Dear Grandma Gussie,
I think of you often. Every time I eat scrambled eggs, cook a brisket or chicken soup, I think of you. Whenever I see a tri-fold mirror, or use your roasting pan, I think of you. Knowing that you left me your “one good chair” as a wedding present, makes me think of you. When I see a fur stole in an antique store or in a photo, I remember how you chased me with your fox-faced stole when I was little, and how scared I was of it. Now the thought of it reminds me of you and makes me smile.
I wish I had found out what was in the trunk at the foot of your bed in your Flatbush, Brooklyn, apartment. You would never let me look inside and ignored my questions when I tried to ask. I wish I had asked if you had any cousins in the United States from the Old Country. I wish we had sat together and looked through old photos while you told me about the context they were taken in. I have fond memories of visiting you in your Teaneck, NJ, apartment. Pop and Uncle Arthur moved you there to be close to all of us. Visiting you there could have been the perfect opportunity for those kinds of conversations.
I know you enjoyed teaching me how to cook over the phone after my mother died. When we didn’t have a housekeeper, I would cook for Pop, Ira, Avra, and Mavra even though I was only 14 years old. Pop always liked chicken soup or brisket on Friday nights. I would call to ask you how you made a particular recipe. You always used the same spices: salt, pepper, garlic salt and paprika. Knowing now that paprika is a Hungarian spice, I wished I had asked if that was something you started using in the US, or if we had any Hungarian ancestors. I also wished I had asked who taught you to cook.
I can still picture you with your thinning hair pulled back into a bun, your housedress with the apron over it, the sturdy laced-up shoes and heavy support stockings, and I remember, also, how your head always slightly shook.
However, we know you were very pretty as a young girl. One day in 1973, after our father passed away, my siblings and I were cleaning out our Teaneck house, when your grandson, Ira, my brother, picked up an old photo and said, “Who is this? She is so pretty. I would have dated her.” “Ira”, I answered, “That is Grandma Gussie!”. We all had a good laugh, but yes, you were very pretty.
I think of you when I think of my wedding. I only wish you had gotten to dance at it. I know that was one of your last wishes and you missed out by only 6 months. Did Pop even tell you I was planning on getting married that summer? You were the only one who was ever happy I had a boyfriend whom I met when I was only sixteen. Every time I saw you, you would ask when I was getting married. “Grandma,”, I would say, “I have to finish college first”. However, Stan and I decided to get married after my junior year and I don’t know if you knew about that decision. [i]
As you can see, I still think of you often and with affection, as do your other 8 grandchildren. Below are some of our memories of you. I organized them by family grouping, starting with the rest of my memories.
Memories from you Son Bernie’s Four Children:
More Memories from Tara
I was your second grandchild but first granddaughter. When I think of you, Grandma Gussie, I think of a tallish woman, neither heavy nor thin. You had very thin hair, though, which you kept pulled back.
You once told me that when you were younger you had thick, beautiful hair but one day you woke up and all your hair was on your pillow. I wonder what you would have been diagnosed with today.
On the right is a picture of your beautiful hair.
I picture you in a patterned housedress with an apron over it. You always wore heavy support stockings and black, sturdy, laced shoes. As you got older, your head would shake. Today I would have affectionately called you a bobblehead. (oy vey, is this inherited?).
When I think back to when I was a little girl, I picture you sitting in a lawn chair outside of your Brooklyn apartment building where you would wait for us to arrive. You always had an apple or a peach and a small paring knife in your hands. You would cut off the skin of the fruit before eating it. Pop and I visit on weekends so he could go grocery shopping for you, and sometimes the whole family would make the visit.
On the right is a picture of your Flatbush, Brooklyn, apartment at 32 Lenox Road.
Once we arrived, you would fold up your chair, and we would proceed to the elevator to go upstairs and into your apartment. When you first entered your apartment, there was a long, dark hallway that scared me, and I would run to the light. I remember the blue, wooden kitchen table, the rocking chair that was a treat to sit in since we did not have one in our apartment, and the 3-way mirror in your bedroom. I also remember the steamer trunk at the foot of the bed. “Grandma, what’s in there?” I would always ask. You never showed me and to this day it remains a mystery. Did you have old letters from your family back in Latvia, or things you might have brought with you? We will never know. Avra now has the rocking chair. We found out it actually belonged to our grandfather, Harvey, even though we always associated it with you.
