|I. My father’s parents Ida and Joseph met when he was a boarder in her family’s house. They got married, probably in the early 1910’s and had a baby boy in 1911, Abraham Sidney. He died of broncho-pneumonia before his first birthday, which was quite common at that time of course. My father never spoke of him and it is possible that he never knew that he had a brother who died before he was born. Soon after that they had a daughter named Anne and then my father in 1917. My sisters and I only learned about him by chance, when my older sister was looking through our parents’ things after they were both gone and found a note written in the margin of a book with his name and dates of birth and death. The next year, the flu pandemic swept over the world aided by war, military refusal to comply with urgent medical advice to isolate sick soldiers, and also the resulting secrecy in many nations. Ida died that October, collateral damage to the War To End All Wars, probably in her early 20’s. Ida’s mother also died, and her father soon remarried and lost touch with the family. My father was less than two years old and Anne probably under five. With two small children to take care of and having to go to work, Joseph remarried within six months, probably in an arranged marriage and, big surprise: it did not go well. He and Pauline had a daughter Evelyn, who Pauline clearly favored over Ida’s children. Based on the descriptions of her from my parents, chances are she would not have wanted Joseph to spend much, or any time visiting Ida’s grave, or the baby’s either. It seems likely that no one had visited their graves since sometime in 1919.
II. Anne, the older daughter reportedly did not get along well with Pauline and moved out in her late teens or early 20’s. She worked in what was then the new Social Security administration, but died at the age of 23 of an infected pimple a few years before penicillin could have saved her life. Ruth, a lifelong friend of my mother’s, who became my friend after my mother’s death, had known Pauline and firmly maintained that some of the responsibility for Anne’s death could be hers, as Anne may have been too young and immature to know when the pimple had become an emergency, but if she had been at home with her family someone would have noticed it and got her to a doctor in time. At this point, who knows?
III. Evelyn, my father’s half-sister was always close to her siblings and did not take advantage of her mother’s favoritism. She never married, traveled frequently, and lived a rather bohemian life. She died at the age of 40 of a thrombosis. My parents later told us that at that time 95 percent of people were generally able to survive thrombosis, but she was one of the unlucky five. I have only one, very hazy memory of her. She had come to visit us after returning from one of her trips. As I recall it we were on the porch and she gave me a gift: a small stuffed toy okapi, which is a kind of giraffe native to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I wish I could have known her.
IV. In 1963 my mother became pregnant for the fourth time. She and my father talked about it and determined that they were not prepared for another child. At that time we were away on vacation in a very rural part of Vermont. Although my mother went through a harrowing experience to get an abortion, she came through it shaken but unhurt. Meanwhile, my father was still in rural Vermont with three little girls to take care of, unable to be with her or even call her and certain that she was about to die as all the other women in his life had.
V. Although Joseph was firmly in the assimilationist camp of immigrants and no Yiddish was ever spoken in their house, he, Pauline and the family probably attended synagogue services on a fairly regular basis. But my father became a lifelong agnostic, probably because he had experienced more than enough suffering to put him off religion entirely. Judaism was part of our lives but only culturally, courtesy of my mother, also an agnostic. It was a very gentle presence, which my sisters and I have carried on but is certainly weaker in the next generation. I must say I was proud to be Jewish when the infamous Hobby Lobby ruling came down and it was revealed that all of the Jews on the court, including the only Jewish man, plus the only Catholic woman voted to preserve women’s rights.
VI. So, recently my sister became interested in learning more about our lost grandmother and did some digging. After a few weeks she found where Ida is buried, and she, her daughter and her partner, and my husband, son and I went to visit her grave in a cemetery near Coney Island. It’s an old cemetery, not accepting any more “customers.” Even though we had the location of the grave and a map it was hard to find her but we kept at it and ultimately did find both her and the baby. We put pebbles on their headstones and my niece had brought some wildflowers which she placed on the ground in front of it. I read a few lines I had written back in the beginning of our workshop, to a prompt, which was write about someone or something you have lost:
Flu pandemic across the earth
Killed a young woman, full of life
Her baby boy, my father
Never knew her
Just one saga of suffering
Amid the untold multitudes
VI. Throughout my life I wondered from time to time about my “other” grandmother but it seemed impossible to learn more about her until the internet, and even since then I had found the prospect daunting. I am so glad and grateful that my sister took on the task. Although I knew about most of the losses my grandfather suffered here in this country (don’t actually know much about his life in Poland, the “old country” but it could not have been good, which was why Jews were fleeing en masse) I feel like I have a much fuller understanding of the totality of it now. It is hard to imagine how he kept going. Certainly I don’t want to be erased, as Ida was, but also I keenly feel the losses of a grandmother, an uncle, and aunts I never knew. In any case, after I have absorbed and processed all of it more fully I am planning to look for cousins in Ida’s line. Maybe she had siblings, and maybe they had children and grandchildren. Or maybe not. But I can try to find out now. We are a tiny family and it would be wonderful to discover more of us.
VII. I'm not looking for cousins in Ida's family line. If she had had siblings before her and her mother's deaths, my father would have known about them. Any others would have been step-siblings, their connection to us over 100 years old. Probably too hard to find, and almost certainly too heart-breaking a journey to embark upon.