She did everything that was expected of her. Her hair was always perfect. Her clothes were always impeccably arranged, colorful and fashionable. She raised her family and worked to provide for them.
My Grandmother was a woman who had the biggest impact with the smallest amount of words. The small bits of information she gave me about her childhood conjured up the most vivid pictures of her childhood in Russia.
She loved lilacs. She always told me how she loved to ride in her father’s horse drawn wagon and passing under the lilacs. He was the village baker and her mother was a beautiful singer. That is all she told me. I can imagine the rest from what I have learned in my life. So I will start here with the wagon gently swaying in the warm sun. The sky was brilliantly blue in 1915. The fragrance of lilacs mixed with the aroma of warm fresh baked bread as they delivered the bread to the village. My Grandmother sat proudly next to her father. He was a handsome man with blonde hair and blue green eyes. Her father, Avi, was the village baker and he married Hannah, the beautiful village singer. They were blessed with 5 beautiful, boisterous children one after another. Hannah was always singing as she did her daily work. Her long black curly hair seemed to dance as she moved about. In the evening, after dinner was eaten, Avi would join in with his violin. The children would dance and often times some other musicians would wander in with more violins, perhaps an accordion, a cymbalum or a double bass. Friday was the sweetest day. Hannah would prepare for the Sabbath. A big iron pot would be placed on the hot coals to slow cook their meal for Saturday as the Sabbath was dedicated to studying the Torah and special time spent with their parents, cousins, aunts, uncles and other friends from the village. The older children would play with the younger ones while the grownups prayed. In the evening, there was wondrous music in the village square.
And then the enchantment ended. It was then that she began to hold her breath and the beginning of her 82 years of brave silence. One night, the thundering of horses announced the arrival of the Russian soldiers and the Pogrom. They pounded on the door. Hannah looked at Avi with fear and horror in her eyes. They knew they would never see each other again, as was customary when their kind was taken into the Russian army. The soldiers gave Avi a few moments to leave his family with desperate last kisses and a few hurried hugs. Then he was gone forever. The family listened, frozen with shock as the thundering of the horses disappeared in the distance to leave a thick and suffocating silence.
The Pogrom brought the soldiers back the next day. Again they were given a few moments to gather what they could and then they were herded to the prison camp. They left behind their treasures: beautiful clothes Hannah had sewn for the children, family heirlooms carefully passed down for hundreds of years, treasured books, the furniture Avi had made as he shaped his dreams, the ovens he had built for baking, his violin, generations of life and love - abandoned, trampled, burned, pilfered and scattered. My Great-grandmother walked with her 5 children in the ever growing line of prisoners bound for the camp. She carrying the baby and sometimes the next littlest. The others clinging to her skirts in silence. They seemed to understand somehow. My Grandmother was 5 and the oldest of her 4 brothers and sisters. The only thing she ever told me about the prison camp was that she remembered the bugs, the cold, the hunger and sleeping on the ground next to her mother.... her beautiful mother, the village singer. She told me only once because I asked. She was a woman that had the biggest impact with smallest amount of words.
Later I was told that my Grandmother watched as her mother, brothers and sisters all died of Typhoid fever in the camp. Perhaps one sister lived. No one knows. Then somehow she was placed in an orphanage when she was 8. I was also told, the only comment she ever made about the orphanage was that she was cold and hungry all the time. She never spoke of any of it to me except to mention the “beautiful lilacs”, riding in the wagon with her father and her mother being the “beautiful village singer”. Then she went on to tell me that “Riverdance” was the most beautiful show she ever saw.
She was well into her 80’s when I finally grew to completely love and admire her. As I went through my own life, I was able to forgive her for the things I was never able to understand about her. It was then that I realized how amazing she was. Her life had become better since her husband died. She was more her self. I could talk about anything with her. I mean anything. She told me, “it’s never too late to change and learn new things.”
When she was 13, some other aunts and uncles who had survived the wars and escaped to America, came back to the village to search for any survivors of their large family. My Grandmother was the only one they could find. They gave her money and brought her to America. She married when she was 18 and raised a family of her own. She did everything that was expected of her through thick and more times thin.
My connection to her has continued to grow even in her absence from this world. Now I know what it is to walk through the gates of hell and somehow be spit out to live as best I can. I live with some part of me always silent, keeping the murderous rage to which there can never be a relief, in check. I understand a longing that can never be resolved in this world. I know how to live with this sort of post traumatic stress syndrome buried in me. I hold my breath. I do what is expected of me.
I can also understand her strength of spirit to find joy in the smallest of things. She taught me how to find happiness in whatever I could find even if it is just a pretty blue dragonfly or lilacs. She loved hummingbirds and collected them and so do I.
My Great Grandmother again reemerged in me. People smile, cry and stand when they applaud my performances. Music is a torturous ecstasy I have not yet learned to live with.
I will take you back now, to Maryland and the end of my Grandmother’s life. At one point, all the grandchildren, along with my mother and father helped my Grandmother move from the apartment she had lived in for more than 30 years. The neighborhood had long since become too dangerous and she was mugged in broad daylight. She had adamantly and stubbornly insisted on staying a little too long. She was not one to argue with. She was finally convinced to move into a beautiful apartment in my Mother’s building with a great view. The apartment was decorated with all her favorite things perfectly arranged. I remember how my younger brother poured his heart into the project making sure that the curtains, rugs, lighting and paint was just as it should be.
We were all glad to see her make fast friends and become an integral part of her new community there. She hung with her “gang”, consisting of diverse ethnic groups and cultures. They traveled together, ate together, traded recipes and worried together over each other’s medical appointments and set backs that they, the elderly, had in common. My Grandmother seemed very happy. When I visited, I would find her line dancing in front of the TV.
After a few years, my mother moved to the other side of the country. Some time later, my Grandmother’s health began to rapidly decline to where she could no longer live alone. This period of dependence was thankfully brief as my Grandmother was so fiercely independent. It was more like a lovely visit. For reasons I won’t mention here, the piece of happiness my Grandmother knew in her “new” apartment ended abruptly with my mother traveling back to hurriedly move her by plane to my mother’s home. My Grandmother was well aquainted with hasty departures. She knew how to leave all her dreams and a lifetime of carefully collected possessions behind in a moments time. She took a couple suitcases with a few small keepsakes stuffed in between her favorite clothes. As they closed the door on her little paradise, she turned and said,’It was beautiful, wasn’t it.”
During the time my Grandmother lived in New Mexico, she again found happiness in the smallest of things. I was able to spend time with her along with my two year old daughter. We planted lilacs, put up hummingbird feeders and marveled at the hot air balloons sailing across the Rio Grande during the balloon festival. We captured the most amazing pictures of our 4 generations of women. It was sometime during this period that I very carefully and hesitantly asked her tell me a little about her life. This is how I came to possess the small bits I cling to.
Finally she was moved to a hospice. Her time there was very brief. I spoke to her on the phone. She told me that she was tired and had lived enough. She didn’t want to be a burden on anyone. She said goodbye and that she loved me.
My Mother said that my Grandmother was hallucinating in her last hours. She told me that my Grandmother happily said, “My brothers, my sisters,” as if she saw them. I don’t think she was hallucinating. It was just as if she held her breath for 82 years.