I’ve been rummaging around in old photographs again, and recently came across this one, taken in the house in Montclair, New Jersey. I’m guessing it’s around 1966. My mother is standing with her back to the camera. The woman on the far right is her younger sister Linda. To Linda’s left, in apron, is Big Grandma, my mother’s mother. The tiny woman on the opposite side of the counter, with her hand on her chin, is my father’s mother, Little Grandma – after whom my novel, Little Grandma’s Mirror, is named.
Studying this picture, I got to thinking about what was going on in my mind more than a decade ago, when I started writing the book. The idea at the time was to tell the stories behind the different heirlooms I’d inherited from my parents and grandparents. I could have started anywhere. So why did I begin with this relic from my father’s mother’s apartment? Why, for example, didn’t I start with something from my mother’s mother? Her life was so much more high-profile. Which I guess is the point.
Both my parents grew up in Elizabeth, and their mothers (both widows for as long as I could remember) still lived there. Little Grandma lived in an apartment building with a buzzer that let you in the front door and an elevator that carried you upstairs to a hallway that in my memory always smelled of boiled chicken and onions. There wasn’t much to do when we visited her. We could gaze at her Chinese sculpture of a dog with scary teeth and eat the ice milk she sometimes served. She and my father exchanged news about family members we didn’t know. Sometimes they talked politics. Once, when Nixon was on TV, she famously said, “Give me a gun and I’ll go down there and shoot him. I’m an old lady. What can they do to me?”
Big Grandma still lived on Harding Road, in the same house she and my grandfather bought in the early 1930s, when it was just built – one of the first houses in new neighborhood. On one of the front windows you could still see the crude self-portrait our mother had scratched into the glass with a pair of scissors. Across the street was an elementary school with a basketball court. Walk down the sidewalk and you’d come to a hitching post shaped like a horse’s head. If you went into the broom closet you could find the cart of wooden building blocks our mother and her sisters had played with. The piney built-ins beside the fireplace housed a treasury of albums filled with photos our grandfather had taken — and developed — of his daughters. In the summer we sat on the screened-in front porch. Decades before it became a national obsession, the summer drink of choice on Harding Road was iced coffee. I was too young to drink it, but thrilled at the sight of the white milk bouncing and swirling through the brown liquid as it cascaded over the ice cubes.
The conversation at Big Grandma’s house often revolved around her most recent or forthcoming trip to Israel or the Soviet Union or somewhere in the United States as a fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal. Unlike Little Grandma, who seemed to rarely leave her apartment or to know many people outside the family, Big Grandma had friends whose names were in headlines and gave speeches that stirred people to give generously. Her shelves were stuffed with books on Jewish and Israeli history and politics, and her walls were covered with plaques acknowledging her service and framed photos of her with people like Golda Meir and Ben Gurion.
Big Grandma’s parents and three oldest siblings emigrated to the U.S. from Russia, but she and eight more children were born here – Big Grandma around the same year that Little Grandma came to this country, at the age of 15.
Once, when I was in high school, my mother suggested I interview Little Grandma. “Someone should get her story on tape,” she said, “Before it’s too late. She has a real story to tell.” But I was a little bit afraid of my grandmother, and shy about approaching her. And anyway, I wasn’t all that interested.
Little Grandma died in 1976, the summer after my first year in college. It wasn’t until much later, though, that I realized how little I knew about her, and recognized the opportunity I’d missed.
What I do know is that she was born in Zbarazh, Galicia, in either 1892 or 1894, depending on whose version you believe. In Zbarazh there was a grandmother who “cried so much she went blind,” and perhaps a stepmother. The name on her immigration papers was Goldie Schacter. Schacter was her mother’s name. Her father’s name, Mestel, didn’t appear on her papers because her parents had never had a state-sanctioned wedding. After she arrived in the States she lived on the Lower East Side with friends from back home. They were very good to her, letting her sleep on two chairs pushed together, and giving her a pair of shoes for her birthday. She worked in the Garment District, sewing lace trim on women’s underwear. During the course of a strike she got into a tussle and was arrested for kicking a cop.
My father’s father was also from Zbarazh. He ran a window-washing business in Jersey City, I think with his brother. At some point he moved to Elizabeth and started a company of his own. I think.
There were tragedies in her life. She had family members who didn’t make it to America, including a brother who got turned back at the border because of an eye disease. He and his family all perished in the Holocaust, except for one cousin who jumped off the train, hid in the forest, and eventually made his way to Canada. In the middle of the war years, my father’s father died of cancer. And there was another tragedy, which no one ever talked about. I learned the story from my mother. We were standing in the pantry, folding laundry warm from the dryer. From the way she told me, one on one and in a whisper, and because I’d never heard the story before, I concluded it was clandestine information, and never asked any more about it.
The shadow Big Grandma cast over Little Grandma made me want to give Little Grandma her due. And knowing so little about her story freed me to invent my own.