My mother’s mother, Grandma Rose, always looked old to me, even in the photo of her at my parents’ wedding. Barely 50, she looks to the side, in black Oxford shoes and a flowered dress, her thick, beautiful hair already gray, her back slightly bent from 40 years of sewing for a living. Yes, 40 out of her then 50 years, starting with hand hemming curtains on a farm near Lvov, in the shifting borders of Austria/Hungary, Poland, and Russia. At 12, she arrived in New York with her 8-year-old brother. She passed for 16 so she could work in a garment factory. She never saw the inside of a school room but had wanted to be a doctor.
On and off, Grandma Rose lived with us, sharing a room with me and creating some of my happiest memories. Under her house dress, she wore a corset that went from below her waist to her armpits. I wondered how she took a full breath. As a small child I often would wake with nightmares, but she would comfort me, my head placed upon her soft belly, and tell me to look out the window at the gentle motion of the trees until I could fall back to sleep. She made me beautiful clothes with bound buttonholes in the European style, which I marvel at now, even though I’d craved the store-bought items other girls had.
When I was 7 or 8, my job was to help Grandma Rose with communicating in English, which she spoke haltingly and wrote not at all. She would dictate letters with English interspersed with Yiddish, and I would write them in English. Grandma Rose was shy when she spoke English, but strong and expressive when she spoke Yiddish. Each week we would get the Yiddish newspaper delivered for Grandma Rose to read. When and how she learned to read I don’t really know, although later I was told that “a man came to the farm in Poland and taught the girls.”
Grandma Rose was an observant Jewish woman with a practical streak. She would ride in a car on the Sabbath but could not bring herself to ride on Yom Kippur, the holiest fast day. So by age 10, I would accompany her on the long walks to and from synagogue, and while I was flagging, she patiently put one foot in front of the other.
As she grew older, Grandma Rose spent winters in Florida, returning in the summer to a small apartment on Avenue X in Coney Island, where we would visit, walk the boardwalk, and swim. Any of her 11 siblings who were in the area—a truly colorful and eccentric bunch—would come by, and we would have a memorable time.
In my teens I began to appreciate Grandma Rose in a new way. While she thought it was a good thing for a woman to get married, she encouraged me to have a career, and even not to have children if I didn’t want them. She worked all her life, but wanted more than sewing for me. She didn’t live to see me enter college, but my mother said she would have been thrilled for me.
Grandma Rose began life in an eastern European village that had horses and buggies, and ended up in America, where she did live long enough to see Neil Armstrong land on the moon, staring at the scene on our black-and-write television, barely believing her eyes. She was a woman grounded in tradition who never stopped looking to the future.
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.