I’ve been thinking about my grandparents lately. We have just celebrated the first of the Jewish holidays and my grandparents centered their lives around the Jewish calendar.
My grandmother’s father was a lumber salesman somewhere in Poland. All I know about him is that he gave her a pair of shiny blue opal earrings when she was a little girl. I remember seeing those earrings every time I saw my grandma. They are still in the family.
Unfortunately, when Grandma’s father was off selling lumber, her step-mother was abusing her, so she decided to go to America where her sister was already living. Like many Jewish immigrant women of the time, she was a seamstress.
Grandpa’s story was different. There was a famous pogrom in Kishinev, Bessarabia— a part of the Russian Empire — in 1905. Periodically, the locals would blame the Jews for something they didn’t do, and go on a murdering rampage. My grandpa hid in a hayloft so he wouldn’t get conscripted in the Tsar’s army. Fortunately, they didn’t find him. His father wasn’t so lucky. He hid too, but was killed by a pitchfork.
My grandfather knew it was time to go to Cleveland, Ohio, where relatives could take him in. He didn’t waste any time leaving Kishinev. Somehow he got to Belgium, and took the ship, called “The Hamburg.” I still have a record of that boat trip.
My grandparents met through friends, and got married when they were still young. They had five children in quick succession.
Although my grandparents immigrated in their teens, their English wasn’t always easy to understand. My mother often spoke to them in Yiddish, their native tongue. I always found their speech bewildering because I couldn’t really understand it. They both referred to our car as “the machine.”
My grandpa worked as a painter, and was a proud member of the Painter’s Union. Grandma and Grandpa never owned their own home or car. They did the best they could raising their family. They were proud that all their children became solid members of society.
We used to visit them every Sunday. Grandma used to always offer fruit carefully arranged on a plate. “Have an apple, orange or banana” she’d suggest.
I remember putting my arms around her soft ample waist, and giving her a kiss.
Gifts from my Grandparents
It liked it when Grandma reached into her black purse to get out a package of Dentyne gum. I liked to watch her carefully unwrap a single piece from the red and white wrapper before placing it in my little outstretched hand. I knew this was her way of telling me she loved me,
Grandpa was a proud man who stood up very straight. He was only about 5”3” tall, but his children treated him like he was a towering figure. They carefully listened to whatever Grandpa had to say. He loved to sing, and I can still hear his voice when I think about him.
He was more outgoing that my grandmother. He did an old Russian dance at one wedding —he crouched down in a sitting position and kicked his legs—signaling a playful side I’d never seen before. I remember my aunts and uncles excitedly gathering to watch “pa” dance with his older brother.
As a young man in Kishinev, my grandpa learned how to draw special stencils for walls of churches and buildings. He worked for the WPA (Works Progress Administration) during the Great Depression. He painted in gold leaf inside the downtown theaters in Cleveland, painting vines and leaves freehand on the walls surrounding the stage.
I learned to expect a special drawing every time we’d visit. It always featured one character with a long flowery vine like body. Every picture was a little different. Even though I was young, I knew Grandpa was sharing his greatest talent with me.
I was around 16 when both my grandparents passed away. First my grandma, then six months later my grandpa. I was surprised to see my mother cry at my grandparents’ funerals. She rarely shed tears in front of me.
The Best Gift
Now, I wish I could go back in time, and tell my grandparents I loved them and respected them.
Coming to the United States was the biggest gift my grandparents could’ve given me. It took courage to start a brand new life.
Sometimes at family dinners, my grandfather would state his importance, “if it wasn’t for me, none of you would be here now.” We’d all laugh, but the man knew what he was talking about.
I didn’t say it then, but I’m saying it now.
“Thank you Grandma and Grandpa,