I have been blessed with countless mentors. Here, I want to talk about two very special ones, my grandmothers.
My Grandmother Snyder,my father’s mother, was born in a shtetl in Russia in the late 1800’s. Think Fiddler on the Roof, but without the dance numbers. She was one of the youngest children in a family of 7 children. During her childhood in Russia, Russian soldiers would get drunk and make sport of going through the Jewish villages and shooting and killing Jews as if they were animals. Russian soldiers would also take young Jewish men that they didn’t kill into the Russian army, which was also a death sentence. So many Jews from that area, hoping for a better life immigrated to the United States in the early 1900’s. One member of a family would immigrate first and when they had saved enough money would finance the immigration of the next until the entire family was brought over. Grandma Snyder’s older brother Sam Wasserman was the first and they succeeded in bringing every family member to the United States including their mother Channah Wasserman, my great grandmother on my father’s side. According to my father, Channah was a lawyer in the old country and settled disputes according to Jewish law. From what my father tells me, she was a formidable woman. But I didn’t know her personally.
I did, however, know Grandma Snyder personally. She was and is one of the angels of my life. To describe her, she was short and had these very long ear lobes. I have to admit to you here, those ear lobes made me really queasy. She would hug me and call me “Bubula”, the Yiddish word for darling, and she smelled a mix of old human being and some kind of soap. She spoke English, Yiddish and Russian. One leg was shorter than the other and she had special shoes in which one shoe had a sole several inches high which would make up for the length difference of her legs. I was told that this difference in leg length was the result of her being bitten by a goose when she was a little kid. I’ve done a little research on this and even with the internet I can find no evidence, either empirical or anecdotal, that a goose bite can shorten a human leg. Nonetheless, my father and all my relatives on his side insist that this is what happened. My parents would take me over to her house which was located behind Snyder’s Market, the family business. Grandma Snyder would make lunch for us, hotdogs that she called Jewish Hotdogs. I’m pretty sure they were just hot dogs that were boiled in water. It’s possible that they were kosher and she didn’t know the English word for kosher, or more likely didn’t think that we kids would understand the word, “kosher,” so “Jewish hotdogs” there were. Those hot dogs were some of the most delicious food I have ever eaten.
She cried tears of joy very easily. I would be put at the piano to play my most recent pieces for her and she would be spellbound as if I was a concert pianist. It was an awesome experience, being viewed by her as a miracle, a talented one at that. Occasionally, she would tell us kids a little bit of her life in the old country. Even as a child, I knew it was a painful topic for her and most of the time she became choked up and couldn’t talk about it. She did tell us that the floors of the houses were dirt. The winters there were so cold that you could toss boiling water out the window and it would freeze before it would hit the ground. Villagers would never go out in winter alone as the risk of freezing to death alone was too high. Once she told us kids about her arrival to the United States, about pulling into New York harbor in a ship on the fourth of July and not being able to dock because it was the fourth and watching the fireworks over the statue of liberty from the ship’s deck. I couldn’t have made this up. And I don’t think she could have made it up and as I think about it, it is incredibly picturesque. Almost Hollywood. She teared up and cried at the memory. I remember asking my father why she was crying. I didn’t understand how tears could be from anything other than physical pain. I understand now.
Grandma Snyder was a paragon of warmth and love. She had a gentle and soft voice. She was always smiling and never yelled or lost her temper. She was the most generous and giving person I have known. I asked my father if she really was that happy and appreciative of her life. I was expecting a little nuance from my father, perhaps a memory of some family scandal, but he just said that she was actually that happy and that loving. I asked him why. He said that she considered herself extremely fortunate. She never imagined that she would have the opportunities and the life that would occur in the United States and never forgot what could have happened if her brother had not immigrated and brought the family over. She had also considered herself ugly and thought that she would never get married, especially because of the short leg. But she met her husband Morris Snyder, my grandfather on my father’s side, in Springfield, MA at the school for learning English for new immigrants. He had also immigrated to the United States under similar circumstances to hers. According to my father, Morris asked for Stella’s hand in marriage from her older brother Sam, only 2 weeks after they had met. That they were very much in love was apparent even to me as a child. She really lived in a constant state of gratitude, not ever taking anything for granted and knowing that her family and business were blessings.
This grey haired loving babushka was one of my first mentors even before Mrs. Gilman, and the rest. She gave me the love of loving and her warmth. She gave me certainty that the finest experiences in life are of love.
