Sunday, March 05, 2023

Today is my mother’s birthday. That is, as her kids understood. Mom wasn’t certain about her birth year and date, but as I know, “the date” is today, March 5.

My mother was a child of immigrants who arrived in the U.S. from Odessa, Russia, in the early 1900s. Mom speculated that she might have been born in Russia and brought here in infancy. My grandparents already had two or three older kids who came over with them.

An American Jewish agency sponsored their escape from Russia. The family wound up living in Illinois. En route to America, my grandmother was pregnant, and in Illinois, she gave birth to twins; neither survived. My mother often speculated that that was because of the stresses of escaping from Russia and traveling as a large family, among other large families, across a sea and an ocean, into the unknown. In Illinois, my grandparents had as many as three more children.

While living in Odessa, my grandfather had been a kosher butcher. Here in America, he worked as a laborer and as a roaming neighborhood “ice cream man,” delivering ice creams prepared by my grandmother. The family relied heavily on welfare. My mother often spoke to me of her sad memories from childhood, about their lives essentially as slum dwellers.

After a few years, my grandfather died, and my grandmother became the sole support for the couple’s then (I think) six children. She didn’t speak much English and had never been entirely alone. She was a courageous woman and an expert kosher cook. She got work as a cook in a Jewish residence in Oklahoma City, and to be there had to place her kids into a Jewish orphanage. Her eldest child, Ruby, almost immediately got married. Ruby was brave as her mother; she went as a married woman to that orphanage and managed to have the kids released into her custody.

In my mother’s family culture, Ruby was a hero everybody trusted and loved. Unfortunately, in her twenties, Ruby became ill, probably from tuberculosis, and passed away. My mother was left as the only daughter, and with all her brothers, none ever spoke of anything but the goodness of their big sister, Ruby.

Today, it’s impossible to reflect on and imagine the issues my grandparents faced. And those of my grandmother, to support alone her now American-oriented kids. As a child, I tended to avoid the very old woman who spoke broken English and complained lots. Now, I’d give almost anything to be once again with my grandmother and ask millions of questions about herself and the family while in Odessa and Illinois.

Late Nineteenth Century Russian attacks against Jews in Odessa drove my family to flee; the family changes while living in Illinois; my mother’s evolvement in those years and her often foolish decisions. Those events all seem worlds away from today’s world.

But really, in light of current events, are they?

Anyway, and yet again, I’m saying Happy Birthday, Mom. I hope you’d be pleased with many of my life choices.

Dear Friends: Thoughtfully remembering scraps of family knowledge is a powerful process. Diana

5 thoughts on “Mom

  1. “Late Nineteenth Century Russian attacks against Jews in Odessa” worlds away? Not as far as some would like to think. We must remember. History has a way of repeating itself.


    1. I’m not a traveling person but always have wanted to visit Odessa, actually Old Odessa, to get a sense of where my grandparents lived. These days, the war in Ukraine has me glued to battle news. The world is at a turning point, where history may or may not repeat itself, at least exactly. Here’s hoping Ukraine wins and elements of constructive change may be in the outcome. Maybe the world is learning!


  2. Thank you for sharing. My grandmother Fagela (little bird)/Fannie was from Ukraine. Her mother died when she was 2, her father remarried but then died when she was 5. She lived with her aunt, who had many children, and when they emigrated to the US they changed her name and. added a couple years to her age, as she was the same age as one of their daughters. Her aunt died when she was 9, and she and most (all?) of the remaining children grew up in a Jewish orphanage. I never met her, as she passed away before my parents married, but I so wish I could have!


    1. Thank you for sharing. Your grandmother was an amazing, strong woman. She managed to survive all that you describe and eventually married and raised children. The histories of our grandmothers help us feel lucky for growing up in a more supportive modern environment. I agree; knowing more about our stressed grandmothers and how they coped against incredible odds would be fantastic. Somebody probably became a role model for your grandmother, helped her visualize a better life, and your grandmother must have been highly intelligent and perceptive. We had capable, strong grandmothers, and the social environment changed dramatically after their lives. We are beneficiaries of their determination and intelligence, yet we feel a gap for knowing too little about their life details, especially “their tools” for coping.


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