In 1983, my father sent me to Miami to check on my grandmother, Jean Weinstein, who had just lost her youngest son, my uncle Jerry, and before that her husband of 57 years, my Grampa Sam. I was 32, a widow with a 12-year-old son, living in Buffalo Grove, a suburb of Chicago. “It’ll be a vacation,” my father said. “On me.” The deal was that I’d report back on Gramma’s state of mind.
Gramma Jenny, at 78, lived independently in her “patio home” — an attached, one-story cottage — and she was not all right. In one bedroom I found jars of okra resembling floating caterpillars stacked floor to ceiling; she’d pickled them (in what she called Martha Washington seasoning) and there was enough to last until the Messiah returned with Martha Washington herself. Eggs in Gramma’s fridge were black inside, and when we poured cereal, ants crawled out of the bowls.
There were also golf balls. Hundreds of them. Gramma Jenny’s house backed onto a golf course and she collected the balls daily, selling them back to golfers at $1 a bag. She kept what she called the “psychedelic” ones — Day-Glo orange, green, pink and yellow — for herself, setting them into bowls and vases all over the house in a patio-home Florida version of haut décor.
I had a “last chance” feeling about this trip, so I brought my tape recorder. I had always relished Gramma Jenny’s bobe mayses, and also her Yiddish accent. Late one night I plugged a light bulb into the baseboard next to the dining room table, and, whoosh, she was off and running. She talked through five 30-minute tapes. Here, Gramma Jenny tells me about her mother, Bluma Meyer Symon, my paternal great-grandmother. Some of the facts seem off, but what do I know? It’s her story.
My mother’s name was Bluma. She was nice-looking and dark, and she was a businesswoman like a fire. Like a fire she was. She was a butcher. Everybody said she should have been a boy. The other butchers called her curova, the queen. She could cut a piece of meat like nobody else. We lived in Lodz, Poland, and that time there were 20 butcher shops in the middle of the street: 10 Gentile and 10 Jewish. In summer, all the kosher butchers had the same trouble: there was no icebox and nowhere to keep the meat cold. The Jewish butchers used only the top of the cow and lamb; the bottoms were not kosher. My mother would sometimes cut a cow and a lamb in one day. In summer, bugs were eating the meat. My sister and I used to beat off the white bugs with a rag.
The Gentiles came to the Jewish butchers to buy those bottoms, because some knew how to take out the veins from the meat, and they used all kinds of meat for sausages. They killed pigs, but Jewish people killed only cows and lambs. Chickens were separate. Everyone buys a chicken for shabbos; they go to the rabbi and he kills it. There is no chicken store. Every Friday and Monday, all the farmers came to the city market. They sell butter, eggs, cheese, chicken, turkey, goose, duck. You buy what you want, and go to the shochet who makes it kosher.
Anyway, there was one very rich farmer who lives like a king. He has a lot of people working for him, and he doesn’t do nothing. He goes all over Europe, all over the world, and he makes a living from the poor farmers who work for him. He kept a thousand cows. That’s a rich man. He, too, had no icebox, and nowhere to keep the meat, but on his farm he had a lake, and in winter he would chop out blocks of ice and keep vegetables and meat and everything with ice in a great big room in his basement.
Anyway, this rich man comes to the town in summer when the meat is cheaper. He would buy as much as you got and put it in his basement. He made parties, so they need a lot, and also he gives meat to the farmers who work for him. He has no worries. So this rich farmer comes to my mother’s shop first, and he looks over everything and he asks how much she wants for it all around. Now that time my mother was engaged to the son of another butcher. The farmer says nothing to my mother, and he goes across to my mother’s boyfriend’s mother to see how much she wants. Then the rich farmer tells her he’s going to see the curova. My mother was in the store making packages for the soldiers. That farmer was so in love with my mother he bought all the meat for 40 rubles! He had four horses and a coach and his helpers carried out all the meat.