My Grandma Levine, my mother’s mother, was not that type of old world babushka. Grandma Levine was born in the USA. She was second generation. Her parents had immigrated from Russia. (you remember that shtetl we were talking about, that’s what her parents had left) Her father had started a junkyard business which was very successful. Gertrude was raised in a wealthy family and she had gone to Smith College, the elite all woman college in Northampton, MA. When I was older, Grandma Levine told me that when she was in college she had smoked pot. Grandma Levine was a world traveler and had a special fondness for Latin America and Spain. She spoke Spanish fluently. She and her husband were also avid art collectors. And Grandma Levine was a classically trained pianist and was quite good. The famous concert pianist Moriz Rosenthal, who himself had been a student of Franz Liszt, came through the Springfield area in the 1940’s and somehow ended up practicing on my grandmother’s Baldwin baby grand piano. We have actual proof of this as he had signed his autograph inside the piano. That piano ended up in the house I grew up in and I learned how to play on it. So I have an actual physical connection to Franz Liszt via that piano. Though I’m not quite as good as him.
I was also put on the piano stool to play for my Grandma Levine. This was a different experience from playing for my saintly Grandma Snyder. Where Grandma Snyder was in ecstasy listening to me play chopsticks, Grandma Levine looked at me with alert eye and critical ear. She ruthlessly pointed out my errors. Where Grandma Snyder was generous as a saint, Grandma Levine was a bit, how shall I say, well a bit selfish. Actually, she was very selfish. This selfishness emerged in full force when I was in my 20’s and my parents were going bankrupt. My father had worked for years for Gertrude’s husband, my mother’s father, at his company which manufactured art smocks for kids to wear in art classes in grade school. When my Grandfather Levine retired, he sold the business to my father. As we now know, art smocks for grade schoolers were not destined to be part of the “new economy” and so, my father’s business failed in the 1980’s. My Grandparent’s Levine refused to defer my parents’ payments to them for the business purchase and refused to financially help my parents, even though they were millionaires. They allowed my parents to go bankrupt and lose their home. My father, who had run his own business of 30 employees, became a floor salesman at Radio Shack. My mother was a psychological wreck from the betrayal of her own parents. The house became someone else’s property. I took to calling my Grandparent’s Levine, the “dark ones.” To this day, I still find myself blaming the Levine genetics for my own moments of selfishness and small mindedness.
But, just as later episodes of the Star Wars saga revealed Darth Vader to be less evil than we may have originally thought, I have been remembering the lighter side of my Grandma Levine. Even though her relationship with my parents was complex, to say the least, it was very simple with me. She adored me. She had a gigantic yard and a large vegetable garden. She would make us corn on the cob, harvested from her own garden and it was awesome. She showed me that if she held a buttercup flower under my chin, my chin would glow yellow. She told me that was because I was a good person and liked butter. What does liking butter have to do with being a good person? I have no idea what that was about, but it was a tender and loving gesture. Grandma Levine would whisper in my ear that I was her favorite grandchild and then swear me to secrecy. I have the feeling that all five of her grandchildren were told the same secret. Like the butter cup demonstration and the corn on the cob, this secrecy, even at the expense of my brother and sister, was her way of loving me. She would also teach me about her art collection and take me to art museums. She came to my 6th grade class and gave a talk about Spain, complete with her large collection of artifacts and sprinkled with a lot of Spanish, albeit with Jewish accent. It is hard to reconcile implacable evil and selfishness with a woman who braved a 6th grade class.
This edgy woman was also one of my earliest mentors. And even though it sometimes appeared that she seemed bent on my family’s destruction, it turns out that she too gave me precious gifts. She gave me sharp intelligence and just plain sharpness. Yes, I can be edgy at times. She gave me the drive to become educated and appreciate sophisticated worldly experiences. I even followed her example of learning a foreign language as an adult, not by necessity, but for the intellectual pleasure. She learned Spanish and lived in Spain/Latin America in the 1960’s, I learned Italian and lived in Italy in the 1980’s. She smoked pot in the 1920’s, I smoked pot in the 1980’s. Note to Rose and Christopher, there are some traditions that are better not repeated.
My grandmothers have passed on. The piano with Moriz Rosenthal’s signature resides at my parent’s place in Massachusetts and is still played by my father and by me when I visit. I am a result and an inspiration of both of these remarkable women of their times. Grandma Snyder showed me how to enjoy music. My Grandmother Levine showed me how to play it.