My grandmother loved one person in the world. Me. For me, always a smile, never a no. Even on the Sabbath she let me color in my coloring book. Me, alone, she tempted with jelly-filled doughnuts and other sweets my working mother deplored. “Eat, Ninotchka, eat,” was her constant refrain. Then she’d sip her boiling tea while I would ask, with a mouth full of sugar, what it was like when she was a girl.

“The men were all afraid of me.”

I chewed, content.

My grandfather boasted that my grandmother was the bravest, most exciting woman in their Russian village. After he escaped a Cossack sweep for Jewish men, she insisted he leave her behind with their two children and flee to America. After three years of painstaking tailoring, hunched in a dark shop, he sent for his family, who had found refuge in the dirt cellar of a sympathetic peasant. Much later I overheard my bachelor uncles whisper that she probably terrified the poor soul into silence.

“Why were the men afraid of you?” I asked, although I knew that everyone was afraid of her. Except me, of course. Tall for a woman, at five-foot-seven, she towered over my older uncle and her three daughters – my tiny mother and her older sister, Sally. Aunt Gracie, the youngest of the girls, and my younger uncle, Ari, though both taller than Grandma, always stooped beneath her cool scrutiny and seemed shorter. She was handsome, in that regal, fierce Mongolian style. Her black hair, tightly drawn back, sharpened her high cheekbones. The bony sockets of her eyes shadowed whatever color gleamed in those caverns.

“Why were the men afraid of you,” I repeated. I liked to hear the answer.

“Fear or be feared.” She would shrug, then bark her harsh laugh.

My uncles brought home their paychecks for her to deposit in accounts she kept for them. Uncle Murray, the eldest, languished in the bookkeeping job that Grandma considered suitable. He taught folk-dancing at night at the Y, despite Grandma’s disapproval of such foolishness. As for Uncle Ari, her most compliant child, no one knew if his nervousness began when Grandma refused to let him play the piano because she didn’t want to waste the violin given them by some debtor of my grandfather’s. But when the other children sneaked Ari into their piano lessons, the teacher, recognizing Ari’s gift, offered to give him free lessons. So Grandma relented. He eventually became a messenger, traveling around New York with a brief case locked to his wrist.

On morning Uncle Murray tried to push another boundary.

“Acting?” My grandmother squared off immediately. “You think acting is something to do?”

Uncle Murray peeled an orange at the kitchen sink. “I’ll have the lead – it’s a radio play.” He gestured toward the huge box nearly barring the way from the kitchen to the hall. My grandmother would sit open-mouthed before the webbed speaker during news broadcasts. My uncle said, “If there’s an earthquake in Japan, she has to know if any Jews were killed.” At night she riveted her shadowed eyes on my grandfather while he read the Daily Forward to her before dinner.

“A play” my grandmother mimicked my uncle. “A play is playing. So you want to play? So I’ll buy you a toy.” She barked her laugh.

“The rehearsals are only at night,” my uncle said, digging harder into the peel.

“So Borden needs a bookkeeper falling asleep?”

“I’ll be home late,” he said, and dropped the half-peeled orange into the garbage in his rush to the door.

“Throw away good food?” my grandmother shrieked after him. “Starve to death – then we see how long you play.”

I flew after my uncle, catching him half way through the door. He bent and squeezed a kiss against my forehead before stomping down the street.

The family rarely ate together except at the High Holidays. A terrible cook, Grandma put a chicken in a pot of boiling water on the back of the stove and kept it warm there until one or another family member claimed a piece of bleached meat and a bowl of soup – usually after Grandma stalked to the stove to loudly inquire who had not yet eaten and did they think they could stay alive without a good hot meal.

I crept back to my grandmother, who was singing to herself in the kitchen. Hearing me, she said, “Ninotchka – come – Grandma will peel you a nice orange.”

“No,” I said, trembling.

“An egg – a boiled egg and apiece of toast. Come.”


She wiped her hands down the front of her apron. “Okay, okay, but when you’re hungry don’t come to me.” The eyes glistened like water in an underground pool. She grumbled about all our bony bodies, but no one was thinner than she.

I thrust my chin out, daring her.

“Come, Ninotchka,” she said softly, melting the lines in her face into their special arrangement for me. “Come, we’ll walk by Mr. Petchal’s. I bet he has a chocolate doughnut.”

“No.” But I shifted my feet, inclining one hip towards her.

“And the ten cents store – paper dolls with new dresses to cut.”

I hung my head.

“Ninotchka,” a whisper. “Murray ain’t mad. You’ll see. When he comes home, he’ll play hiding with you. Come.”

“A coloring book?” I whispered back.

She took my willing hand. “Come, Ninotchka. Your grandma will make you happy. And later we’ll hear the radio. Listen to your grandma.

Uncle Murray put in twenty-five years as a bookkeeper, but he did turn down all the young women my grandmother suggested he marry. “A bachelor is a disgrace,” she would harangue, but he lived at home until she died.

Only my father, whom my widowed mother married when I was five, worked out a lighthearted relationship with my grandmother. She permitted him to tease her about my mother’s imprecise birth date, tied, as was the custom, to the nearest religious holiday. “How come,” Dad once asked, Lily was born six months after you arrived in this country?”

