We used to laugh that my grandmother would outlive us all, and while we knew of course that this could never be literally true, there was, there is, something enduring about her. In part, this comes from her perpetual optimism. One way or another, she would always tell me, usually over Hebrew National salami sandwiches across the small table in the very small kitchen that was just the right size for her barely five foot frame, things work themselves out. She was mostly right. Indeed, I can think of only one problem that she confronted over the course of her long life, or that she helped others confront, that did not conform to that principle.
In that very small kitchen, on the two or three occasions during the year when the whole mishpocheh would gather together–Rosh HaShanah, Passover, Thanksgiving, and occasionally other times as well–my grandmother would single-handedly, and then, later in her life, almost single-handedly, prepare a feast. Sometimes, when I was younger, there were as many as twenty people seated around the table in her dining room, maybe more, and the food was always plentiful and delicious. Perhaps my most enduring overall memory of those meals is the gusto–I can think of no other word for it–with which my grandmother would eat when she was finally sure that everyone else had been fed and that all the food that could be put on the table had been put on the table. She enjoyed food, perhaps especially meat, and I owe to her my own habit of picking off the bone–turkey, chicken, lamb, beef or pork–every last bit of the animal that can be eaten.
My grandfather, when he was alive, always sat at the head of the table, and then after he was gone, I sat there, especially on Passover. It’s funny what you remember, but my two most vivid memories from these family meals are from Passover seders that took place more than thirty years ago. First, I don’t remember how old I was, is the time we were reading Chad Gadya, in English of course, and every time I had to read the line in which the cat eats the goat, I butchered it, because in our translation the cat didn’t simply eat, it devoured and I just could not get into my head that the second syllable in that word rhymed with hour. The second seder I remember–I had to be fifteen or sixteen–is the one when my uncle Arthur showed up, and he and I read through the entire hagadah in Hebrew, something I’d never done before, and because I thought, at that point in my life, that I would be a rabbi when I grew up, this made me very proud, especially when my uncle told me I’d done a good job.
Missing from these family gatherings for far too many years were my uncle’s children, who, through no fault of their own, were almost completely estranged from us after their father died. The details of how that estrangement came to be are irrelevant here. What matters is that my grandmother felt great joy that she was ultimately able to build a relationship with them, and it has been a wonderful thing for us as well–me, my mother and my sisters–to have them be part of our family’s life, for us to be a family. Ironically, and sadly, as my cousin’s estrangement from us has become entirely a thing of the past, my sisters’ estrangement from each other has grown more and more deeply entrenched. Here, too, the story of how the estrangement came about and what sustains it now is really not important. What matters is that it would misrepresent the last twenty or so years of our grandmother’s life not to say that the fact of my sisters’ estrangement caused her great pain and, more, that one of her deepest regrets is that she was unable to help them unravel the knot of anger, bitterness and resentment that keeps them apart.
I know this because, on more than one occasion, she told me so, most recently right before she started to lose her ability to say clearly what she wanted to say. We were sitting alone in the room in the apartment my mother had built onto her house in Hempstead that had, increasingly, come to define the boundaries of the world my grandmother lived in, and my grandmother looked up at me from a moment of quiet in our conversation and said, “You know, I’m bored.”
“What do you mean?” I asked her.
“There’s nothing new. Not on TV, not in the news–even the stories I hear from you and your sisters, and your mother too, are always more or less the same. There’s just nothing new and it’s boring. Sometimes I wish I could just go, but I can’t just wish it and make it happen.”
I let that statement hang in the air for a bit, and then I asked her, “So what are you holding onto, Grandma?”
She turned her head to look out the window. Her eyes focused inward, and her mouth was set in the thin, pursed line that characterized one version of what my mother has called the Anne-Berner-look, and I knew my grandmother was calculating how much to say and how much not to say, that she was weighing what she thought the effect would be on me of what she said, what I might tell others and how it would effect them. “Well, I guess I still feel like I have things to teach them,” she answered wistfully, and it was clear in context that them referred to my sisters and that what she wanted to teach them was how to let the anger, the bitterness, and the resentment go.
My grandmother was a trained coloratura soprano when she was younger, though she never, as far as I knew, performed opera. She did, however, sing commercials on the radio, and from everything I know, she originally wanted to be a performer. Her parents, though, would not allow it. The values they brought from the old country jived very nicely with the image of female performers in the US that was current at the time, i.e., that they were “loose,” and so there was no way my great grandparents were going to permit their daughter to enter that kind of profession. My mother tells the story, though, of how my grandmother’s singing did help to win over her future father-in-law. When she and the man who would become my grandfather were dating, he would call her from the tailor shop his father owned and ask my grandmother to sing to him. Then he would hand the phone to his father, who just loved to listen to my grandmother’s voice.
And it wasn’t as if my grandmother gave up all contact with the world of artists, writer, singers and musicians that she wanted to be part of. I have on my bookshelf two volumes of poetry by Henry Bellamann, Cups of Illusion and The Upward Pass, each one very affectionately inscribed to my grandmother. Bellamann is best known for his novel King’s Row, which was made into a movie in 1942. My grandmother hinted to me once that there was a story about her and a writer, but she wouldn’t tell me what it was. When I asked, she said, “Maybe some other time,” but, no matter how often I asked, “some other time” never arrived. Then, last summer, after I came across Bellamann’s books on my shelf, I asked her if she remembered him. When I said his name, her face lit up, and there was such happiness in her eyes, it looked like she was reliving whatever had been between them, but she either couldn’t or wouldn’t (though I think by that time it was more couldn’t) tell me the story behind her joy.
I have often wondered if my grandmother regretted not defying her parents to become the performer she’d wanted to be, and I’m sorry now that I never asked her. To be honest, though, I don’t know that she would have given me a straight answer. At least with me, my grandmother rarely talked candidly about herself. She preferred, I think, to let her actions speak for her. By the time I was old enough to understand that she was a person unto herself and not simply my grandma, she had been for a long time a solidly proper, middle-class, Jewish wife, mother and grandmother, and she had managed to channel her considerable creative energies very successfully into that life. My mother talks about the force my grandmother was to reckon with when she was growing up, and I can attest to the driving force she was behind both the Jackson Heights Jewish Center and the co-op where I now live with my family, for which my grandmother served as the first manager and board president.
Every time I deal with the co-op’s attorney–and he has been representing the co-op now for about 30 years–he tells me how much he learned from my grandmother; and when the current manager of the co-op came to pay a shiva call, she told us about the vendors who still remember my grandmother as a remarkable woman to deal with. The Jackson Heights Jewish Center which, when I was growing up, was the center of a still thriving Jewish community in this neighborhood, would not have been what it was without my grandmother, and the people who knew her back then still talk with a kind of awe about the example she set through her energy and determination, her imagination and her commitment.
As I sit here in my living room, I am thinking that there is a lot more I could say about my grandmother, but those four characteristics–energy, determination, imagination and commitment–informed by a deep and abiding love for the people around her, and for the institutions that mattered to her community, capture for me who she was at least as well as any other stories I could tell. They are the lessons I have learned from her and, together, they constitute the example I hope to live up to in my own life. My grandmother, Anne Berner, was a remarkable woman. The world may seem smaller without her, but it is definitely a better place for her having been here. I love her and I miss her.