In honor of what would have been my mother’s 102 birthday on September 1, I am sharing with you, my readers, one of her wonderful stories.
I was around four years old when Zayde (Jewish for Grandpa) came to live my parents, my brother, Eli, and me.
Life had been difficult for my Zayde. His first wife died giving birth to my father Joseph. When she died, she also left a beautiful red haired five-year-old daughter Becky. Zayde could not raise two young children alone, so shortly after his beloved wife died, he remarried as he needed someone to take care of the children. His new wife was cruel to the children, and he divorced her. He remarried a third time to a woman who raised the children as her own.
When Becky was twenty years old, Zayde brought Becky to America. He arranged with a matchmaker to get her a husband, and then returned to Europe. Soon after, when my father was fifteen years old, Zayde sent him to America to live with Becky and her husband Louis. My father worked in the garment district as a tailor and married my mother Ethel.
In 1921, the war had ended in Europe, and the Germans had ravished the village of Ragola in Lithuania. Zayde wanted to leave to come to America to be with his grown children, and he begged his third wife to leave. She didn’t want to go, so Zayde came to America alone. He sent money to her for the rest of his life but could never persuade her to come to New York.
When Zayde arrived in New York, my parents, my brother and I were living in a crowded three-room apartment that shared a bathroom with four people in the next apartment. Soon Zayde began giving Hebrew lessons, and he was able to contribute to the household.
Despite the further crowding, I loved having my Zayde living with us. As soon as Zayde arrived, Zayde and I became very close. He adored me, and I loved him. He kept telling me that I reminded him of his first wife, the love of his life.
Zayde soon found out what the rest of the family knew: Becky’s marriage wasn’t a happy one. Becky had had several miscarriages, but she and her husband Louis never had any children. Louis blamed Becky and treated her terribly. Louis was also a show-off. They had a nice apartment and dressed nicely, but he never gave Becky enough money for food. He said, “The stomach has no windows. No one can tell you what you eat.”
Zayde and my parents felt very sorry for Becky. Besides having no children and a bad marriage, Becky felt guilty that her husband would not let Zayde live with them, even though they had a larger apartment than my parents did. Louis was so selfish that he would not even allow Becky to have her father over for dinner. Becky’s only option was to visit us to see her father.
When I was eight years old, Zayde took me to the Bowery Saving Bank and opened a trust fund for me with $700 he had saved for this purpose. He told me, “A girl has to have a dowry.” Here was an immigrant who could not speak English but was very smart.
Four years later, in 1929, my Zayde died. I was devastated, and I couldn’t stop crying. My Auth Beau, my mother’s sister, set me straight. “I know how much you loved your grandfather. However, he was an old man and very sick. He was very frail and almost blind. Your mother had to take care of him around the clock. It was a blessing for him and your mother that he passed away.” I accepted his death but never forgot how good he was to me, his shayna maidelah (beautiful girl).
After Zayde passed away, my mother and father kept in touch with Becky and continued to invite her to our home. My mother tried to send me to visit Becky while Louis was not home, but he caught me just as I was leaving, yelled loudly for me to get out, and I never went back to my aunt’s apartment again.
When I was married in 1940, I took $500 out of the trust fund my Zayde had established for me and purchased furniture for our first apartment, including a maple bedroom set and maple furniture for our living and dining rooms. A few years later, the remaining money was used as the down payment on our first house.
My Zayde’s legacy lives on through his great grand children. All of the children have at least one of the pieces of furniture we purchased with my Zayde’s trust fund in their home. The maple bedroom set, which moved with us our entire marriage, eventually settled in our bedroom in our cottage in Lake Champlain. My son Jay and his wife Leslie, who purchased the cottage in 2000, now have the set. Marilyn and Larry have a table and a bookcase in their home in Florida.
And Becky? Louis died two years before Becky. It was at that time it was found that he had a condition that had prevented him from ever having children. After all those years of abusing my poor aunt, he was the one who was to blame. Two years later, my aunt died of cancer, and problems created by the multiple miscarriages. My only regret is that I did not spend more time with Becky.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York, in the August 22, 2019, issue.