I hardly knew my maternal grandmother Peshka. I was five when she died at age 62, in 1945. My one recollection of her is sitting in her wheelchair peeling potatoes. I can’t capture the timber of her voice. I can’t hear her laugh. But I have heard stories about her and I know she was a fiercely independent woman, ahead of her time. And she was also beautiful as the family portraits of her as a young mother show.
The wheelchair was her nemesis. Our family history has numerous versions of the famous story of Peshka trying to escape the confines of her wheelchair, only to collapse on the ground, gasping for air. The heroine of these tales is Phoebe, our beloved mongrel, Peshka’s devoted sidekick. Her very loving friend. Phoebe’s cries of panic would bring my uncle Charlie down from his dental office in the upstairs apartment. He would rescue Mom, until the next time when she tried to stand again.
Peshka was an immigrant from the Pale, making a life for her family of three children in Brooklyn. While Pop, her adoring husband, would have, and could have, lived his life as a presser in the garment district, constantly struggling, Peshka had plans. And she managed to make them happen.
One plan was to open a hotel in the Catskills. She had grown up in a resort town in Poland, Augustow. She saw that the hotel business was profitable. She told Pop that they had to buy a hotel. Of course they had no money but that was a minor deterrent.
Pop was on the subway coming home from work when he met Mr. Tanzman. Mr. Tanzman had a hotel to sell in a tiny hamlet called Parksville in New York’s Catskills. The price was $5,000. and the deal was struck before the subway ride was over.
He told Peshka the news. But, where would the $5,000. come from? They would bring in a silent partner. They knew just the man. Mr. Westin. They would run the hotel and do the work. He would share the profits. The hotel would bear the sign Westin House (no! not the same Westin sorry to say!). And so it was. A very short few years later a new sign appeared: The Bauman House, Pop’s family name I can only imagine the pride in erecting that sign.
Peshka became a hotelier. She worked beyond exhaustion.She milked the cows, churned the butter, did all the cooking and baking, and, no doubt, shortened her life as well.
Pop was the handyman. Dave and Charlie, their two sons, were chauffeurs, picking up the guests at the local Parksville train station. My mother, Ida, was a chambermaid.
Peshka needed the money. You see, she had another dream. She wanted Charlie to become a dentist. Not a doctor. A dentist. During the depression she had borrowed $500. (an enormous sum) to pay Charlie’s tuition at NYU Dental School. She needed to repay that money. And she did. The hotel profits enabled them to buy their brownstone in Brooklyn and repay the loan. Charlie’s office was to be on the second floor of the new house on Vernon Avenue.
When Charlie was finally installed in his office, with equipment paid for by proceeds from The Bauman House, Peshka roamed the neighborhood streets to recruit patients. She would say, “Come to my son’s office. He’s a doctor.” One woman tersely replied, “You want me to be sick?” Peshka promptly replied that Charlie was a doctor for healthy people, not for sick ones.
She, herself, had never been afraid of new doctors. My mother was often told the story of her own birth on Nov. 2, 1913. Most babies were delivered by midwives in those days. My grandmother decided that her only American born child would be delivered by a medical doctor, Dr. Norman Smith. No matter that Dr. Smith had just opened his practice and she would be his first delivery. She claimed, in Yiddish, “Got to give a new doctor a chance.” And that was the way she gathered patients for Charlie. “Got to give a new dentist a chance!”
I’m sorry that I never had the opportunity to know my grandmother well. As a grandmother myself, and a great-grandmother, I think it’s one of the most beautiful relationships….grandmother and grandchild. and great-grandmother just as much.. I saw that when my mother became a grandmother, and years later a great-grandmother, and I see it in my own cherished relationships with my grandchildren. And I’m hoping to share the same with our new great-grandson. Gone are the stresses of parenting. Gone are the day to day tensions. All that’s left is the love.
Peshka, i barely knew thee but you were special. Truly an eyshet chayil. Rest in peace!