By Lynn Davidman
PROMPT — If only ...
GRANDMA AND GRANDPA/MY MOTHER’S DEATH
If only my mother had lived instead of dying when I was barely thirteen, my life would have been easier in so many ways. Instead, I was left with my older brother, Pinny, and my younger brother, Mark and a father who did not want to raises kids. That was supposed to be his wife’s job. He was so angry at the world because of the death of his beautiful young wife who was thirty-seven. He took his anger anger out on his kids; much of it was directed at Mark, to whom he was so mean and cruel. But he was angry at all of us. I remember one night at dinner he said, “I raised three children and none of youse (sic!) came out any good.
I know that Grandma and Grandpa, my mother’s parents, really saved me from anger and bitterness. Both of them were clearly there for me and showed they loved me very much. The first thing that comes to mind is how they used to come up to see me at Barnard when I was living in the dorm. Each time they came to 116th Street and Broadway, from their small apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, each carried two heavy shopping bags of food for me. The food, as their love, sustained me after my father had given me an ultimatum which led to my leaving his house, and being disowned and disinherited for the rest of his life.
Many years later, Grandma told me that my older brother Pinny had said to her that she should not bring food to me at my dorm. If she did not, then I might move back to the home of my father and two brothers. Grandma told me that she got very angry at him; she was rarely angry or fierce. She said to him, "Don't you ever talk to me about Lynn and food and tell me not to bring her food!” As she told me what she had said, I could still hear the anger in her voice.
My grandparents were not well-liked by my father. I could sense that readily as a kid. I have an image of a photo taken at Thanksgiving at their apartment. The whole family was assembled, my mother, the eldest and her husband, Sam and their children, my older brother, Pinny and my younger brother, Mark. Also attending were my mothers’ siblings, Uncles Morty and Alan with their respective wives, Aunt Shushy, Aunt Ricki, and their eldest kids, my first cousins. In the photograph, everyone is looking great, sitting around a large table that nearly filled the living room/dining room of their apartment, and my father was sitting alone and apart, in a wing-tip chair. He looked very uncomfortable: He was not smiling, and the feeling came through that he did not really want to be there.
As I got older, I recall my father telling me a story about Grandpa who had embarrassed my dad and his family. What did he do? He stumbled on the blessings said over the Torah during an aliya, the time when a man in the congregation gets “called up” to say the blessing. Grandpa did not pray; he was not a believer. As he told me later, he was a “deist,” like the founding fathers of America.
When my mom became seriously ill, my father asked Grandpa Jack to please pray for the health and survival of my mom. Grandpa refused, saying praying to God would not solve anything or help my mother become well. It infuriated my father who never forgave him.
I remember very clearly the evening my mother died. Grandma was at our home on Thornton Place in Forest Hills, Queens, New York. Grandpa was out doing deliveries on his truck for Danilow pastries and did not come back till the early morning hours. Grandpa Jack used to give us muffins from his bakery and dad thought they were unkosher.
My grandmother was sitting in a chair when my father came running down the stairs.
My grandparents were able to maintain a sense of love and warmth with me. I felt it all the time like a big hug. I stayed close to them until the end of their lives.
One time grandma told me a story of a conversation she had with my mother when she was ill. She told Grandma that she knew of a woman who knew she was going to die, and she asked her mother to please take care of her daughter. I find that an amazing story! I was not allowed to know precisely what was wrong with my mother. My mother and she stayed in bed all the time and it was hard for me to go into her room. In the mornings, Grandma would tell me to go in to say good morning to my mother and I remember feeling so uncomfortable. Ida, my therapist, for many years said, "It smelled of death in there." When she said that to me, it had the ring of truth. It was really a powerful moment.
Speaking now of therapy, and I know I am diverging from Grandma and Grandpa for a minute, I once had a therapist who got my attention when she told me that mothers are people who die. I had told her I didn't want kids. I guess I saw her in my thirties, so that would be a regular topic to talk about.
I remember when Ezra was at Columbia and I went to visit with Grandma and take her shopping, but Grandpa could not be left alone for any length of time, and so Ezra would come and hang out with Grandpa and I would take Grandma shopping.
We always got her outfits that were a little more expensive than if she had gone shopping alone. Also, I don't think she knew her way around very well and so she would not have gone into Manhattan by herself to shop. I remember it was fun to go and help her pick really high-quality things, because she would not have gotten them if I was not there to encourage her.
When Gradnma died, a part of me died, too. At her funeral, I spoke of her lovingly. “She became the mother I had lost and I became a substitute daughter for her.”
Lynn Davidman is a recently retired Professor of Sociology and Modern Jewish Studies. She is professor emeritus at the University of Kansas where she spent her last ten years, after teaching at Brown University for seven years. She is the author of the award-winning book Tradition in a Rootless World (University of California Press, 1990), Motherloss (University of California Press, 2000) and Becoming Un-Orthodox (Oxford University Press, 2015). She has published over two dozen articles in various media, and is currently working on her memoir, tentatively titled, Forged in Steel: Stories of Grit and Resilience. Lynn writes from Philadelphia PA.