Sunday, August 12, 2012

On Grandma's 100th Birthday

I still remember walking into my grandmother’s modest house in Elmont, New York. We would always enter through the door in the backyard because she had turned the front of the house into a second-level apartment which she rented. I would walk in the door, which immediately had us standing in her kitchen, and I’d reach for the refrigerator door because I knew that’s where the kept her stash of M&Ms. She would stop me in my tracks, welcome me, and then quickly look at my hands. “You have to stop biting your nails, J.,” she constantly reprimanded me. Even at the age of six or seven, I had already developed a habit that continues to this very day. “Oy vey, your nails are so short,” she whined in her raspy voice, “it’s so bad for you!” “Ok, ok, ok, I’ll stop,” I would tell her over and over again. I’m now thirty-two, and sometimes my fingers still hurt from biting them. Oops, sorry Gram!

We were always pretty diligent about visiting my grandma. My mom had an exceptionally close relationship with her, and I believe both she and I take after my grandma in many ways. And so, today, what would have been her 100th birthday, I would like to reminisce about my grandma, Ann S., and maybe try to shed some light on who she was.

Ann (Anna) S. was born on Stanton Street on the Lower East Side on August 12, 1912 to Molly (Malka) and Hymie (Chaim) W's. As far as I know, the W's had many children, but only four girls survived beyond infancy: Sarah, Gussie, Dora and Anna.  At a certain point, they moved to the Bronx, then seen as moving up the socio-economic ladder. Even back in the 30s and 40s, my grandmother was already challenging societal roles: she became a working woman, and became the main breadwinner of her family. I don’t know what her parents did for a living, but they were immigrants from Poland, presumably limited professionally and linguistically. "Anna", as they called her, was a first-generation American, worked as a bookkeeper in New York City, and helped finance her family. When she wasn’t working in the office, she worked hard at home.  I believe they were Orthodox Jews growing up, but once she had her own family, she chucked frumkeit and Yiddish. She chose a more cultural-Jewish route, making the world's best matzah ball soup for yuntifs, chopped liver, and went to the Elmont Jewish Center a couple of times a year. During her early adult life, she dedicated her life to helping her parents, and also helped her sisters raise their children.

Her older sister Dora, was widowed when her two sons were about two and five years old. My grandma helped raise Dora’s two sons, H. and R., and encouraged them both to stay in school and empower themselves.H. went on to get his PhD, and is still active in local politics. He has become a role model for me, and I love getting together with him on the rare occasions that I go to the U.S. R., too, has developed his own career, and still lives in the Bronx. My grandma used to tell us stories about their childhood friend from the Bronx, Al Pacino, who of course, went on to become one of the most famous movie stars of all time. I wonder if there's a chance that he remembers "Aunt Anna"?!

I would like to think that I get my ambition and drive from my mother, who I believe, got it from my grandma. She was a tough lady, didn’t let anyone stop her when she wanted to do something, and spoke her mind…She grew to hate my father, and made no secret of that. She also, did not like the fact that we became more observant religiously. She felt that this lifestyle was better left in the shtetl, and said, “We’re in America now! Who needs this?!” Yet, we continued in our ways. And, for some reason that I still do not understand, she wasn’t so fond of my sister Rachel, who was a cute little rolly-polly blonde baby, yet she would tease her and trip her with her cane when she started to walk. I still don’t understand why!
Surprisingly, my grandma didn’t get married until she was about thirty-nine years old! She gave birth to my mom at forty, and to my aunt at forty-one!  To start a marriage and have kids at that age in the 1950s was unheard of! To thicken the plot, her husband, Harry, my grandfather, was about six years younger than her. Just consider that for a moment to get an idea of how unconventional my grandma must have been. Of course these are details that I only became aware of as I got older, but now that I have some awareness of societal norms in a historical perspective, I am so curious to uncover the mystery of my grandma.  It sounds like she was so busy in her professional and family life, but to put off starting her own family, when everyone around her was presumably starting their own families at such young ages, either she just didn’t care (very likely) or it was difficult for her to handle. Most likely it was a combination of both.

My mom, M. was born in 1952 in the Bronx, and my aunt R. was born in 1953. My grandparents then moved out to the suburbs of Long Island for a better life, and so both my mom and aunt were raised in Elmont, NY. To this day, my mom’s two claims to fame are: 1) Billy Joel played at her high school prom with his then- garage-band; and 2) she is a proud participant of the original Woodstock, to which her very own father drove her for hours, while getting stuck in traffic from Long Island all the way to Saugerties, New York.

Once into adulthood, my mom and dad stayed on the North Shore, while my mom developed a successful career as an English teacher, and my aunt and uncle struggled their way their whole lives, moving around the South Shore with my cousin Brian.

Even though I was already an adult when my grandma passed away (she died in May 2002), I didn’t have the opportunity to get to know her life story. She had dementia for the last few years of her life, and just at the time in my life when I developed a curiosity to get to know her and ask her about her life, she was not lucid anymore. Yet, what always made an impact on me was how well my mother took care of my grandma. Just like my grandma dedicated her life to helping her own parents for so long (presumably until they died), my own mother bent over backwards to make sure my grandma had the best of the best care as she became elderly.

After she moved out to the Assisted Living Center, she had a stroke which left her blind. My mom spent months researching the best options for her, and chose to hire a companion nurse for her to help her with her everyday living. She specifically chose this option, I think, because she knew that she wasn’t ready for a nursing home. It would have been degrading for a woman who was used to balancing her checkbook to the penny to move into a nursing home just because she couldn’t see anymore. At the time, she was still “with-it” mentally; she was blind and needed help around the house. So my mom hired Genevieve, a kind woman with a slight southern twang, was in her late 50s and lived nearby. My mom trusted her with my grandma, and had her do help with her shopping, cooking  and light chores. My grandma, called her “Genovese” like the pharmacy, because she just couldn’t hear her name right. She stayed with my grandma for a while until her situation deteriorated, necessitating the care of a nursing home. My mom then found her the most palatial nursing home in the area: the Gurwin Jewish Geriatric Center, where we spent a lot of time. I was already in college by then, but my mom took my little sister and visited her nearly every single day.  As a divorced mom of three spoiled, high-maintenance children who had held down a full-time career for her entire adult life, I honestly don’t know how my mother found the time to juggle everything and still take care of my grandma. She knew that my grandma always made sure to have her hair permed and set once a week; this didn’t stop once she was in the nursing home. She made sure she had everything she needed, that she was comfortable and lived in dignity. 

I can go on and on, but here is a short list of things I believe I learned from my grandma:
·         Don’t be afraid to speak your mind.
·         Dedicate one room in the house for the kids to ruin. ( I say this because I have distinct memories of seeing the spray-painted graffiti from the 60s and 70s that my mom and her friends must have sprayed on my grandma’s basement walls!)
·         Sprite tastes better when it’s cold and flat.
·         Don’t bit your nails. (still do, sorry Gram!)
·         Never leave the house with hair looking bad.
·         A woman should never rely on a man to be the sole breadwinner in the family.
·         No matter how much you disagree with them, family comes first.
·         It’s ok to marry a younger man (if it was ok in 1949, it's certainly ok now!)

So I guess now you get a sense of the female role models in my family, and perhaps this sheds light on some of my own character traits. For those of you who remember my grandma, you’ll agree that she was one, feisty old lady!
I miss you Gram, you are always in my mind.

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