S.’s mother refused to marry his father unless her own mother 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 so attached to her own mother because she was all her mother had. When her mother 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 from 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 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 began taking him out to the fights on Friday nights (the holiest night of the week), where they would eat trafe hot dogs (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 farther from the truth, but it must have been the worst word for a woman in his vocabulary. He spoke English perfectly well; he used the Yiddish word so S.’s mother’s mother could understand it. For variety, he sometimes also wished cholera on her, also in Yiddish. Since he was the breadwinner, she had no recourse but to make herself scarce whenever he came home from work. S. cannot remember their having been in the same room together more than once or twice, and then never for 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’s mother the smaller bedroom. When S.’s sister was born, they set up a cot for her 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 for him: 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 a place there, he would have arrived in Poland just before Hitler’s armies marched in.)
When S.’s father was out of the house working, she would creep into the kitchen to do her own special cooking. (S.’s mother also worked during the day, helping his father out in the store.) 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 truly loved was his mother. “Tatele mein,” she called him when she got back from work in the evenings. “My little man.” But what did he love? He has few memories of her, other than her veneration for learning, her love of opera on the radio, 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. began sleeping on the living room couch. S.’s father put his foot down; pre-marital promise or no, 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. Was it so easy for his mother to part with her tatele mein, her little man? He thinks she simply deferred to her mother once again. There were better Hebrew schools on the lower East Side. And in one or two 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 were able to go away to college, their tuitions and other expenses fully paid for. (The Polish option was not considered.)
After earning an advanced degree in Spanish literature, his sister subsided into deferential marriage to a tall, well-spoken but extremely religious man who took her away to Canada, where she spent much of her life in motherhood of four children. S. says she was never a happy woman.
S. himself became an M.D. His parents were very proud. Afterwards, however, he married a lapsed Catholic. She was French and charming and had a cute behind. But although she made a nominal conversion to Judaism, when she came to meet the family bearing a dozen roses, S.’s grandmother flung the roses 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, now long dead of Alzheimers, was an angel. But if asked what kind of angel would repeatedly choose her mother over her little son, he squirms. Then he adds that although he can remember very little about his mother as she was when he was growing up, his sister — who shared their parents’ bedroom until she was fourteen — always said she was an angel. Finally he asks, somewhat rhetorically: What choice did his mother have?
A hard question to answer. However, S.’s medical specialty is interesting. Even though he enjoyed radiology best during his medical training, he elected to do psychiatry. Child and adolescent psychiatry. We might also note that although he still understands some Hebrew and Yiddish, his ability to converse in either of these languages has faded. He hasn’t gone to synagogue or temple for years and does not associate with any Yiddish speakers. He calls himself a secular humanist.
One of S.’s sister’s four children was gay. (Her very religious husband never found out.) This son killed himself when he discovered he was sick. Two of her three other children have five children between them. However, her youngest daughter (the one without children) refuses to speak to the other two, and the oldest daughter is not on good terms with her own older daughter.
S. himself is the father of three children, by two wives. His daughter, now in her forties, has many problems and gives him much heartache. She is unlikely ever to marry or have children of her own. The two sons each have a child apiece, but they are very far away and not particularly communicative, and he has very little opportunity to see them.
Although S. can only surmise the degree of torment his mother and father experienced in their marriage, he points out that from their torment came, after much perseverance and additional torment, seven great-grandchildren (and recently two baby great-great-grandchildren). Thus the generations succeed each other. However, what else we can make of what he has shared with us I cannot really say.
Is the pain and suffering of life tolerable because there are also movies, hot dogs with mustard and relish, gribenes and cute behinds along the way? That is a question each of us must answer for ourselves.