Until I was five, I shared a bedroom with my Grandma Minnie. I adored her. I fondly remember our walks to the park and her swinging me on the swings, and our walks to the bakery around the corner from our 2054 78th apartment in Brooklyn.
She always let me pick out a treat at the bakery. The display cases were packed with fresh-baked cookies, cakes and bread, and it was certainly hard to choose, but the Charlotte Russe was my favorite. It came as a cupcake with a thin layer of cake on the bottom and a mound of whipped cream topped with a cherry. It was wrapped in white paper and you either pealed the paper away or pushed the cake up as you ate.
I remember Grandma cooking gribenes and schmaltz. The gribenes (bits of chicken skin) were fried in the schmaltz (melted chicken fat) until crispy. As an extra treat, I also got to smear the schmaltz on a slice of bread.
gribenes and schmaltz
I also remember Grandma giving me fresh sauerkraut juice to drink when someone brought sauerkraut home from the deli.
I can also still taste a sandwich she would make for me. She combined cream cheese with a little bit of chopped onion and some paprika and then spread that on toasted rye bread. Yum!
I also remember her cooking taiglach (little pieces of fried dough dredged in honey) and honey cake. I never liked the honey cake. It was too sweet.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, all of the above recipes are traditional Ashkenazi foods typical of people from Eastern Europe.
Once we moved away to Alley Pond Park in Queens, NY, it was always special to go back to Brooklyn to visit. Grandma was very fussy about how we looked so my mother always made sure our hair was combed nicely and our clothes matched. This did not seem to be as important on regular days!
I remember one time when Grandma Minnie came to visit us in Alley Pond Park. We were all standing outside by the car. I was about 10 years old and I blurted out that Grandma was so short and I was almost as tall as her. My mother got mad at me for saying that! Grandma Minnie was about 4’10” so to me, she was short.
Whenever she referred to us, she added “la” to the end of our names. So, I was “Tara-la”, Ira was “Ira-la”, Avra was “Avra-la” and Mavra became “Mavra-la”.
We affectionately called her “Jelly Belly” and liked to slide down her tummy and her legs and onto the floor. Of course, we had to do this not once, but over and over again, but she never seemed to mind!
In about 1958, Grandma Minnie came to live with us in Teaneck, NJ, when her Parkinson’s was getting bad. Her balance was not good and she fell a lot. It was difficult for my mother to lift her up if she fell during the day. Eventually, when my mother was pregnant with our 4th sibling, Grandma had to move to a nursing home.
Before she did move, we had one near tragedy. She was sitting in the living room when a rock was projected a high speed though our living room picture window. It barely missed hitting Grandma but it came so close that it knocked her off of the chair. Where did the rock come from? We looked outside and the man who lived across the street was mowing his lawn. The lawn mower must have picked up the stone and hurled it at high speed across the street. Mom needed help lifting Grandma up and the only one around was the man mowing his lawn. The only problem with that was he, and his whole family, were deaf. That was why he hadn’t heard the window shatter. Mom somehow convinced him to come with her and he was able to lift Grandma up.
After our mother died, our father continued to take us to visit Grandma. At first she was social and would introduce us to the other people there, but after a while her condition worsened and she would just cry and scream and ask me where her May was and why she didn’t come visit her anymore. It was very difficult. Being the oldest, I was the only one who was really allowed up to see her. My siblings would stay down in the lobby and occasionally, we could bring her down to visit them, too.
For the last year of her life, she stopped talking altogether. Her siblings would come by frequently, if not daily, and sit with her. She never uttered a word to them. Little did I know this type of behavior is typical of the advanced stages of Parkinsons.
The last time I saw her, Pop and I got her ready to bring downstairs to see my siblings. As we were standing by the elevator and waiting for it to open, my father patted her on the head as she sat in her wheelchair. She spun around and said to him “you are messing my hair up”. Those are the last words she spoke. I guess my mother was correct that she was fussy about how we looked!
Minnie Laber Wosnitzer
Grandma died on April 9, 1964, and left another hole in my heart.
When I reconnected with my mother’s cousins, Merlie and Marilyn, in the mid 1970’s, they both said the same 2 things to me: First, my parents really loved each other, and second, it is a miracle I grew up since Minnie and my mother were both so over-protective!
In 2018, it was a shock to find out that Minnie adopted my mother. She never shared that information with my mother, and as far as I know, my father. When I found out about the adoption, my first thought was my Grandma is not really my Grandma. I was crushed and not sure I should share the news about the adoption because I did not want to betray her secret. But after a few months I came to realize that she always was, and always will be, my Grandma. And that by telling her story, more people will come to know, love and admire her.