Grandma, you always made me a “yashina” for lunch. I loved the soupy, salty scrambled egg that only you could seem to make. Years later, I asked my Aunt Mildred, your daughter, what “yashina” meant. I thought I could look up the recipe. She had no idea. Periodically I would ask other people, and no one seemed to know what that word meant. Fast forward to 2016. My daughter-in-law, who is from Ukraine and speaks Russian, was making eggs for the kids. I couldn’t believe it, but they looked like Grandma’s eggs. I said that my grandma always made me something called a yashina and asked Victoria if she knew what that meant. “Scrambled eggs”, she replied. Another, lifelong mystery was solved!
I remember when Avra was born, you came to watch us for a few days in our Alley Pond Park apartment in Queens. You were so nervous and would not let us out of your sight. Now that I am a grandmother, I can understand how you felt. Back then, though, I could not convince you that we were allowed to play all around the neighborhood by ourselves. I just remember you running outside and screaming my name and telling me to stay right under the window so you could see me.
After my mother died when I was just 14 years old, I would call you and you would teach me over the phone how to make a brisket and a roast chicken and other things. I know you enjoyed that. My father and siblings benefited from some decent meals as I often made Shabbat dinners or weekend meals.
Grandma Gussie’s Brisket Recipe
- In a small bowl. mix together salt, pepper, garlic powder, and paprika.
- Rub the mixture all over the meat.
- Chop an onion and brown in a little oil on top of the stove in a Dutch over
- Add the meat and over high heat sear on all sides
- Add water to cover the meat
- Add a bay leaf
- Bring to a boil then cover and simmer for 2 hours
- Add cut up potatoes and carrots and cook for another hour
The only time I remember you laughing is when I was in high school and was learning German. I started counting for you and every time I got to “fumfh (5)”, you would burst out laughing. I guess I wasn’t pronouncing it quite right.
You loved to listen to me play Jewish songs on my accordion and would often sing along. We were always told you had a beautiful singing voice.
You would listen raptly and always requested the same ones. You especially liked Rozinkes Mit Mandlen, Oyfn Pripetshik, and Tumbablaika.
By the time I was in college, Uncle Arthur and Pop moved you to a garden apartment on Cedar Lane in Teaneck. The apartment was across the street from the New Englander Pizza Restaurant. One day, I was bringing my boyfriend, Stan, over to meet you. You were so excited at the prospect of meeting him. We went over on a Friday night after attending Services at the Teaneck Jewish Community Center. We knew that Pop would follow us shortly over there. We knocked on your door and you opened it excitedly. You ushered us over to the couch so we could all sit down. You went to sit down first, and I was standing right in front of you. What you didn’t realize was that the couch cushion was partially off and leaning on thin air. As you sat down with no support under you, you lost your balance and fell right on top of me, pinning me to the floor. Stan tried several times to pick you up, but you were too heavy, and I could not move. Luckily, Pop arrived within a few minutes, and with Pop’s help, they were able to get you up. So much for first impressions. The moral of the story: make sure the couch cushion is properly on the couch before sitting down!
Once you met Stan, you repeatedly said that you wanted to dance at my wedding. Every time I saw you, you would tell me that. I kept telling you I was too young at 16 to get married. However, little did I know that you left me a wedding present. Stan and I got married young. I was 20 and he was 23. I was always sad that you wasn’t there to dance. You died six months before we got married and I have no idea if Pop ever told you that we were getting engaged and married that summer.
In 1966 to 1967, you had a few small strokes. I think that was what prompted you going to a nursing home in Jersey City, NJ. You would talk to no one in the nursing home when you moved there. You said everyone was old and crazy and you did not want anything to do with them. You had told me many times that people only went to a hospital to die.
For the first 4 years of our married life, Stan and I lived in Milwaukee, WI, where Stan was in graduate school. When Stan completed his PhD, he got a job in CT, so we moved out there and found an apartment. I asked Pop if I could take my parents’ first bedroom set from the spare room and the chair that was in it. No one was using it. He said sure. When Avra came to visit me in CT and saw the chair, she said “Oh good. I am so glad you have that chair. Grandma Gussie told me she wanted you to have it as a wedding present. She felt it was the only nice thing she had left.”
Memories from Your Grandson Ira
Ira remembers visiting you in Brooklyn a few times. He mostly remembers the walls that seemed to be a dark gray, although Tara remembers a different color. And, of course, he remembers you making yashina (spelling ?).
