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