Well, the boyfriend’s mother came out of her shop and she says to my mother,
“You’re not going to get married to my son.”
My mother says to her, “I was inside with the meat. I didn’t know he went in by you.”
“No,” she said, “you were going forth and back, and that’s why he came in to your shop.”
So when the boy came home from the army, the mother made the boy break the engagement. She told him he couldn’t marry anyone who took away her customers. That was the fifth boy she was engaged to marry.
But, anyway, my mother was very picky. If someone said a fella had a fight, she broke the engagement. If you would come home and say a fella was no good, she broke the engagement. But this time, the boy’s mother broke the engagement and my mother was very broken up. Meantime, there were 10 children in her family and you’ve got to go first and then next. You can have a boyfriend, but you cannot marry. My mother was oldest, already 35 years old, and in Europe that’s an old maid, like she would be 100. Meantime, the others had boyfriends and girlfriends. All right. So my grandmother’s brother felt sorry for the children, and he wanted to find for my mother a husband.
So what happened? My grandmother’s brother lived in another little town and he lived next door to Faigeh, whose son was in the army. He told her, “I’ve got a girl for you. A girl up-to-date. She can run a butcher shop like nobody in the world can do. She can cut a piece of meat like nobody in the world can do. I would like you should see this girl, and you would have for your boy a very fine girl, a highly educated rabbi’s daughter.”
My grandfather was a very religious man, a high man in history — Gershon Meyer. He was a big rabbi, but he didn’t get paid. He only studied Torah all day and night.
So my grandmother’s brother wrote in a letter to his sister that he is coming with Sudick, a boy who just came home from the army. My father was five-and-a-half years a soldier. You only have to be three years, but when you’re a genius they keep you five. And he also was a butcher, nice-looking and strong. Tall and big and strong. If my mother got married, then the others could get married, too. So they made the engagement and got married.
My mother had $300 from my grandparents. The parents got to have money for a girl to get married. Anyway, my parents bought in Warsaw a black leather couch and beautiful chifferobe to put clothes in. In the middle my mother kept her clothes, and in another part, bed linens. They had beautiful tables and a washstand, because you had to bring water in from outside. And they bought a beautiful chandelier for the living room. They had a beautiful dining table with six chairs. It was a beautiful house, a rich house because my mother was very rich. She had a maid even for cooking, because she worked all day in the butcher shop. She worked all her life from five years old.
My father was a helluva husband. He liked to go to the saloon and drink. My mother didn’t say nothing. She was 35, and in Europe 35 was very old. Nobody looks for that. There, when you were 14, 15 years old, you get married. My grandmother Zelda was 14 years, and my grandfather Gershon was 15 when they got married. My grandmother had so many children that 10 lived. When you asked her how many children she had, she said she don’t remember. That time there was no way to stop it, you know?
So, all right, it was already a year and three months that my mother and father were married. My father’s mother came to see my father and she says, “She’s
“No, he says, “she works every day. She isn’t pregnant.”
My grandmother Feigeh said, “I told you not to get married to an old maid. She works hard and cuts the cows and cuts the meat, she will never have any children.”
There, the mother-in-law was the boss. My father looked up to his mother, and he told my mother he wants a divorce, because she is an old maid and she won’t be able to have children, and he wants children.
So what happened? My grandpa Gershon says, “Look, Sudick, let’s go to see the highest rabbi in a different town and take with your mother.”
They go to the highest rabbi in Lodz. My grandfather goes in, and he says he has a problem with his daughter and he tells that other rabbi the whole story: His daughter was engaged five times, and they are just a year and three months married, and he wants already a child, and the mother is making trouble, telling him to get a divorce, because, she says, my mother is an old maid and will never have children. My grandfather tells the rabbi that my father takes his mother’s part.
There, a divorce is a big thing. In the Jewish tradition, if you want a divorce, you have to live with your husband or wife 10 years. Then, if you don’t have children, you come to the rabbi, and you don’t have to say nothing, and he gives you the papers for a divorce.
