Memories and Unanswered Questions

This has been an unsettling week for me. A number of years ago, my mother’s sister passed away, the last of the five siblings. This month, her children sold my aunt’s house and one of my cousins had the unenviable job of cleaning it out. In the garage she found a few boxes that had been moved there from our grandparents’ apartment over forty years ago when my grandmother died. It became a running joke that each summer my mother, her sister and sisters-in-law would say they were going to sort through things, and as each summer ended, the boxes remained untouched.

Untouched they are no longer. My cousin sent some of the contents to me including postcards exchanged when my grandparents were courting, photos that span decades and a meticulously kept address book.

All these things have thrown me for a loop. I was very close to my grandparents; to this day I can instantaneously recall their phone number. My grandmother died shortly after I graduated college and my grandfather a few years later, so they were an important and loving presence through my growing up years. Now, decades later, I am seeing them in ways I never did before.

In my mind’s eye my grandmother, in particular, had one occupation— waiting for me to come visit. I never thought of what she did when I wasn’t with her, unless it was to cook my favorite foods so that they would be on hand when needed.  In fact, I found it irritating that some of my cousins had the ridiculous idea that she loved them as much as she loved me. In the self-absorption of youth (that may have only ended this week) I didn’t really see a need for her to have an identity separate from me.

Both my maternal grandparents came to the United States from Europe before World War I. While my grandfather was escaping the draft of an army that despised Jews, my grandmother told me that she came on a trip and was trapped here by the war. (Surely, I now think, there was a lot more to that story. Religious Jewish girls did not generally cross the ocean by themselves on a lark.) By the time the conflict ended, they were married and building a life in their new country. Neither ever spoke (to me at least) about the families and lives they left behind.

I never thought of what it was like for them to marry without the presence of parents or siblings, or, a few decades later, what it meant to lose almost every family member in the Holocaust. The exception was one brother each that they managed to bring over as Hitler’s evil spread. I knew that I was named for a murdered sister, but only this week have I begun to think of the depth of pain that kept my grandmother from ever talking about the parents and six siblings, their spouses and children, that she never saw again or how my grandfather felt knowing he had left his parents and sister behind.

In those old albums and ancient address book now on my dining room table, I see names and faces I do not know. Who are these people who cared enough to send photos to my grandparents and about whom my grandparents cared enough  to label and preserve their pictures? I have had trouble concentrating this week as I Google names, look up the history of towns whose Jews were overwhelmingly massacred and try to picture a young couple on their own, learning a new language, building a life and maintaining a deep connection with their faith.  They became the grandparents I knew, whose bottomless love for God, for me, for the rest of their family and for the United States was the bedrock of my childhood.

32 thoughts on “Memories and Unanswered Questions”

  1. Susan, your post hit close to home for me. My father died 4 weeks ago. The hardest thing I’ve had to come to terms with is how final death is. For whatever reason, my father and I didn’t have a particularly close relationship. At times it was quite strained. I don’t think either of us liked where our relationship stood, but neither of us really knew how to repair it. Sadly, with his passing, wherever our relationship stood at the time of his death is where it will remain. No recourse. I too, had the task of going through his effects. In reading some of his notes, I discovered a side of my father I didn’t know he had (or he wouldn’t let me see). I was actually relieved to find that he had very good relationships with my nieces and nephews (I never married). I found pictures with his grandchildren where he has a huge smile and lots of hugs. I saw that my mother (who died from a car accident some 20 years ago) was the absolute love of his life. I would have been heartbroken if my relationship with him was all he had. Thankfully none of those pieces of his life had been digitized, for if they had, I doubt that I would have found them. I am reminded of the last scene in the movie ‘ A River Runs Through It’: We seldom know those who are closest to us. We often don’t know what part of ourselves to give, or more often than not, what we have to give is not wanted. It is those who we live with and should know, who elude us. But we can still love them completely without complete understanding.

    1. This is a difficult time you’re going through, James and I’m sorry for your loss. Your words are quite poignant and I wouldn’t be surprised if they serve as a wake-up call to some readers to try to improve relationships while we can. It is also a reminder how very multi-faceted we all are. Wishing you comfort.

  2. Susan Gilliland

    Awwww, Susan. I’m so sorry for you to have to find out these tragic events,. At the same time finding a piece of family history that connects you to such an important moment in your families history. I can only imagine your feeling of sorrow at this unexpected moment. We love you.

    1. Susan, I actually knew as much as I know now, I just didn’t think about it very much. I never asked probing questions and if given the chance again, I probably wouldn’t. It was an area of their lives my grandparents covered over. There were very rare hints like when my sister and I were once fighting and my grandmother said something to the effect of, “How can you fight with a sister? I only wish I had my sisters.”

  3. Rebitzen Lapin,
    I look forward to reading your columns every week. They are always educational or inspirational. This column was simply touching. It also resonates with my powerful emotions towards my own mother, who is a holocaust survivor. Growing up I also really only saw my mother as a patriotic American, incredibly loving and optimistic, passionate not to allow any of her 5 children to waste a moment of precious life. Only as an adult, after reading her memoirs (“Middle Andzia” by Anda Rosen) did I understand the horrors she went through, and how she lost so many that she loved. (She named each of her children after one of her beloved uncles).
    It certainly reminds us that we often have no idea of the entire world of nobility, love, and sometimes pain that can be hidden in an individual we think we know. Thank you.

    1. David, I don’t think we can ever understand the strength, faith and courage it took for survivors to make new lives for themselves. Some people, of course, weren’t able to live healthy lives but an absolutely staggering number did so. I love your closing sentence (before thank you:).

