Flora used to say that no one should sentimentalize extended family life. The whole time she was growing up, her grandmother (her father, Joseph’s mother) lived with them in their house in Brooklyn and made an otherwise good life unpleasant.
This grandmother would have Flora’s mother, Charlotte, make many pounds of gefilte fish every Friday and then donate it to charity. Charlotte made it by hand, with a big wooden chopping bowl and wood-handled chopper. However, the fish was given in the name of the grandmother, as if she’d chopped and baked it, and she got all the credit! Charlotte was philosophical about it and would say that her husband, Joseph, couldn’t help having a difficult mother.
Each summer, Flora, her mother Charlotte, and her brother Edwin would escape the grandmother by vacationing on a non-kosher farm in upstate New York. The grandmother was unable to accompany them because she couldn’t eat the food. (At home they kept a kosher kitchen because Joseph and Charlotte wanted any Jew to be able to eat in their home). They had wonderful times on these farms, riding horses and helping with the chores, and were often invited to come back and visit for Christmas or Easter.
One spring, they were all looking forward to Easter on a farm, but they didn’t get to go because of an innocent mistake of Edwin’s. One evening, the grandmother said to him: “Bring me my bread.” She had some special bread that only she ate. However, due to her thick Yiddish accent, the word sounded to Edwin like “braid.” She also had a special braid of false hair that she wore on Shabbat and other occasions. Edwin thought she was saying “Bring me my braid,” so he brought the braid of false hair to her in the dining room. She was so angry that she forbade him to go to the farm for Easter. No one, not even Joseph, could contradict her; Charlotte said if Edwin couldn’t go they would all stay home, and they did.
Many years later, when Flora and Morris were first married, they lived in this same house with Flora’s parents, Joseph and Charlotte. Morris enjoyed it, as he’d lost his mother when young and had never had any real family life. Someone once remarked to him that Flora might get fat as her mother had, and Morris replied that if Flora turned out like her mother in every way, including getting fat, that would be fine with him. Charlotte always had “second sight;” one day, as the result of a premonition, she organized everything at home and then went to visit an old friend she hadn’t seen in a long while. Walking home afterwards, she had a sudden stroke and died. Someone ran to get them, and Morris did not wait for the ambulance to come; he just picked up the very heavy body of his (quite fat) mother-in-law and carried her in his arms for an amazing number of blocks, Flora said, not putting her down until she was inside the house where they’d all lived together.
Copyright © Leora Freedman 2014
First published in the Southern Humanities Review
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