Bubbe Report: In Danger

When my daughter Isabel, G.’s mother, was just G’s age (a bit over 3), she used to startle me by saying amazing things. At that time we were commuting to Crestone, Colorado. Thirty years ago in winter, the San Luis Valley felt even more remote than it does today. Vast snow-covered peaks of the southern Rockies loomed over our little Toyota Tercel as we drove.
“The mountains are jealous of us,” a voice said from the back car seat. I wondered why, but I knew it to be true. Because we could move around? Talk? I’d often felt the mountains’ distant but real disdain for human life. Now a child had noticed it.
Months before, Isabel’s best friend Reuben had charmed me by announcing “We have two cats. One is named Seren and one is named Dipity.” They did have cats, but not with those names.
Age 3-4, in my experience, is particularly interesting because a child can have good language skills yet still be in a world of magic. “It’s a little sad when they learn to read,” my mother once said. My mother probably cared about reading more than anything else in life, but I knew what she meant. A school-aged child shares our world. A younger child takes us into theirs.
So I’ve been waiting for G. to say something whimsical, but she is a very grounded person. In eight days, she attended two art openings. By the second–the Haiku Trail at Audubon–she was acting like a hostess. She dragged a folding chair the length of a hall to get Pop-Pop to sit down. She offered her mother cheese. She smiled at strangers and even giggled at their friendliness.
And then I got my window into her mind. I didn’t hear the following myself, but Isabel told me.
Background, G. knows Coyote as a trickster from stories and also as ranch denizens (who once tried to eat Tiny Dog).
Scene: Endangered Species merry-go-round at zoo.
She gets on the gray wolf. “I want to ride the coyote.”
Parent: “That is a wolf. Coyotes aren’t on this as they aren’t endangered.”
G: “Coyote is SO stupid. He is always in danger!”

Old Enough

Old Enough

Last week, I was on a creative retreat in Pagosa Springs, Colorado with my daughter Isabel. There, I fell under the spell of the Japanese series “Old Enough” on Netflix. In it, tiny children run errands, and feel very accomplished and appreciated.
These adorable kids are still toddler-aged, or close to it. They have flags at the cross walks, which they wave as they cross. And guess what, so does Pagosa Springs!
It turns out I was identifying with these kids because…gasp…I was doing the grocery shopping. Something I do not do at home, where my husband Rich provides. I was as excited in City Market as the errand runners in Old Enough. They have an actual sushi chef! Gluten free dessert! Three kinds of chicken wings!
I had my shopping list. I was nervous, too. I missed things and had to go back. I crossed waving my yellow flag.
I’ll be 68 in a few days and it seems I’m…old enough.
Inspired by the show, I tried to get the real toddler, my grand-daughter G. aged 3, to take more responsibility on my return.
“Let’s clean up,”I said.
No. I don’t want to. I want a snack.”
“Throw out the trash in the bin and then you can have a snack.”
She complied, but that was all.
“We need to babysit the baby dolls,” she said.
“Why? Where is the mommy? Or the felt fairy that takes care of them?”
“Gone to Colorado,” G. announced. And that was the end of that.

Survival

I was recently very annoyed by something I read. A well-regarded writer, whose family survived difficult historical circumstances, said something like “No one survives by accident.” And went on to say that survival was an act of creativity, intelligence, and will.
I just can’t agree. Of course survival, in holocaust type situations, might be aided by intelligence, but it often seems to be a matter of luck. At least that is what Primo Levi reported. I also once read an account of a “U Boat”–a paperless and homeless Jewish woman in Nazi Berlin. She said she was helped not by good people doing good deeds but by evil people doing good deeds. That kind of moral ambiguity is important to remember.
My grandmother Sadie came to America. Her sister Etrazy stayed behind because her husband was an imprisoned Bolshevik. He was freed, they were re-united, and eventually killed by Stalin. Or was it Hitler? No one knows.
Shall I blame Etrazy for not surviving, for her idealism, her belief in communal solutions? It turns out she was wrong, or on the wrong side of history. Was she foolish, and Sadie smart? I think not. Each was following the twists and turns of her own life as best she could.
In Yiddish we say: ikh’d ala zeyn mazldik vi klug (I’d rather be lucky than smart). To say our survival is not influenced by the random is to aspire to a level of control not given to human beings. To think otherwise is to end up blaming patients for their diseases, refugees for their historical disasters, everyone for their circumstances.
And I’m certainly not going to blame my family members who couldn’t survive. And that in no way diminishes my gratitude towards those who did.

