“Men are so easily broken,” insisted the old woman from the old country. She was probably my age, though she looked a hundred. Those babushka hairstyles, wrapped under softening chins, did no favors to aging broads. I oughta know. At any rate, our narrator was convinced of her convictions and hardly shy about voicing them in the strongest of East European accents.
At this late date, it’s hard to recall the subject of the public TV exposé, but it was definitely one involving never admitting defeat, facing off against numerous difficulties, prolonged suffering and interestingly enough, standing by your man, knowing he required the utmost in love and support from you in order to face up to the dilemmas confronting your family.
WHOA! What was I hearing? But, haven’t I always known it? We are the stronger sex. We women live longer; we have more reserves and weapons in our arsenal and possibly more tricks up our sleeves.
Mme Babushka’s family apparently presented more complications, uncertainties, miseries than any one male family member could easily stomach. The father, brother, cousin, husband, grandfather as well as neighbour, would not recover as quickly as this woman and her cohorts simply because: clothing had to be washed, beds made, food obtained and eaten; clean water sought out, diapers changed, burials arranged. She couldn’t afford to take her misfortune personally. Ego had no part in her story. Life must go on.
The TV droned on, but I had wrung all the sense I was capable of wringing out of the presentation. Girls, we have no time to break or get broken. We’re holding the shards close to our chests, careful not to drop any, never to disappoint those who depend on us, the ones desperately clutching onto our apron strings. Who has time for posturing? There’s too much to do. Grieving our losses is a luxury we have no time for. In a catastrophe, all look to Mama.
“What do we do next?”
“Men are so easily broken. . .”
Broken men. In my own family, I quickly tally three. No further reflection needed. Uncle Mel ran off to the Marine Corps at 17, a sensitive boy-child whose best subject was Latin. Agreed: he was a wise guy, whose big mouth had him spending the majority of his time in the brig. We were told he’d cracked up, become schizophrenic, fallen under the influence of bad sorts. Grandpa yelled and carried on; he was positively livid: he could have used Mel’s help in the grocery stores he owned. But it was Mel’s immigrant mother who somehow got herself to Washington, DC, and finagled a dishonourable discharge for her son which later she managed to have changed to an honourable one.
All, however, was not well. Once home, Mel threatened neighbours with a gun! He was arrested and risked incarceration. Grandma talked to a lawyer in the family. As a result, Mel spent the next ten years of his life in an upstate psychiatric facility. Finally, Grandma succeeded in securing his freedom. He was in his late 20’s with no work history, no friends, no wife. His mother welcomed him home to their tiny Brooklyn apartment, and signed him up for programs that would teach him a trade. A year later he moved to Detroit from New York and never again had mental problems. Though he became a working alcoholic, he did well on the job and was generally well thought of by his coworkers and superiors. When he died at 57, they had only praise for his work ethic and skills. My other uncle, Bert, was a smart, good-looking kid when it came down to it, always in trouble, who spent time in and out of reform school because my grandparents could not control him.
Grandma did well by her husband; her life was hardly a bowl of cherries. She gave birth to five children at home, on the kitchen table, watched as two of them died in infancy—the family was too poor to pay for doctors. She dutifully followed her husband and shepherded her children in and out of neighbourhoods where he thought his grocery stores would do well. Depression hit and his customers wouldn’t stop jumping out of windows. She’d warned Grandpa not to extend so much credit. Family lore is that he wasn’t much of a businessman. How could he be? Though he spoke Yiddish, German, Polish, and Russian, he’d left school in 3rd grade and started adult life as a ragman. He taught himself to read and write in English and he and his wife became citizens.
