Editor’s Note: This is the thirteenth installment of a multipart series on the life and times of the author’s grandmother, Freida Sima, who as a young woman came to America on her own in the early 1900s and made her way in a new country. The twelfth part (“Freida Sima Makes Aliyah”) appeared as the front-page essay in the Sept. 16 issue; the final installment will run in November.
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It had been a joyous evening. For hours the entire family sat around the dining room table, eating and celebrating. An unending array of food had streamed out of the kitchen: strips of lightly fried schnitzel, paper-thin potato pancakes with applesauce, and meat patties smothered with fried onions.
“Come sit down, Ma,” my mother called out to her in the kitchen. “It’s your day. Enough cooking.”
“Just one more batch,” my grandmother replied. Although it was two months before Chanukah, those latkes, my grandmother’s specialty, had nothing to do with the season. In my grandmother’s family, apple pancakes were a tradition, and no celebration was held without them.
And what a celebration it was. Not only was it my grandmother’s eightieth birthday, it was also one of those rare occasions when a good part of her extended family could gather under one roof. Of course it wasn’t her entire family – four of her siblings lived in New York and her four stepsons lived in California.
But she was with her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter, with whom she had moved to Israel a year earlier.
“Another move across the sea,” she had said, musing over how much had changed since her first overseas journey sixty-four years earlier. Then, she had been a young girl of fifteen who had left home on her own to get an education in America. Now she was a senior citizen, but her sense of adventure remained undiminished.
“Who knows what this journey will lead to? Be positive!” she admonished me when I, at fifteen, had expressed uncertainty about coping in a new country.
The crowd at the table included some of my grandmother’s brothers and sisters-in-law – Abie and Minnie, who were visiting from America, Srul and Anna, and Leibush and Frieda. She still thought of Srul and Leibush as “the boys,” as they had been five and three when she left Europe and the next time she saw them they were already in their mid-forties, having been separated from her by three geographical upheavals, two world wars, and the Holocaust they had experienced in Europe while she was already in the United States.
Now the brothers were in their seventies and she was trying to bridge the gap of years and experiences that separated them. Above all, she had to remember not to pepper her Yiddish with English expressions that they, having come directly to Israel from postwar Europe, could barely understand.
“Time for cake and presents,” I called out as I brought in a round birthday cake ablaze with candles. By the time my own mother would celebrate her eightieth birthday more than three decades later, we would be using a large sheet cake onto which we could easily fit the requisite eighty candles. Then, however, the stove pans were smaller. Looking at the size of the cake earlier in the day, my mother and I had decided to stop at eighteen candles – the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word chai, “life.”
One by one those sitting around the table presented my grandmother with birthday gifts: a scarf, a bottle of cologne, a book of Yiddish poetry, a sweater, a pair of warm slippers, a rhinestone pin – and a curiously shaped package that appeared to be some kind of large square glass bottle.
“How many einiklach [grandchildren] give their baba apricots in liquor for her eightieth birthday?” she laughed as she handed out tiny glasses into which she poured the spirits. “This is what you give the woman who has everything!”
Each of the guests lifted a small tumbler and called out l’chaim – “to life.”
“Boitee, you have some granddaughter,” said Abie.
“And she has some grandmother!” my grandmother answered back.
“Babaleh, is this how they raise them in America?” asked Srul, using his sister’s childhood nickname and shaking his head at the notion that a teenage girl would give her octogenarian grandmother a bottle of schnapps for her birthday.
“Why not? It tastes good,” she answered him, shrugging her shoulders and looking toward me in the kitchen doorway. “L’chaim” she called out with a smile, raising her glass high and blowing me a kiss.
Toward midnight the crowd began taking leave from the “birthday girl,” giving her blessings for a long and healthy life.
“So, Ma, how did you enjoy your party?” my mother asked after closing the door behind the last guest. “It was wonderful,” my grandmother answered in her customary tongue in cheek manner. “The best eightieth birthday party I ever had.”
“Just wait until you’re ninety,” I countered. “Then we’ll even top this one.” Little did I know she would be gone a year and four months short of her ninetieth birthday.
“Just explain one thing, Baba,” I said in a more serious vein. “Why do your brothers in America call you by one name while your brothers in Israel call you by another?”
“And why do my older cousins in Israel call me by a third?” she immediately responded. “It’s a long story and it’s the story of my life, the places where I’ve lived and the people I’ve known. Everyone gives you a different name, but the important thing is the name that you eventually give yourself. That’s the one people remember.”
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My grandmother (who, as detailed in last month’s installment of her story, passed away at age 88 in June 1984) was a woman of many names and many talents, each of which corresponded to a different period in her life.
Like numerous women of her generation, she was able to whip up a three-course meal out of nothing and make a one-week Depression paycheck last for six months. But she could also milk a cow with her eyes closed and ride a horse bareback, legacies of her childhood on an Eastern European farm.