She’s long gone from this world, having died almost 30 years ago.
Her two older sisters were born in Russia; she was born in Pittsburgh before the family moved to Chicago. She was the first American born child, ending up as the 3rd oldest in a family of 7 girls and 1 boy. The family lived on the West side of Chicago in an immigrant neighborhood. They were fairly prosperous as her father, a carpenter, owned a small company that made trunks. Her father developed work-related asthma from sawdust, probably a fairly common problem in those pre-OSHA days. The family relocated to LA in a futile attempt to restore his health; he died there in 1921.
They returned to Chicago in sadder, poorer circumstances. The memory of that train trip back East to bring her father’s body to Chicago stayed with my Grandmother throughout her long life. My great-grandmother was in her late 30s, a widow with 8 children ranging in age from 15 to 2. The older girls left school and went to work. My grandmother waited until she was 14 and then left. By now, it was the roaring twenties, and she was the wild one of the family, going out regularly with boys and dancing at speakeasies.
In later years, it was always hard to ascertain her exact age. The official birth certificate was destroyed in a fire, and family needs caused the older children to add on a few years to make them eligible for better jobs. The best I could figure is that she met my grandfather when she was 16 and got married when he was 19 and she was a few months shy of her 18th birthday. They were a handsome couple, two blue-eyed blondes fond of stylish clothes and dancing. Two years later, my mother, their first-born child, made an appearance.
A few years later, in the midst of the depression, they made a move from the West side Chicago neighborhood where their friends and families were to a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They lived there for 9 years, the only Jewish family in town. By 1941 they’d moved to Wausau, a small city in Northern Wisconsin, where they lived for another 30 years. I came into the world during those years.
As a child, my grandmother seemed magical. She was younger than my friend’s grandmothers, and more active. She was an accomplished home cook and baker: in fact, she self-published a cookbook that sold quite well. When we visited there was a cookie jar filled with freshly baked cookies handed to each of us kids; mine always had ginger snaps, my favorites then and now. She was a great story teller and she and my grandfather remained fond of dancing and socializing throughout their lives.
My grandmother was a dynamo, the last one to bed and the first person up. She didn’t participate in activities, she led them, and she was an active force in the women’s club world of the mid-twentieth century. No matter how many activities she had going on, they all got completed, her house was spotless, and every meal was perfect. In later years she went on publicity tours to promote her book and turned out to be a natural on camera.
I’ve often thought about what my grandmother’s life would have been like, had she been of my generation. She was a natural for business and leadership positions, and could have been very successful in any field. I wonder if she was ever frustrated at the boundaries that fenced in her in. Had her family been upper class, she could have gone to college and perhaps even worked in one of the accepted women’s fields, but that wasn’t an option. Instead, she had to apply her leadership and organizational skills to the realm of what was considered acceptable areas for women. She didn’t just do well, she excelled at the limited opportunities she was given, and I still think it’s a damn shame that she couldn’t have done more.
I honor her memory every day by living my life without the boundaries she had, and every time I bake a batch of ginger snaps I think of her.