All of my joys and sorrows have contributed to how I live and work. About ten years before I was born, twenty-five of my great aunts and great uncles died together during World War Two. When I was five years old, Grandma Bertha moved in with my mom and dad, my two older brothers and our newborn sister. Every day throughout my childhood, Grandma would tell me and my siblings the names of each of her cousins that were killed – by Hitler, she explained. Several years after Grandma died, I learned that they were all burned alive inside a synagogue somewhere near their home in Ukraine.
At Grandma’s funeral in 1973, one of my great aunts took me aside to tell me the circumstances that led to Bertha’s escape to America. She came from a very poor, very large family with lots of younger siblings. As was the tradition in her family, when she reached her teens, a matchmaker arranged for Bertha to marry a man who, in her case, was quite a bit older than her. Bertha strenuously objected to the arrangement. Perhaps, my aunt speculated, Bertha already had a beau. Or maybe the man her parents chose was abusive or he frightened her for other reasons. Nevertheless, their parents insisted on the arrangement and chose a wedding date. Bertha, however, secretly forged a birth certificate, and saved enough money to purchase a ticket on a ship to Ellis Island. As I recall my conversation with my aunt at Grandma’s funeral, Bertha escaped on her wedding night, never having to sleep with her betrothed. She never would see her parents again. Once arriving in Manhattan, Bertha sold buttons on a street corner on the lower east side, where she met and married her first cousin, Sam. Together they opened a button store, and scrupulously saved their pennies so that they could bring over all her brothers and sisters, each of whom started out in Bertha and Sam’s little apartment.
Sam died around 1954, and Bertha moved into my house the following year. When I look at pictures from our time with Grandma, I don’t see any vestige of that teen rebel who I learned about from Aunt Lena. Grandma Bertha looks worn out well beyond her years. Her eyes are sunken. She rarely cracks a smile.
Her passion was gardening. Shortly after moving in with us, Grandma occupied a thin patch of land alongside the driveway on the west side of our little ranch house, where she planted hostas as well as some more colorful flowering perennials. She eventually invaded the rock garden on the sunny side, by the front door, where each year she planted colorful portulacas that crawled throughout the summer months, close to the earth, along the rocks. And in the backyard, she planted rhubarb – perhaps her favorite fruity vegetable. I’ve since learned that the poisonous leaves of this plant are quite dangerous and long-term consumption has been associated with acute kidney failure. Nevertheless, every year my grandmother harvested the safer rhubarb stalks, boiled them in a large pot, added lots of sugar, and served up a delicious sauce.
Grandma was pretty quirky. For example, each week we’d walk together to the grocery store where she only seemed interested in purchasing ugly, very overripe fruits and vegetables. At home, she would hardly ever join us for meals, choosing instead to eat alone in her room, where she could cook her own meals on the stove Dad installed for her. She would, however, join us at the table on special occasions, such as our annual Passover Seders, where she invariably scandalized my mother by insisting on standing beside the table, plate in hand, so as not to wear out our dining room chairs. In fact, Grandma never sat in our arm chairs or on our living room couch for the very same reason, so as not to make any mark in our home. Each day after school, I always found her sitting on the rug at the top landing of the stairs that overlooked the front door, wringing her hands and frowning, hoping desperately that my dad would get home safely from work. He always did. When not in her bedroom or out in the garden, Grandma could usually be found at the top of the stairs, except on Sunday evenings at 8 pm, when she’d come half-way down the steps, lean over the bannister, and peer down at the TV screen in the den below. Grandma loved Ed Sullivan, who she called Ed Solomon. He was such a good man, he had to be Jewish.
My father had one sibling, his brother Joe. At least that was the story we were told growing up. I first learned more of the story when I was about eleven years old. I wasn’t supposed to know there was a sister, but when Grandma and I joined Uncle Joe, Aunt Rhoda, and my cousins on their periodic pilgrimage to the cemetery where Grandpa Sam was buried, I watched Grandma skirt passed Grandpa’s grave on over to a small headstone where she stayed until it was time for us to go. Uncle Joe and Aunt Rhoda divvied up jobs for my cousins, weeding, planting, cleaning up Grandpa’s gravesite. Everyone else ignored Grandma who had begun to weep and wail. I crept over to where she knelt, and I read the words on the small gravestone. When it was time for us to leave the cemetery, my cousins and I climbed into the back seat. From my vantage point by the window, I could see Uncle Joe slowly walking over to Grandma, who was lying prone now on her daughter’s grave. He stood over her, saying nothing. Then he bent down, lifted her limp body up to his chest, and carried her into the back seat right beside me. The ride home was silent.
My dad refused to talk with his children about his sister, Paulette. After his death, I worked up the nerve to ask Uncle Joe about her. There was a polio epidemic in New York City that killed their little sister, he told me. For years afterwards, Grandma didn’t allow the radio to play in their apartment. Their home became dark and depressed. Grandpa Sam, fearing his wife’s deep grief, ordered his two sons never to speak about their sister again to anyone. My dad kept his pledge to his father throughout his lifetime. Fortunately my Uncle Joe finally broke the spell.
I have come to believe that family stories, sometimes including traumatic events and deeply coveted family secrets, often shape who we become. This has been the case for me. Learning at such an early age about violent and traumatic deaths in my family shaped who I am today. In addition, my discovery of my Dad’s little sister, Paulette, who was nearly erased from my family story, taught me about the potentially destructive power of grief. I was twenty-three when Grandma Bertha died, and only five months later, Dad had a massive heart attack that killed him rather suddenly. Growing up with my grieving grandmother, and then, as a young man, facing my Grandmother’s and Dad’s deaths within a six month period, opened me up to my own deep sadness, enough so that I began to believe that maybe I could walk beside others facing similar circumstances. From out of that wish, my career as a grief counselor blossomed. I was a grief specialist for thirty-five years when my wife, Andrea, died of complications associated with pancreatic cancer. We were married for 34 years. Becoming a widower has made me much more aware of deep suffering, and led me to engage in Buddhist studies and begin a mindfulness meditation practice. Since Andrea’s death, I’ve discovered that I’m better able now to keep my heart open and remain vulnerable while counseling and teaching.