Grandma Thelma Knows What She Knows

29 May

We always wondered how old my Grandma Thelma was when she celebrated her birthday. She insisted that she was born in 1906 and arrived in the United States when she was 16. This is a debate that went on for years, as her passport had her as two years older.

Her explanation was that she was so desperate to get out of Poland, she made herself two years older to get out. In fact when she finally got her passport and papers in Poland, the official said to her, something like, “I hope you have a safe trip and return safely.” When she got to the door, she turned around and said, “I will never come back here, never.” And then ran for home. Her happiest day was the day she arrived into the New York City harbor.

I have her passenger records from Ellis Island. She arrived as Tauba (Tova), from Boleslawiec, Poland, on November 7, 1922. An 18 year-old, single female, she traveled by herself on the Gothland from Antwerp, Belgium.

Grandma reinvented herself to Thelma. She stopped using the name Tova except in synagogue.

She lived with relatives, her Aunt Gussie, her father’s sister, had agreed to sponsor Grandma. Aunt Gussie had four children, three boys and a girl. But the stories Grandma told always revolved around the cousin who was her age, Katie, who was treated as a queen. While my Grandma said she was treated as the “deinst,” the maid. She had to work all day, go to the school at night, and then when she was in the apartment clean and work for her board.

When Katie would have her friends over, they would tease my grandmother because she was a “greener.” My grandmother also had to ‘serve’ them, and was not allowed to really just sit and visit. It made my Grandma mad, as many of Katie’s friends were also once “greeners.” It also made her mad to be treated like that when she was family. However, she and Katie did become friends, because despite everything, they liked each other.

It was a difficult life made more difficult because her Aunt Gussie wanted her to marry an old widowed man with children. And Grandma did not want to marry him. She had met my grandfather, Nathan (Nissin) who was a baker and either four or six years older than her (depending on the birth year accepted). My sister and I think one reason Grandma and Katie became firm friends is that she helped my Grandma in her romance with Grandpa.

This became a battle with Aunt Gussie. My grandmother took matters into her own hands by writing her father, Avraham Shlomo, in Poland.   She told him about her love for Nathan and the pressure from Aunt Gussie to marry the other man. My great grandfather did what any good Jewish father would do for his daughter, he investigated Grandpa’s family; found out they were a good family of Cohen descent, and approved the marriage. When the letter arrived from Poland, my grandmother got her way, and married my grandfather.


Grandma Thelma and Grandpa Nat in their wedding finery.

Grandma Thelma and Grandpa Nat in their wedding finery.

Grandma always kept in touch with Katie. Throughout their lives, they did not see each other, but they wrote many letters. We remember whenever a Katie letter arrived in the Catskills, Grandma sat down and read it. They were always in Yiddish. And then Grandma wrote her a many-paged response. Although Grandma loved her cousin, Katie, she never forgave Aunt Gussie for the harsh treatment. It was difficult because she was also always grateful that her aunt had sponsored her to come to the United States and gave her a place to live, however begrudgingly.

In the meantime, my Grandpa and his Uncle Yidel (Julius) had a bakery. Their business grew. At some point they decided to separate. Uncle Yidel stayed in New York, while Grandma and Grandpa moved to New Jersey and opened their own bakery.

My Grandma was a shrewd businesswoman. She enabled the business to survive through the 1929 stock market crash. She had two children to support, but during the Great Depression she gave out food on credit to those who needed it.   She invested in the Stock Market, but at the same time she had money spread out in lots of different banks. I remember going bank hopping with her in both New Jersey and New York City. She would bring all her bank passbooks at the end of each month, to have the interest entered.

My Grandma is 36 or 38 in this photo.

My Grandma is 36 or 38 in this photo.

Over the years, my grandparents became financially and personally successful. They had the bakery and the building it was in; they owned a small bungalow colony in the Catskills, as well as a winter home about half mile from the bungalows. They had investments. They had two children and five grandchildren. All was happy and well.

The memories of Katie A and her parents, as well as their treatment of Grandma, had stayed within my Grandma’s memories and were not really discussed until one day in the Catskills. A day I will always remember, because it shows you how small the world can be, and how connections make changes.

Both my Dad’s parents and their siblings were born in the United States. His mom, my Grandma Esther, was one of five siblings, including her brother Sam. Uncle Sam was a little different from everyone else. He worked for the New York City Port Authority, and he was divorced and remarried. I loved my great Uncle Sam. He had a great sense of humor and was wonderful with us children. His second wife, Sylvia, had a little yappy dog, who scared us all. She carried that dog everywhere. Aunt Sylvia was always perfectly dressed, blonde hair in a French twist. She expected elegance wherever she went, thus she did not like to come to the Catskills because she felt it was too middle class.

Her feelings might have changed the day they decided to finally take a ride up to the Catskills and see everyone. My father’s parents and sister and her family stayed at the bungalow colony owned by my maternal grandparents. So first Uncle Sam went there to see his sister and visit. Later in the day, he and Aunt Sylvia drove up to the ‘big’ house where my maternal grandparents lived, and where we had our bungalow.

Of course there were introductions all around so that Grandma Thelma and Grandpa Nat could meet Uncle Sam’s wife Aunt Sylvia.

When my Grandma met Aunt Sylvia, she said, “I know you.”

“No,” Sylvia replied. “I never met you before.”

I started walking with Grandma back to the house. “I know her,” she said again. My Mom heard. “Mom,” she said. “She probably just reminds you of someone.”

I thought it was over. No big deal. But a short time later, Grandma came back to our bungalow, where we were sitting outside. She walked up to Aunt Sylvia and said, “Sadie, you are Sadie. You were a friend of my cousin, Katie. I remember you.”

Aunt Sylvia…now Sadie, looked at my Grandma and said, “Tova, is that you!?”

And it was. They hugged. They kissed. They spoke in Yiddish for hours.

When Uncle Sam and Aunt Sylvia left, my Grandma Thelma had a new ‘best’ friend. They had so many memories to share.

And then my Grandma turned to my Mom and said, “I told you I knew her.” We should have known that Grandma Thelma knows what she knows.

This incident impacted my Grandma Esther as well, once she heard what had happened. From then on, whenever her sister-in-law made her crazy, she would say, “Sylvia…she is so hoity toity, but she is really just Sadie from Brooklyn.”

Thanks to my sister for remembering with me.

7 Responses to “Grandma Thelma Knows What She Knows”

  1. clothedwithjoy June 5, 2014 at 6:47 pm #

    I love this story. I have a similar family story in my brain just waiting to be written. 😉

    • zicharon June 5, 2014 at 7:16 pm #

      I often carry stories in my mind for awhile before I write them down. Thank you!

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