My friend Justyna, a regular reader of the blog, remarked recently, “I don’t hear/see that much about men in your mom’s family.” And she’s right. Most of the relatives I knew growing up were female—Mama, Babcia, Auntie Nunia, Aunt Teresa. Most of the family stories featured them and a few other female relatives—Auntie Lusia, Mama’s cousins big Pauline and little Pauline. A simple explanation might be longevity; the men died young and the women lived much longer. Babcia lived to 99, Auntie Nunia to 97. But there’s more to it than that. I come from a long line of strong women. Each one made an impression on those around her, though each did so in her own way.
I get the sense that another thing that was passed down was close, but contentious relationships between mothers and daughters. Perhaps it’s inevitable when strong personalities collide.
I don’t know a lot about my grandmother’s relationship with her mother. All my mom has told me about her grandmother is that she was physically small but she took charge in her large family. She had a dozen children over 24 years, starting with a daughter when she was just 19 and ending with twins at age 43. After the twins (one of whom died as an infant, the other as a teenager), my grandmother was the youngest. Looking at them together in the photo that launched my search for my Jewish heritage, I imagine they probably loved each other but drove each other crazy. More likely than not, my great grandmother was a very religious Jew. My grandmother was fun loving and bold, and eventually rejected her religion and her family for a life in Warsaw society.
I dissect the specific features captured in the photo, scouring them for hints about the people photographed. Babcia’s dress is silken, with what looks like a fabric train in back, a light colored inset at the bodice, and a rose-like adornment at her waistline. Even more striking is the dress’s length, reaching only to mid-calf and revealing a stockinged leg and high heels. Her mother, by contrast, wears a long dark dress made of matte fabric except for a silky dark addition at the wrists and shoulders. My grandmother looks coquettishly into the camera; though she does not smile, you can almost see her dimples. Her mother’s expression is serous. The thing that hints most directly at their relationship is the way my grandmother grips her mother’s hand. But what does this gesture say? Is it a sign of affection? Might it be an indication of special intimacy? Or perhaps is my grandmother expressing her possessiveness? Or her power over her mother? My great grandmother rests her hands on her knees straight in front her. My grandmother’s knees are turned toward her mother, her body at an angle to the camera.
I talked about this photo at a conference recently, and remarked how my grandmother is more brightly lit than anyone else in the photo. She’s positioned in the foreground as if she is preparing to leap out of the frame. When I described the way my grandmother clasps her mother’s wrist, and asked what it might communicate about their relationship, someone suggested it might not be a gesture of affection or power so much as reassurance. As if my grandmother knew she would leave her mother soon, and wanted to reassure her everything would be alright.
My Mama and Babcia were in many ways opposites, also. Mama was shy to the point of fearful of social situations; Babcia thrived as the center of attention. And yet, both could command any room they entered. Partly, this is a product of upbringing. They knew how to dress elegantly and carried themselves with an air of refinement that stood out in casual American settings. While Babcia entertained and commanded, Mama was more likely to draw people out and empathize with them.
Their relationship was complicated. On one hand, they depended on each other throughout their lives. Babcia helped Mama when she was injured and had to find a way out of Poland. Mama helped Babcia when she grew older, managing her finances and taking the train into the city from Long Island to visit every week. On the other hand, I get the impression Mama resented being “abandoned” by her mother at two critical junctures in her life. The first time was when she was left with an aunt as a very young child when Babcia ran away from her first husband and remarried. The second time was when Mama became a mother (eventually of four children) but Babcia decided to move to Puerto Rico. Further, Mama was deeply hurt and resentful when toward the end of her life, Babcia treated her poorly and failed to appreciate everything Mama did for her. Intellectually, she knew Babcia’s ill temper was a product of age and illness, but that didn’t ease the sting of feeling her efforts unrecognized. I think my mother was inordinately sensitive to her mother’s criticism, and perhaps annoyed with herself that it mattered so much. But maybe (probably) I’m projecting because that’s how I feel about my relationship with my mother.
There are very few pictures of my mother together with my grandmother. Mama was reluctant to have her photo taken any time with anyone. This one, taken outside of Babcia’s apartment sometime around the early 1980s, is interesting for two reasons. First, it shows the distinctive style of both women. Second, there’s a hand on Babcia’s shoulder, probably my brother Chris’s [oops. Krysia’s right. It’s Wiley’s hand 10-29-15]. This gesture appears in many family photographs.
It’s hard for me to say if I am very similar to my mother or very different. It’s probably both, though neither made it easy for us to get along. I have no doubt that I became a professor, in part, to realize her dream for me—a dream she gave up for herself in order to have a “normal life” as a wife and mother. Perhaps it’s typical of my generation that I was raised believing I can have it all (and I more or less do, but there’s a price to pay for that, too). It’s hard to find the words to describe our relationship. What comes out is either a string of platitudes or far too much detail. Suffice it to say we were very close. So close, I was angry with her most of the time between the ages of 13 and 33, probably as a way of separating and asserting my autonomy. Mama was simultaneously weak and strong, shy and bold, afraid of meeting people and quick to establish intimacy with them. It drove me crazy that all my friends loved her and confided in her when I felt like I couldn’t talk to her myself. I’m just grateful that I finally stopped being mad. And now that I can’t talk with her anymore, I miss her. She was the person I was most likely to turn to in a crisis, like the time I was in labor, Ian was breech, and I and couldn’t think clearly enough to decide whether to continue with a natural childbirth or have a Cesarean section. She knew what to say to reassure me, to help me make the right decision.
This photo is from Mama’s 90th birthday party in June 2012. Mama had often talked about wanting to have a white party in her garden. So my brothers and I made it happen. Dozens of relatives, friends, and even former neighbors came to celebrate, and everyone really did dress in white. In this photo, I notice again our hands. My brothers and I form a protective ring around Mama, our hands on her arm or shoulder, and Chris with his other hand on Wiley’s shoulder. We do so casually, an unorchestrated mark of intimacy and affection. And an appropriate complement to the photo of my grandmother with her hand placed upon her mother’s wrist.