My grandmother, the only grandparent I knew, immigrated to the US from the village of Minkovitz, located in what is now the Ukraine. She arrived at Ellis Island around 1906, at age 20 with her 18 year old sister, after a stormy transatlantic voyage in steerage class. They were sponsored by an Aunt and Uncle who had achieved some level of comfort in the US and, later had the good fortune to have their daughter marry an entrepreneur who established a coat and apron business in NYC that was quite lucrative and provided jobs for a number of poor relations.
My grandmother had a tough life. Her husband died in 1930, leaving her with a failing laundry business and 3 children in Detroit. She tried another marriage as a way to make ends meet, but eventually moved to NYC to get help from the Aunt and her prosperous son-in-law. Two other marriages and sporadic employment later, she wound up penniless and alone. Eventually, she came to live with my family, when we moved to Long Island in the fifties, sharing a room with me from the time I was 7 until 14 or 15.
We never had a conversation that I can recall. I have no idea what she did all day. She cooked her own food and didn’t eat with us- most of the time. She buttoned up the back of my blouse. She rubbed linament on my sore legs. She took a nap in the afternoon and I quietly played with my dolls on the rug.
She fed our cat, liver and chicken, and talked to him. She made delicious applesauce and potato pancakes. If my friends and I got wild, she screamed at us, once threatening to call the police. She wore strange garments- some sort of thick stockings and a corset and clunky shoes. Either too hot or too cold, she drove my father crazy by continually pushing the thermostat up or down. She went to Florida for several weeks in the winter and to Liberty, NY for several week in the summer. I never asked what she did there.
What did she think about? How did she feel about being mired in the suburbs with no one her age to communicate with? If I asked her the occasional question about her past, she would deflect the question by saying “You don’t want to know from that.”
She didn’t seem to like my brother or me very much, tolerating our presence as the price she had to pay for room and board. She couldn’t stand my father who didn’t keep his contempt and annoyance hidden. Eventually she had a heart attack that she blamed on my father and was dispatched to a nursing home where she died at the age of 83.
It’s hard to believe that I am a grandmother now, the same age she was when I was born. How did that happen? My generation is much more involved in the day-to-day lives of our grandchildren, even if we live far away. We want our grandchildren to know us as people. To have good memories when we are gone. I wish I had known my grandmother.
My grandmother’s shoes
are thick, black boats-
she calls them brogans.
Good for loosening potatoes
from frozen ground
or tamping down dirt on her
Old Country streets in a
town full of foreign things
that don’t belong in my rose
I show her my Mary Janes-
“Maybe you could get some like these?”
I hide her shoes when my friends visit,
dump them behind the flannel and hose.
At dinner, she makes my father’s eyebrowns
seize into one magic marker line when
she mashes her carrots and meat together.
Without her shoes, she just might float
back where she came from, like a freed balloon.