Before I gave Gladys and Erv Pfau their first grandchild, of unknown sex (I was 32 years old, had been married to their oldest son for 11 years but was too young to have amniocentesis, so we didn’t know if we were having a boy or girl until the moment of delivery), they gave the baby a first present: a copy of the classic Boston-based children’s book “Make Way for Ducklings”. Gladys inscribed it: “To our darling grandchild, we love you already, Grandma and Grandpa”. And that about summed it up.
Gladys and Erv had five children of their own. We married early, right out of Brandeis. I became a regular at the Sunday night dinner table my senior year and they were welcoming people. We waited a long time before having our first child and they were thrilled to become grandparents. Business took them away from Boston, first to New Orleans, but by the time David was born, they lived in Hamilton, NY, a five hour drive away. We lived in a condo in Boston’s Back Bay. They stayed with us for the first days after David was born. Gladys was enormously helpful, cooking, doing laundry, helping Dan make the bris.
Erv couldn’t wait to get his hands on that child. As the father of the first-born son, it was his privilege to hold the baby during the bris. After, he was heard to exclaim, “Can’t wait for the bar mitvah“. I was stunned, since neither of his own sons had gone through that ritual. Gladie worked her butt off in those first days. My own mother was useless; flitted into the kitchen as we prepared for guests to show off what she wore. She was perturbed that I wasn’t more engaged. “I think you love Gladys more than you love me”, she pronounced. “Gladys is nicer to me”, I retorted.
We visited Gladie and Erv as often as we could and vice versa. They were from Boston and still had many friends here. This was really home, and we all enjoyed each others’ company. Gladie always said she wasn’t the kind of person who would go “goo goo” over babies. Perhaps not others, but she really enjoyed her own grandchildren. And Erv loved to play with them. We visited, in each direction, often. The kids grew up knowing this set of grandparents.
They lived on a good-sized piece of land outside of town and Erv pulled David around in a wagon when we visited. There were trips into Syracuse to the Carousel Mall so he could ride on the carousel. We moved out of the Back Bay the following year, out to a large house in Newton with its own guest suite. They were comfortable there and could stay for extended visits.
Gladys came in to help out when Jeffrey was born in 1989. Good thing she got a ride from a friend and arrived a day before my due date. By this point I was 36, he was the second grandchild, we knew he would be a boy, so there would be a bris and he arrived ON his due date! She was there to stay with David, as we had to run off to the hospital (Jeffrey arrived 45 minutes after we got there) and I was home very quickly. My father, waiting in Cincinnati, had an “episode” (perhaps a minor stroke) and was hospitalized, so didn’t make it in for the bris. Holding-the-baby duties again went to Erv, who was more than happy to oblige. Gladys and Dan again put the party together and we all went about our business, with enormous support from these grandparents.
One spring, Dan decided we should have a swing set in our side yard and ordered the materials. He and Erv built the set themselves. Erv was happy to be busy during that visit and was always deliberate and careful with his tasks. He had loads of patience for doing things. Not always for dealing with fussy children, but definitely with inanimate things. He liked to tease the kids, which, particularly with my sensitive two, was not always appreciated. He was a pure scientist and the kids loved to talk with him about that as they grew older. Gladys was always up on books, politics, movies, what was current. She wanted to know what each was doing and would really talk to them, person to person. Erv had the patience to play games with them.
Here is the whole family, gathered in the living room in Hamilton. By this point, Liz, the oldest of Dan’s three sisters, had a son also, slightly younger than Jeffrey. Eventually there would be six grandchildren in all. Liz would have another son and Carol, in green sitting next to me, would have two of her own. At various times she would live with her parents, and then just with her mother, after her father died, so her children were the closest to their grandparents.
Erv was the master pumpkin carver, turkey carver, animal handler. He was a biologist by training, though had gone back and gotten a masters in Computer Science and changed careers from working with animals in a lab situation to working at universities in academic computing. I learned to carve pumpkins from him and took over when he couldn’t come in for Halloween. Gladys was a good cook. She used to say she could have made something of me if she’d only had the chance, but they moved away when we’d only been married a few years. I always make all her Thanksgiving recipes from her handwritten instructions – I treasure them – and learned to mash potatoes from her and my father, the two adults I was closest to in my life.
I stopped working while pregnant with Jeffrey and Dan had several weeks vacation time. I could take the kids on my own to visit my own relatives in the Midwest. Long weekends and holidays were usually spent with these grandparents, gathered around the holiday table, watching the 4th of July parade go through the main street in Hamilton, NY, sledding down the hill at Colgate (the university where Erv worked), chasing fire flies on their property at night. Erv even tapped a few maple trees and boiled down the sap to make his syrup. The kids watched in awe.
After he retired, they moved to Marco Island, FL to a home with its own pool. Though we could go to the beach, the kids loved to jump into the pool with their grandfather. Gladys was a big reader. She had been a speech and reading teacher her whole life and always talked to the kids about their studies and what they were reading. This worked with David, not so much with Jeffrey, who had some issues as a child. He tried their patience, but he loved his grandparents.
