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!