A Family Story
Feature by Barbara Grubman

My maternal grandmother gave birth to four children, or so I thought, until I was about eight. And then I learned something new and shocking.

There was my mother, Miriam, who was born at home on the first night of Passover, 1912, and was brought to the Seder table when she was only one hour old. Next came her brother, Jules, who was almost born in the elevator of a Spring Lake, New Jersey hospital. Florence arrived next and the youngest, Edward, was born in 1918. The family seemed to be complete, but it really wasn’t, after I learned what I did at my grandmother’s kitchen table.

In the early days of my public school attendance, my mother was already a ‘working woman,’ as females were called who were not ‘stay at home moms.’ For that reason, I had to walk to my grandmother’s apartment for lunch every day—usually a sandwich or a good hot meal.

Grandma Rose always did her job well, greeted me with love and set the food before me on her formica-top table. Always wearing what was called a “house dress,” she never seemed to have any other life outside of her kitchen. Often she started supper for her family, which at that time consisted of my grandpa Sam and her ‘baby son’, who was now closing in on his twentieth birthday. To my knowledge, grandma never left the apartment, except to shop.

She never talked of a movie she had seen, or an interesting program she might have listened to on the living-room radio. And even when more and more foods were being sold in a can, she continued to buy fresh vegetables and to shell the peas and lima beans herself-- and to make sure we ate them with our meal.

Other women of our East Bronx neighborhood went out in the evening when their husbands were home and visited friends or relatives in the near-by tenements. Some women, like my mother, had a regular mah-jongg game that rotated from house to house each weekday night. Or they played cards for small amounts of money or perhaps took a walk on Westchester Avenue. Window-shopping was a neighborhood treat, but I doubt that Rose ever indulged herself that way.

Some women knitted or crocheted while listening to Gabriel Heater report the news, but only when their dinner dishes or other household chores were finished. But I never saw or heard of my grandmother partaking of any of these simple but pleasurable activities.

There were only three reasons for Grandma to leave the house for a full day. On Sundays the whole family would take the train to Manhattan to visit her son, Jules, who lived across the street from Central Park. Then, later in her life, I would accompany her to Loehman’s, where she’d stand waiting for me in a dressing room while I searched for clothes she could try on. I knew what she liked and we often left the store with dozens of dresses in our arms.

The third motive was our trip to Alexanders on Third Avenue, a trolley ride away. One time she bought me a pair of patterned knee socks, which probably cost no more than two or three dollars. Somewhere along the way, I lost the bag that was holding them. Grandma told me, “ I have no money to buy another pair, because then we wouldn’t be able to pay for the trolley home.’’ So we walked a long walk through many unfamiliar neighborhoods. I often wondered, “Did she really not have the money for another pair of socks and a ride home, or was she punishing me for losing them?” Funny how that stays in my head.

One day on my school lunch break, I was sitting at my grandmother’s table when she stopped what she was preparing, turned around and said, “Bobbie.”

I looked her way and before I could say anything she started.

“Her name was Dorothy. She was such a beautiful little girl, blond hair and sweet as could be, and only three years old. She got very sick with something the doctor called diphtheria.”

I had never heard that word before, but the way grandma’s face turned all sad and wistful, I knew it could not be a good thing to have. This was only the first of many tellings of Dorothy’s story, with me just listening and not knowing what to say but sensing it was important for the story to be told and heard.

Every time I heard the story after that it saddened me all over again, if only because grandma had the same mixture of sadness and grief on her face. I still said nothing, asked no questions. Maybe I sensed, even back then, that being inquisitive would do no good, would only make grandma look sadder and sadder.

One day she told me that, before Dorothy’s little body was laid to rest in the earth, they put pennies over her eye-lids. I wondered about that. Why pennies? And then, without even asking, I decided in my own little mind that it was a tradition people followed when young children died.

Several years ago, while on a visit to New Jersey, I became obsessed with finding out where Dorothy Manes was buried. Inquiries at several local cemeteries shed no light on her final resting place.

It made me wonder what year was she born.Where did she fit among her brothers and sisters? Did my mother or her other siblings recall anything about her? I never thought to ask them, and now they too are gone. Would I have liked my Aunt Dorothy, if I had the chance to know her? What would she look like and how close would I have been to her?

Today, in memory, I sit in grandma’s kitchen and relive the way she told that story. I wish that I had said something then, but it was not possible; all I could be was a sounding board. Perhaps that was enough. Am I asking too much of the young child I was, sitting at that table, eating my lunch, sometimes drawing pictures on the pieces of paper grandma had cut for me out of used grocery bags. Now I wonder: who else heard her stories? Was my grandfather of any support to her? Did she hold her little girl in her arms just before she died?

So many unanswered questions that will always remain that way. There is no going backwards in life. In the midst of what was a great tragedy in my grandmother’s life, I took on that tragedy and it has never left my mind. I shared it with no one until this day. Just writing about it brings back so many of the emotions I had when I first heard her story.

All that is left to say now is “Rest in peace dear Aunt Dorothy. Although I never knew you, a part of me feels close to you and to your mother, my grandmother, who told me about you.”