Grandma shrugged. “Maybe the date I came here, I got it wrong.”

“Maybe some blond Cossack . . . ?”

Her eyes glittering, Grandma merely barked with laughter.

My grandmother called me “The Little Shiksa,” in a tone oddly soft. She never called my mother that, although we both had blond hair and green eyes. When Grandma paraded me down the dense Brooklyn streets, her neighbors would pat my hair and marvel, “She doesn’t look Jewish, does she? A regular Shirley Temple.” My grandmother would nod coldly, and, taking my cue, I dipped my head modestly.

Grandma and I had one regular outing on the streetcar to visit her sister-in-law whom she despised. My grandfather’s sister was a plump as the cushions stuffed about her brocaded apartment. She had no children and cuddled me unmercifully under my grandmother’s icy stare.

“Such a skinny one she is,” my great-aunt would say.

Grandma’s eyes gleamed but she only shrugged. “She eats.”

“If I had her with me, she’d show some flesh,” the woman continued.

“If I ever want her stuffed, I’ll think on it,” Grandma responded. “But I’ve heard too much flesh can make a woman barren. Not that I’m such an expert.”

I could see the heavy roll on the woman’s neck redden, and the next remarks would fly in Yiddish. Nevertheless, the aunt always sent us home laden with packages of expensive children’s clothing that my mother would smooth gently and shake her head at.

Grandma, however, pressed her bony fingers against the pounding in her skull and cursed her sister-in-law’s selfishness.

“Why do you put yourself through it?” my mother asked. “Are these coats and dresses worth your aggravation?”

Grandma paused in her head massage to level a finger at my mother. “Would she send one rag of underwear? No. I should first go to her fine home, walk on her carpets – eat off her dishes – then she gives.”

“But it makes you ill.”

The contemptuous smile fought with the pain on my grandmother’s face. “And after she sees Ninotchka, her Harry tells your father she is sick for days. They thought gold could make babies. Now they rot alone in their fancy apartment.”

“So you’ll kill yourself for a bit of silk and velvet?”

Grandma rose to her full height, towering over both of us. “They owe Nina. Who else do they have? But with some – ” and her eyes seemed to sink deeper, as if into memory – “with some you have to let them see a little . . . suffering . . . before they’ll save even a child.” She raised her fist. “So I make sure I give them back pain for pain.”

“That’s revenge – sickness,” my mother whispered.

But my grandmother heard and we both trembled at the menace with which she said, “You know nothing – nothing about revenge. Revenge,” she concluded, “is justice.”

She eventually made that clear to me. On one of our returns from the great-aunt, we were more loaded down than ever, struggling to thrust ourselves and our packages through the trolley door and down the steep steps. Apparently in a rush, the driver didn’t allow time for us both to alight, catching my coat in the closing doors. My cry of fear was lost in my grandmother’s screeching. When the driver alerted by frantic passengers, finally reopened the doors, my grandmother crushed me against her and began to curse the man in high-decibel Yiddish sprinkled with some English “dog” and “Cossack.” The driver taking tone for content, shook his fist and shouted, “Shut up, you dirty Jew!”

As he drove off, Grandma dropped me to her side. Her eyes seemed to disappear into their craters. Her fists doubled and her throat bulged with sound. She ran alongside the trolley, yelling, spittle flying in the air while I screamed as she dashed away from me. Quickly outdistanced by the trolley, she stood gasping in the street until I ran up to lean against her. Her hair had loosened, and wisps of black streamed witch-like around her face.

“He’ll go to jail,” she vowed bending over me. “He can’t say that – not to me.” I trembled against her, in a kind of exalted terror.

According to family lore, Grandma did indeed bring the man to court. Among my grandfather’s customers she found and bullied a lawyer into taking the case. With time and location documented, the found the driver. How clearly I can envision my grandmother, eyes hooded, informing the judge, in a quieter though equally vehement tone, that in America no man could call her a dirty Jew. To everyone’s surprise the judge agreed and fined the driver, who paid a small sum in red-faced disbelief.

When my grandmother died in her seventies, my uncles bragged she had not one gray hair, nor had she shrunk one inch. She had, however, saved the paychecks she’d demanded they turn over to her, and left each of them a substantial account.

After being told for years that I was just like my grandmother (unaware that it was not entirely a compliment). I began, when I entered college, to search for traces of her in myself. I dated happily until a golden basketball player focused his Teutonic attention on me. Immediately, my status rose with my sorority pledge sisters . . . and myself. I masked my anxiety to please with attempts at humorous self-deprecation. He introduced me to his friends as a “brain,” grinning to show how illogical it was to find one housed in me. Recognizing my cue. I laughed too.

“You know,” he finally said, after an evening in which we emptied ourselves of every detail of our past, “you don’t look Jewish.”

An automatic smile, twin to his began forming on my lips. Then died. I felt as though my eyes were disappearing into caverns. I barked a contemptuous laugh.

“I don’t consider that a compliment,” I said coldly.

He froze, in what looked to me like fear. I felt brave and exciting.

Eventually, I married a dark, neat man, and our daughter is as small-boned as he. My son, however, is very tall and fair, with enormous hands and feet and blue Cossack eyes.

From the book, “To Tell You the Truth…and Other Fictions” by Enid Levinger Powell


About this entry