Above, on left is the outside of your Teaneck apartment, on the right is the view across the steet from your apartment
He also remembers visiting you after you moved to Teaneck, NJ, at 80-140 Cedar Lane. Ira remembers stopping there on the way home from Thomas Jefferson Junior High School and having ice cream for a snack. One day when he got home, he told Pop that the ice cream had freezer-burn on it. Pop immediately when out and bought new ice cream. Ira guessed he wanted to make sure that Ira would stop there and having good ice cream was one enticement.
Then there was your fox stole. Ira believes it was in our storage room for many years after you passed away.
He also remembers the day of not-so-much fun at the Hackensack YMHA. Pop was taking us there and brought you along for the ride. You were sitting in the front passenger seat. Pop drove to the front entrance instead of parking and we all started to get out. You grabbed the post between the doors just as Ira slammed the rear door shut. You yelped and Pop quicky leaned over to open the rear door with the car still in drive. The car jolted forward, and Grandma, you were dragged along the pavement with your hand still grabbing the door. You and Pop spent the day at the hospital, but Ira believes you had no significant injuries. Luckily, no one else was hit nor, any cars, or other items.
Ira added that as for offending you, you could not hear a thing unless you were in a different room and overheard us talking about you. Then you heard it all & let us know it!
Sadly, he does not remember your last years nor your passing. In 1967, Ira was in high school, but he does not remember that time.
Memories from Your Granddaughter Avra
Avra remembers stopping at your Teaneck apartment and sitting with you after school (by herself) but she doesn’t remember any details. She thinks that one time you fell on the floor, and they had to wait until Pop got there to pick you up.
Avra would also go visit you after Girls’ Club at the Teaneck Jewish Community Center which was basically across Cedar Lane from your apartment complex.
Avra now has the rocking chair that we all loved to sit it when we visited your Brooklyn apartment.
Memories from Your Granddaughter Mavra
Mavra doesn’t really have any memories as she was only about 5 years old, give or take a year, when you moved to Teaneck. She can, however, picture your living room and the TV tray in it.
Memories from Your Son Arthur’s Three Children:
Memories from Your Granddaughter Hali
Hali said she called you Nanny Mama. She remembers that you had beautiful skin, wore floral dresses, and always had a pocketbook at your side. Of course, there was the scary stole! She remembers that you had big furniture in your Brooklyn apartment, and that you always made her family chickpeas when they came to visit.
(Note from Tara: Pop always made us chickpeas for a snack. Now we know where he got that from)
Memories from Your Grandson Andy
Andy remembers going to Macys with his parents to buy new furniture for your Teaneck apartment. He also remembers going to your Brooklyn apartment as well as to your Teaneck apartment. He also remembers visiting you in the nursing home in Jersey City.
Memories from Your Granddaughter Amy
Amy remembers your Brooklyn apartment with the rickety, dark elevator with the glass oval in the door. She remembers that you could look out of the oval and watch the elevator travel up or down the levels. She really does not remember much else but does remember visiting you there.
Once you moved to Teaneck, she remembers being sent to the Cedar Lane apartment to thread needles for you. She would thread a bunch, stick them in a pin cushion and go home. She does not remember you ever playing with her. She said it was hard to talk to you. Amy was only 11 when you died, so she was under 10 when you moved to Teaneck. That is why she only has minimal memories.
Memories from You Daughter Mildred’s Two Children:
Memories from Your Gandson Harvey
Harvey was your first grandchild. Sadly, he passed away in 2022 at age 79. Luckily, we had talked about you months before and this is what is remembered. He called you Grandma Blieden. He thought you were old-fashioned since your dresses, to him, looked like they were from Russia. He thought of you as slightly rotund. He said you spoke many languages but couldn’t communicate in any of them, meaning he didn’t understand your heavy accent easily.
Memories from Your Granddaughter Alice
Alice remembers liking you and having nice conversations with you. Unlike her brother, she called you Grandma Gussie. She remembers you encouraging and urging her to come in and eat when visiting her. However, you always looked old to her, and she can picture your heavy stockings and sturdy shoes.
Some Final Thoughts
Grandma, I hope you are smiling at our recollections, and I hope all these reflections give everyone else a picture of what you looked like and how you interacted with us. Your demeanor could be serious, but you were always glad to see us. After you passed away, Pop sent me a letter asking me to remember you kindly since you had had a difficult life. He didn’t have to ask me that. I always did, and always will, remember you kindly.
Now that I’m a grandma, though, I can easily see why you looked old to your grandchildren. Grandchildren just think of their grandparents as old!
Thanks for all the memories, Grandma.
With love from your grandchildren,
May 22, 2023
Note: This blog was originally published on February 24 2018 and updated on May 22, 2023.