Dear Grandmother Tova,
It’s strange to realize that you have never been more than a vague shadow in my life, strange because I was named after you. Since I’ve never seen your photo, in my mind, you are a small woman with gnarled, work-worn hands wearing an ankle length black cotton dress, a small white apron and of course, a wig (All Orthodox Jewish women wore wigs. Some still do.) I don’t hear your voice or see your smile, and I wonder now why I had no interest in you, never wondered if I shared some of your traits. Our dreams and yearnings, I’m sure would be very different since I was born in America, with a limitless future to grab hold of and you spent your lifetime in a tiny village in the Ukraine and passed away before your husband and children journeyed to the New World. One thing I do know, yours and Grandfather Nathan’s was a second marriage. You had one daughter; he had three daughters and a son. You raised his children as your own and in fact, many of my cousins never knew that their some of their aunts and uncles were step-siblings and others were half-siblings. Together you and Nathan had three children. My father, Alex, was the youngest.
There’s so much I want to ask you. Basic questions, like where were you born, how many were in your family, what was your education like. And then, how did you meet your first husband and how did he die? Of course, how did you meet Nathan? I believe I heard that your own daughter, Esther, did not live with your new family. Why? How did you feel about that? And so much more I want to know. What were your dreams and aspirations for yourself? Could you even imagine a goal other than marriage and children or were you a rebel inside? What did you imagine for your children? Were you and Nathan happy together? What were your days like? Was there any time for fun? What were your fears? What did you think about as you spent your days? What gave you pleasure? What setbacks did you overcome? Did you have any regrets? I realize I don’t even know how or when you died. Had you dreamed of going to America, or was that a dream that materialized in your family after you died?
For those who come after me, those who may have questions about me, I’ll answer the ones I asked my grandmother. I was born in Austin, Texas, the older of two girls. I was the second born; my mother lost a preemie before her pregnancy with me. Perhaps I was the “replacement child” who could never be as perfect as the child who lived only seconds and would be perfect in my mother’s mind.
I went to school in Austin. Growing up in the shadow of the University of Texas tower, there was no question that I would go to college, but I did go away, to the University of Oklahoma, for my freshman year, then returned and became the Longhorn I was meant to be. Later, after moving to Houston, marrying and divorcing, I attended the University of Houston for a master’s in speech pathology, my chosen field. Still later I returned to U of H for a doctorate in reading disorders. My higher education years spanned the time when girls grew up to be housewives through the time of the feminist movement, with women fulfilling dreams of education and careers. Unlike many others, I’m still involved in the same career I started with; I found the perfect profession for me. And I’ve never stopped learning. I hope I never will.
My first husband and I divorced after ten years of marriage. We had a rancorous final year of marriage but an amicable relationship after our divorce. I met Ralph, my second husband, at a Mensa party. Although he was not Jewish, I began dating him and two years later we married. We also had a blended family: his son and my son and daughter. We called ourselves The Brady Bunch. We went through the usual ups and downs but by and large we had a happy marriage. Ralph was always “the wind beneath my wings,” supporting me in my career and my second career as a writer (romance writer, at the beginning). When he died in 2005 after a year-long battle with leukemia, I thought I couldn’t go on. But I discovered an old Yiddish proverb, “When one must, one can,” and that was true for me.
The time of our marriage was a busy one for both of us, each having our own business, together raising three children who eventually became three teenagers with all the angst you expect of kids that age. We shared household tasks. One of his was cooking our Thanksgiving turkey. I’ve never learned to cook a turkey and suppose I never will. Despite our busy lives, we did things with our kids. On Saturdays each one in turn got to choose an activity and on the fourth Saturday I picked one and they had a Surprise Outing. We took summer trips, once going to the YMCA of the Rockies, which was great fun. Of course, we argued and disciplined the kids and helped with homework and made plans for the future.
As for dreams and aspirations, mine were as narrow as those of the typical Fifties girl—get married, have children, keep house, become involved in community activities. And I dreamed of being a writer…someday. Fortunately for me, the “someday” arrived. I wonder if I would have had as full a life if I’d stayed married the first time and lived out the “Leave it to Beaver” life I began, or if I would eventually have fought against the strictures of that kind of life and emerged as an assertive, ambitious woman.
My fears were, I suppose, the typical ones: illness, loss, death, worries over money. And I was quite shy, a trait which I have somewhat overcome as the years went by. The shyness worried me a lot. My pleasures were reading, writing, traveling, cooking, learning, friendships, and of course spending time with my children and watching them grow.
The major setbacks in my life have also been opportunities for growth. The first came when I was nineteen and I nearly burned to death after my dress caught fire from a gas stove in my room in the sorority house. The second was the dissolution of my marriage and the realization that I wasn’t going to be June Cleaver but someone else I’d never imagined. The third was the loss of my father, who was my greatest support and who always had faith in me. And of course, the loss of Ralph and the beginning of widowhood. I told myself I would not let widowhood define me, and I don’t believe it has. I’m looking forward to the next stage of life, whatever it may be.
“Regrets, I’ve had a few but then again, too few to mention…” I love that song and wish I’d had the courage to do more things “my way,” but I have been happy with what life has brought me. I regret my shyness and still do. I wish I’d been a better daughter, wife, mother. Doesn’t everyone have regrets? Some are too late to correct but I’m working on the others.
Writing from a prior class:
Deceased relative I was named after: Elizabeth Ann Stewart (maternal great grandmother)
How did you come to be in the last Oklahoma Land Run?
What was the day like when everyone lined up and they fired the gun?
Did you ride in the wagon with baby Fannie?
Tell me about your first year on the prairie.
When did you move to Tonkawa proper?
What did you wish for Fannie’s future?
I heard you had eleven kids? How many were with you on the run?
Tell me about your childhood.
Did you have a happy, fulfilling life? If not, why not? If so, what was good about it?
Did your husband really have the livery stable?
What did you wish would change for women?
What would you say to your great, great grandchildren?