The Zionist Conspiracy
Friday, September 09, 2005
Renee Schick z'l
My grandmother - the only one of my grandparents to be alive during my life - was born 100 years ago today, on September 9, 1905. She passed away on April 21, 1998, at the age of 92.
From around the age of 6, I went with my father (and brother when he was home) to my grandmother's house just about every shabbos morning after shul.
During the last 10 days of her life, when it was becoming apparent that her body could not recover from her illness, my extended family spent a lot of time at the home of my uncle and aunt, where my grandmother stayed for those last days. I remember telling an older and wiser work colleague then that I feared that as the years passed, what I would remember most about my grandmother was those last days. My colleague responded that many feel that way, but that in fact after a little while, the happier times would be the dominant memory.
I don't know if it's good or bad, but looking back more than seven years later, those last days remain my most vivid memory.
I also remember going out on the early evening of October 27, 1986 and meeting my grandmother on the street. Three years earlier, at the age of 78, she fell and broke her hip, and subsequently had a heart attack while hospitalized. I remember thinking, in 1986, after seeing her walking on the street, that my grandmother had recovered quite well. Presumably, however, I remember this because it was the night the Mets won the World Series. I had gone out to buy a blank videotape to tape Game 7 of the World Series.
Five months before my grandmother died, I moved to the Upper West Side. I wasn't home as often for shabbos, and when I was home and came over, she would ask me why I hadn't come the previous couple of weeks after shul. I would simply say that I was away or that shul finished late, not wanting to get into a discussion of whether or not it was a good idea for me to move to Manhattan.
March 29, 1998 was the last time I visited my grandmother on shabbos after shul. Her mind was completely sharp as always, but by then she had fallen a few times. Two nights later, she had a fever, and was hospitalized - supposedly just for the night. I had a pretty bad feeling immediately, sensing that 92 year olds don't do well in hospitals. In my mind, I resolved that I would come home more often for shabbos - and I indeed did - but my grandmother did not recover.
After my grandmother died, one habit that my parents kept - perhaps subconsciously - was that the shabbos lunch meal starts at almost the same time that it would had we first gone to my grandmother after shul. So typically, everyone will just sit around for a half-hour before eating.
Shortly after my grandmother's passing, my father wrote the following article in the New York Jewish Week:
My mother died on April 21, two days after Pesach and 60 years after my father. She was an extraordinary person, with a prodigious memory and powerful mind. Her courage sustained and molded a family that might have disintegrated under the burden of tragedy. At 92, she was too young to leave us.
She was born in Romania into a comfortable family that lost everything, as did many others, in World War I. Although she was an outstanding student, her studies were not continued after high school graduation, something that she regretted all her life.
In 1928, she came to the U.S., shortly after her marriage to my father, a cousin from the same area in Romania who was already in this country, serving as the rabbi of a Manhattan synagogue. We have few photographs and know little of her early years here. She began to raise a family -- Arthur in 1930, Ruth in 1932, Allen and me in 1934. In 1931, she published a recipe book in English, with the income going to charity.
Purim in 1938 fell on March 17, St. Patrick's Day. My father had been hospitalized for a burst appendix but seemed on the way to recovery. My mother saw him in the morning, went home to care for the children and then was called back to the hospital to be told that her husband had died of peritonitis.
Just weeks before her own passing, and sensing that she was seriously ill, she sat down immediately after Shabbat and wrote a narrative of that dark day, of how she fought her way through the carousing crowds with tears streaming down her face to return home to cover the mirrors and mourn.
She entered a period of pain and despair, of a desperation that she never spoke of, although over the years scraps of information appeared. My father had died penniless; three weeks later she was served with eviction papers. She had no close relatives in this country, no parents or siblings or nieces or nephews, only cousins and four young children, ages 3 to 7.
Allen and I were placed in an orphan's home. In 1939, I was hospitalized, critically ill with diphtheria. The next year was Allen's turn with pneumonia. She turned to people for help and some of the responses added to her pain. A handful of people who assisted in a modest way could not forget to remind her of what they had done.
Already in 1938 she had written to a saintly relative in Europe, asking whether she could send Arthur and Ruth to be cared for back home and also for advice. He responded that there were darkening clouds in Europe and told of a widow who, faced with a similar situation a century earlier, had provided for her children by baking challahs for Shabbat.
Late in the year my mother moved to Borough Park where there were cousins who helped. Out of a small oven in her apartment, she began to bake, four challahs at a time. Skilled in all ways with her hands, her challahs and cake quickly gained acceptance. In 1943, the year of Arthur's bar mitzvah, the family was reunited and my mother opened what would become perhaps the most famous kosher bakery in the world.
The next 17 years were hard work, running the bakery and trying to raise four children. In quality of product, kashrut and business ethics, my mother maintained a high standard. I cannot recall a single dispute with a supplier or customer. Our practice was to give a weight allowance on every piece of cake that was sold.
My mother's schedule in those years was legendary. We lived above the bakery. Except during the summer, on Thursdays she would arise at 3 a.m., be in the bakery within the hour and work without letup until an hour or two before Shabbat.
By 1960, Arthur had started his own business, Ruth was married and living elsewhere, Allen and I were on the way toward doctorates and academic careers. The bakery was sold.
Retirement hardly meant inactivity or much leisure. My mother had gone to Israel in the 1950s to seek relatives who had survived and to provide help. This became a larger part of her life, as did the local women's burial society. She read and corresponded widely, made bedding for the children and grandchildren and cooked and baked up a storm. She often responded to calls by saying that she was too busy to talk.
The pain of her first years as a widow left its mark, mainly in her fierce caring for the unfortunate and also for ordinary people who led simple, good lives. She cared not of their religion or skin color. At her local supermarket, she found out when the cashiers had a birthday, confirmation or other happy event in their family and for each one she would bake and decorate a cake and have it delivered. So it went in doctor's offices and wherever else she met people she hardly knew.
Several weeks before she died, we (and she) sensed that the end was near. For Pesach and her last ten days, she was at Arthur and Dorothy's home in a makeshift hospital room where family members and several wonderful medical people ministered to her.
As she lay dying, she bequeathed us a legacy of living. It was a gift that she never lost awareness of her remarkable memory. Each day she recited from memory chapters of Tehillim (Psalms) and favorite prayers and said the Viduy, the confession for the dying. On her last Friday night, the final day of Pesach, she blessed the Shabbat lights and heard kiddush. The next afternoon, we thought the end was near. Her four children gathered around her bed, held her hands and said the transcendent Sh'ma Yisrael prayer with her, word by word. The grandchildren then came in, one by one, to say goodbye, to cry, to be blessed.
On her final day, as she reviewed what might be left unfinished, she gave instructions to give gifts to three nurses at Maimonides, a book by Allen for the hospital's president, a birthday cake to a disabled man. On Monday morning, while holding my wife's hand, she let go and she died.
Amid the tears and Tehillim, we had celebrated a Pesach of loss and of redemption.