My grandmother loved one person in the world. Me. I never saw her truly smile at anyone else, although she had a keen sense of humor. But her response was always harsh laughter—a bark, or angry hoot. Me alone she tried to tempt with bakery rolls, jelly-filled doughnuts and other sweets my mother deplored. Then she would sip her boiling tea while I would ask, with a mouth full of sugar, what was it like when she was a girl.
“That’s over,” she would say.
“But tell me what you were like,” I insisted.
“The men were all afraid of me,” she replied.
I stopped chewing to stare.
My grandfather often boasted that my grandmother Sarah was the most exciting woman in their Russian village. He had to leave her and their first two children behind when he escaped a Cossack sweep for Jewish men and fled to the United States. After two years of painstaking tailoring, hunched in a dark shop, he sent for his family who had hidden in the dirt basement of a sympathetic peasant.
“Why were the men afraid of you?” I asked, although I knew that everyone was afraid of her. She was handsome in the regal, stoic American Indian style. Her black hair, tightly drawn back, seemed to sharpen and lift her high cheekbones, The caverns of her eyes were so deep I assumed a dark color although I never saw them unshadowed by their bony sockets.
“Fear or be feared,” she said and shrugged.
My bachelor uncles brought home their paychecks for her to deposit in accounts she kept for them. A multitalented, but nervous young man, Uncle Ari languished in the bookkeeping job that Grandma considered suitable. No one was certain whether Ari’s nervousness began when Grandma refused to let him play the piano because she had been given a violin by some debtor of my grandfather’s. When the other children’s piano teacher, recognizing Ari’s gift, offered to give him free lessons, she finally relented.
One morning he tried to push another boundary.
“Acting?” My grandmother squared off immediately. “You think acting is something to do?”
Uncle Ari peeled an orange at the kitchen sink. “I’ll have the lead in it —it’s a radio play.” He gestured toward the huge box nearly barring the way from the dining area of the kitchen to the hall. My grandmother sat open-mouthed before the webbed speaker during news broadcasts. My uncle said, “If there’s an earthquake in Japan, she has to know if any Jews were killed.” At night she riveted her shadowed eyes on my grandfather while he read the Daily Forward to her before dinner.
“A play,” my grandmother mimicked him. “A play is playing. So you want to play. So I’ll buy you a toy.” She barked a sound meant to be a laugh.
“The rehearsals are only at night,” my uncle said, still digging into the peel.
“So Borden needs a bookkeeper falling asleep?”
“I’ll be home late,” he said, and dropped the peeled orange into the garbage on his rush to the door.
“Throw away good food,” my grandmother shrieked after him. “Starve to death — then see how long you play.”
I flew after my uncle, catching him halfway through the door. He bent and squeezed a kiss against my forehead before stomping down the street. We wouldn’t eat together. No one in the family did. A terrible cook, Grandma put a chicken in a pot of boiling water on the back of the stove and it remained there until one or another member of the family claimed a bleached piece of meat and bowl of soup; usually after Grandma stalked to the stove to loudly inquire who had not yet eaten and did they think they could stay alive without a good hot meal?
I crept back to my grandmother who was singing to herself in the kitchen. Hearing me, she said, “Ninotchka —come —Grandma will peel you a nice orange.”
“No,” I said, trembling.
“An egg —a boiled egg and little toast. Come.”
She wiped her hands down the front of her apron. “O.K. —O.K. —but when you’re hungry don’t come to me.” The sockets gleamed like water in an underground pool. She grumbled about all our bony figures, but none was thinner than she.
I thrust my chin out—daring her. “Come, Ninotchka,” she said softly, melting the lines in her face into their special arrangement for me. “Come, we’ll walk by Mr. Petchal’s. I bet he has a chocolate doughnut.”
“No.” But I shifted my feet, one hip inclining towards her.
“And the 10¢ store —paper dolls with new dresses to cut.”
I hung my head.
“Ninotchka,” a whisper. “Ari ain’t mad. You’ll see. When he comes home he’ll play hiding with you. Come.”
“A coloring book?” I whispered back. She took my willing hand. “Come, Ninotchka. Your grandma will make you happy. And later we’ll hear the radio. Listen to your grandma.”
Uncle Ari put in 25 years as a bookkeeper, but he did turn down all the young women my grandmother suggested he marry. “A bachelor is a disgrace,” she chanted, but he lived at home until she died.
Only my father worked out a relationship with my grandmother that permitted him to tease her about my mother’s imprecise birth date, tied, as was the custom, to the nearest religious holiday. “How come,” Dad would ask, “Lily was born six months after you arrived in this country?”
Grandma would bark with laughter. “Maybe the date I came here, I got it wrong,” she’d say.
“Some blond Cossack,” he’d continue. And my grandmother would shrug with a contemptuous smile.
