Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
This is Rose, my maternal grandmother. She’s holding her third son, my uncle Harold. Grandma had eight live births and as many as five miscarriages. Three of her children died, one at two, another as an infant and the last at age ten. The latter two died within six months of each other. She once miscarried outside in the snow, in front of her apartment building.
Her husband was my grandfather Sam. He’d been married in his early teens to a deaf mute girl with whom he had one son, Benny. Ultimately that first marriage was annulled. Subsequently he married my grandmother who’d moved in with his family after her mother died. Her father had remarried and his new wife wasn’t fond of Rose. My grandfather’s parents, her aunt and uncle took her in, and soon after, Rose married Sam. Yes. My grandparents were first cousins.
They lived in a town of several thousand residents called Wyszkowa, Poland, not far from Warsaw. About half the citizens were Jewish. An uneasy friction existed between them and the rest of their community. I know that my grandma’s father was a tinsmith who at one point worked on the roof of the tsar’s summer palace. So he was a skilled laborer. But most of their friends and neighbors were scratching out a living and were essentially poor. Frequently Cossacks raided their town and my great grandparents dug a deep hole in the ground where they hid their daughters to protect them from assault and rape. My grandparents, along with my grandmother’s siblings, all wanted to go to America to begin a new life.
Sam left Poland in 1913 when he was nineteen years old. He and Rose had an infant son. He hoped to send for my grandmother, his son Benny and their boy Robert quickly, after he found a job. But World War I intervened. My grandmother stayed in Poland for seven more years. Their baby Robert died of pneumonia during the war. Rose and Benny survived. She finally made her passage to the United States on the SS Rotterdam in 1920. I’ve often thought of what she must have felt on that journey. Her baby was dead. She hadn’t seen her husband in seven years. She was packed into steerage with what was undoubtedly a wide and confusing array of unknown travel companions. She spoke no English. She was illiterate. She grew up in a society that, like many, viewed women as second-class citizens. Being Jewish, she was accustomed to being treated as other, with great prejudice. But like so many before her, she stepped off into the unknown, equipped with her native intelligence, a good deal of superstition and no idea what the future held.
Seven years is a long time to be apart. My grandfather, although not particularly attractive, was evidently a ladies’ man. That meant little in terms of his marriage. My grandmother became pregnant almost immediately and spent the next decade and a half conceiving. While not caring for her babies, her primary occupation was cleaning and cooking. She was masterful at both those tasks, much more so than parenting. Her life experiences eroded her emotionally and the sustenance she provided her children lacked a strong emotional component. My mother often said she couldn’t remember her mother ever saying that she loved her. Rather, as the only surviving female child, she became my grandmother’s unwilling accomplice in making sure that the house was so clean, you could “eat off the floors.” The ability to cook was the legacy which benefited those of us in subsequent generations.
While she walked her challenging road, grandma learned to speak English, albeit with errors. I remember her saying she needed to get a description filled at the drugstore. Minor and entertaining mistakes. She paid attention to politics. All her sons were soldiers in World War II and her youngest son went to Korea. The family members left behind in Poland all vanished in the holocaust. My mother remembered a frequent exchange of letters between my grandfather and their relatives prior to 1940. They were written in pidgin Yiddish and my grandparents would enclose one or two dollars in those sent back home. During the war, all communications ceased.
My grandmother was bitter. In restrospect, I understand why. I can’t imagine what it felt like to be as powerless as she felt. Nor can I understand what grief she experienced after having three children die. And the rest of her family who disappeared into the anti-Semitic void. My mother remembers her hollering loudly at my grandfather when he left to help single women in their apartments, a euphemism for his philandering. He did nothing to help her evolve or develop. She was smart but had no method of entry into a world that could enrich her life and offer relief from the relentless cycle of child rearing and housekeeping and grief. Being unable to read must have constantly made her feel “less than” – less than those around her who were benefiting from life in the land of supposed opportunity.
