In the photograph, I see the gold watch hanging on a thick chain adorning my grandmother’s neck. It is now the possession of our eldest child, our daughter Amy. And so it was passed from generation to generation, not to tell time, but to be an ongoing remembrance of our family story. I love its connectedness, its bringing the generations together. I love how Amy must feel as she puts it on, thinking back to the great-grandmother she would have loved, but whom she never knew.
My maternal grandparents gaze at me from the picture, which is one of a select few treasured enough to be placed, in perpetuity, on our kitchen wall. Between them are their two eldest children, sons Duvid and Chaim, who were to become Americans called Dave and Charlie. The photo was taken in Augustow, Poland, years before my American-born mother, Ida, entered the world. My careful estimation is that the picture already has had a long life and is now about 120 years old. It is professionally framed in such a way that it will continue to endure for centuries. It will be immortal, a pathway for future generations, to give them an enhanced vision of their roots.
I can only imagine the palpable excitement my grandparents felt on the day the photo was taken. No doubt, from what I’ve learned, rather than from what I knew, Peshka, my grandmother, was the one who generated the idea to take a family portrait. Pop, my grandfather, was far too practical. He would, and probably did, say that it was too expensive, that they needed every bit of money to arrange their transport to America. She would have successfully argued that their time in Europe was quickly coming to an end, and that they had to memorialize it meaningfully. She made the arrangements, and the photo-shoot was planned.
Each of them was dressed in their finest finery. The two boys were undoubtedly ordered, not asked, to refrain from playing and getting dirty. Both of them wore atypical fancy scarves atop pure, immaculate, white shirts. Their parents wore shul clothes. Pop had on a spiffy vest, an actual tie, and a well-made jacket. Peshka, who my own mom called Mom, wore an elegant gown. All had professional tonsorial work and their hair was parted in the middle, in the style of the day. Their gazes into the camera show no trace of smiles. Then, unlike now, smiles were not seen in photos very often.
When the picture was framed and ready, it was carefully packed for the journey to America. No matter what else they had to bring, the picture was going to be included. They wanted me, and their other descendants, to stare at it and wonder about them, about their lives and their bravery, shared by so many other Jewish immigrants to America, sufficient to leave everything they had known about life and living, especially their beloved family members, to come to a foreign land with practically nothing. I can see in their eyes that they had the fortitude to make it work. And now, with the perspective of history, I know that they did.
They were the dreamers, those who plunged forward and crossed oceans with little children in tow. They were those who came with bravery, fearless or not, to a new land, and found success. And I, in the powers vested in me, can tell you of their futures. I can tell you what they didn’t know about their lives to be. I cannot predict my own future, but in the power of the photograph, I can tell you all about the lives of those no longer walking amongst us.
Pop found work as a presser in the garment industry, which provided salvation for so very many of his cohort. He earned a pittance, but nonetheless, a new child, my mother Ida, entered the family and their cold-water flat in Brooklyn. She was privileged to be the first of the family to be born in a hospital. She became the princess. Pop ironed her bedsheet every frozen winter night. And my grandmother Peshka made plans. She was a doer, a hardworking, industrious woman who had big dreams. She had abundant talents, people talents. And she was a masterful cook. She became a hotelier, a career that my own mother always said killed her mother. She opened the Bauman House in Parksville, New York, and Jews came to enjoy her food for decades, until, at age 62, she worked herself to death.
The boys followed their own stars. Dave became a businessman, father to Leon, husband to Fannie, and undoubtedly the most loving, kind, caring, sweet, generous person I have ever known. He died long before his time, in his early 50s, and I miss him always. He was a total mensch.
Charlie fulfilled his mother’s dream, and became a dentist, husband to Bessie, father to Richard and Jonathan, my kid cousin known to many as Bowzer of ShaNaNa fame. Charlie, too, died young.
Pop died at age 77, at our home on Aldine Street in Newark. He had a small frame and a big love for his progeny. He was such an integral part of our household that I can never go back in time and imagine growing up without him.
And my mother. Although she is not seen in the picture, she was lucky enough to be allowed to go to Brooklyn College, which was not the norm in her generation. She studied the poetry she so loved, Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson. She learned to adore opera and theater, and art, and to share that love with us, her children. She died, in the transient life of a Jew, in Israel, at age 85, years before her beloved Sam, my father, joined her in the Herzliya Cemetery.
I told you I knew their futures, all of them. They were frozen in time in the picture. I see them before the lights flashed as they gazed seriously into the camera, looking ahead to the unknown, to what was still to come.
May they rest in peace.
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!