  4. I can only imagine their pain and yet their strength and resolve. Only 75 years ago! How could mankind be so vicious and demonic?

    1. Jackie, I wish people behaving viciously was only in the past. The veneer of civilization is very thin. Unfortunately, without strong forces pushing for good, I think that, to varying degrees, evil is the default position.

  5. Neweverymoment Deb
    Oh, Susan! So many of us have some experience somehow comparable to yours. Your model of somehow hanging loose with it all and gaining whatever blessings are there is so helpful. The Christian belief that we somehow survive “death” helps, and I think that there are parallel beliefs in some parts of Judaism. I, too, was fortunate enough to at least remember all four grandparents and was directly blessed by them in numerous ways. It is interesting to ponder how that contributes to one’s political persuasions in today’s chaotic world. I love French culture, but compare that to the English 99-year leases and other continuing traditions. You are a beautiful example of blending the old and the new with what is worthwhile.

    1. Deb, yes,Torah Judaism does have a belief that our souls survive when our bodies are gone and that there will be a resurrection of the dead at some future time. I too was extremely blessed to have four grandparents that I knew. Many of my friends had none as their parents were Holocaust survivors.

  6. Oh Susan, such a special musing. It seems 2019 has been a year of looking back for me also. I won’t bore you with my story but I’ve been looking at my maternal grandmother in a new light lately, due to circumstances in my life. It is good. My thinking and feelings toward her have changed and that’s a good thing. Blessings to you. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Lynn, we know so little of other people’s lives and struggles, even those to whom we feel so close. Hopefully, we can understand more as we mature, ven healing wounds from our childhood.

  7. I am a grandparent and this tender remembrance you share let’s me know I hold a special place in the hearts of my grown grands. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Marilyn, my paternal grandmother was a very different sort of woman. She was much more American having been raised here and she was busy with her own activities. I once “dropped in” on her without warning because I was in her neighborhood and while she was gracious, it was clear I was interrupting her. Though my mother’s mother was involved in a lot of charitable work, both institutional and personal, I never saw any of it or felt she didn’t have all the time in the world for me. I think/hope I fall somewhere in between for my grandchildren.

  8. Such a poignant story, Susan. You’ve put it so well…when we’re young it never occurs to us that others around us have a whole unknown world besides us! Sounds like you were a very loved granddaughter and to have had the fortune to have your grandparents such a huge part of your life was a blessing indeed.

    1. Absolutely, true, Kristin. I’ve been thinking how many people who choose to delay having children until an older age -and now we’re in the second generation of that – have made a choice that inevitably, for some of them, means not knowing grandparents.

  9. Your post rings true with me. I was extremely close to my maternal grandparents and their friends and think of them daily even though my garandfather passed away in 1990 at 91 and my grandmother in 2003 at 97. Sharing the holidays and summers are very fond memories for me. They used to take my parents, sister, and brother to Atlantic City many weekends. I can still recall my grandfather calling the ice cream man over on the beach who dressed in all white and carried an ice chest on his back. A fudgesickle cost .10 in 1968. My grandmother spoiled my cousins and us so at Christmas that to this day, I imagine us still in her basement ripping open our presents. My own mother gave me a beautiful holiday picture to hang in 1991 that says, “Memories are the best gift of all.” So true as we age and lose more and more loved ones…

    1. The memories are wonderful, Claire. I remember going on the subway with my grandfather when he took me to Brighton Beach.

  10. Susan. Sometimes I think losing a grandparent is harder than losing a parent. Parents are in the same general age grouping as their children but grandparents…..they’re from a “land far, far away” and from a different time and we want to know more. What I wouldn’t give to hear a recording of my grandparents talking about their history. I only knew my maternal grandmother. My mom’s dad passed when I was very little and I don’t remember him. I never met my dad’s parents and he hardly talked about them, only where they came from: France and Canada. Blessings on you and Rabbi Lapin.

    1. Brian, I don’t know about harder, but it certainly is different and since their lives were longer ago, they are shrouded more in mystery. I was fortunate to know all my grandparents and I don’t take that blessing for granted at all.

  11. When my parents passed I had a few boxes of their remaining artifacts. The address book, kept up so well by my mother. When I went into it it was sobering as every friend and relative in the book had passed away. There term dust to dust comes to mind. I still have it and can remember the times and faces from my childhood. As I age my family and friends pass. I can never bring myself to remove them from my book. As I may pass a name I recollect their face and life. With todays electronic data bases all this will be lost a we pass and children cannot get into locked out accounts.

    1. So true, John. I am grateful that I still have one aunt (my mother’s sister-in-law) and a cousin who I am hoping to show some pictures to as well as names in the address book and ask who some of the people I don’t recognize are. I don’t know what will be with electronic records. I know that my husband and I don’t have a stack of courting postcards to show our children. I imagine that neither of my grandparents had a phone where they lived and so postcards were a real method of communication – and the post office was reliable and inexpensive. The postage is 1 cent.

  12. This post made me cry Susan. They aren’t sad tears and yet they aren’t happy tears either. I am grateful your grandparents survived, sad that they experienced separation, sad that so many close to them were murdered, yet proud that your grandparents stayed true to their faith and passed it down to you. May Hashem honor them and bless their family.

    1. Carmine Pescatore

      Unfortunately people usually don’t date and name the people in their photo collection. The following generations have no idea who they are and their relationship to each other.

      1. Carmine, in my case, I have already found a distant cousin by doing a search for an unusual name that was on one of the pictures. Not all the pictures have names, but many do. We have figured out the relationship and I got quite a kick out of making the connection.

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