ship, a stretch of months when the family was living in extreme poverty, and because Ike was gone when Fanny gave birth to the child, and because the place was Minnesota and the season was winter, an especially frigid winter in an especially cold place, and because the house they lived in was heated by only a single wood-burning stove, and because there was so little money just then that Fanny and the boys had been reduced to living on one meal a day, the thought of having to take care of another child filled her with such dread that she drowned her newborn daughter in the bathtub.
If Stanley said little about his parents to his son, he didn't say much about himself either. This made it difficult for Ferguson to form a clear picture of what his father had been like as a boy, or as a youth, or as a young man, or as anything at all until he married Rose two months after he turned thirty. From offhand remarks that occasionally crossed his father's lips, Ferguson nevertheless managed to gather this much: that Stanley had often been teased and kicked around by his older brothers, that as the youngest of the three and therefore the one who had spent the smallest part of his childhood with a living father, he was the one most attached to Fanny, that he had been a diligent student and was hands down the best athlete of the three brothers, that he had played end on the football team and had run the quarter mile for the track team at Central High, that his gift for electronics had led him to open a small radio-repair shop the summer after he graduated from high school in 1932 (a hole in the wall on Academy Street in downtown Newark, as he put it, hardly bigger than a shoeshine stand), that his right eye had been injured during one of his mother's broom-swatting rampages when he was eleven (partially blinding him and thus turning him into a 4-F reject during World War II), that he despised the nickname Sonny and dropped it the instant he left school, that he loved to dance and play tennis, that he never said a word against his brothers no matter how stupidly or contemptuously they treated him, that his childhood after-school job was delivering newspapers, that he seriously considered studying law but abandoned the idea for lack of funds, that he was known as a ladies' man in his twenties and dated scores of young Jewish women with no intention of marrying any of them, that he went on several jaunts to Cuba in the thirties when Havana was the sin capital of the Western Hemisphere, that his greatest ambition in life was to become a millionaire, a man as rich as Rockefeller.
Both Lew and Arnold married in their early twenties, each one determined to break free of Fanny's demented household as quickly as he could, to escape the screaming monarch who had ruled over the Fergusons since their father's death in 1923, but Stanley, still in his teens when his brothers decamped, had no choice but to stay on. He was barely out of high school, after all, but then the years passed, one year after the other for eleven years, and he continued to stay on, unaccountably sharing the same top-floor apartment with Fanny throughout the Depression and the first half of the war, perhaps stuck there through inertia or laziness, perhaps motivated by a sense of duty or guilt toward his mother, or perhaps driven by all of those things, which made it impossible for him to imagine living anywhere else. Both Lew and Arnold fathered children, but Stanley seemed content to go on playing the field, expending the bulk of his energies on building his little business into a bigger business, and because he showed no inclination to marry, even as he danced through his mid-twenties and approached the brink of thirty, there seemed little doubt that he would remain a bachelor for the rest of his life. Then, in October 1943, less than a week after the American Fifth Army captured Naples from the Germans, in the middle of that hopeful period when the war was finally beginning to turn in favor of the Allies, Stanley met the twenty-one-year-old Rose Adler on a blind date in New York City, and the charm of lifelong bachelorhood died a quick and permanent death.
So pretty she was, Ferguson's mother, so fetching with her gray-green eyes and long brown hair, so spontaneous and alert and quick to smile, so deliciously put together throughout the five feet six inches that had been allotted to her person that Stanley, on shaking her hand for the first time, the remote and normally disengaged Stanley, the twenty-nine-year-old Stanley who had never once been burned by the fires of love, felt himself disintegrating in Rose's presence, as if all the air had been vacuumed from his lungs and he would never be able to breathe again.
