What Papa Told Me” is about my maternal grandfather, and earlier this year I published a book called “A Father’s Advice,” which is a letter written by my paternal grandfather to my dad. So I was excited to have the opportunity to write about my grandmothers. I actually had three. A step-grandmother, who was every bit my grandmother, I featured in a blog years ago, so I was happy to write about my other two grandmothers. The chapters from the book are below.
Wishing a happy Grandparents Day to all the grandparents out there, and to all the grandkids who bring smiles to their grandparents’ faces.
1. NANA BEACH
My paternal grandmother lived in a 13-room house on Nantasket Beach, just south of Boston. Because of this, my cousins and I called her Nana Beach. Nana Beach was tall, slender, with long fingers that always had a cigarette tucked between two of them. Her nails were long too, and peach color, and matched her toes. Summer months she lived in a bathing suit and even at sixty, with a full head of white hair, she watched her “figure.”
Nana Beach made us popsicles in the shape of cones, which we’d lick on the wrap-around porch watching waves crash onto the shore. We swam in the ocean and searched for clamshells for Nana Beach to use as ashtrays. At dusk, hose in one hand, cigarette in another, Nana Beach rinsed us off, then, placing the cigarette between her lips and tilting her face away so the smoke wouldn’t get in our eyes, she’d wrap us in towels that said Holiday Inn on them.
Days were spent sitting on the seashore listening to Nana Beach regale us with tales from “the day one.” Tales about growing up in the 1920s as the youngest of four daughters. She was born and raised in Boston and lived in the area until she and my grandfather hopped on the retired train to Florida. At one point she worked three jobs—salesgirl at Jordan Marsh, secretary to a police chief, and hot dog seller at night—to put her four children through college.
I was eight when my grandfather died. Nana Beach sold her house and spent summers with our family on Cape Cod. She taught me to play Rummy Q and we played for hours on the deck, flicking away gypsy moths that dropped onto our heads. During those summers I went to camp and missed Nana terribly. She encouraged me to write letters, which she kept in a white three-ring binder.
Nana Beach knit rugs for my dollhouse and crocheted dozens of yarmulkes for my bat mitzvah. Over the years she knit sweaters for me and in return I painted fish on her white slip-on sneakers, which she wore until the soles ran out and I’d paint another pair.
From college until my late thirties, I spent a week every winter with her in Florida. Mornings began with homemade waffles, then Rummy Q until her friends “The Girls” called, asking of our plans. At noon we’d head to the pool. I loved listening to Nana and the Girls give practical advice like using body aches to figure the weather. Afternoons we’d venture to a flea market where Nana taught me how to haggle and when to walk away.
After dinner we watched Jeopardy and Wheel-of-fortune, her “programs,” while Nana knit afghans or booties for the newest great-grandchild, me by her side, untangling yarn and rolling it into balls. Many evenings were spent rummaging through a closet, a treasure trove from every decade of her life filled with silver thimbles, yellowed greeting cards, and wire-rimmed eyeglasses that were my grandfather’s. But as much as she had (and she had a lot) everything had a home, either inside a box, a coffee can or a suitcase.
I learned from Nana Beach that every sock should have a mate, that Tupperware should be stored in stacks, and that “like things” fit better together. My home now reflects her same discipline of organization. It’s no surprise I became a professional organizer.
When Nana Beach moved into an assisted living facility, her entire collection of stuff was whittled into four drawers. On every visit, I arrived with a strawberry milkshake which she’d eagerly accept and as she sipped, I removed the contents of those drawers, mostly sweatpants and sweaters, and ask, “Still wear this, Nana?” She’d respond with a nod or a shake, her mouth occupied by the thirsty straw. Once done, I put the “like things” away, bagging the rest for donation. Then I sat on her bed and showed her copies of my latest publications, which she’d add to that same white binder. She’d ask who I was dating, what books I was reading and if I was happy. Whenever a nurse entered Nana Beach would say, “This is my granddaughter, she’s a writer, read this,” and shove the binder at them.
