the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Family History


My great-grandparents travelled to New York from Russia on one of those unglamorous ships overcrowded with immigrants, hoping to leave the misery of Europe behind.  My great-grandparents had two daughters, Annette and Ruth.  Annette would become my grandmother on my father’s side.  Ruth would become my Aunt Ruthie, my favorite aunt, probably the greatest family influence on my life other than my parents, particularly in terms of creativity.

These immigrant ships were filthy and disease-ridden.  During the trip, my great-grandmother became ill and died on the ship.  My great-grandfather arrived at Ellis Island, greeted by the Statue of Liberty, with children to feed, but no job and no wife.

I’m not sure how long it was after his arrival in America, but my great-grandfather eventually remarried another Jewish woman he met in the Lower East Side of New York.  She had also lost her spouse.   This woman had a son, Benjamin.  The family blended, and the children – Anne, Ruth, and Benjamin became siblings.

I didn’t know much of this story as I was growing up.  My mother worked, so after school, I would walk over to my grandmother’s apartment, which was only a few blocks away, where they lived in some lower-income housing project building, built in the 1950’s.  My grandmother made the best tuna fish sandwiches because she added celery and dill to the tuna, and she sliced the bakery-fresh rye bread diagonally.  I spent most of my time at my grandmother’s house doing creative activities (or playing Scrabble) with my Aunt Ruthie, who never married and lived with my grandmother.    They were inseparable, so much so that when my aunt passed away while I was in college, my grandmother died a month later, as if an essential organ had been removed from her body.  My Aunt Ruthie was a five foot tall powerhouse of a woman, who worked in an advertising agency before women worked in the industry.  She read all sorts of intellectual books about socialism, psychology, sexuality, and feminism.  She loved to gamble on the horses.

My grandfather was a “character,” and was completely different in attitude than the rest of the family.  While most of the Kramer men were scrawny, brainy Jewish stereotypes, my grandfather was a union boxer of crates, rugged and well-built, with a full set of hair even in his eighties.  Unlike my grandmother, who was a homebody, and who I cannot recall leaving the house other than my high school graduation and my bar mitzvah, my grandfather had ADD before it was known to exist.   Back then, it was described as having  “ants in the pants” or “Shpilkes” in Yiddish.   He was an expert in which NY deli had the best pastrami sandwich.  He would travel at night from Queens to Manhattan to go “dancing at Roseland.”  To this day, I’m not sure what he was doing when he took the subway into the city.  Was he dancing during senior citizen night?  Did my grandmother care?  As a child, with a child’s point of view, I had no concept of the adult going-ons behind the scenes.   Aunt Ruthie and my grandfather always seemed to argue.  I figured it was because my aunt was smart and my grandfather was brawn, and this created that type of banter you would see  in old movies.    My grandmother always kept out of the arguing.

I found my grandfather to be a simple man, but memorable.  He loved Broadway musicals, but was too cheap to buy a ticket, so he would “sneak into” the theater lobby during the intermission when ticket-holders were outside smoking a cigarette.  On Sunday, he would come over to our apartment, carrying bagels and jelly donuts, and tell me the plot of the Second Act of each musical he saw, and I would try to come up with a scenario for the First Act to explain what he missed by sneaking in after the Intermission.

My father was the complete opposite of my grandfather, both in looks and temperment.  My father was a straight-arrow, always worrying about his responsibilty.  He never respected my grandfather’s devil-may-care attitude.

When I became older, I tried to piece together things that didn’t make sense.  Was my grandfather having affairs?  Where was he always going to and from?   He certainly seemed to flirt with every woman, and was popular with all the over sixty Jewish women of Flushing.

My father never talked about it.

My aunt and grandmother passed away while I was in college.  My grandfather passed away while I was in graduate school.  My father passed away during the first year of writing this blog.  My uncle, my father’s brother, passed away last year.  During my uncle’s  funeral, I spoke with my uncle’s wife.  Even though she married into our family, and wasn’t Jewish, she was fascinated by our geneology, even researching the whereabouts of the tiny shtetl where my great-grandparents were born.  She knew more about my family than anyone born into the family.   She talked to me like an adult member of the family, which was a new experience for me, and told me details that no one else had ever brought up before.

The most fascinating tidbit was about my grandfather.  His name was Benjamin.  My grandfather Benjamin was the same Benjamin who became part of the blended family when my great-grandfather remarried.

My grandfather and my grandmother were step-brother and step-sister.

My grandmother, my grandfather, and my Aunt Ruthie grew up together from childhood– all three of them — and then lived together as a family unit until their old age.

There is a story there, and I don’t know if I will ever know it.


  1. OHmommy

    Fascinating Neil. The story you have thus far and the missing links in between. And now I am totally craving some authentic rye bread. Although my grandmother used to smother lard and onions over her bread. Heh.

  2. mamatulip

    I *love* family history posts. This was so interesting to read.

  3. Middle-Aged-Woman

    Isn’t it spectacular the difference a diagonal slice makes?

  4. Emma

    Sounds like a book plot. Cool.

  5. Kat

    Family history is fascinating to me, too, Neil. My grandfather came here from Syria, there is a lot of family history I don’t know but I love looking up the old records and talking to the remaining family members about our history. Great post.

  6. Alissa

    Neil, did you ever read Middlesex? I think you would find it interesting. I love uncovering family secrets! When my great grandmother died, we found out she had two kids from a previous marriage that ended badly in the 1920s – her ex husband took off with them and she never saw them again. It’s amazing what secrets families hold!

