Thursday, June 17, 2010

My Grandma

Yesterday's post got me thinking about my paternal grandmother.  She's been haunting my thoughts all day, not letting go, a constant presence nagging, picking, worrying at the back of my mind.  She was a confusing person for a young girl, and she's not become any clearer with the passage of time.

Eight of her nine siblings were born in Europe.  That's what she called it.  Not Galicia.  Not Poland.  Not Russia.  Europe.  When her parents decided to come to America, they sent Rae and her younger sister off to a cousin in London.  Apparently, two young girls were more trouble than they were worth.

That arrangement lasted less than a year.  My grandmother convinced her relatives that she was not going to live anywhere except where her parents and sisters and brother were living, and if that meant taking her 10 year old self and her 8 year old sister alone, in steerage, across the Atlantic Ocean, to people who had demonstrated in a fairly dramatic fashion that they didn't want them, well then that was what she was going to do.  And that is what they did.  Entrusted to a "family friend who got paid to do it" they came through Ellis Island and were reunited with their father.  He lost no time in telling them that since they were here, they could work to support themselves.  When I think about the kind of woman she became, I always come back to this story.  Remember, she was 10 years old.

School was important, but so was earning their keep.  My great-grandfather sold rags from a pushcart in the Bronx, was a big shot in the synagogue, and had a temper to match his fiery red hair.  When Rae intimated that she was being courted by an Irishman, he put an end to the affair in a dramatic, if never fully described to my youthful self, way.  I overheard bits and pieces of the story over the years, but one detail never varied.  "Joel always wanted Rae's money.  That's why he kept her at home."

A talented seamstress and designer, she earned $33/week in the millinery department of Macy's in the years before the depression.  That was an unheard of wage for a young woman in those years; her father took the entire envelope every payday.  In later years, she kept her cash in a small change purse safety-pinned to her bra.  When it came time to pay the bill, she'd turn and discretely take out "the bank."  She'd lick her fingers, rubbing the thumb and pointer together, and then begin to peel back the bills, counting and caressing each one.  She'd straighten them and then recount them and then, sometimes, allow me to hold them and be sure not to drop them or lose them until "the bank" was safely repinned.  She'd told me often enough about handing over her envelope; I never wondered why parting with the money was so difficult for her.

She was a powerful woman in her family of devoted men.  Three sons and a husband and she ran the show.  The boys grew up to be just what she wanted them to be, and she kept Daddooooo, my father, closer and more connected than the others. After all, he was the oldest son.  It was his responsibility to be there for his parents, to respond more quickly than his brothers, to take over the family business.  And so, he did.

Neither he nor his mother were very good at telling their parents to butt out of their lives.  She ditched her Irishman and he left his career in psychology because their parents had other plans.  As I watch the Cuters wrangle with their futures, I'm kinda sorta jealous of the parenting style that led to those decisions.  Obviously, I know exactly what would be best for each of them and the fact that I can't/won't/shouldn't/daren't insist that they follow my plan just kills me.  I would sleep better at night if they'd just do what I think they ought to do.  If they would just decide to be happy doing what I want them to do.  On my timetable, on my terms...... then I'll be happy.  And if they're kinda sorta miserable, well, isn't everybody?

That kind of life includes an acceptance of being unhappy, of looking over your shoulder to see where the next blow will fall, of life as a glass not only half empty but with a crack running down the side, threatening to split apart and let the whole thing pool helplessly, hopelessly, miserably and irretrievably on the floor.  There's no room for joy, though sorrow has place of honor at the table.  There are smiles and nachas (reflected glory and the warm feeling that comes with it ) from the children and good times, but joy, relaxed and restorative happiness, 15 minutes without angst... well, the concept was inconceivable.

They were bitter people who felt short-changed by life, who thought that they'd been dealt an unfair hand, but one they were forced to play.  Taking charge of their own lives, being responsible for their own happiness never occurred to them.   Things happened to them.  Life was a bitter pill with a few happy moments interspersed amidst the pain.  It wasn't a placid depression; it was a loud and angry and aggressive toward the world which was attacking them, day after day, at home and at work.  Relaxation might be fatal; Europe's Jews had stopped worrying and look what happened to them.    

These were bright, intelligent people who were involved in their communities and their families.  They read copiously and argued vociferously and were always ready to listen to a young voice, testing her opinions in the conversation around the dinner table.  There was great respect for learning and erudition, for tradition and loyalty to the family.  They worked hard, building and rebuilding businesses in ever more challenging times, but I'm not sure either was ever satisfied with anything they did or saw.

Except for me.

And maybe, Nance, this is how I had the courage to lock myself in the lioness's den and read her the riot act.  I knew that she loved me.  She looked at me with soft eyes ....when she thought no one was watching her.  She never let my Grandpa cheat me at cards, though she hardly cared about what happened to my cousins.  She made the hamburgers exactly the way I liked them, even though they were too rare for my siblings' tastebuds.  I always thought she and my dad saw themselves in me more than in anyone else in the family.  They never tried to push me in one direction or the other.... or perhaps they did and I just didn't notice.

It's the same thing either way, in the end.  I'm always telling TBG that I come from hearty peasant stock.  Perhaps my courage came from knowing, on some level, that I was doing what they wished they could/should/dared to have done.  I do know that I am happier, more joyous, more content than either of them thought they had a right to be.  Maybe it just took 3 generations to figure it out.