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.