Widening the Lens

I feel like a voyeur, but I can’t help myself. As I continue to sift through my aunt’s things, I am captivated by letters from my grandparents (my father’s parents). I hold certain impressions of them based on childhood memories and stories I heard throughout the years. The letters confirm some of those ideas, but also shed new light and offer a different perspective.

March 7, 1975

Dearest Clair,

So how be you ketzel? Do not forget M.D. appointment and Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam is by far the best Uncle anyone ever had. We are as we were, thank the good Lord. I am now in my glory that my “friends” have gone home…..

There is so much to unpack in this brief beginning. First, the date. March of 1975, I was finishing my junior year of high school. Grandma, the writer of this letter, was 69 and would be dead 9 months later. The letter gave no hint of her failing health, she may still have been without symptoms. About four months after this, she would be diagnosed with liver cancer and things went downhill fast from there. She died December 19, 1975.

She wrote from Florida to her ‘dearest’ daughter living in New York City. Clair was the baby of the family. I doubt there were letters written to my dad that began Dearest Barry. That isn’t to say she didn’t love my dad, but I don’t think they shared the warmth revealed in these letters. Again and again, in notes from both of her parents, Clair is addressed with terms of endearment. There are many possible explanations for the absence of evidence of that affection for my dad. To the best of my knowledge, Dad didn’t save letters. Dad also had terrible handwriting, more like chicken scratching, so he may not have kept up correspondence with his parents. But, there is something more. My memory was that there wasn’t much warmth between Dad and his parents. I’ve written about their complicated relationship before. If these letters to Clair are indicative of their bond, there was a great deal of it between Clair and her parents.

Photo of Grandma and Grandpa taken by Clair around the time of this letter.

I guess it should not be surprising. Siblings can have different relationships with their parents. I can think of examples of that in our extended family. One child sees their dad as heroic while another seems him as seriously flawed. One child may feel secure in the love of a parent, another may not. Growing up I saw things through the lens of my father’s perception. Reading these letters widens the view. It doesn’t change his reality but adds to the picture I have of his family.

Which brings me to the word ‘ketzel.’ I had to smile when I read that. Dad called me that all the time when I was a child.  Ketzel means kitten in Yiddish. I didn’t know that growing up, but I recognized by the tone of his voice that it was a loving term. Ketzel is not a word I heard much if at all over the years since Dad died. Reading this letter in her Greenwich Village apartment brought my dad to me. I also didn’t know that it was a familial term – I only knew my dad used it but it makes sense that it would have been inherited along with their DNA.

Reading this letter, and the others, brought back other voices. It is nice to ‘hear’ Grandma’s voice.

Her voice comes through loud and clear. “So how be you, ketzel?” The phrasing of that is so Grandma. She was born in America, but her speech patterns had the inflections and syntax of the shtetl – at least that’s what I think it is. To me it is identifiably Jewish. Grandma was funny. She was quick with a quip, but she also had an amusing way of putting things – just like the opening of this missive.

“Do not forget M.D. appointment…” A Jewish mother reminding her daughter to take care from afar. Judging by the mounds of paper I sorted through in Aunt Clair’s apartment, she heeded her mother’s advice. She followed up on several medical conditions. Today we can access test results and other information from patient portals. Clair was ahead of her time. She kept copious records of various tests and lab reports, on paper and CDs.  

“Do not forget… Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam is the best uncle anyone ever had.” She is reminding Clair to file her taxes – which I’ll say more about momentarily. But, what a great line! Though Grandma was American born and wasn’t as close to the immigrant experience as her husband, she had a deep appreciation for her country. For whatever reason, Aunt Clair was reluctant to file her taxes. It might have been straight up procrastination, or maybe something else was at play, but Clair struggled with this her entire adult life. Taking care of details, like filing paperwork, was the bane of her existence. Filing her taxes late (or not at all some years) may have been an expression of her rebellious nature. While Clair believed in government, a subject she and I discussed many times over the years, she wanted it to be run fairly and competently. It often fell short of the mark in her estimation, and it is possible she was showing her disapproval. Her mother, in this letter, was prodding her to take care of business – but unlike the medical appointment, she didn’t listen.

Another interesting tidbit from this letter – “We are as we were, thank the good Lord.” Again, interesting syntax, not your typical ‘we’re fine.’ Grandma was thanking God that her friends had gone home. The rest of the letter goes into the details of their friends’ visit that went sour, recounted with Grandma’s trademark blunt humor. I am a bit surprised that Grandma references God, given their lack of faith, but I don’t think it represents serious reverence for a higher power, more likely just a turn of phrase.

As I read these letters I get drawn into that world, adding to the picture I already have of my dad’s family. The letters offer a glimpse into a relationship I had no access to before. It feels odd to be peeking over their shoulders, but it doesn’t feel wrong. I have an enriched understanding and by disclosing it on this blog my family can share in it too.

This effort has brought up so much rich material, there is more to explore. I hope you will find it as interesting and thought-provoking as I have.

6 thoughts on “Widening the Lens

  1. In a recent blog I believe you debated what one should do with letters from relatives that have passed on. Do you read them but keep them private? Or do you share them? I think the post you have just written answers the question – share them. What an interesting letter from a mother to her daughter and your take-aways in the manner that the letter was written.

    Well done!

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  2. Wonderful piece. Having found myself in a similar position, of touching , reading, seeing and experiencing the items someone dear to me saved marking import moments in their life, i relate to the sacred undertaking.
    It adds to the richness of their story and a widening perspective. It is an honor and that you for sharing yours.

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  3. So interesting to read that piece. I love that your dad and Grandma’s voices came back to you. That’s worth everything. I think Clair would be happy that you are having this experience by reading her letters.

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  4. The expressions that are unique to each culture, to each family, the ways of expressing love and warmth and making you feel special-those are of particular interest to me. There is something that is communicated in your grandmother calling your aunt ketzel and in your dad finding the same expression for you-perhaps delivered with the same sweetness.
    Every culture has them. It is a way of us telling someone not only that we love them, but at the same time telling them something about who they are, where they came from and about a place they will always belong-wherever else their journey brings them. It is part of being home.
    I remember the Yiddish lullabies my mother used to sing to me. I remember feeling entirely safe-something I wonder if she ever felt. I’m so glad you can hear that voice.
    thank you

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