  7. teahouseblossom

    Whoa! Your grandfather and grandmother grew up from childhood?

    That type of arrangement used to be very common in Asia where I’m from. Rural families would adopt a daughter, bring her up and then marry her to their son. It saved a dowry. But those marriages were rarely successful, due to some psychological phenomenon called the “kibbutz effect” – often when kids are highly familiar from childhood, they tend to think of each other as siblings rather than romantic interests. Psychologists think it’s an evolutionary protection from genetic inbreeding.

    Anyway, it DID often work out, and it’s fascinating that the three of them grew up old together like that! You should write a book.

  8. Di

    I feel the same way about my ancestors… so much my parents and grandparents did not relate to us. They were a very private generation. Too busy working on the farm to worry about passing along family history I suppose, but I do have a lot of photos of them so guess I can make up my own stories to go along with… right? Everyone loves a bit of fiction.

    Snappy Di

  9. SciFi Dad

    Wow. THAT is crazy.

    But still, didn’t your aunt know anything about all the running around? It just seems so odd that he’d go out without his wife all the time.

  10. Neil

    Sci Fi Dad – Oh, I’m sure my aunt knew and that is why they were bickering. But at the time, it all just seemed so normal.

  11. Lori

    Crazy! What a fascinating story. Great post!

  12. Kat

    You also reminded me of how my grandmother used to yell at my grandfather ALL THE TIME…it was like her default way of talking to him. I think he cheated on her, too.

  13. churlita

    This was an awesome post. I love the complexity of family history.

  14. Lezzles

    So now you have to make up the act that no-one saw!

  15. Aunt Becky

    This makes me sad for all of the stories I’ve missed out on. My grandparents all died when I was a kid. I guess that’s what happens when you’re a late in life OOPS baby.

  16. Tara

    I think I would have really liked your Aunt Ruthie!

  17. rebecca

    thanks neil. i love family history stories. you tell it perfectly. do more!

  18. Ellen B.

    Love those Eastern European stories, Neil…fascinating!

    OHMOMMY…it was SCHMALTZ w/onions on ryebread. Hmmm..schmaltz..chicken fat! My Grandma always added a little paprika to the schmaltz, onions on rye.

  19. annettek

    That was wonderful Neil, I love reading family histories, especially with a bit of a mystery.

  20. liz elayne

    wow. neil, this is incredible. i am so fascinated by all the stories that we do not know, but the stories that are part of the path that brought us here, to these moments in our lives.

    i love how you shared this story…how that wow! moment is right there at the end. and how in different ways, i can see my own family’s story reflected.

  21. Juli Ryan

    I love this posts too. (I think there is a typo in the third to last paragraph…should it not read, my grandfather and grandmother…?)

  22. Juli Ryan

    I’m not going to mention there was a typo in my comment above, though.

  23. this new place

    when does your book come out?

  24. Jack

    I enjoyed this. I love the family history and am doing the best that I can to learn about my own.

    My grandparents are 95 and just celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary.

    Recently my grandfather has made a point of trying to tell me stories that I haven’t heard yet.

    Some of them have been fascinating and some have been interesting. Grandpa has turned off the filters, so I have learned a bit more about him and grandma than I needed to know.

  25. Danny

    I love every word of this post and appreciate anyone who has an interest in their family history. But I’m still trying to figure out the grandfather/grandfather business, maybe it’s my new medication but I don’t get it. I’ll keep rereading the post until I can figure it out!

  26. Neil

    Danny — My Grandmother and Grandfather were step-brother and step-sister. Think of the Brady Bunch if Bobby and Cindy…

  27. maggie, dammit


    There’s so much here. I don’t know where to start, what to say. My first instinct is you need to take this post down and save it for your book.

    There are so many shades of my family in your family. This post makes me so nostalgic. My grandma’s cool sister was Aunt Ruthie, too. My grandma’s father disappeared nights too, and it turns out he had another family. There are the boat stories, the Holocaust refugee stories, the New York stories…. I love that you said “full head of hair,” that’s such a Jewish thing. Only my Jewish family ever says that phrase, and it’s usually in the top three descriptors of any given person.

    My grandfather is still living, and he has such amazing stories. I have tried forever to get him to write them down. I’ve bought him journals, how-to books…he resists. I’m so sad the stories will die with him. I’m sorry for your losses, but I’m glad you still have a historian left in your family.

    Excellent post. And I’m serious about the book, Neil.

  28. maggie, dammit

    Oh, and Danny is confused because you mis-typed in the post and it says grandfather/grandfather instead of grandfather/grandmother.

  29. Neil

    Maggie/Danny – thanks. It took me a half hour to find that typo!

  30. mamie

    more more more. find out more if you can and tell us. i love hearing of these generations before us, we are so bereft of real family history in this day and age where oral story telling has no place in the home.

    my maternal grandmother and grandfather were immigrants in new york….she never married my grandfather because his first wife was addled and he stayed with her but took my grandmother as his companion. my mom grew up with his first wife in the home and she was called their aunt. and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

    so many things we do not know, both sides have their secrets and their fabrications and their beliefs. thank you for sharing some of yours.

  31. Quadelle

    Fascinating. So many interesting details left obscured.

    Any sandwich tastes better cut on the diagonal. 🙂

  32. schmutzie

    What a fascinating bit of history there. Don’t you almost want to write a story about them?

  33. kelly

    That is amazing. Were you at all shocked? It does indeed sound like a complicated but engrossing novel.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial