S.’s mother refused to marry his father unless her mother, a widow twice over, could live with them. S.’s father must have wanted to marry S.’s mother very much, because he said yes.
S.’s mother was extremely attached to her own mother because she was all her mother had. When her mother had arrived in the United States from Poland, she was already a widow with two very young children. S.’s mother was three. Her baby sister was less than a year old. S.’s mother’s mother, without husband or income, gave the baby up for adoption to a Jewish family that was better off. The baby was taken away for a better life in New Brunswick, Canada. After the sisters were grown, S.’s mother tried to get in touch, for her own sake as well as her mother’s. But the younger sister refused to have anything to do with her, and could not forgive their mother for having given her away.
S.’s father was not a religious man. His new mother-in-law was a very religious woman. Although she had lived in the United States since S.’s mother’s was three, the mother-in-law had never learned English. She communicated with the world, and with her new son-in-law, mainly through her daughter, his new wife. And only in Yiddish. S.’s mother – who S. suspects never cared much for religion herself — kept a kosher home for her mother’s sake. When S. was eight or nine, his father would take him out to the fights on Friday nights, where they would eat trafe hotdogs (unclean! unclean!) slathered in mustard and relish. “Don’t tell your mother,” his father would say.
S.’s father and S.’s mother’s mother hated each other. When he was really annoyed at her presence under his roof, he called her “KUR-veh.” It meant “whore.” Nothing could have been further from the truth, but it must have been the worst word for a woman he knew. He spoke English perfectly well; he used the Yiddish word so she could understand it. For variety, he sometimes also wished cholera on her, in Yiddish. Since he was the breadwinner, she had no recourse but to retire to her room whenever he came home from work. S. cannot remember their often having been in the same room together, and never for very long.
The family lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where S.’s father ran an Army-Navy store in a rundown neighborhood. The apartment had two bedrooms. S.’s father and mother took the bigger bedroom, and the mother-in-law the smaller bedroom. When S.’s sister was born, she slept in a cot in her parents’ room. When S. was born three years later, he slept with his grandmother. In the same big bed. He slept there until he was eleven, when he woke one morning with an erection and refused ever to share a bed with her again. Another arrangement was then made: the living room couch.
S.’s grandmother adored him. He was the Boy. He was going to be a rabbi. Like her uncle. At least, those were her plans for him. She had a rabbinical school in Poland all picked out. (Had she succeeded in getting him there, he would have arrived in Poland just before Hitler’s armies marched in.) When S.’s father was out of the house, she would creep into the kitchen to do her own special cooking, since S.’s mother worked during the day in the store with his father. He remembers his grandmother rendering chicken fat — to be used instead of butter for cooking fleisch (meat) meals — and giving him special treats of it, salted and smeared on rye bread. She also gave him the chicken necks rendered of their fat to chew on and then spit out. They were called gribenes. His sister didn’t get these treats. His grandmother said it was their “secret” together. The only other memorable aspect of her cuisine S. now recalls was the spaghetti – boiled and mixed with a can of Heinz vegetarian baked beans.
S. accepted the fact of his grandmother. But the woman he says he loved was his mother. “Tatele mein,” she called him when she got back in the evenings. “My little man.” But he has few other memories of her, other than her veneration for learning, her love of opera, her interest in early ideas about health food, her ardent support for FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, her rejection of makeup, her unending yearning to be reconciled with her little sister, and her great fondness for the state of Georgia, where she had apparently spent several happy years as a child after her mother found a second husband and lived for a time in Georgia with him.
Matters in the apartment came to a head shortly after S. was moved to the living room couch. S.’s father put his foot down; he wanted his mother-in-law out! By then he was able to pay rent for her on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Except how could she live alone? She couldn’t speak English. She was getting old.
The solution S.’s parents devised was to send both of their children to live with her during the week. S.’s sister, by then fourteen, would do the shopping and help with the housework after school. But why did S. have to go too? To this day, he’s not sure. At eleven, he could have managed in Bridgeport until his parents came home in the evenings. He thinks his mother deferred to her mother once again. There were better Hebrew schools on the lower East Side. And in one or two more years, Yeshiva – the equivalent of high school for the devout. A wonderful preparation for Poland!
From then on, S. and his sister saw their parents only on Sundays. S. did not do particularly well at the Yeshiva. At sixteen, he even took a forbidden Saturday job as an usher at the movies, where he luxuriated in sinful appreciation of what was on the screen. But thanks to the hard work of their parents at the Army-Navy store, both he and his sister went to college, their tuitions fully paid for. (The Polish option was not considered.)
After an advanced degree in Spanish literature, his sister subsided into deferential marriage to a religious man and motherhood of four children in Montreal. S. says she was never a happy woman. S. himself became an M.D. His parents were very proud. Afterwards, he married a lapsed Catholic. Although she made a nominal conversion to Judaism, when she came to meet the family bearing a bouquet of flowers, S.’s grandmother threw the flowers on the floor. S. does not comment further on this incident, or indicate whether his mother apologized for her mother to the bride.
When S. talks about these things, he says his mother – by now long dead — was an angel. If asked what kind of angel would repeatedly choose her mother over her son, he further says that actually he can remember very little about his his mother as she was when he was a boy, but his sister, who shared their parents’ bedroom until she was fourteen, always said she was an angel. Then he asks, somewhat rhetorically: what choice did his mother have?
A hard question to answer. However, S.’s medical specialty is interesting. He elected to do psychiatry — even though he says that during the rotations, he enjoyed radiology best. His Hebrew remains very well pronounced, but he has no opportunity to use it. He hasn’t gone to synagogue or temple for many years. He calls himself a secular humanist.
S.’s sister’s four children have five children between them: four girls and a boy. S. has three children and two grandchildren: a boy and a girl. Thus the generations succeed each other. But their stories will be someone else’s to tell. Not mine.