My grandparents stare down at me. They are poised, and posed, in a beautiful frame on the kitchen wall. The photo must be about 100 years old.
They gaze into the camera. What will the future bring? Who will see this photo? And I, with some irony, I am all knowing. I know their futures.
There are four of them in the photo. It is elaborately and expensively framed. The frame and the photo will last through the ages. The photo will not fade. The photo will not fold or crease. It will pass through the generations as it is today.
Posing, without smiles, as was the custom, are my maternal grandparents, Peshka and Yitzchak (Bessie and Izzie as they would be known in America). Between them are little David (my beloved Uncle Dave), and Charles, my Uncle Charlie. The name Charles somehow never rang true for a boy born in Poland. Maybe they gave him a name to grow into in New York. I never asked and I never knew.
My grandmother is strikingly beautiful in the photo. Her thick dark locks are done up in swirls and waves. Her dress is black and elegant. I could wear it to a wedding. It is modest, high collared, but stylish, chic, and lovely. As is she. I doubt that this was an everyday hairdo or an everyday dress. She looks wealthy and secure. She looks calm and happy. I don’t know if she was wealthy, secure, calm, or happy. I do know that she took this picture so that I would have it, although I wasn’t even close to being born at that time. She wanted me to have it because it is my eldest daughter who now owns the lovely watch that adorns my grandmother’s neck. It is a treasure. I love the connectedness that the watch symbolizes. A watch worn in Poland a hundred years ago is now worn in New Jersey.
My grandfather is also a very fancy gentleman. He is wearing a tie and vest, a suit jacket. He looks quite contemporary. I never knew him without his glasses but, in this photo, he is a young man, staring into the camera, calmly, as if this were something he did on a regular basis, without glasses.
Between my grandparents are their two young sons. Charlie looks to be about 2. Dave about 5. They are immaculate in white shirts with large bows around their necks. I can imagine them being ordered to stay clean until the photo shoot was over. Clothing like this didn’t come cheap and was not designed for boyish play.
Missing from the photo was the still unborn daughter who became my mother. Ita Rive, known always as Ida. She was the princess, the little girl whose sheets were ironed for warmth on cold New York winter nights. But that girl was born in on the Lower East Side, a long journey away from the photo shoot in Augustow, Poland.
What gave these people the courage to leave their lives behind and move to New York? What gave all of the others who did the same the heroism needed to leave family, friends, language, customs? How lucky we are that they did!
And so the picture traveled to New York. I can not even imagine packing for such a trip. There was to be no return. How did they divine what was important to bring? Some families packed goose down for their quilts. Did that speak of how little they had or what they deemed to be necessary? I don’t know. I do know that my grandparents brought this photo. They knew that it would be important to me.
So I can see their futures. What might they have done differently if they knew what I know? Certainly they would have gone through with the plans to come to America. And I’m guessing that it was Peshka who made that decision. She was a dreamer, a planner, an optimist and a hard worker.
That’s how she acquired a hotel in the Catskill Mountains where she worked herself to an early death. She WAS the hotel. She cooked. She milked the cows. She made the butter. She negotiated prices with the guests. Where she learned all of those skills I have no idea. But her meals were famous.
She also had a dream that Charlie would become a dentist. That was a very expensive plan for an immigrant boy but Peshka made it happen. Even the Great Depression and NYU Dental School’s enormous tuition bills were no deterrent. And once the degree was granted she walked the streets, telling strangers about the wonderful new dentist setting up his practice on Brooklyn’s Vernon Avenue. Charlie succeeded and died at age 63.
Dave, on the other hand, the wonderful, lovable, always happy Dave, was not sent to college. Yet, he succeeded as a businessman until he died suddenly at the age of 53.
My mother, as a girl, was magically allowed to go to Brooklyn College and develop her lifelong love of opera and poetry, theater and art. True, she went at night. Money was needed. But she became an educated woman, somewhat of a rarity in immigrant families.
My grandfather became a clothes presser, but he also became an entrepreneur as the manager of Peshka’s hotel. For years after her death he was known as Mr. Bauman, proprietor of the Bauman House. He died three weeks before my wedding at the age of 77.
I told you that I knew their futures. All of them. And when I stare at the photo I see them as they were before the lights flashed and the picture froze in time; and I see them as they became throughout their lives.. Who would have predicted that my American mother would lie buried in the cemetery in Herzliya, Israel where she made her final home and died at age 85.
And now the picture remains. Only the picture.