When my grandmother arrived at Ellis Island she was given an English name, Lena. This was to become her obsession for the rest of her life. She would say her real name was Liebe, Yiddish for “love,” but at Immigration they just wrote down her name as Lena. Now she had to be Lena. This isn’t an unusual immigrant story, but to Lena it became a deep personal injustice.
Whenever given the opportunity, she would cite other names she would have preferred; Leah, Lenore, Lillian—names that were American. This name business seemed silly because her husband called her Lady, and everyone else referred to her as The Mrs. or Mrs. Roberts. Only very close relatives might call her by her first name, but even then they’d more likely call her Ma or Tante. Still, she saw her name change as something bigger and more upsetting than other events I thought were worse, such as the Europe she came from or her life when she got to America.
Liebe Feld was born in 1888 in Shrensk, in the state of Plotzk, Poland. She described her life there to me as “horrible”—how physically hard she had to work beginning at an early age, what little her family got in the way of money or food, how the possibility of another pogrom was always with them.
In 1909 her fiancé, Jacob Graubard (who asked Immigration to rename him Roberts), sent her money for the steerage to America. After she arrived, they married, and Lena got a job in a sweatshop on the Lower East Side.
Once settled, my grandmother had hope—at least for her children. After she had successfully raised three children (a doctor, a teacher and a beauty), her daughter the teacher died. This left Lena, nearly sixty, with a one year old, me, to raise.
Lena spoke English with a heavy accent, and never learned to read or write. Since she stayed almost totally among “her own,” learning written English was never a necessity. I, therefore, didn’t learn “real English” until I went to school.
While I was in grade school, every day at three Lena would be waiting for me, sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette, and boiling a pot of water. We’d make tea and then sit, sipping together. I’d tell what I’d learned in school and what the kids were like. Lena might mention something she’d read that day in The Jewish Daily Forward or had seen on the soap operas. We often sat idly together with our teas, feeling contentment.
By the time I started junior high school, I no longer had time for my grandmother. My friends and prospective dates were the center, if not the whole, of my life. My grandmother was an embarrassment. My relationship with her became hostile. Sadly, like many adolescents, I’d either not talk for days, or when I did decide to talk, it was to fight. I’d say sarcastically to Lena, “His name is Ed Sullivan, SULLIVAN, not Solomon! He is not Jewish. Also the Irish do not all beat their wives, drink till they fall down drunk, and call you a dirty Jew behind your back. And as for your views on the shvartzes, how would you know anything about them since you’ve never met any?” (Our sometimes maid Helen was Irish.)
Then my grandmother would let me know how she felt about my new American fresh ways. Always, when making her point, she’d stand waving her arms in the air while looking up at the ceiling, to give me, I thought, the impression that she was also speaking to God. These encounters went on for years.
During my first semester away at University of Rhode Island, an event at college made us close again: My dorm nominated me for Homecoming Queen. This meant that on Homecoming Weekend, 1959, I was dragged around the football field on the back of a flatbed truck during the half-time of the football game. The theme of our dorm’s float was “Bowl Them Over Rhodey, Strike ‘Em Down.” There was going to be a giant bowling ball next to the flatbed’s cab, and at the other end of the float, ten girls were arranged to represent bowling pins. The Queen-nominee (me) would sit on a six-foot, black crepe-paper bowling ball directly facing her ten bowling-pin princesses. It was embarrassing to think about even then.
I asked my grandparents to witness the extravaganza but was positive they wouldn’t. I described the day as being of no interest to them—centering around football and bowling, with me making an appearance at half-time. I told them I’d send photos from the school newspaper. I feared looking ridiculous and didn’t want my grandparents (who were so proud of what I was doing in college) to see me.
Homecoming Weekend. I was startled when my grandmother showed up. Though my grandfather had announced the week before that he was too sick to make the drive, Lena decided that wasn’t going to stop her. She was set on seeing “the University”, and on watching all “those” people admiring me. If she could find America, she could find Rhode Island, she announced to her family. In the end, my cousin Nora volunteered to drive her.
It began to rain early in the day, and continued all afternoon. Nora said she would wait for us in the warm student-union building, come out to see the half-time parade, and then return to the student union to wait for the trip back. My grandmother stood in the rain for the entire game. She appeared to miss nothing. She wouldn’t sit on the bleachers, initially because she had no idea how they were used. When my friends and I explained them to her, she still refused. Most probably she objected to their being dirty, and she didn’t see anyone putting a cloth on their seats (which was what she always did on park benches). My friends and I finally realized that trying to get her to sit was a lost cause.
