At dinner the other night, our friend mentioned an impending thunderstorm. “Do you know Paddington” — her dog — “can predict a storm an hour before the first crash of thunder?” she asked us. “When Paddy senses the change in barometric pressure, she quivers under the table and waits for her security blanket.”
When I heard about the dog’s forecasting skills, I thought of my mother-in-law, Hannah, of blessed memory. Not that Hannah sheltered under a table or became agitated about the weather. Well, sometimes, she did get a bit upset. But due to her rheumatoid arthritis, she believed she could predict rain coming within 24 hours and within a 100-mile radius. She insisted her aches and pains were more reliable than any weather map.
I think about Hannah often, but on that evening, I suddenly remembered that her birthday was approaching. She would have had 99 candles on her cake — 100 if you count the extra one for good luck! Instead, arteriosclerosis and kidney disease snuffed out those candles when she was 82 years old.
Our paths converged in 1971, when I started dating her son at Stony Brook University. Andy was an only child, and she was a widow. I always found it remarkable that she had encouraged him to go to an out-of-town college and learn how to be independent at 17. After all, he could have had a stellar education living at home, matriculating at a university in New York City. Would I have been so incredibly selfless if I were the widowed mom of a teenager?
Fifty years later, I wish I had thanked her for sending that scrawny kid with the wild curly hair my way. He’s the guy I married 45 years ago.
But what did Hannah know about college dorms and campus life? One of five children, she grew up in New York during the Depression. She graduated from high school and then enrolled at night school to learn a marketable skill. As a successful bookkeeper and office manager, she set the high standards for a small and reputable real estate firm.
She commuted from her Riverdale apartment, overlooking Van Cortlandt Park, to her office on 72nd Street and Broadway, overlooking what was known, then, as “Needle Park.” Coincidentally, her old office neighborhood and daily drive now are part of our own landscape. When we drive along the Henry Hudson Parkway on our regular trips from New Jersey to Manhattan to babysit our grandson, I picture Hannah sitting in rush-hour traffic in her 1972 copper-colored Dodge Dart. How did she keep her sanity as she navigated snow, rain, blinding sun, and pitch darkness for more than 25 years? One of her cigarettes might have helped. Or was it the reward of a parking spot reserved for her in the Schwab House Garage on Riverside Drive? (Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury!)
When we leisurely pass that landmark, with our grandson in his stroller, I inevitably envision my mother-in-law hurrying to work, perhaps stopping momentarily for coffee and a danish to bring to her desk. That bakery on 72nd Street is long gone, replaced by a chichi café serving lattés and macarons. Her two-story office building — with an elevator operator —also is long gone. A sleek skyscraper squeezed its way into that space.
It’s not only on the streets of Manhattan where I imagine Hannah. When I look in the mirror, I see her reflection. I am now the mom, mother-in-law, and grandmother with short gray hair, glasses, crow’s feet, and age spots. Suddenly, we have so much in common! I want to sit and talk to her, ask her advice at the kitchen table. Mostly, I want to thank her for being a role model for my husband and me, and our children.
I want to thank her for welcoming me into her family as a daughter, not a daughter-in-law. I hope my children’s spouses feel the same way about me. When Hannah remarried at 56, Andy and I both walked her down the aisle, equal partners in giving away the bride.
I want to give her a hug for stopping my tears when Andy and I struggled with infertility. She assured me her love for an adopted grandchild would be no different than her love for a biological grandchild. Of course, that would be the case, but it meant the world for me to hear it from her. As it turned out, she had two biological grandchildren, who inherited her stubbornness gene.
How did she know when to give advice and when to be silent? She always struck the right balance, like the balance in her palindrome name. I’m sure we did things as parents that drove her crazy, such as extremely late bedtimes and carefree schedules. She never criticized. Will I have that discipline?
Finally, I want to ask her how she felt holding her grandchildren for the first time. I don’t know if she believed in God, but I wonder if, maybe for one second, she thanked Her for these miracles. Did caressing a newborn feel like holding a heartbeat in her hands, a heartbeat with history and hope? And what was it like to see her son and daughter-in-law suddenly embrace their new roles as parents? She must have been so proud, but did she also find it unbelievable?
If I could wish her a mazel tov on her 99th birthday, what would I say? First, I would fill her in on the minutiae and momentous events of the past 17 years — the college graduations, weddings, births, travels, elections, the pandemic, and the country she would never recognize.
“The family is OK,” I would tell her. That’s all she would really want to hear.
We would tell her about Howie, her second husband. I would assure her there was never any “step” or “in-law” in our relationship once she passed away. He looked forward to lunches, shopping, and weekly phone calls with his grandchildren. Andy and I visited often, accompanied him to doctors, and filled his freezer with homemade meals. When his health declined a decade after Hannah’s death, we made sure that he maintained his dignity and independence.
I would tell her that Andy and I spent a day in Flushing on his 65th birthday, trying to recapture his youth. The ethnic population of his old apartment building had changed, but the building itself looked exactly as he remembered. Like a castle! A castle! But there weren’t any pigeons on the fire escape; all the “digeons” (her great-grandson’s word) must have relocated to the baby’s terrace in Manhattan.
We also went to Alley Pond Park, the site of Andy’s extended family’s weekly summer outings. But Andy needed his mother to complete the memories and tell us exactly where the tire swing hung and how in the world everyone shlepped the grill, food, blankets, chairs, all the athletic equipment, and the frail grandma — Hannah’s mother — to their favorite park location. On that walk, we both missed Hannah as the family matriarch.
Finally, I would assure her that the last painful years of her life did not define her. Her enjoyment of crossword puzzles, her mechanical pencils, and her sprinkling of Yiddish words in conversation are part of her legacy. More importantly, her generosity, work ethic, honesty, and her love and pride in her family are the values she taught us and we treasure.
Merrill Silver and her husband live in Montclair; she’s a freelance writer and teaches ESL at JVS of MetroWest. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Hadassah magazine, the Forward, the New York Jewish Week, and other publications. Find her at merrillsilver.wordpress.com