Grandpa George, The Gangster Lepke, and a Platypus by Miriam Sagan

My grandfather, George Sagan, founded the New York Girl Coat Company in 1916. That was not his real name. He was born Gershon Liesenbaum in the Ukraine, a borderland between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Holy Russian one, between Kiev and Odessa.

Gershon became George in America. But until the late 20th century we did not know that our family name was not Sagan. My father had found George’s exit visa from Russia. It was for Liesenbaum.

My father searched for an answer in his own imagination. George had bought Mr. Liesenbaum’s exit visa. Or, George had murdered Mr. Liesenbaum for the visa. My father actually proposed this theory without irony. My grandfather’s power to impose his will was legendary and survived even his physical death.

The most likely answer was more mundane. My grandfather Gershon, a young teenager, was in the Ukraine with his sister and her three children. She died. He was entrusted with bringing his two little nephews and one niece to their father Louie in New York City. Louie may have already remarried at this point. It is likely that Louie’s last name was Sagan.

George tied nephews and niece together with a rope so he wouldn’t lose them on shipboard. At Ellis Island, it probably made sense to take their and his brother-in-law Louie’s last name, Sagan.

One of the children tied to the rope grew up. He attempted to get an education but by the Great Depression found himself working in the garment industry for George, as one of the prime cutters. His son was Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer. On his deathbed, Carl told one of my first cousins who was interested in family history: “You aren’t really a Sagan. The Sagans were the smart side of the family.” George’s descendants were educated and successful. But we’d been told, and had to believe, we weren’t smart like the Sagans, i.e. Carl. And in fact we weren’t Sagans, but Liesenbaums.

In his own way, my grandfather cared not just about material success but beauty and justice. However, it was the justice of a gangster and the beauty of a robber baron that drove him.

The iconic story told about him was George’s meeting with the famous if perhaps second-string Jewish gangster Lepke. When my grandfather opened for business, it was in a storefront on the lower east side. One of Lepke’s henchmen came around and dunned George for protection money, the price of doing business, to be paid every Wednesday. Of course he paid.

A few months later, a second henchman appeared, demanding protection money to be paid on Fridays. My grandfather rebelled. He, a callow youth, demanded a meeting with Lepke. He was taken to a dairy restaurant on Avenue B., a table in back, men in hats.

George made his speech about justice—he would pay once, but not twice.

Lepke nodded in his fedora. Then, he offered my grandfather a job working for him. George politely declined, paid protection but once a week, and went on to make millions.

This story was told in my family not so much as an example of how ballsy George was but of how he had a true sense of fairness. It was not until I was middle-aged that I realized the absurdity of this, crusading for the right to pay protection money only once.

My grandfather’s gangsterism extended to his philanthropy, which was itself vast and generous, yet self-serving. As a small child, I too had been encouraged to be
philanthropic. I had saved up part of my allowance week after week to join the Bronx Zoo. I would be a member, with free admission, discounts, and best of all, a member’s garden party with a private viewing of a rare platypus. I was about ten years old, and ready to give my money to the zoo, when Grandpa George got wind of my stash.

We were alone, on the wraparound screened porch of my parents’ house. He loomed over me and demanded I hand over my savings to donate to plant trees in Israel. But my goal was already set. Israel, no. Platypus, yes. George yelled and screamed, towering over me. My father appeared like a deus ex machina, also shouting, “Leave her alone! It’s her money!”

I went to the members’ party and ate finger sandwiches and chocolate cookies shaped like leaves. I saw the remarkable platypus. I was the only child there, the only young person who had bought herself a membership. Old ladies in hats smiled at me. I planted not one twig in Israel.
***
This first appeared in the memoir BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE from Red Mountain Press.

My Grandmothers

To the best of my knowledge, Ukraine means “borderlands.” That’s why the article “the” sometimes precedes it. My whole life I’ve been obsessed with borders and boundaries—the Hudson River between my provincial suburb in New Jersey and the glittering canyons of Manhattan. Not to mention the border between my now home state of New Mexico and Mexico—a place of so much suffering, aspiration, violence, and hope.