Grandma stood by when Grandpa became a realtor overnight and bought for himself the first property he represented: a small kosher hotel in the Catskills catering to a mostly Jewish kosher crowd. Did he ever make any money? Unlikely, but Grandma enjoyed her role in the kitchen as the Chef, and we children enjoyed the nearby lake and blueberry picking for Grandma’s pies. The hotel business lasted ten years until Old Route 17 was replaced by the Quickway, cutting off access and easy accessibility to the hotel. The government soon repossessed the property when Grandpa could not pay back taxes. His last stand was attempting to sell bagels at a NYC subway stop. At that point, he was half-blind from cataracts and Grandma finally convinced him that muggers were going to put an end to his newfound career. His munching on nitroglycerin tablets failed to prevent several heart attacks, after which, he would lose contact with reality. Grandma’s chicken soup restored him each time, but at 72, Grandma wound up in one hospital and he in another. No way to bring him any home-cooked dishes. They died within a week of each other. They hadn’t done badly for two adolescents, two first cousins in fact, who’d taken a long boat ride to Ellis Island.
Finally, there was my mother, Ruth, who would have liked to become a journalist or lawyer, but knew there was no money for that. She suffered from bad acne and for a year or two, from a colourfully named disease, a nervous disorder, St. Vitus’ Dance. She became extremely thin and had the shakes while struggling to fit into the two dozen schools she attended due to the family’s frequent moves. Later, unable to find work—“They weren’t hiring Jewish girls”– at 19 she left home and moved to DC where she quickly found a government job. Before she left home, she made sure to “steal” the address of her best friend’s penpal. She always insisted Dad was too smart for her friend, but apparently just smart enough for her. She married my father, a young man with a hearing disability, at 21. In the course of their marriage, she learned to assert herself and became comfortable making decisions. She moved us out of a tight two-bedroom apartment with one bath and into a pretty attached house. Dad was not exactly a go-getter so Mom made sure to attend college at night, and take civil service exams to create a fall-back position for herself. She carved out a solid career as a school secretary with the Board of Education. At 74, she announced she’d had it with Dad and said goodbye to a 50+ year marriage. Within a month she had lined up husband number two and stayed with him until his death 17 years later. She insisted on doing her own taxes until the age of 75 and succumbed to old age a few years later with all her marbles very much intact.
Next generation: Steve never quite fit in. In those days, doctors were not so quick to affix labels to childhood mental illness. Later, we would realise his problems were not laziness or rebelliousness, possibly ADHD, schizoid or borderline personality? Who knew? Mom just did her best; sat for hours teaching him good work habits; went to school to fight battles for him; sent him to day camp for socialisation. Steve graduated college but never worked at a job commensurate with his intellect. He often asked us for advice but rarely followed up. Destined to remain a loner and a marginal figure, sadly he fell victim to Parkinson’s disease at 50, dying 20 years later, incapable of speech or movement.
The show must go on. On the surface, my family endured its share of hardships, but we women never gave way to depression, laziness, anger, or jealousy. We did our best, we’d be the first to tell you. Among our grandparents’ heirs, we count many successful professionals. None were “so easily broken.” I’ve always felt I descended from strong women–Grandma’s sister, to name one, was a real pistol, but requires a separate tome.
In our generation, we’ve dealt with divorce and single parenthood and Asperger’s and at least one wayward child. I regret that I do not have a little feminist daughter to carry on the torch, but my step-granddaughter is more than capable!
I never gave gender roles that much thought when I was younger. Sure, I knew that Mom was the one who could get things done. She clearly was progressive in her thinking, but was not above hiding behind my father with a simple phrase, “Oh, you know your father.” That phrase signalled that she would not go to bat for us children. We were on our own.
In my first marriage I picked a strong handsome smart specimen who was sure to lead me to the adventurous life I craved. It took me a few years to realise I was not willing to follow in his footsteps. Guess what? I was a strong woman all by myself. I stepped out of my assigned role to pursue single motherhood, a career, and writing. In my second marriage after sixteen years of single parenthood I was ready to find a “giver,” someone strong, handsome, and smart to honour me and share adventures and just ordinary life with me. Twenty-five years later, I know I made the right choice.
We forget we’re a mere two generations removed from the immigrant experience, from Mom and Mel and Bert and Grandma and Grandpa living in one cramped apartment or another behind their store. Our “frontier” women worked their magic in Brooklyn and Manhattan and Queens, assumed grown-up tasks when they were teenagers, and stumbled through as best they could.
May we all do as well with our families!