There’s no doubt that the story was highly exaggerated, but when I was a child I heard it said my grandmother was so strong that she had once carried a claw-foot bathtub in her arms. I tend to believe that statement was metaphorical, perhaps derived from an old Yiddish folk tale or saying, but as a child I believed it as fact.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandmother lately. I suppose it’s because I’m a grandmother and have the good fortune to see at least some of my grandchildren all the time. And, in the last two months, I’ve been able to spend time with all of them.
I am sure my grandmother was strong, though, especially in stamina and courage. She was said to have walked, perhaps occasionally hitching hay-wagon rides, across several countries from Moldova to Hamburg with three little children, one of whom was still in arms. She must have had enough money for their passage to America, but the trek sounds almost impossible to me. She carried a pair of candlesticks — thin silver plate — with her, too.
What I’ve really been thinking about, though, is what my grandchildren will remember of me. That may sound a bit morbid, but the fact is that although I loved my grandmother, I know so little about her.
My father’s mother died before I was born. The only legacy I have from her is my middle name, and I’ve been known to offer $5 to anyone who can guess what it is. No one ever does, although it is not all that unusual.
So I’m thinking about my maternal grandmother, for whom my daughter is named. Her maiden name was Bessie Rothman, which was fitting because she had red hair until it turned yellow-gray. I’ve always hoped red hair would emerge in one of her great-grandchildren, but it hasn’t.
As a matter of fact, she allayed my nervousness about introducing her to the man I married in 1960, Ev Rattray, by taking one look and exclaiming with delight that he was a “royter.” (Yes, another redhead.)
What I remember about her most was that I loved her. I know she liked card games because she taught me to play solitaire and concentration, but I turned her down when she offered to teach me to read and write Yiddish. She made blueberry jam and a kind of blueberry upside-down cake, but I don’t recall if she was known for any other cooking. Nor do I remember what the cheese she made — by allowing sour milk to hang in and drain from a cheesecloth bag during the summer — tasted or looked like.
In America, my grandmother remained an immigrant. She spoke English with a Yiddish accent, and I was told that she once also spoke Romanian, the language of the country where she was born. She read the Hebrew in the Bible, at least to some extent, too, but I remember her going to the orthodox synagogue my family belonged to only on holidays.
So, what tall tale will my grandchildren remember of me? That their grandma was so good at numbers she could reel off every telephone number she ever dialed? (There’s a tiny kernel of truth in that, as in most family fables.) Or that I could recite whole chapters from “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White? I can’t lift a bathtub, but I can carry a tune.