Remembering Grandma

by Judith Katz-Schwartz

Dateline: 4/5/99

Grandma always told me that Grandpa "saved" coins. At the time I thought this was a strange choice of words, because Grandma wasn't talking about thrift, but collecting. Thinking about it now I realize that Grandma's choice of words was a key to the psychology of collecting, although I'm certain she never realized it. Grandma was never a very introspective person (although she occasionally surprised me. Once, she told me that, although she didn't consider herself a great housekeeper, she knew she was immaculate when it came to food. I thought this was amusing, since her apartment was so clean you could eat her immaculate food off her spotless floors).

When Grandma had a stroke and it became necessary for her to live in a nursing home, the job of cleaning out her apartment fell to Artie and me (she had long since sold her house and moved to something of a more manageable size). It was there that I found out what Grandma "saved", and why.

Grandma was born in 1902 in a small town in Romania. Or maybe Russia. The little village in which her family lived peacefully, when the Tsar saw fit to ignore them, changed hands so often it was hard to remember to whom you belonged on any given day. Grandma was the youngest of five children. Life was uncertain for her father, a Jewish merchant, and his brood. There were frequent pogroms, with Cossacks on horseback racing through the streets, beating and killing everyone in sight. On these occasions, Grandma once told me, young girls were hidden in the cellar, where the soldiers wouldn't see them, because the Cossacks could take whatever they wanted. Teenage boys were also hidden, for they were in danger of being abducted and conscripted into the Tsar's army. And everyone knew what happened to Jewsih boys in the Tsar's army--if the enemy didn't kill them, their fellow Russians did the job.

It was this constantly looming threat of forced military service and almost certain death that finally propelled Grandma's family to America, minus her older sister, whom Grandma last saw jumping into the river, along with her children, in order to escape a band of marauding soldiers. Arriving in New York with very few possessions, no home to go to and few contacts must have been frightening for the whole family, although they were not without skills, and soon established themselves here. She met Grandpa, married, had two children and ran a business until well into her seventies. She accumulated wealth (she abhorred waste and could pinch a penny so hard you could hear it scream!), enjoyed her grandchildren and great grandchildren and remained always the proud, vain and headstrong matriarch of our family.

But Grandma lived through two world wars and The Depression. She survived the Holocaust (albeit at a safe distance) and the deaths of her parents, her husband and her three brothers. Despite numerous searches in Eastern Europe and Israel, she never again found her older sister, nor any of her offspring (only recently, I found a photograph of Grandma's sister, brother-in-law and the children at my mother's house. As I looked into the vaguely familiar faces I felt a heaviness in my chest at the realization that I would never know any of them). My grandmother was, during the last eight years of her life, a shadow of her former self, a vacant and passive soul who had no interest in collections, "savings", possessions of any kind. She gave up television, radio and her beloved Yiddish language newspaper.

So, what did I find in my grandmother's apartment? Tremendous accumulations of humble everyday things: the tops of Bic pens neatly wound with rubber bands; hundreds of tiny garment snaps threaded onto safety pins; at least one hundred glass jars, all sparkling clean; eighty-seven neatly rolled and clamped Ace bandages; her discarded dentures.

Some people collect for investment. Some collect for pleasure. Some folks do it to learn about history. And some people "save things" because it helps them to fill a gaping hole, calm fears, erase insecurity. For them, collecting provides order in their lives and a bulwark against the chaos and terror of an uncertain world. It serves as a protectant against the destruction of everything they've ever loved. Grandma's things made her feel safe. Though the world outside was a dangerous and continuallly changing place, she could still sit safely in her apartment at night, "putting together my things".

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1999 Judith Katz-Schwartz. All rights reserved.