My mother was the frequent object of her rage. As the only other female in the household, she was the person over whom grandma had a modicum of power. Their relationship exists in my memory as an endless argument, over everything and nothing. I was on my mother’s side. She told me of a childhood where she felt subservient to her brothers. That when other children played, she came home from school to scrub floors and run to the shops for food. I resented my grandmother on my mon’s behalf and hated the sound of their incessant arguing.The photo above shows my grandmother scrubbing away. She spent a lifetime cleaning, in her rooms with the furniture covered in thick plastic that made you sticky when sitting on it. The photo below shows the wear of the years of childbearing and cleaning. My grandfather had a variety of jobs, as a laborer, carpenter and chauffeur. Eventually he became a barber which was his last career. Their children grew up and moved out, leaving them in a fractious but lengthy marriage which lasted over 60 years. They watched grandchildren and then great grandchildren enter the world. Here they are at my brother’s wedding in 1964. In 1968, they joined my parents in celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. The following year, my grandfather’s health failed and ultimately he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He died in the spring of 1969. My parents moved my grandmother into their apartment but the tension between her and my mother was untenable. After less than a year, she moved into her own apartment. She got herself a job, taking care of old people as she put it, although she was in her seventies. When I’d come home from college, we’d visit her and sometimes I noticed that she was practicing writing the alphabet on lined paper at her kitchen table. She looked through magazines and newspapers. I knew she was smart but embarrassed by her lack of education. So sad.
I was moved by her efforts and realized more and more about how small a world she occupied while living under the archaic rules of the old country, despite having lived in the U.S. for over 50 years. Eventually, at her advanced age, she found the will to become an American citizen, memorizing the requirements, taking her tests orally and finally earning her right to vote. She watched the news and had strong opinions about politicians. She despised Richard Nixon and called him a liar. She spat the name Ronald Reagan, “that cowboy.” She hid her Social Security money in her freezer, wrapped in aluminum foil. When I married Michael, we laughed as she gave us “cold cash” as a gift. She told all of us grandchildren individually that no one understood her but the person in front of her face. She was a classic emotional manipulator. But she was more loving as time passed. When she kissed me, she’d bury her nose in my cheeks and neck and inhale the smell of child. She bought dresses for the girls and nice shirts for the boys. She usually wore what were called “ housedresses.” They were a cross between a nightgown and a muumuu. Comfortable. My mom said my grandfather was tight-fisted with money, but Rose was generous. As years passed and she eventually became less mobile, my mother and my uncle Jerry, her youngest son, brought her groceries and took her out of her apartment for a meal or a visit. Family events were always a thing when I was young. Usually, we all got together weekly. Grandma or Bubba, as we eventually called her, enjoyed her time with the great grandchildren immensely. As she aged alone, some of her harshness faded, her jagged edges smoothed by time and distance from her early struggles. She was physically strong and healthy for a long time, needing virtually no medication or surgical interventions. She was somewhat vain and was mad for shoes which she bought in the wrong size because she didn’t want to admit that her feet had gotten bigger. She still cooked delicious food and maintained a caustic tongue.
Eventually, I recognized her and admired her as sturdy peasant stock, a woman of great resilience. Imperfect, certainly, but with the ability to scrabble her way up out of immeasurable suffering and still giggle lustfully at baseball players on television, eat heartily, and laugh with abandon. The next photo was taken the day before my grandmother died. She was at a Fourth of July gathering at my uncle Jerry’s house with my cousins, his wife and my parents. My father must have taken the picture. That night when my parents drove her home, my mother told me that Bubba turned to her and said, “Wasn’t this a beautiful day, daughter?” They walked her upstairs. The next morning, my mom called her several times and when she didn’t answer, my parents drove to her apartment. They put their key in the lock and when they opened the door, the chain lock was still in place. They saw her lying on the floor. She’d died sometime during the brief hours between the evening before and the morning. It looked like a fast death, likely a heart attack or a stroke. She was 89.
My grandmother lived long enough to meet my daughter. Altogether she met twenty grandchildren and great grandchildren. She and my mother both lived a long time. They were incredibly different except for their shared resilience. They both overcame difficult young lives, albeit with different problems. As is common for those children whose parents treat them poorly, my mother was incredibly indulgent to me and my siblings. I often say I’m a victim of being overly loved. Not a joke. So I here I stand. These women are both gone. I think of Rose and wonder if I have the resilience that she passed on in a harsh way to my mother who handed it more gently to me. I hear both their voices in my mind and remember many different stories that are part of our family lore. I am the widow that they were, looking down the road wondering what and how long is ahead for me. Resilience is my mantra. Materially, I don’t have much left of either of them. But when my mother died and I was sorting through her things, I saw that she’d saved my grandma’s favorite housedress and often wore it. I couldn’t part with it. It’s probably about 50 years old and in great shape. As resilient as those women.