My father's mother was Rebecca Friedman Garfield. When I recall my grandmother, I easily picture her face: her dark eyes, pale wrinkled skin, and thin, wavy gray hair I remember the plumpness of her short body and her soft embrace when I hugged her. Her gentleness, kindness and warmth infuse these memories.
Despite an onyx ring with a diamond center, which was always on her finger, my grandmother dressed very plainly. She didn't wear lipstick, powder, or earrings. She was a devoted wife, mother, and housewife, who loved the recognition she received for her cooking. I remember her busily working in the small kitchen of her house, and can smell the onions frying, the potato kugel and brisket baking in the oven. I see the blue speckled roasting pan she used. I remember her eagerness as she hovered over me, waiting for my delighted reactions as I tasted her food. "Here, have another latke" she would say. "You like the gefilte fish? Have some more." She never pushed unwanted food at me, I was too eager to taste it all.
My Grandma probably appeared to others as a simple woman who spoke English with heavy accent. She received little formal education in her home town of Krynki, in Poland, leaving grade school after a few years. During her life she learned to speak many languages fluently: Russian, Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew. She came to the United States by herself, escaping Poland to travel first to England, and then by boat, to New York.There, she found a job in a factory, rather a sweat shop, making button holes. Her friends were Italian girls who loved to sing songs from operas while they worked over the factory machines. They took her to see her first opera for which she purchased a standing room ticket. My grandmother enjoyed it so much that she developed a life-long love of opera which was eventually passed on to my father.
After a few years in New York, Rebecca married Julius Garfield, my grandfather. They moved to Chicago where both had family, and struggled to make a living by running a small grocery store during the harsh time of the depression. They had two children, my father and then my aunt Helen. My grandparents had a difficult life. My grandfather's business failed and the family had to move in with relatives. I heard many stories from my father about the hard times they had during the 1920's and l930's. My grandmother was the glue that kept the family together, preventing my grandfather from submitting to despair, supporting her children by doing the things she knew best: providing them with love , encouragement, and hearty meals.
When I knew my grandparents they had survived those hard years and lived in their first house, in a modest neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. My grandma filled her days with fund raising activities for Jewish organizations. When we went to visit them their front hallway always smelled of mothballs. My Papa and Grandma would laugh with joy to see their grandchildren, and lead us into the kitchen for homemade cookies and coffee cake. The cookies were plain sugar cookies, made with oil instead of butter, and cut into circles with a small juice glass. They were very plain but we enjoyed eating them fresh out of the oven and called them “Grandma’s cookies”.
Sometimes relatives would be visiting from the city or from out of town. I remember meeting my Uncle Avramel from Argentina, who gave my mother a pretty pink flowered tablecloth which I now own and treasure. I remember different cousins and their children who we met at my grandparents’ house. Whenever there was baby to rock, my grandma would cradle its small body in her arms, singing lullabies in Yiddish, or simply crooning "Ah-ah, ah-ah, baby".
I also liked to be rocked and sung to by my Grandma. When I sat on her lap I would hold her soft, wrinkled hand in mine and examine her ring. It was a flat, rectangular back stone, set in silver or platinum, with a small diamond in the center. I used to look at this ring and admire it, moving it around on her finger. (to be continued...)
This photo of Julius and Rebecca Garfield with their granddaughter Joan was taken by Ann in 1956, Evanston, Illinois.