Maybe They Won’t Let Me Back In

Fanny immigrated two years after my grandfather. Her sons, my uncles Jack and Frank, were still toddlers; my aunt Bertha must have been about six. The Cossacks had, of course, been bribed, but those escaping knew that a stray bullet might find them. The story my mother told was that Fanny faced a Sophie’s choice during the escape: The snow was deep, and Bertha cried that she couldn’t walk anymore. But Fanny was carrying Jack and Frank and, the story goes, bullets were whizzing around her. What could she do? Suddenly, a man swept Bertha up and carried her to safety. So Fanny and her three children made the journey to America.

When I was very young, my mother told me that Fanny cheated death. Seems my grandmother had been so sick she was taken to the hospital and then seemed to die. Someone noticed her moving and called the doctor.

“Tell me,” he said. “What happened? We thought you were dead.”

My grandmother’s Yiddish-accented response was apparently indignant, not to mention incredulous. “Det? Dat’s not possible. I have seven children home. Who brink dem up? Who take care?”

The lesson my child mind took from this story wasn’t merely wonder at my grandmother’s strength, but certainty that she alone of all the people on earth could control her life. Indeed that she might decide never to die.

I found this certainty soothing as I shepherded her across Queens Boulevard as the cars whooshed past, so she could return home after her weekly visit to us on the other side of the wide street. One day, Fanny told me about the dancing school in Russia where my grandfather, Avram, taught. She puffed, seeming to stand even straighter than usual, as she described the classroom: Huge, with a shining wooden floor, and narrow slabs of wall alternating with floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

Fanny never explained why Avram didn’t dance in America. He became a harness-maker here, a business that morphed into automobile accessories. I’ve always thought my love of dance and my identification, especially, with Russian ballet and folk dance, came from him.

They were poor, but my grandfather began to do better. And then suddenly he was gone: a heart attack at age 49. Fanny was left alone to bring up the three children she’d brought with her and the four more born after the journey. 

My grandmother usually wore her silver hair in a tight upswept bun. It was long and luxurious and reached all the way down her back when it was loose. It caught the light and shimmered as she brushed it before she would chup a drimmel. She translated that from the Yiddish as “catching a dream.” She taught me how to do that. The trick is not to move when you lay down. If you just stay in that first position, you’ll doze for about 10 minutes and wake totally refreshed. 

I don’t think she knew any of her grandchildren’s names. She called every one of us Bubala. Yet she seemed to know what each of us liked and would pull that special thing out of the cupboard or the refrigerator. For me it was a glass of milk and a piece of her Passover honey cake. No one makes honey cake like that. I know, because I have searched for a substitute for years, yearning for my Proustian madeleine moment.

My grandmother died when I was 16. Beyond my grief was the disbelief. How could this happen? She had cheated death once, so how could she be gone?

I thought about how I had watched her crocheting—back straight, face serene, nothing moving except her hands. And out of the void would come a delicate doily, round and intricate and stunning. “Vatch, Bubala,” as she slowly wound the cream cord around her finger. “Vatch. I vill show you.” But then she couldn’t slow her fingers, her hands. There was the blur and there, emerging, the intricate doily. She tried three times, slowly winding the cord. Each time her hands would take over. The dazzle and the resulting delicate finished circle. So I never learned.

My grandmother was not particularly big, maybe 5′ or so, but she was formidable. My mother said the family would fall apart when she died, that she was the glue keeping us together. We were a large group: My mother and her four sisters and two brothers, with their husbands and wives and 21 first cousins. Every week we’d meet at one apartment or the other. We called it the Thimble Club, though no one sewed.

My mother was right. After Fanny died the gatherings tapered off.

Coming back from Paris recently, feeling the expected fierce fear, I suddenly thought about Fanny and about the time I asked her, “Haven’t you ever wanted to go back? Ever wanted to visit?”

“No, Bubala. You understand?  I vill never leave Amereeka.  Vonderful country. Dey let me in! Saved family. My life. If I go out, maybe vouldn’t let in again. I vould never take chance.”

So that was it: On the line before presenting my passport, I’m channeling my grandmother. Maybe “they” won’t let me into my own country. You never know. As the officer looks at me and at my passport, I always say:  “It’s so good to be home.” I wait for the usual smile, and I pass through and think of Fanny.

Leida Snow is an award winning journalist. She was Theater Critic for WINS-AM for 13 years and is writing a book about Broadway.