Here are some of the things we know.
Sam spoke not a word of English.
He travelled alone, planning to send money back so family could come join him. He stowed away, fleeing the pogroms on a boat for the United States.
We know that he made it.
We know that he wound up in Chicago.
We know that he had no means to earn money and an elementary school education at best.
What we don’t know are the details: how he got onto the ship or who told him that boat was going to America. We don’t know where he hid on board. We don’t know if he was afraid of being found for the days it took to arrive. We don’t know how he got from the coast to Chicago. Or why he chose that city. Or if he chose that city. We don’t know if he was lonely or perhaps instead so sure of his decision that he carried his family with him all but tangible in his heart. We don’t know these things because leaving interrupts the strands of a life, forcing conclusions drawn deeper and more definitive than the ones drawn of a life in progress. We don’t know these things because Sam never talked about them, because leaving takes with it only what is absolutely needed, shedding everything extraneous. Or one simply cannot keep moving.
Here is something else I know about my great grandfather, but not like one knows a contract or a diagnosis. I know it still, somewhere deep down: stories were essential to his survival. Not the amusements we use to quiet our minds before bed, but the vessels that hold our histories true. The tales that are built to travel with us, stripped down to barest essentials, distilled to be carried all but weightless, crystallizing ever further with each next telling until they are perfect, wasteless, and settling in deeper over time. In ways we recognize, in ways we will come to recognize, and in ways we never will recognize, these stories scaffold our views of ourselves and our lives. We rely upon these narratives, asking them to explain away uncertainties about why we are the way we are, about how we have come to be in the world just like this. We ask them to prove to us that we have been here at all.
The first story I can remember being told about Sam came from Harold, my grandfather and Sam’s oldest son. He told me that once his father had arrived in Chicago, he somehow scrounged up the resources to acquire a fruit cart and the fruit to go with it, turning the functionally illiterate, non-English speaking immigrant with less than nothing to his name into the owner and operator of the smallest of businesses—but a business nevertheless. “He was a crafty son of a bitch,” Harold demanded tersely. My grandfather always spoke like this, aggressively, as though he was annoyed by the tediousness and inefficiency of having to use words just to get a God damn point across. As the story goes, Sam was turning a profit that first day. “But what he forgot to think about,” Harold laughed just as pointedly as he spoke, his face hueing red and his eyes watering, “was where to take a piss.” Harold explained that the shrewd and savvy mogul-in-the-making did not need so much as a word of English to sell his fruit throughout the city, but he found himself in quite the pinch when, halfway through the day and about to spring a leak, he wasn’t able to ask anyone to keep an eye on his cart. So he held it as long as he possibly could but eventually had to tuck his cart into an alley and sprint to the nearest bathroom. “When he came back,” my grandfather howled with laughter, “his cart was gone.”
While this tale could easily be recounted as a tragic one, in my family—from generation to generation and over decades—we present it hell-bent on eliciting nothing less than belly laughs from our audience, whether we’re telling it to an acquaintance or stranger for the first time or nostalgically to one another for the thousandth. I believe Sam knew it would carry best just like this. He did not know it like a law of physics or a cell on a spreadsheet, but he understood that how a story is told is just as essential as the content it conveys. This was how he packed the story to travel all the way to me and my child and hopefully beyond, whether he knew it in his conscious mind or not.
Here is something else we do not know: what took Sam from his morning as a failed fruit magnate into work at a mattress factory.
Something we know: Sam held onto his job in the mattress factory for years.
Something we assume: the mattress factory had more effective practices for restroom usage during the work day.
We also know that the mattress factory is where Sam met Molly. And we know they fell in love and married. They had three boys: Harold, Norman, and Marvin. They scraped by financially and they settled in as only family can, the threads of their different lives entwined and independent both at once. They valued what they had more than what they didn’t. This is something people do when they still remember what it’s like to leave. I like to believe that Sam stopped thinking like someone leaving in those years. But I know that’s not how life works.
Harold was ten years old when Molly died. Norman was seven, Marvin five. Just like that. She hadn’t wanted to, but she had left. And everything was different.
Sam had to put his boys into an orphanage so he could work.
“Take care of each other,” he barked at them with such urgency that his words still ring in my ears today even though I was not there to hear them then. I hear his voice sharp and curt, just like Harold’s. Maybe this is because Harold told me this story, too. “I will earn the money. I will get you back,” Sam laid out his two point plan in his still rudimentary English. Sam could only hope that his stories would hold them up now, that the tales he had told them had planted the seeds of fortitude and focus needed to move forward from here. Sometimes all a parent can do is hope just like this. “Take care of each other,” he barked at them again as he forced himself from the steps of the orphanage. Anyone else might have taken his tone for admonishment, but the boys knew their father and the way he carried his heart.
