In Tessie & Pearlie, Joy Horowitz presents a schmaltzy but engaging collage of her grandmothers’ lives. Compiled from taped interviews, letters and remembered miscellany, the loose construction of the book mirrors the patchwork that is memory. “The fabric of memory is a twisted, if delicate, weave of truth and fiction. How we remember, how we come to believe certain memories—based on family myth or the slapdash way a photograph is framed—is certainly as much a reality as the event itself.” Horowitz interweaves recipes for latkes with observations that her grandmothers are “mavens of the epistemological.” Photos and naturalization papers are interspersed with a “Bubbe Sex Survey,” and a stuffed cabbage “Bubbe Bake-Off.”
Horowitz is at her best when she allows her grandmothers’ voices to come through. Although at times she can be heavy-handed with her own asides, her writing reveals Tessie and Pearlie as strikingly different women, each remarkable in her own way. From kashrut to illegal abortion, their first kisses, and their fear of death, the conversations build on a tension between memory and mortality.
Tessie’s wry affection is almost superstitiously pessimistic. She insists that “I still don’t like that you’re talking about me. I don’t want to be popular. . . . It’s my simple life. But it is so.” Her reticence hides a quiet strength of character, which shows itself in many instances. Having been re-named Tessie at Ellis Island, to her dislike, she has reclaimed her given name for the future, stipulating that her tombstone will read: Toby Bat Chaim Teitel. “This is the way I like it.”
Pearlie, in contrast, is vibrant and wisecracking, even as she voices her fears of death. Of Pearlie, Horowitz writes, “There is an injunction in the Talmud: When a man faces his Maker, he will have to account for those pleasures of life he failed to experience. From that standpoint, Pearlie will have little accounting to do, presuming the injunction applies to women too.”
The counterpoint between grandmothers and granddaughter draws all their memories together, and leaves a vivid imprint of all three women’s lives.
Sarah Wallis is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, Calif., and a former intern at Lilith.