Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Meet The Grandparents

My mother-in-law, Maria Graciela “Chela” Wefald, should have turned 86 today, but she died a week before Halloween in 2008. Verna went to Mass this morning, where the priest mentioned Chela, and planned a quiet celebration of her mother’s birthday after dinner. The four of us shared a fruit tart, topped with blueberries, kiwis, and strawberries, and filled with white and chocolate custard-pudding. Then we watched the 12-minute DVD Verna and her brothers commissioned for Chela’s memorial service, which was on Election Day 2008.

Maya was excited this morning as she readied herself for preschool about eating cake after dinner, but she was also focused on her grandmother. “Grandma died,” she said to Verna as Miguel and I rushed to get ready. “I want to get another grandma.”

Verna reminded her that she already had two grandmothers, my mom, who is Grandma Bev, and my stepmother, who is Bubbie (Yiddish for grandmother) Joyce. Maya was relieved and happy.

As Miguel and I dashed out the door, I started thinking about my grandparents. I was fortunate, very fortunate to have grown up with four grandparents within 10 miles of where we lived in Bloomfield, CT. And by the time I was in my late teens or early twenties, three of them resided in my hometown, so I saw them pretty regularly when I was home from college and beyond.

Unlike Verna, who saw her paternal (she never met her maternal grandparents) grandparents maybe 6-10 times in her entire life, I saw four grandparents at least 1-2 times a month, including all major American and Jewish holidays and assorted birthdays.

Sadly, Miguel and Maya only live near one grandparent, Verna’s father, Martin, who continues to play a major role in their lives, so they won’t have the same, expansive relationship with multiple grandparents as I did. And Maya especially did not have enough years with Chela, who absolutely adored her last grandchild. I won’t even mention that Chela did not live to see her first great-granddaughter, Lola Chela, enter this world on the final day of 2008.

But back to my grandparents: My mother’s father, Sam Bernstein, came to this country from Russia some time after the Bolshevik Revolution. His father, Benny, raised him because his mother wasn’t well physically or mentally. She died when Sam was young. Benny was often harsh and distant.

Sam died when I was 12 so I really didn’t know him well. I remember him giving me a Tonka truck when I 10 for my birthday (that was when Tonka trucks were really sturdy and metal). Another time my mom gave him a lunchbox for either Father’s Day or his birthday and he cried. He was not overly educated, but he loved to create and solve math problems, and then beam with pride when my mother or I checked his work.

My paternal grandmother, Fannie Friedman, was cold and demanding at times. She made great matzah ball soup and pickled tomatoes, which she left in jars on her porch. She died in 1988 when I was 29.

She was, er, frugal. She would send us to the store for a dozen eggs with two dollars and expect the change back. One time she treated me to bingo night at the synagogue and I won the coverall and $50. She said I had to split it with her because she’d paid for my bingo cards. Then one of my cousins asked me what I planned to do with the money. It was late August.

“I’m going to use it to buy school clothes,” I answered.

Fannie then gave me the other $25. “Since I was going to give you money for school anyway,” she said, “I might as well give it to you now.”

I loved sleeping over her house in East Hartford, CT, which she shared with my grandfather, Myer, Myer’s sister-in-law, Lillian, and another boarder, Simon Rutt, the father-in-law of Myer and Fannie’s daughter, my Aunt Sari. We always got to eat candy, play cards, watch TV, and one year, on New Year’s Eve I think they let me and a neighbor sleep in their bed.

Myer died in 1992 of congestive heart failure. He was 86. He was one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met. After he retired he continued to work part-time as an aide to physically disabled adults. He regularly chauffeured people to synagogue for morning and evening prayers, no matter the weather. He religiously cut coupons out of the newspaper and either shared them with family, used them himself, or left them on the items in the stores.

He never stopped talking about how great Roosevelt’s New Deal had been for working people. He drove a delivery truck for 35 years for Drake’s Cakes, which meant we always had ample supplies of Hostess-like coffee cakes, devil’s food cakes filled with crème, and fruit pies. He always straightened out the Drake’s displays in whatever store we were in, whether it was his day off or past his retirement.

For a year after he died, I wanted to ask my father, as had been my tradition during our long-distance phone calls, how Zadie (Yiddish for grandfather) was doing. As I type this, a framed photograph of Myer Friedman, his face grinning down at me, hangs to my right.

My maternal grandmother, Ida Bernstein, was the other most compassionate person I’ve ever known. She migrated to this country from Poland in 1921. She spoke no English and didn’t understand anything about American customs or cuisine. When someone gave her a banana for the first time, she didn’t know what it was so she threw it under the table.

She, too, loved to cook. She made great spaghetti and meatballs, matzah ball soup, kasha and varnishkes (buckwheat groats and bowtie pasta), pudding, and jello. She kept kosher, but was never dogmatic about her religious beliefs and practices. She was one of the few people in my family who was truly excited when I married a wonderful Catholic girl because she knew how happy I was with Verna.

When she sent us to the store for a couple of groceries, she gave us $10 and always insisted we keep the change. One year, when I was 15 or so, I spent the night with her on New Year’s Eve and we made cookies at midnight and proclaimed that we were the first to bake cookies in the New Year.

She inspired me with her devotion to Judaism and her acceptance and respect for all people. She never went beyond high school, but she listened religiously to informative radio talk shows, read the newspaper daily, and watched the news at night.

We brought Miguel cross country when he was six months old in 1998 to meet his great-grandmother, who lived then in the Hebrew Home in West Hartford, CT. After cleaning him up following a massive poop on the sidewalk of the Home, we surprised Ida in her room. She immediately exclaimed, “The baby, the baby, you brought the baby.” We were there with my mother, stepfather, brother, and sister-in-law, and everyone was crying joyfully as Ida gazed at Miguel. We quickly posed for a photograph of the four generations together.

Ida died in early March 1999, just two weeks before her 90th birthday.

I miss all four of my grandparents, one whom I didn’t know well, one who was flawed but loved us deeply, and two who were amazing and deserved to be sainted in a Jewish-secular kind of way.

Missing them was certainly on mind as the DVD of Chela ended and I said to Maya, “You miss your grandma?”

“Yes,” she said. “I want to share my cake with her.”

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