When I was seven years old, I can remember Harold telling me how a big, brute of a kid messed with Marvin in their first days in the orphanage. So they did what their father had instructed and all three of them jumped the kid in the shower. “We beat the ever-loving shit out of that bastard,” Harold recounted for me nostalgically and through bleary-eyed laughter that echoed with the unmistakable pride of a son. “And no one screwed with us again because they knew, you messed with one of us, you got us all.” I puzzled over this story for years, searching for the humor my grandfather so clearly saw in it. Only recently have I come to see what Harold wanted me to carry from it: that he and his brothers weren’t tough guys, they were family. And that is its own kind of strength, unexpectedly and incongruously greater than he expected it to be. And what more ridiculous place to discover this than in an orphanage shower while collectively beating the crap out of some asshole punk of a kid? But it was a bond that held them together over countless thwarted attempts to stabilize their lives, shuffling into and out of and back into various orphanages.
But Sam saw a path.
These were the things he knew: he would start his own mattress company. He would run it with his boys. It would be theirs and no one could make them leave it.
What he did not know was how to get from assembling mattresses to owning and operating his own company.
It would take years of effort to figure it out—and the type of determination that can only be learned from leaving. This is all we know, but somehow and eventually Sam Trossman founded Estee Mattress Company and took his boys out of the orphanage for good. Estee was the phonetic spelling of his initials. It was also a still barely literate man thousands of miles from his home marking something unequivocally his.
Harold grew the business with Sam so they could pay for Norman and Marvin to go to college. The younger boys put that education right back into the company, too. And Estee grew, quickly carving out a sizable chunk of the region’s market. The family grew, too, as the boys married and had children of their own. They told their stories to their children, expanding the lore like a tree its branches. No, like a tree its roots deep underground. Our stories carve paths. It can take us decades to recognize that these paths aren’t just there. That is what a family is, after all: a place that defines what we think of as possible. If there is nothing else you hear in this story, at least hear this.
For decades, this was life. Estee took care of the Trossmans.
One day a competitor approached. They were scaling up to operate nationally and Estee was strong, so the competitor offered to buy them out. Sam did not want to sell but Marvin and Norman ran the numbers and the path forward was clear. There would be plenty of money to take care of their families for quite some time and they could all stay on as revenue-sharing employees if they wanted or they could make something new together instead. Either way, it was time to leave Estee behind.
And Sam knew better than anyone how to leave.
Nevertheless, he insisted that the lawyers make it clear in all of the paperwork that he and his sons were equal partners. He wanted his boys’ names in ink there, too. The lawyers shrugged and agreed, because they could not see how it mattered. But Sam knew it mattered. It was a critical detail in the story they would tell. It meant they had done this together. It meant that it had all been about more than money. It meant that they had taken care of one another.
But when Sam showed up to sign the final paperwork he found only his name on the contract. So he did the only thing he considered reasonable in such a circumstance. He completely lost his shit. He accosted the attorneys. He derided the competitor company. He called them liars and thieves and cheats. He questioned the integrity of anyone who had ever taught them right from wrong. Everyone apologized and insisted this was a mere oversight. They offered to quickly and easily fix the contract. But Sam would have none of it. He declared that Estee would only get bigger now, that they would crush the competitor, reduce them to rubble and piss on their smoldering remains. He swore they would live to regret the day they tried to buy Estee. And he stormed out.
The name of that competitor company was Serta.
This is yet another story we tell through bleary-eyed laughter and carry with pride. We disagree, however, as to Sam’s motivation. Some of us believe that he really was offended. Some of us believe that he just couldn’t let go, that he wanted Estee for his family more than he wanted the money for them. I think it was both. But this muddies the story. So I favor the former because that is how the story travels best. And that is more important than anything.
Estee stayed strong a few more decades while Serta became the biggest bedding company in the world. After Sam had passed and as the boys neared retirement age, they finally did sell. Not to Serta but to some people that wanted to pivot the business in a new direction. The industry had gone through countless changes over the years. The world had, too. Businesses had become just businesses by then. The boys’ families had their own families now. They were creating their own stories. Harold’s middle daughter had three boys of her own: myself and my brothers. I never saw the factory or the warehouse. I never met Sam, either. But I carry his stories. And here is something that I know: what we do in this life, the choices we make, the care we pledge and refuse to concede... it fucking matters. It is its own type of light, its own type of grace, its own type of folly, its own type of teacher. Here is something else I know: the most a person can hope for is that their stories outlive them. Everything else falls away. Everything else leaves. This we carry.