To my grandmother

If we were able to chart a person’s development, I believe it would be possible to pinpoint certain incidents and people who had a profound effect on the person that no one would have guessed. We commonly believe that the most important influences in a person’s life are parents, to some extent teachers, and then finally, friends.

As I think about what made me who I am today, I think that two of the most important influences were my grandmothers. I have already written a bit about my mother’s mother—about lighting Sabbath candles with her and feeling warm and cozy. She was someone who loved me unconditionally. I have not yet written about my father’s mother, a woman who also loved me unconditionally. She was a very interesting woman, a talented woman, and I think she was a “closet” family therapist.

My father’s mother, Yetta Mager, came to the US from Russia. She married and raised five children, three girls and two boys. My father was her second child and the older of her two sons. I was the oldest of her grandchildren. She was a seamstress who worked in what later was termed a “sweatshop.” She was talented and her job was to sew the top fronts of ladies’ dresses, a job reserved for only the best of seamstresses. I remember visiting her at work once. It was probably the noise of the sewing machines that contributed to her hearing loss.

There are a lot of wonderful memories I have of my grandmother— her open welcoming arms, her happiness at seeing us, and the “vasser-milich” (hot water with milk and sugar) she made me. I remember her beautiful colored dairy dishes and I remember the Chanuka menorah as it was lit. I remember the big Passover seder she prepared each year and can still picture the whole family gathered around her dining room table.

I remember being amused and impressed when she told me that she and my grandfather were going to take English lessons. To me she was an old woman—to think of her learning was incongruous, but I admired her for making the effort.

I remember two really important things she used to say. As I little girl, I liked when she tickled me. Of course, I also needed her to stop when I was giggling too hard. I would be laughing and laughing and saying, “Stop it!” and she would stop, but always while saying, “Stop it; I like it!” It was the first time I ever heard of a concept that I would learn was a mixed message. I came to learn that people get confused about what they want, what feels good and what feels bad, and when too much is too much.

The second thing she told me was in response to my complaining about someone being “mad” at me. She said, “He’s mad; so he’ll get glad.” It was my introduction to the lability of human emotions. I had never thought before about the fact that someone who is angry could at some time in the future be not angry. I came to understand that emotions are temporary and that a relationship can heal.

She was a woman who had a wonderful natural wisdom. Had she lived in a different time, she would have been able to achieve great things in academia. Instead, she was an inspiration for me and a warm, loving presence in my life, an anchor in the stormy sea. She would have been proud of my achievements.

My grandmother was blessed with living long enough to get to know four of my children. I believe that her greatest pride would be in her grandchildren, great-grandchildren and the great-greats who already are engaged in the study of torah and the work of improving the world.

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  1. frank spigel says

    Your Dad’s Mom reminds me of a woman who worked for my family for many years. Her name was Tessie Kelly. She
    came to this country from Ireland. She used to tell my brothers about how she saw our parents courting each other and what characteristics we had inherited from our Dad. She recalled when she first knew him he was a bashful southern boy from Norfolk,Va. Yet somehow she knew that my Mom and Dad would have a short and good marriage. She also knew my Stepfather very well. Tessie lived to be 94, passing away in1994,

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