She, too, was the child of immigrants, a Warsaw-born father and an Odessa-born mother, both of whom had come to America before the age of three. The Adlers were therefore a more assimilated family than the Fergusons, and the voices of Rose's parents had never carried the smallest trace of a foreign accent. They had grown up in Detroit and Hudson, New York, and the Yiddish, Polish, and Russian of their parents had given way to a fluent, idiomatic English, whereas Stanley's father had struggled to master his second tongue until the day he died, and even now, in 1943, close to half a century removed from her origins in Eastern Europe, his mother still read the Jewish Daily Forward instead of the American papers and expressed herself in an odd, mashed-up language her sons referred to as Yinglish, a nearly incomprehensible patois that combined Yiddish and English in nearly every sentence that escaped her mouth. That was one essential difference between Rose and Stanley's progenitors, but even more important than how much or how little their parents had adjusted to American life, there was the question of luck. Rose's parents and grandparents had managed to escape the brutal turns of fortune that had been visited upon the hapless Fergusons, and their history included no murders in warehouse holdups, no poverty to the point of starvation and despair, no infants drowned in bathtubs. The Detroit grandfather had been a tailor, the Hudson grandfather had been a barber, and while cutting clothes and cutting hair were not the sorts of jobs that steered you onto a road toward wealth and worldly success, they provided a steady enough income to put food on the table and clothes on your children's backs.
Rose's father, Benjamin, alternately known as Ben and Benjy, left Detroit the day after he graduated from high school in 1911 and headed for New York, where a distant relative had secured a job for him as a clerk in a downtown clothing store, but young Adler gave up on the job within two weeks, knowing that destiny had not meant for him to squander his short time on earth selling men's socks and underwear, and thirty-two years later, after stints as a door-to-door salesman of household cleaning products, a distributor of gramophone records, a soldier in World War I, a car salesman, and the co-owner of a used-car lot in Brooklyn, he now earned his living as one of three minority-share partners in a Manhattan real estate firm, with an income large enough to have moved his family from Crown Heights in Brooklyn to a new building on West Fifty-eighth Street in 1941, six months before America entered the war.
According to what had been passed down to Rose, her parents met at a Sunday picnic in upstate New York, not far from her mother's house in Hudson, and within half a year (November 1919) the two of them were married. As Rose later confessed to her son, this marriage had always puzzled her, for she had rarely seen two people less compatible than her parents, and the fact that the marriage endured for over four decades was no doubt one of the great mysteries in the annals of human coupledom. Benjy Adler was a fast-talking smart aleck, a hustling schemer with a hundred plans in his pockets, a teller of jokes, a man on the make who always hogged the center of attention, and there he was at that Sunday afternoon picnic in upstate New York falling for a shy wallflower of a woman named Emma Bromowitz, a round, large-bosomed girl of twenty-three with the palest of white skins and a crown of voluminous red hair, so virginal, so inexperienced, so Victorian in her affect that one had only to look at her to conclude that her lips had not once been touched by the lips of a man. It made no sense that they should have married, every sign indicated that they were doomed to a life of conflict and misunderstanding, but marry they did, and even though Benjy had trouble staying faithful to Emma after their daughters were born (Mildred in 1920, Rose in 1922), he held fast to her in his heart, and she, though wronged again and again, could never bring herself to turn against him.
Rose adored her older sister, but it can't be said that the opposite was true, for the first-born Mildred had naturally accepted her God-given place as princess of the household, and the small rival who had come upon the scene would have to be taught — again and again if necessary — that there was only one throne in the Adler apartment on Franklin Avenue, one throne and one princess, and any attempt to usurp that throne would be met by a declaration of war. That isn't to say that Mildred was overtly hostile to Rose, but her kindnesses were measured out in teaspoons, no more than so much kindness per minute or hour or month, and always granted with a touch of haughty condescension, as befitted a person of her royal standing. Cold and circumspect Mildred; warmhearted, sloppy Rose. By the time the girls were twelve and ten, it was already clear that Mildred had an exceptional mind, that her success at school was the result not just of hard work but of superior intellectual gifts, and while Rose was bright enough and earned perfectly respectable grades, she was no more than an also-ran when compared to her sister. Without understanding her motives, without once consciously thinking about it or formulating a plan, Rose gradually stopped competing on Mildred's terms, for she instinctively knew that trying to emulate her sister could only end in failure, and therefore, if there was to be any happiness for her, she would have to strike out on a different path.