So the rabbi says to my father, “How long are you married?”
My father says, “One year and three months.”
The rabbi says, “In one year and three months you want to have a child? Not everybody can have a child just when they get married. Sometimes it takes time.”
So my father says, “My mother says my wife is 35 and an old maid when I married her, and I want a divorce.”
The rabbi says, “Well, you can’t get it. You wait 10 years and then I’ll give you a divorce.”
There, you are afraid of a rabbi! If he talks, you got to listen to him.
The rabbi said, “Your mother is a witch. Whoever mixes in a marriage cannot have a good life.”
My grandmother Zelda was listening at the door. When she heard that, she was crying. She didn’t expect the rabbi to talk about her like that.
So, the rabbi gave my mother all kind herbs from a tree, and he told her to make a tea from that and drink it. He told her to go to the purifying bath, the mikveh. She came home, and she drank that tea before she went to sleep, and she got pregnant with Joe. She was pregnant, and it was a boy. My father was in heaven. A boy is head of the house. My brother Joe was the first child and a grandson, and my grandparents couldn’t do enough for him.
Meantime, my mother could have no milk at all because she was working so hard. A woman had a baby and she came and nursed my brother. My brother stayed mostly by my grandparents. Everybody stood for that boy. He was a spoiled brat, you know, because everybody loved him. They wouldn’t let you touch him. He was beautiful-looking with blond hair, and he had a good head on his shoulders. He knew Hebrew already before he went to school.
All right. Then my mother had another boy. Then she had me. Then she had a boy, and then she had my little sister, and that’s all. So my mother had five children: Joe, Mirte, me (Shayndl), Zingl, and my youngest sister, Pesche (Pearl).
So what happened? My father’s brother was a rich man, and he sends money every month from America. He was from Macon, Georgia. There, he had a tailor shop. He was disappointed in Europe and never married, so when my mother had five children, he wrote a letter and told my mother to send a boy he could adopt and put all his money on my brother’s name. In America, he said, if you haven’t got somewhere for the money to go, they take it.
Of course, my mother didn’t want to send away a child, but she had nothing to say; my father was the one who said what to do. So my mother wrote a letter to my uncle, to please let her have her first child’s bar mitzvah. After that, she said, she would let him go. She was crying and broken up, but it didn’t help. She had to do what my father said.
So, on Saturday is the bar mitzvah. My brother goes to shul, and they call him up to read the Torah, and they go home and make the party. On Sunday, my uncle sends a man for my brother, because my mother said she wasn’t going to send the boy by himself to America. My mother thought there is no culture and no religious people in America, and she didn’t like that, but she couldn’t say nothing. So the man took my brother Joe to the train, and took him away to America. My mother was crying all the years. She never saw my brother again. He sent for her, but they wouldn’t let her come, because by then she was older and her eyes were no good.
Years went by, and when my brother graduated high school, my uncle was making a big party, and he wrote to my father that he should come. My father went to America and never came back. He left my mother with four children, and he got married there!
But my mother wasn’t sorry. She was a rich woman and she didn’t miss him at all. She told us, “If a man is not a provider, you cannot love him. No matter how much you love him, the love goes out.” My mother loved us, and she hired a maid who took care on us, because my mother was always in the butcher shop.
It turned out that my “last chance” feeling was right. Shortly after I returned from Florida, Gramma Jenny became very ill, and my father brought her to Chicago where she lived out her final days at the Lieberman Nursing Home in Skokie. I visited her weekly for a whole year, but she no longer knew who I was and she no longer told stories.
Gayle Ann Weinstein holds a Creative Writing Certificate from Graham School, University of Chicago. Another story from the Shayndl memoir, “Meet Me On The Corner,” is at persimmontree.org. Other work at gayleannweinstein.net. She reminds us to record our elders.