The event propelled my grandmother like others of her background and experience to become members of the Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), which I heard about from her and their meetings as I grew up. I did not realize until many years after her death, while cleaning up my parents’ house after my mother’s death, that my bubby had in fact completed high school in New York, at night, a feat that was quite remarkable in those days for a woman with her background.
My bubby had a beautiful voice and sang in a Yiddish Choir and often attended performances of the Yiddish theatre to which she took me when I was old enough to accompany her and appreciate what were often massive productions of song and dance. One of my tasks as my mastery of the piano became sufficient was to accompany her on the piano when she practiced for recitals. With my mother often out of the house working, my bubby was very critical to my childhood development and I loved being with her, whether it was watching her prepare gefilte fish for Friday night, chopping the fish with a hand chopper in a large oval wooden bowl or bringing her the forvitz (the Yiddish paper Forward) which she read from front to back. I recall once asking her how it was that she spoke what seemed to me so many languages and she said with a short laugh, “Where I grew up, you didn’t know from day to day who was in charge, so in order to survive you spoke all the languages you might need to get by.”
My bubby died when I was 12 years old after an illness the first evidence of which I witnessed on the way back from a Yiddish Theatre production to which she took me. It was a glorious event. On the subway platform of Brighton Beach she suddenly said she did not feel well, staggered a bit and then threw up. After a few minutes of this, she said she felt better and we got home by bus. That was the beginning of the evidence of what apparently were brain metastases from what I think was breast cancer, only because I once saw her coming out of the bathtub and even with my imperfect understanding of female anatomy I recognized that one of her breasts was missing and there was a scar in its place. Her death left a serious lonely void in my life which of course passed with time, but she was always present in my consciousness.
I loved to take things apart, put them back together and figure out how they worked. My father was an engineer and he was a whiz at fixing things. I cannot recall ever having a tradesperson in the house to repair a sink, a roof or an electric appliance. I loved the sciences and math in school and decided I would be an engineer like my father. I even went to one of New York’s special schools within the public system that catered to students with special interests and talents, Brooklyn Technical High School, geared for those interested in careers in engineering. I loved the school, especially the various “shops” which were done after the regular curriculum – woodworking, foundry, sheet metal and best of all machine shop- where one learned to use very complex and sophisticated lathes and punches and drills. Throughout my life I have used the skills learned at “Tech” as we called it, to build and fix the same things my father did during my childhood.