Dear Grandma (or Grandpa), Tell Me About Your Life

You were born in Ukraine, the third of eight children.  Married at 19.

You gave birth to your first child in the middle of unrest and violence: pogroms and attacks against your “Hebrew” (according to ship manifest info) people.

Your husband Harry became a refugee to America when your son, Morris. was just a toddler. That was the plan, as only one of you could afford to escape at a time,

What did you witness and experience while you waited to escape too?

How did you do it?

Edith, Joe, Anna, Morrie, Harry

It took a year for Harry to earn enough money painting houses to send for you and your son, and then, somehow, you traveled with your 2 1/2 year old boy to Belgium, boarded the USS Finland, and traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to Ellis Island, then to St. Louis, where your next two children (my Uncle, then my mother) were born.

You learned to read and write English. You were valedictorian of your ESL class.

You raised three children, and worked too – as a tailor, and (according to the 1940 Census) as a store clerk.

You sent your two sons off to war when they were of age – back across the Atlantic to fight the Anti-Semitism and political unrest that had sent you to America two decades before.

How did you do it, Grandma?

I wish I had known how to ask you, before you passed away at the age of 78.

But I was too young, too unaware. Perhaps too narcissistic. After all, you were “just Grandma” – baker of jellycake, keeper of Kosher. Grandma, who let me sleep over in her Bronx apartment on the Castro convertible (so cool!). Grandma, who drank tea with a sugar cube in her mouth. Grandma and Grandpa, who escaped to Far Rockaway, Queens, in the summers and let us stay with them so we could walk to the beach, and treated my sunburn with Noxema.

Dear Grandma Anna, as Mother’s Day looms, how I wish I could ask you about your life.

How did you do it all?

The Family

What was it like, living in the shtetl in Ukraine, when Jewish lives were in ever-increasing danger?

Did you lose anyone you loved?

Did you want to leave your home?

How  in heaven’s name did you manage the trip across the ocean, with a  toddler in tow?

What was it like to learn a new language, a new alphabet, in a new country?

How did it feel to send your sons into war, after all you had experienced?

So many questions.

Do you think you know your grandparents? Your parents? Do we ever?

I knew that Grandma had taken the subway all the way from the Bronx to Queens on Fridays when we were in elementary school, so that my two brothers and I could have an adult at home waiting for us at least one day a week after my mother had to return to work. That was the day we could walk home for lunch from PS 149Q because someone was there to be with us.

I knew Grandpa – who was also a tailor as well as housepainter – would inspect my handiwork when I learned to sew.

But they are so much more than I saw.

I wish I could learn, and write about, their story. And particularly, as Mothers’ Day approaches, Anna’s story.

Decades after my grandparents passed away, ship manifests and census reports fill in some info.

The town Anna lived in (Vishnevets, Ukraine) was annihilated, two decades after their emigration, in the Holocaust.

I am lucky to be here, thanks to their courage.

I only wish I had asked them more questions while they were alive.

This Mothers’ Day. ask your Grandma. And your Mom.

“Tell me about your life.”

Happy Mothers’ Day.

 

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