We began renting on Martha’s Vineyard when David was 8 and Jeffrey was 4. We would go for the last two weeks of August and Gladys and Erv always came with us. It was the perfect family holiday, spent on the beach, biking, around the kitchen table, occasionally venturing out for some family-style Italian cooking. If I got the kids ready for bed, the grandparents would watch them and Dan and I could see a movie or get together with friends. Gladys and I finally got together in the kitchen, Erv took the kids to the empty lot at the high school and shot off rockets, which they loved. It was wonderful time together. 22 years ago, we purchased our own home there. Gladie and Erv still came for those last two weeks, which always included David’s birthday, when we’d go out for a lovely meal at a nice restaurant. The boys were now old enough to behave themselves and enjoy a good meal. It was wonderful to have two whole weeks with the grandparents, who would often come back to our Newton home with us and stay even longer. Sometimes they’d stay on the Vineyard and entertain their friends in our home. This was what family should be.
Occasionally, they babysat the kids so we could go on special vacations. Erv did all the school pick-ups, Gladys did all the domestic chores. They were exhausted by the time we came home, but it further bonded the children with their grandparents.
18 years ago, Erv was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was operated on and had one decent year. The second year was a struggle, but he survived long enough for them to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary on Christmas Day. The family assembled and we held a party at their house in Florida. Gladie wanted a family portrait.
He slipped away two days after Dan turned 50 in May, 2001. The kids were devastated. This was their first close loss, as they had been very young when my father died. We brought Erv home for burial in Boston and held the shiva at our home, just as years earlier we held Gladie’s 65th birthday party here. We had the large home, could put everyone up and all their friends were here anyway. The children didn’t quite know how to grieve. Their grandfather was irreplaceable.
Yet Gladys carried on. She downsized to an apartment in Florida, and eventually moved to Overland Park, KS, where she already had one daughter and grandchildren. Another daughter and two grandchildren moved with her and they became a family unit, living together. We visited when we could. She still came in when she could and often to Martha’s Vineyard, though at some point, that trip became too much for her.
In 2007, she traveled with us to to Palo Alto, CA to see David graduate from Stanford. She was as proud as anyone that her first-born grandchild graduated from such a prestigious university. Here she is at dinner with my sons the night before David’s graduation.
David went off to Columbia for a PhD in computational neuroscience. Jeffrey began his studies in computer science at Brown University. Neither of the kids were great communicators. They didn’t talk on the phone at length, so didn’t engage with their grandmother unless they were with her in person. Given Jeffrey’s high-functioning autism, he was even less likely to engage. Summers for him were now spent in Silicon Valley at summer internships, so there was little time on Martha’s Vineyard and Gladys no longer made the trip.
She had been an avid walker her whole life, but now found herself winded. She was slowing down. But when Jeffrey graduated from Brown, she made the trip to see him in cap and gown and get that diploma we had all worked so hard for. We arranged special entrance, as she couldn’t walk far, and sat a long time, waiting for Commencement to start, but oh was it worth it! None of us would have missed that day.
As she and Dan walked back to the car at the end of that day, she confessed she didn’t feel well. That was the last time she flew to Boston. She was diagnosed with non-Hodgskin’s lymphoma and began chemo. She also had an underlying, long-term type of blood cancer which lay dormant for quite a while.
After this, we made sure we all visited the family for the next two Thanksgivings. There is always chaos when so many Pfaus are together. My kids tend to retreat, as they don’t mix well with chaos, but they loved and respected their grandmother, who would still make sure she took time to check in with each and see what and how they were doing. She came through the chemo, regained some strength, but was thin and frail and kept getting sick with other ailments. Eventually it became clear that the underlying cancer had morphed into leukemia and she was too weak to fight it. Dan and I flew in and arrived the night before she passed in 2014. Though very weak, she was lucid and spoke to each of us. When it was my turn, she said, “You know, you are not my daughter-in-law, you are my fourth daughter”. I had known her 41 years and felt the same about her.
David had just received his PhD and flew to Europe to celebrate, so could not be at her funeral. Jeffrey came in from California, where he now lived full-time. Gladys was clear. She didn’t want people to fuss over her or spend a lot of money. She didn’t even want people to travel (like us). Of course we overruled that desire. There was a nice service at her local temple. She had made plans for cremation, though her burial plot with Erv and her parents in Boston doesn’t take cremated remains. Dan had the headstone she desired made up and we did the unveiling the day after Thanksgiving, 2014. We had a small graveside service (and Dan tucked a small pouch of her ashes into the ground, rules be damned). Then our group; several grandchildren, a few children, a nephew who drove in for the day from Troy, NY, drove to Nantasket Beach, scene of many happy Pfau and Levine (Gladie’s maiden name) childhood summer days. It was a cold, blustery day, but we spread her ashes there, to the sand and the ocean, with her two oldest grandchildren in attendance, just as they had been for so many wonderful summers on Martha’s Vineyard. We think she would be pleased.
Both my children were home for Thanksgiving this year. Vicki (formerly Jeffrey) saw some photos of his grandparents on an electronic photo screen, lingered over than, sighed and said mournfully, “I can’t believe they are gone”.
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.