By Nancy Eder, a member of Get Your WordsWorth
Letter to Emma, Addie, Rachel, Eliza and Anya
Here are some memories of my family when I was a little girl. Ani, you are three now and Eliza is six. Will you have memories of your grandmas and grandpas? Will you remember the fun of making playdough with Eliza, building blocks on the floor, riding your scooter and making gingerbread men in the kitchen with Nana?
My Brooklyn and the world have vastly changed since I was your age. By the time you read this, there will be some strange and funny things that won’t be familiar to you. I hope that as you grow older and wonder about your own past, you will appreciate these stories.
Written for you all with my love, Nana
Pepi Kornreich was my grandma. She and her apartment are no more. She died suddenly of a heart attack at the young age of seventy-three on the platform of Penn Station after her yearly trip to Florida from New York.
Grandma was the glue, the reason we were a family. As different as each of her seven children were, she brought everyone together as tightly as pins in a cushion. While she was alive, the reason for the gathering of her large extended family lived on. When she died the legacy of family dinners, cousin connections and family traditions were no more; the extended family disintegrated overnight. No one could unite such a group of widely separated ages, interests and educational backgrounds without her at the helm.
My grandparents lived in Boro Park, Brooklyn. Hyman and Pepi were uneducated, poor Jewish immigrants both arriving in NY at age thirteen on separate boats from Hungary. They met a few years later through cousins. Her maiden name was Reich and his was Kornreich. Grandma said that when she married, she just added a little “corn” to her life.
Strong orthodox traditions dictated the course of their family. Grandpa and his four sons were strong pillars and supporters of the temple. Like her peers, Grandma sat upstairs in the area of the temple relegated to women and girls. Downstairs sat my uncles and Grandpa who were often called up to the bema to read from the torah…considered an honor.
My grandma was strictly kosher and followed the orthodox rules governing what could be eaten and what should not be permitted. No work was permitted from Friday sundown through Saturday at sunset. All meals were cooked ahead of time. No one would answer the phone. No one would turn on the lights.
Grandma’s apartment building was large, bulky and ugly in it’s gigantic skin of grey stuccoed stone — a massive edifice with the only trace of architectural style being an open porch facing the avenue and large enough for a family to sit outside on a hot summer afternoon. Large aluminum rocking chairs sat in a line on the porch waiting for escapees from the sweltering apartment. On windless summer days Grandma would bring me a bowl of dark sweet cherries to eat, as I rocked away the afternoon wrapped up in my thoughts.
In my mind’s eye I can see the labored footsteps of the iceman lugging a huge hunk of ice on a piece of burlap over his husky shoulders. . . up the dark hall way steps to her kitchen. The icebox was too large to fit in the kitchen so it sat in the foyer. Under the icebox was a large heavy metal container which collected the melting ice water. It took two people to empty that container into the bathtub.
The kitchen was the heart of the house. The center of all activity. The place where meals were prepared and eaten, except for Friday and Saturday night when dinner was in the more formal but basic dining room.
Feeding a family of seven plus weekend visits from grandchildren involved much shopping and food preparation. Grandma climbed countless steps to do the grocery shopping. Often she took me with her in the carriage. Without frozen foods and little if any canned food in the house, fresh food had to be bought almost every day.
When I was just your age, Eliza, I sat with grandma at the table cleaning the chickens and plucking out the large feathers. Milk and cream were delivered daily in glass bottles by a horse drawn cart. Grandma kneaded, braided and baked the challah. She chopped boiled eggs and onions in a large wooden bowl for the Sabbath lunch.
On Wednesdays, whitefish, carp, and pike swam overnight in the yellow porcelain bathroom tub before they were gutted, deboned and ground with matzo meal and eggs and poached into gefilte fish. Even the horseradish accompaniment was homemade. No jars for this family!
Quartered ducks and garlic roasted in the oven for Friday night dinner filling the apartment with their mouthwatering fragrance. A large pot of chicken soup simmered away with carrots, turnips, parsnips, chicken feet and baby eggs making a rich flavorful soup. Matzo balls were a regular staple on Friday nights and those, of course, were always made from scratch.
Paper thin sheets of flour held together by pounds of butter hung like curtains down to the floor. Sliced apples and cinnamon adorned the flaky pastry grandma rolled on her twelve-foot long marble kitchen table before she cut them into wide strips and wrapped them into apple strudel.
My grandparents’ bedroom was comprised of two beds pushed together as one. The only decoration was a small wooden sign carved in German. I never knew what it said, but many babies were conceived under that mysterious posting.
The adjacent room was for the twin girls, Gertie and Rose, their beds modestly adorned with two wooden arched headboards. Outside their bedroom window was the clothesline attached to the house and miraculously three stories high, hammered to the nearby telephone pole. A pulley arrangement allowed my grandma to move the clothes further away from her as she clothes-pinned each washed garment to dry in the western sun. Where did all the shirts and underwear get washed? In the kitchen sink scrubbed by hand on a washboard.
Further down the hall was the large bedroom of my uncle Ben. The food was good. The women were easy. Why leave home? He lived with his parents at home till he married at the ripe old age of fifty.
The living room was at the very end of the apartment distinguished by the antimacassars which Grandma crocheted. This room was rarely used to sit in. But it housed a very large piece of furniture which took center stage. It was the radio…almost as big as an arm chair, it was the most dominant feature residing directly in front of the windows.
All of this has vanished by the bulldozer of time. In place of the four-story building where Grandma Pepi lived, now, devoid of the past, stands a modern multi-story apartment house making its own impressions on other family histories.
This letter is missing the voice of my grandma. Not a thought, a verbal warning or word of advice lingers. I can’t remember the sound of her voice or anything she ever told me. The apartment remains a stage set in memory. The actors go through their paces. Grandma shelled peas and sewed dresses. She took me to the fruit store and the kosher butcher including me in her daily life. She taught me to knit and herded the family together. Grandpa prayed and sat at the head of the long marble table requesting ketchup for his chicken soup. Aunt Gertie never married; she brushed my hair and told me stories with fish barrettes. Uncle Ben always sang the loudest in temple his large baritone voice heard above everyone. I knew that when I grew up, I would marry Uncle Ben and take care of him since he had no wife.
Though the players have no lines, their presence was golden in my childhood. They provided the larger nest I also considered home. Beyond words these memories breathe the significance of tradition, security and love.
Nancy Eder worked for over thirty years as an administrator at New York University. She wields a paintbrush in the Pyrenees, a shovel in school gardens, and now a pen in her second year of the “Writing from Life Experience” workshop.