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Denied memories

Pandemic victim is erased from family history

Photo By Abby Meth Kanter
Photo By Abby Meth Kanter

One hundred years ago, my grandmother was a victim of the Spanish flu, one among the many millions who lost their lives worldwide in that crushing pandemic. She was 31, and her fourth child, my father, was 2 years old.

But we — I, my siblings, and the other grandchildren — did not know that key piece of family history. To us, Grandma Sophie, who lived just minutes away from my family in Passaic, was our beloved and loving grandmother.

The first hint of a missing branch to my family tree may have been a comment someone made to me when I was about 12. I was at a friend’s house, and a woman was there visiting my friend’s mother. When I was introduced to her in the standard way — by noting my parentage (it seems all Jewish adults in Passaic knew of each other in those days) — the woman said, “Oh, you’re Bernie Meth’s daughter; I knew your grandmother.” You mean, I replied, you know my grandmother. Grandma Sophie was alive and well, a widow since the death of my grandfather a dozen years earlier, right before I was born.

There were other clues. One year, when I was in my late teens, we were planning a 75th birthday party for Grandma. It suddenly occurred to me to do the math: I knew my father was then 54 — and he had three older siblings! Had my grandmother been a child bride? When those questions were raised, one of my aunts concocted a plausible explanation: Her mother lied about her age; she was actually closer to 80.

But my mother, it seems, had never been comfortable with the secret, so when my cousin Susan pressed her, she revealed the truth.

The real story was that when Ida, the mother of the four siblings — the oldest not yet 12 — died, her husband, Adolph, unable to care for the youngsters on his own, brought a young cousin of his wife’s from Brooklyn to help out (perhaps before her death; that part is unclear). Within the year, the 24-year-old cousin, Sophie, had married Adolph, who was 15 years her senior. Their only child (my dear Uncle Morty, who died last year at 98) was born soon after.

The decision made later to conceal the truth, it seems, was reached and insisted on by my father’s two sisters, who believed the grandchildren would love Grandma Sophie less if we knew she was not our “real” grandmother.

So what was the outcome of the big revelation? Very little. We cousins wondered among ourselves how our parents could have imagined we would love our sweet, gentle Grandma Sophie one bit less because she was not a “blood” relation. What we didn’t do was ask our parents, aunts, and uncles what their mother was like and what was it like to lose her at such a young age.

Either we lacked curiosity about the lives of our forebears beyond our own immediate experiences and concerns or we implicitly understood that such an exercise — revealing the scars of old wounds, plumbing long-buried feelings, reckoning with unsettling life choices — was something members of “the greatest generation” were unwilling to engage in with any degree of openness.

We also did not ask how they could do what was tantamount to an exceedingly un-Jewish act: We are enjoined to honor our parents; what they did was, in effect, erase — or at best obscure — the memory of their mother.

After all, they could have no pictures of her on display; a couple of the grandchildren were named for her — her Hebrew name, Yehudit, is my middle name — but when we asked who our namesake was, we were told, “a relative who died long ago.” (I very recently discovered that even in my grandfather’s obituary, there was no mention of his having been “predeceased by his first wife.”)

Years after learning the truth, after my parents were gone, I attended a funeral and burial at the Passaic Junction cemetery — the final resting place now of four generations of my family members — and decided to seek out Ida’s grave. What a jolt, what a testament to loss and love that stood in stark contrast to her effacement from our family. The stone, deep in the oldest part of the cemetery’s Tifereth Israel section, dwarfed the others around it. Beyond the standard inscription giving dates of birth and death, it included a heartrending outpouring of grief and a paean to “My Beloved Wife and Our Dear Mother” — “Day and night, tears pour from our eyes,” it reads, with tributes to an “eshes chayil” who is a “crown to her husband,” a “beautiful adornment to her children,” whose “soul shall rest in peace.”

And there was more. During another visit, I saw something I hadn’t noticed before: The first letter of each line was larger than the others; read top to bottom, it was an acrostic spelling out her name: Yehudit bat Reuven.

But in what appeared to be an egregious symbol of her fate, her name on the stone is misspelled: “Maeth” instead of “Meth.” I once asked her son, Uncle Morty, if that perhaps was an alternative spelling in those years. No; as he understood it, the monument engraver just made a mistake. There are at least nine others with that name buried in that cemetery; hers is the only grave with that spelling.

Now that I am a grandmother I mourn even more keenly the denial of the “dor l’dor” ties that in our tradition were due that beloved young wife and mother. Even without those bonds of memory, I have made some attempt at mending the broken chain. I am committed to telling my grandchildren the rich, including the painful, stories of our family. When I attend our synagogue’s Rosh Chodesh gatherings, I remember all my grandmothers in the prayer we recite to honor the women who came before us. I have assumed the privilege of lighting a candle to mark Grandma Ida’s yahrtzeit.

And when my father passed away, I broke with custom and had inscribed on his gravestone not just his father’s name, but the names of both his mothers.

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