The border inside me, though, is the border between the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian one. My paternal grandmother Esther, probably aged 12, is smuggled across this border in a cart piled with sausages. She gets on a boat for America alone, gets her menstrual period, then figures she is bleeding to death until a motherly fellow passenger explains. That is all I know of her story, except for a salient detail. Esther has said she will kill herself—drown herself in the millpond—unless she gets sent to America.

I have many suspicions abut this story. Was something bad happening to her? Is it even “true?” The cart comes to me from a family reunion, menstruation from her daughter-in-law who was my mother. The millpond comes from my father. She was a rather ordinary grandmother, less interested than some. She had a bosom like a mantelpiece and a love of clothing more lavish and colorful than strictly fashionable. I inherited both these things.

My grandmother Sadie—in Hebrew her name was the lovely Tsivya, which means gazelle—came to America with her family. The worst story of the lot is as follows. There is a pogrom. The child next to her is trampled to death. The family leaves. This is never discussed. My mother, her daughter, told me, but my mother was a storyteller who knew how to fabricate So am I. Is it possible I just made this up? From a movie scene or book? However, both Sadie and my mother were extraordinarily anxious people. They feared almost everything. If you were two minutes late, they were planning the funeral. So I’ll take it as true. If it had happened in today’s world there would be endless therapy and grief groups. Then, the coping mechanism was silence.

I’ve inherited all of this. The fear. The ability to act quickly and decisively. Perhaps also the belief that terrible events are my fault.

Sadie became a seamstress. She was blacklisted for union organizing. She was a more classic grandmother. She made our dolls beautiful hats and crocheted them tiny purses. Her eyesight was so poor that she was close to blind. I learned to thread her needle.

Neither of my grandmothers ever gave me advice of any kind. Sadie was strong on endearments, and would scratch our backs by the hour if we insisted. My paternal grandmother, as she approached dementia, would wake us in the middle of the night and offer us salami. She just kept trying to feed us more.

I know, deep in my bones, that whoever they were, my grandmothers wanted me to stay alive. Sadie overtly cared about having babies and education. As old ladies, neither of them seem particularly focused on men. They were supportive of their husbands, perhaps feared them, partially avoided them. It was very old country—-no kind of role model even for my mother’s generation.

I loved Sadie and I feel she loved me. Esther was more of an active model, doing her calisthenics, getting a massage, swimming in the ocean. She had a Slavic love of fresh air and exercise. When I went to massage school I often thought of her.

But more than love, I can still feel them rooting for my survival. And if I look at how I feel about my own granddaughter, that primal feeling may also be the strongest.

***
My grandfathers present more ambiguity. I’m thinking about writing about them next!

Ukraine Musings by Miriam Sagan

I go to the dentist to get a temporary crown, and by the time I get home Russia has invaded the Ukraine.

Deep within me, fueling much of my personality, is the Ukraine my four Jewish grand-parents fled.

And it was Russia. Or “Russianize” as a student of comparative religion told me. A conquered territory. All of my grandparents referred to themselves as Russian. They spoke Russian, along with Yiddish, some Hebrew, and possibly Ukrainian. But the Russian tsar loomed over their stories, along with homicidal Cossacks.

They feared abduction into the Russian army, sometimes cutting off fingers or toes. Their money was Russian. If the Russian tsar stirred up Cossacks to raid Jewish villages, they died.

This was the world of the Pale. I never heard much about “Ukraine.” They were from shtetls between Kiev and Odessa—-pronounced the Russian way.

They ate borscht (which I loved). And kasha (still eat it). And drank shav in glasses (a cold sorrel soup—and I think they added celery. I hated it). Had samovars (which I coveted but never inherited). Slathered sour cream on everything. Pickled herring. Sliced radishes or kohlrabi on black bread.

You know that supposedly holistic diet—eat what your grandmother’s ate? Excuse me, chicken fat on rye bread? Not exactly health food.

My father’s parents were almost completely silent on the topic of the old country. Their policy seemed to be: It was a bad place and we left. Have something else to eat, kinde.

The local “graf” told my paternal grandfather to go to America. The word means “count” in Russian but I doubt he was any kind of lord-—probably just local gentry.

I thought of my mother’s parents as the Russian ones, the very short ones, the poor ones. I adored them.

My grandmother used a Russian word to describe me and my two sisters. She called the three of us a troika.

