Today's Bird is in memory of my paternal grandmother, Ida Osherow Breen, (1880?-1973), who was never called anything but "Shorty" by our family, not because she was short (she was) but because her sons would put her in shortstop position when they played stickball out in the street in front of their apartment at 12 N. State Street.
Nobody remembers Shorty as being anything but unimaginably old, though one of these photos shows that she must have been young once. As a Jewish woman, she emigrated to the United States from Russia at the turn of the century with her siblings, Hannah, Sarah, and Shimcheh, to escape the state-sanctioned pogroms of czarist Russia.
At some point, she married my grandfather, Nathan Breen, and they worked together first in Chicago's sweatshops and then in their own tailor shop, in Elgin IL. She was in her late thirties, or possibly early forties, when she had her four sons. My father was born during the Great Influenza of 1918. Lucky for me, he and his mother did not contract the deadly influenza that killed 20 million people worldwide.
My father grew up in an environment of grinding poverty and rampant anti-Semitism, but he and his brothers all managed to get college educations and earn advanced degrees, and all four served their country in World War II. This was a tremendous source of pride to my grandmother, though goodness knows, America had not been particularly kind to her. I wonder what memories today's immigrants will have of an ungracious and unwelcoming nation.
My grandfather had died two years earlier when I arrived on the scene in late 1947. My sister and I were Gramma Shorty's first grandchildren, and her pride in us was overshadowed by her unceasing anxiety for our well-being. Gramma Shorty always lived in Chicago with my Uncle Mike (Myer), but often came to visit us first in Geneva, IL, then Asheville, NC, and finally Norwood, MA. I remember being fascinated and very distressed watching her take her teeth out at night and put them in a glass of water. I spent a lot of time worrying about the state of my own teeth, and when this would happen to them. I was also intrigued by her preference for a cup of hot water over tea or coffee. Sometimes she would stir in some lemon Jell-o powder, but I rarely saw her eat or drink anything else, preferring to hover over us as we attempted to eat her truly alarming borscht or greasy potato latkes. Culinary subtleties were not Gramma Shorty's specialty. My father always said that his mother was the only woman he knew who would stew a steak.
Gramma Shorty was always cleaning. My father claimed that his mother would scrub the floor with a rag, then use the same rag to scrub the kitchen counters, but I never saw evidence of this. She would wash my hair in the kitchen sink whenever she came to visit, scrubbing my scalp raw. Once, when she was very old and nearly blind, she hemmed a pink pinafore for me with the most exquisite tiny hemstitches I have ever seen. She said she learned to stitch like that as a teenager working in Chicago's sweatshops.
Even after decades of living in America, her accent was so heavy that it was hard to understand her. I remember listening with horror to her tales of the pogroms, which she told over and over again as though they'd just happened. She also talked incessantly about a bewildering array of relatives--living or dead I was never quite sure--of which she seemed to have hundreds. The actor Paul Newman was, according to Shorty, a distant relative.
Gramma Shorty, having the double curse of being both Russian and Jewish, was preoccupied with illness, pain, disaster, and death. She predicted her own death on the eve of my parents' wedding in 1941, but went on to live thirty more years.
I remember with astonishing clarity the news of her death. For some reason I have never fathomed, my mother's friend Sylvia Wallace called me to tell me that Gramma Shorty had died. I was in my twenties, and living in Hyde Park with my husband and young son. Where were my parents? Out of the country, perhaps? When I heard the news, I expressed my grief, at which point Mrs. Wallace exclaimed, "Oh, no! Everyone is enormously relieved!" Feeling equally sad and puzzled, I hung up the phone.
I'm glad that Gramma Shorty got to meet my son Quentin when he was a baby. She had had a tree planted for him in Israel when he was born, and when he was about three years old, we went to visit her in Chicago. By this time, she and my uncle were living in a glass and steel apartment building overlooking Lake Michigan, and every time Quentin wandered over near the huge plate-glass window, she would snatch him up, fearing he would somehow break through the glass and plunge to his death in the waters thirty stories below. This is my last memory of her.
This little penguin reminds me of my grandmother. Her shape is reminiscent of the Russian matryoshka dolls, and she's wearing the traditional head scarf called a babuska, which my grandmother always wore. Her eyes are my grandmother's blue, but I couldn't bear to put in the tears which so often filled them.
And this penguin, is, of course, short.
Gramma Shorty, wherever you are, I want you to know I made this bird for you, and that when I heard you had died, I wasn't relieved, I was sad.
Note: My thanks to Melanie Hurlston, at http://www.mellyandme.typepad.com/ for this pattern.