How My Grandparents Impacted My Life

15 May


Summer of 1979 in the Catskills.  Eight months before my wedding.

Summer of 1979 in the Catskills. Eight months before my wedding.

I am so fortunate to have had all four of my grandparents walk down the aisle at my wedding! Two of them were alive when my daughter was born, and knew her. And one of my grandparents survived and knew my son as well. They had a major impact on my life, especially since I spent every summer in the Catskills with all four of my grandparents near by.

My Grandpa Harry, born in 1888 or 1889, was my oldest grandparent. He did not have the easiest childhood. The oldest of five children, he spent two years as a teen searching for his father who abandoned the family. He found him in Seattle, Washington, quite far from his family in New York City. Grandpa returned home, became a tailor and supported his family. All of his siblings graduated college, a feat for women of the time. And Grandpa supported them. The saddest part is that after they were college educated, they treated Grandpa as if he was not quite good enough for them.

I took sewing classes beginning when I was 14, and Grandpa and I started to really talk! He was proud of the things I made and would check the seams and my work. Grandpa taught me how to match plaids, not an easy thing to do. But from him I learned that to make something well, you need to take the time and effort to make it nice. To this day, I cannot buy clothing where the plaids or lines do not match up.

My favorite memory of Grandpa Harry was his guarding the sweet table every holiday. My Grandma Esther was a great cook and baker. Each holiday had amazing treats set aside on special table. Grandpa would sit at the end. I think he counted how much each of the nine grandchildren ate. If we came back too often, he would intone: “The Trolley car stops, too!” From this I learned moderation. You need to take a break.

(From my cousins I learned that there were extra treats hidden in the back bedroom.)

Grandma Esther was also born in the New York City area, but in 1898. She was also one of five children, and was surrounded by cousins. I have written about her teaching me to crochet and knit (See “Grandma Esther’s Afghans Wrap Me in Love” and “Knitting and Crocheting Brings Love and Memories.”) But she taught me many other important concepts as well.

When I was old enough to date, Grandma Esther sat me down to discuss choosing the perfect spouse. She had already dealt with my Grandpa Harry’s family for years, so it was not surprising when she said, “When you get married, you marry the family as well. So be careful. Check out his family before you say yes. Find someone whose family is like your family.” And I did. Almost 35 years later, I can say, Thank you!

The most important help my Grandma gave me was teaching me how to nurse my daughter. Grandma flew out to Kansas when she was 88 years old to meet my daughter. (My sister and her husband flew with her.) When she saw my feeble attempts at nursing, 28 years ago, she was shocked.

First she said, “Only poor people nurse. Your cousins’ wives did not do this.” My response was, “Grandma, they say this is much better for the baby. I want to do it.” Her second response, “Well if you are going to do it, do it right.”

And she showed me how to do it the right way. It made such a big difference. I then taught all my friends the tricks my Grandma showed me. Our mothers had not nursed. So we needed someone who actually had done it to point out the way.

The last advice she gave me was in naming babies. She was one of five cousins named Esther. And she hated that each of them had nicknames. She was Curly Esther because of her hair. But there also was Topsy Esther and Meshuganah Esther as well. I never heard the other nicknames. So she made sure her children’s English names were different from their cousins, even though their Hebrew names were the same.

My Grandpa Nat (Nissan) was born in Europe in 1900. He spent two years traveling to get to the Golden Medina, the USA. He arrived in 1920. Grandpa was a baker (See “Bakery Aromas Bring Back Delicious Memories.”) But most important is that he had a great work ethic, as well as a great sense of humor.

Every spring we had to help get his bungalow colony ready for another season. He would say to my siblings and I, as he handed us paint scrappers, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” Which is true. As an adult you have to have a job to get food. He was proud of our college educations. Having grown up in Europe and seen the treatment of Jews there, he said, “They can take everything away from you, but they can never take away your education.”

One of his fun, and my favorite saying of his, “It is as easy to follow a heavy cart, as it is to follow a empty one.” I am sure it is a translation from Yiddish. But it was his marriage advise meaning, try to find someone who has a little more assets. It will help in the long run. But all time favorite saying was “Every Pot has a Lid.” This might have been my Grandma Thelma who said this. But the main point is that everyone has someone.

Grandpa Nat loved us. His entire family, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, many aunts, uncles and cousins had perished in the Shoah. (“Speaking Yiddish Always Brings Me Holocaust Memories.”) But he never lost a sense of humor, and he always showed us love.

But the most important person to him was my Grandma Thelma (Tova). She was born in Poland in 1906. Grandma was strong willed and determined; she came to the USA when she was 16, worked all day and then went to night school to learn English. She read, wrote and spoke three languages. And she was afraid of Nothing.

Grandma Thelma sang Yiddish songs to me to put me to sleep. “Ofyn Pripetchik “ was my favorite. Grandpa sang to us as well. Their singing of the Yiddish songs was so heartfelt. Grandpa’s version of “Rozhinkies mit Mandlen,” “Was itz Geven Ist Geven,” “Tum Balalayke,” “Eli Eli” and “Schtela Beltz “ still echo in my mind. He had a beautiful voice. My siblings and I often sang along with him.

Advice from Grandma Thelma was never ending. She and I battled for power constantly. She called me the Machshefah, the witch.   But from her I learned to be strong. I learned never to give up. I learned to trust myself.

When I was at college, she would send me letters with a bit of ‘gelt’ (money) so I could buy stamps and write back. Wherever I lived, not matter what I did or where I wanted to go, she was my ally. We could fight, but she backed me up always. When I needed to stand up to my parents, to be who I wanted to be, Grandma was standing behind me.

Her shopping advise was intense,  “When you buy jewelry, always buy real. When you buy gold, always buy solid, never buy hollow.” Grandma taught me how to sew jewelry into clothing, because you never know. She kept silver coins in every purse. And money buried in the basement. Her experiences growing up in Europe scarred her, but she was defiant and not scared. Luckily I never had to use this final advice.

I am who I am because of my grandparents. I think of them often with love.

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