Although Russia was an empire it was also brewing a revolution. They were Russian in part because of politics. My grandfather Avrum was in the general strike of 1905. He had anti-tsarist pamphlets-—burned them in a back room stove when police came to call. My grandmother Sadie had a sister married to a Bolshevik sent to Siberia. They was killed by Hitler—or maybe Stalin. In any case, Sadie’s letters were returned.

“In Russia the cherries were sweeter” Sadie and Avrum used to say, spitting out the pits in their garden gazebo in Boston. A little house built to escape summer heat. Very Russian. It drove my mother crazy. How could the cherries not be sweetest here in the land of the free?

It wasn’t until I grew up that I became aware of Ukrainian culture—language, music, poetry, people. And then Ukraine became a modern nation. And once again, Russia came after it.

But it will never be only a real contemporary place to me. Inside me is the Pale—really that is the heart of it, more than Russia it is a place of Jewish settlement within different strains of Slavic and eastern European culture.

“Russian Jews,” my contemporaries, have suddenly been asking ourselves about our grand-parents. Where DID they come from? I’ve attempted to clarify for mine.

If I write more about this, I’ll investigate how this history compels me to automatically lie when faced with authority. To feel that my “ancestors” aren’t necessarily a purely good thing. How the Jews of Odessa were gangsters as well as otherworldly and pious. And more.

Bubbe Report

Bubbe Report

Many years ago, my daughter Isabel, then aged 3, fascinated me and her father by telling a visitor, “We need to speak privately,” and escorting her into a back room. “Whatever did you talk about?” we wanted to know. “Flashlights,” the visitor answered, to general amusement.

I didn’t see Grainne for about 3 weeks this fall—a relatively long time in the life of someone not yet 2 years and 8 months. I was gone, and then she was on a back-country RV trip in Canyonlands and Moab with her parents. When she came back, I was stunned by her developmental leap. Suddenly she was speaking in full sentences, about things we both share and about her private world.

“I missed you!” I exclaimed.
“I missed you, too” she said.
A toddler no longer. We were having an actual, if limited, conversation.

“How was your trip?” I asked.
G. responded: “Rocks. A road. Dinosaurs.” Then added the detail of a child who had been on a motorcycle: “Bumpy.”

She then spent a long—very long by small-child standards—time playing with modeling clay. I just listened.

As she modeled, she said: “Apple pie! Add a little bit. A tiny bit. A BIG apple. For you.” Then quiet, and a turn of topic: “Robots. It’s good I caught them…” Then, back to pie.

But language isn’t everything.

Sometimes I wonder if being a parent isn’t a bit about unrequited love. Children do love us, often madly, but it is necessity, for survival. Parents don’t always love their children, but if we are lucky enough to then that love can be tinged with the awareness that they will be leaving and outgrowing our care. Even more so as a grandmother. I’m only temporarily in her life and she won’t need me this way forever.

So I was beyond gratified to have G. look up from her clay and suddenly rush towards me, saying “time for a hug.”

Support Reproductive Rights or Put a Bean up Your Nose

I have a friend I admire–let’s call her Ruthie. Decades ago as a young mom, she worked to keep abortion legal. Her office was in a non-profit complex, and her toddler daughter was in daycare just down the hall.

Ruthie was set to go on local television to give her pitch about a woman’s right to choose. At that very moment, the toddler put a dried bean up her nose. Everyone tried to remove it, to no avail. The toddler shrieked, and shrieked some more.

Ruthie’s assistant took the toddler out of camera–and ear–range. Ruthie spoke to the cameras. Then jumped in the car and took the toddler to the pediatrician. Let me just say that toddler is now a grown woman, and her nose is fine.

There is no moral to this story, of course. But it does inspire reflection, and is still funny. Ruthie was in a classic working mom bind, but handled it well. There is something endearing about a women’s rights activist having to get a bean taken out of a toddler’s nose.

I think also that some of the unconflicted love the women of my generation–and after–bear our children is linked to a woman’s right to choose. These children were wanted. Even if not planned for, or desired at first, they were indeed chosen. Abortion has been legal most of my reproductive life–and for the whole life of Ruthie’s daughter. It is a real option.

Children can be a stress, or seem inevitable, but we do have the basic right to choose. And with that choice comes love.

Image from https://www.sharp.com/health-news/my-child-stuck-what-up-his-nose.cfm