When Nana Beach died peacefully in her sleep at age 90, the family gathered to sit Shiva. In her honor we played Rummy Q. My aunt told me Nana’s belongings were downstairs and I followed her to the basement. On an old ping-pong table was a cardboard box the size of a toaster. Inside were pictures of her four children, 11 grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren. There was a clown doll, an empty jewelry box, a purple sweatshirt, and a worn three-ring binder. I reached for the binder, lips quivering, and leafed through the plastic protective sheets, reading everything I had ever written, from my childhood letters to my opinion columns in a New York City newspaper.
“Nana was your biggest fan,” my aunt said.
I wasn’t surprised, not really. The feeling was mutual.
Fela was a mystery, a woman in the photos Though there aren’t many She is smiling in them But something is missing You can see it in her eyes Emptiness, sadness They don’t glow like a woman in love Like a mother of three In their absence are memories, haunts, fears All I know of her is that she was my mother’s mother My maternal grandmother And her name Fela It means lucky, which she was Kind of Fela was once a singer But never nana or grandma or granny She never made it that far She died two years before her first grandchild arrived In truth, she died before that Way before She died over and over and over In the ghetto, the camps, the March They took her youth, her hope, and her voice A voice like an angel She had dreamed of becoming a singer But that dream was taken, broken, shattered She came to America for freedom But could not forget the past Could not shake the images, the guilt, the burden She tried, she worked, she birthed But the memories remained She had therapy, shock treatments Nothing worked On a sunny spring day, she cleaned the house Cooked supper and washed laundry Then took out a rope She tied one end to her son’s chin-up bar The other end she placed around vocal chords that once sung sweetly And stepped onto a chair And looked around at her home At pictures of her beautiful family Perhaps she blew them a kiss Perhaps she prayed Perhaps she did none of that Before stepping off And away To somewhere else Five years later they gave her name away Gave it to her granddaughter Felice they called her, happy it means Something Fela had once been Long, long ago
My maternal grandmother, Fela, was born in 1924 in Lodz, Poland, the youngest of eleven children. At sixteen, the Nazis turned her hometown into a ghetto. Barricaded inside the walls of her once beautiful town, she watched her father die from starvation, saw her mother and siblings beaten and taken away. One day as she hid in a room with her oldest sister and the sister’s twin boys, toddlers, two Nazis stormed in. They grabbed Fela’s sister and dragged her away, leaving Fela with the boys who were crying for their mother. The sister screamed, “Take care of my boys! Promise nothing should happen to them!” In that melee, my grandmother promised.
The next day the Nazis returned. They wanted the boys. My grandmother, weak and emaciated, tried to stop the men, but she was no match. She was left feeling guilty for not saving them. But what could she have done?
The Nazis returned one more time. They took my grandmother to Auschwitz. There she learned the fate of her nephews, for in Auschwitz they tortured little kids, split them apart in tugs-of-war, tossed them into pits of fire, and smashed them against walls. My grandmother’s guilt grew, but she realized the only way to survive was to put that guilt in the back of her mind. And somehow she survived that hell and the Death March to Bergen Belsen and liberation. In the Displaced Persons camp she met my grandfather. As they recovered, they planned a life together. Once healthy, they married, had a little girl, my mother, and started a new life.
A few years later someone threw a rock and broke their window, glass shattering to the floor. They feared what had happened would happen again. They didn’t want to chance it and applied for visas to America.
In New York City they settled in Brooklyn and got jobs. Their hard work paid off and in time bought their own grocery store. Two more children would come, both boys. Years later, Fela would get a visitor, her oldest sister. The sister had survived, had gone to Paris. During that visit the sister asked, “Why didn’t you save my boys?” In that split second, the guilt my grandmother had stuck in the back of her mind came rushing back. Fela was never the same. The guilt, the memories, it was too much. Therapy didn’t help. Shock treatments didn’t work. Only one thing would stop the depression.
Exactly twenty years after surviving the Holocaust, my grandmother took her own life; it was her only way out. She left behind a husband, and three children ages eighteen, twelve and six. A few years later a little girl would be born, a third generation, and they would give her Fela’s name: Felice, which means happy. And this little girl would grow up happy thanks to a woman she would never meet, a woman who survived incredible odds, who herself was once happy.