My grandmother’s love for me seemed to center on my blond hair and light green eyes. “Little shiksa,” she called me as she paraded me before visitors.
“She doesn’t look Jewish does she?” praised acquaintances in the street. And since my grandmother beamed coldly, I smiled a thank you and dipped my head modestly.
We had one regular outing on the streetcar to visit her sister-in-law whom she despised. My grandfather’s sister was as plump as the cushions stuffed about her brocaded apartment. She had no children and cuddled me unmercifully under my grandmother’s cold eye.
“Such a skinny one she is,” my great-aunt would say.
My grandmother’s eyes gleamed but she only shrugged.
“If I had her with me awhile she’d show some flesh,” the woman continued.
“If I ever want her stuffed, I’ll think on it,” my grandmother responded. “But I’ve heard too much flesh can make a woman barren. Not that I’m such an expert.”
I could see the neck of the large woman redden and the following remarks would fly in Yiddish. Nevertheless, the aunt always sent us home laden with packages of expensive children’s clothing that my mother would smooth gently and shake her head over.
But my grandmother would press her bony fingers against the pounding in her skull and curse her sister-in-law’s selfishness.
“Why do you put yourself through it?” my mother asked. “Are these dresses worth your aggravation?”
My grandmother paused in her head massage to level a finger at my mother. “Would she send one rag of underwear? No. I should first go to her fine house and see her carpets—her dishes—then she gives.”
“But it makes you ill.” The contemptuous smile fought with the pain on my grandmother’s lips. “And after she sees Ninotchka, her Harry tells your father, she is sick for days. They thought gold could make babies. Now they rot alone in their fancy apartment.”
“So you’ll kill yourself for some fancy dresses?”
She rose to her full height, towering over both of us. “They owe Nina. Who else do they have? But with some”—and her eyes seemed to sink deeper, as if into memory—”with some you have to let them see a little—suffering—before they’ll save even a child.” Her eyes gleamed at us. “So I make sure I give them back pain for pain.”
“That’s revenge—sickness,” my mother whispered.
But my grandmother heard and we both trembled at the menace with which she said slowly, “You know nothing—nothing about revenge. Revenge,” she concluded, “is justice.”
She eventually made that clear to me. On one of our returns from the great-aunt, we were more loaded down than ever and could hardly thrust ourselves and our packages through the trolley door and down the steep steps. Apparently in a rush, the driver barely allowed time for us to alight so that my coat caught in the closing doors. My sudden fright was overshadowed by my grandmother’s screeching. When the driver, shouted to by passengers, finally reopened the doors my grandmother clutched me to her and began to curse the man in high-decibel Yiddish with some English “dog” and “Cossack” thrown in. The driver reddened, recognizing tone and content, and finally shouted, “Shut up, you dirty Jew!”
As he began driving off, my grandmother dropped me to her side. Her eyes seemed to disappear into their craters. Her fists doubled and her throat bulged with sound. She ran alongside the trolley, yelling, spittle flying in the air while I screamed to see her dash away from me. Eventually, the trolley outdistanced her and she stood gasping in the street until I ran up to lean against her. Her hair had loosened and wisps of black streamed around her face.
“He’ll go to jail,” she said, bending over me. “He can’t say that—not to me.” I trembled against her in a kind of excited terror.
My grandmother did indeed bring the man to court. Among my grandfather’s customers she found and bullied a lawyer into taking the case. With time and location documented they found the driver and my grandmother repeated to a judge, in quieter though equally vehement tones, that in America a man could not call her a dirty Jew. To everyone’s surprise the judge agreed and fined the driver, who paid the small amount in red-faced disbelief.
When she died, near her seventies, my grandmother had not one gray hair, nor had shrunk from her five foot seven inches. Neither my mother, daughter, nor I ever reached my grandmother’s height.
I began to search for my grandmother in myself when I entered college. I could not forget: “the men were all afraid of me.” I dated happily until a golden basketball player focused his Teutonic attention on me. Immediately my stock rose with my roommate, sorority pledge sisters, and myself. I masked my anxiety to please with attempts at humorous self-deprecation. He introduced me to his fellow players as a “brain,” grinning to show how illogical it was to find one housed in me. “You know,” he finally said, after an evening in which we emptied ourselves of every detail of our past, “you don’t seem Jewish.”
An automatic smile, twin to his, formed on my lips and suddenly I felt as if my eyes were darkening in my head. A contemptuous laugh broke out of my throat.
“I don’t consider that a compliment,” I said coldly.
I felt tall and exciting.
I eventually married a dark, neat man and our daughter is small-boned as he is. My son, however, is very tall and fair, with enormous hands and feet and blue Cossack eyes.
Enid Levinger Powell is a free-lance writer of short stories, essays and poems, and a teacher of creative writing.