It has been well over 50 years since Asna died, and yet, she is with me still. I called her Edna, never Aunt Edna, even from earliest childhood. She was so huge a part of my life that, even now, I miss her deeply. She was my father’s sister, slightly older than Dad and his twin, another sister Itka. Asna was the family paradigm, especially for us girls. We strived to be like her, never quite succeeding, never reaching those heights. And it wasn’t that she was famous or talented. What set her apart was her absolute goodness, especially when it came to our family.
I can see Asna so clearly. She was very thin with hair like Brillo. No one else in our family had that kind of hair. And she was energetic beyond normal, always in perpetual motion, doing something. Hadassah discovered her and made her their president, a job she relished. And her two boys, both long gone themselves, were indulged and pampered. She was a dutiful and devoted wife to Abraham, her first cousin. Yes!
And so, it was Asna, Edna, who made a home for Zayda when he was widowed for the second time. By then Zayda was quite old, although younger than I am now. He could have lived alone, but for a man who had raised six children and built a successful business, loneliness was a foreign entity. He would not have thrived alone and, in those days, the 40’s and 50’s, glamorous assisted living facilities were an unknown. In loneliness he would not have survived until 87. He wouldn’t have had the daily visits from us, his grandchildren, with our scripted: “Vas machts du Zayda? Vilst shpilin rummy?” How are you Zayda. Do you want to play rummy? At least those were my lines. I’m sure my sister and my cousins, all of whom shared the house that Zayda built on Aldine Street, had their own Yiddish repertoire. But our daily visits were only possible because of Asna’s love, respect, and tolerance of her father and his quirks.
Zayda was profoundly religious, one of those whose life was utterly bound by Orthodox Judaism, or, as we called it, Yiddishkeit. Of course Asna’s house was intensely supervised by a live in mashkiach (kashrut supervisor) once Zayda moved in. Never shy, he commented on everything, meals, ritual and especially any contact between my teenage boy cousins, Asna’s sons, and their girlfriends. Touching was verboten. It couldn’t have been easy but I, as a kid, didn’t see the stress and my aunt never complained. This was honoring her father and that was it.
During Zayda’s years with Asna and her always supportive husband Abe, tragedy struck our family. Another of my father’s sisters, Irene, a year older than Asna, became terminally ill at the age of 47. Irene was the mother of one son who was already grown and living on his own, preparing for his upcoming wedding. Sidney, Irene’s husband, could not stay home to tend to Irene and so Asna stretched again the walls of her home to welcome her. By this time I was 12 and I remember the great sadness that engulfed our family as Irene lay dying. She, herself, had already bought a brilliant red dress for “the kid’s wedding.” It was poignant to see Zayda and read into his mind the unspoken deals with God to take him and leave Irene. It wasn’t to be. The red dress was never worn. But, Irene was protected by a huge wall of love provided by Asna who gave her peace, caring, tenderness and companionship. And Zayda mourned, dying soon after.
Asna was the family leader. Indisputably. The frequent Sunday get togethers were always at her home. I never thought about it as a kid but when our huge group, the six married adult children and all of us kids, ate and shmoozed and ended up with the adults playing a lively game of poker and the kids enjoying each other’s company, it was, somehow, always at Asna’s. She organized. She cooked. She kept our family together. Even as a teenager I never would have thought to miss the Sundays. Even after both Irene and Zayda had left us, the Sundays continued.
And then, in her mid 50’s Asna suffered a massive heart attack which took her from us a year later. Imagine a ship without a captain. She couldn’t be replaced and she will never be replaced. And so, after all these years, I now say “good-bye Asna, I love you still.”
Shortly after Asna died our third daughter was born. In heartfelt remembrance her middle name is, of course, Asna.