I was able to be with my grandmother for most of the day, only leaving at half-time when I was on parade. My grandmother stood fascinated (if also appearing a bit self-conscious) as she viewed in her own way what was happening. She had never seen and probably had never heard about football games. Baseball, specifically the Brooklyn Dodgers, was the only sport my grandfather watched, and that my grandmother, therefore, knew about. But football was what she was here to see, along with thirteen floats she didn’t understand, and her granddaughter, the star on one of them. My recollection of that day was that I was full of fear, specifically fear that the red dress I’d paid $50 for (the most expensive piece of clothing I owned) would be stained by the wet black crepe-paper I was sitting on. I remember perching on that bowling ball and telling myself to smile, wave to the people in the bleachers, and avoid looking at those ten stupid bowling-pin princesses staring at me.
With great relief, I made it around the field safely, and when I changed into my pants, my dress was still clean. Rejoining my grandmother, I explained that at the end of the game they would announce the 1959 Homecoming Queen. I told her that I had no chance of winning. “Ma,” I said, “These things are predictable. Out of the thirteen Queen-nominees representing their sorority or dorm, only one wins and that is almost certainly either the girlfriend of the captain of the football team, a Tri-Delt or a Chi O. Please,” I said, “come out of the rain and cold.”
My grandmother, of course, didn’t understand what I was talking about; she refused to listen or to leave. Finally the Queen’s name was announced, and Cathy (the captain of the football team’s girlfriend) accepted her crown. Lena could now go home, hungry, exhausted, chilled, but with her eyes glowing.
Lena wouldn’t eat outside her kosher home, so she hadn’t eaten all day. But as I was later to hear, by the time she got home all negatives were forgotten—the standing, the rain, the cold. Lena wouldn’t stop talking about her day in Rhode Island, giving blow by blow descriptions of everything she could remember about her granddaughter becoming Queen.
Thereafter, whenever my grandmother referred to “when Marlene was Queen,” I never corrected her. To the school, Cathy was Queen. To Cathy’s mother, Cathy was Queen. To my grandmother, Cathy was nothing. Even if I had been on the float as a bowling pin, Lena would have insisted I was Queen.
This was when we made peace with each other. A year earlier I would have screamed that I wasn’t the Queen and we’d fight about that. But at Homecoming Weekend I somehow realized that my grandmother deserved to be accepted as she was. To Lena there was only one other Queen— Bess Myerson (non-Jews didn’t count nor the fact that Ms. Myerson’s title wasn’t Queen). Now Lena would be able to tell her friends that one of her offspring was also a Queen in America.
Somehow in accepting this, I had become a grown-up (in this one way at least) and saw my grandmother as a person doing the best she could. It became irrelevant that Lena may have said things I didn’t like or believe. What I saw suddenly was that she never harmed anyone, and that she deserved to be who she was.
At nineteen (it was 1960) I married, and my grandmother gave me two pieces of advice: finish college, and don’t change your name. I listened to both. By going to night school I earned my degree two months before the birth of my second child. As to changing my name, I tried to when I changed schools after I was married, but there were a lot of forms I had to fill out and somehow I never got around to it.
When I got my diploma I showed Lena I’d listened to her advice on both counts and left it at that. She hugged me and cried. For the rest of my life I was very happy I never “officially” changed my name; first at school, then at work, then on credit cards. It wasn’t my name that was so important, it was what it represented; me, my right to choose, my connection to Lena.
During my twenties I began to understand the importance of keeping your own name, and to see why Lena reacted so violently to her name change. For a long time I had thought her anger and resentment was that of an irrational, old, disillusioned woman, but I began to comprehend that names were what the Germans had taken away from the Jews, American slave-owners had taken from their slaves, and husbands had taken from their wives. It was also the first thing Lena experienced in her dream land, America. Ellis Island took away the name she might have chosen as her own.
Many years later Lena lay in an oblivious state for five years in a nursing home. Every Saturday I visited her, and I never knew what to do. I’d arrive smiling, check her sheets, tip the staff and stand by the side of her bed trying to believe that somehow she knew I was there. After a while I’d start talking, just to have something to do. “Hey Ma, it’s me, Marlene. Want to talk about the parade, about Bess and me?” I fanaticized that Lena was understanding me, and was thinking of herself as the matriarch of an American Queen…therefore, she was also a real American.
After Lena died I moved to Brazil. I guess I never felt like a real American either. In Brazil they knew I was a foreigner; in America I could always pass.