S. SHARES SOME FAMILY HISTORY

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[A story]

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.

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EIGHT TALES FROM A GIRLHOOD LONG AGO: #7

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Danilov’s Advice, 1945

Her mother’s despondency didn’t lift. Anna dealt with it by spending as little time with her as possible. Every school night she worked in her room for three or four hours on her Latin, English, Algebra and Biology assignments, including the ones for extra credit. On Saturdays she always tried to arrange a visit to one of her new high-school friends from another borough. On Sundays she took long walks all around Kew Gardens and Forest Hills no matter the weather, peering into the windows of other people’s houses and daydreaming of life in another family. Behind the closed door of her room she also made frequent and lengthy entries in her diary, including every detail of her mother’s complaints about her, so there should be some record of them.

Since this will not be read by anyone till I am gone, I can confide from the inner recesses of my soul and hold back nothing. Someday I will be famous, and after I am dead people will want to know all about me. That is my motive for writing in this secret book. It is an account for posterity of what is going on in my life, so that future generations will not have to speculate about missing facts.

It did occur to Anna that those future generations might think her conceited for being so sure they would be interested in her, but she was certain that someone out there in the centuries to come would want to know what she had really been like, and then admire her fortitude and other good qualities. Besides, it made her feel much better when she unburdened herself in pen and ink, and right now that was the most important thing.

One November weekend when her father was home she went with him to buy the Sunday paper. Being unable to keep up with him when she was little, and even the business later with the belt, seemed so long ago and insignificant compared to her present circumstances. Besides, it was no problem at all to keep up with him without getting out of breath now she was fourteen; they could even have a conversation while they were walking. She told him she was having a lot of trouble with her mother. Nothing she did was ever right. She didn’t know any more what would please her.

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wished them back again. Suppose her father didn’t believe her? After all, her mother always cheered up when he was there. Surprisingly, he nodded thoughtfully.

“Did you ever hear of the Danilovs?” he asked.

“Only the name,” said Anna. “Mother used to mention the wife sometimes. Wasn’t she a famous opera singer in Russia?”

“Yes, she was. And he was a famous orchestra conductor. They were here in New York for a series of concerts in 1914 when war broke out so they couldn’t get home again. And after the revolution, naturally they didn’t want to.   He — Danilov — was about my father’s age. A fine musician and a real man of the world. Very helpful to me when I was young and just off the boat.”

“I never met them,” said Anna, wondering what these Danilovs had to do with her mother troubles.

“Of course not,” said her father. “They moved to L.A. just after you were born. But before that, I always felt I could go to him when I needed advice.”

“And?”

“And,” said Anna’s father, “after I had been married to your mother for about six months, I realized I was tired of her. I was only twenty-four and she was already very boring. I wanted a divorce. So I went to Danilov to ask what to do. You know what he said?”

Anna shook her head, even though she had already learned in English class that the type of question her father had just asked was rhetorical and therefore required no answer.

“He said, ‘So what if you’re bored? You get divorced, you’ll find another woman, and in six months you’ll be bored with that one too. This one is young and pretty. Why go through the trouble to change? They’re all the same. Manage with what you’ve got.'”

They had reached the front door of their apartment house. For a moment Anna was flooded with pleasure to learn that her father found her mother boring. Then she wondered what lesson she was supposed to draw from this confidence. Manage with the mother she had? That’s what she was already doing!

“Don’t tell your mother,” said her father as he felt for the keys in his coat pocket. “It’ll be our secret.”

It wasn’t until years later, when she was seeing her first shrink, that Anna began to wonder why her father had been so ready to share advice from a so-called man of the world with his fourteen-year old daughter about wanting to leave her mother. Did he think he was comforting her? He had even seemed in a particularly good mood for the rest of that day.

Then, having leveled the playing field as best he could, he went back to Philadelphia and Anna went back to managing.

FAMILY HISTORY

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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.