Living Her Best Life

As I continue to go through Aunt Clair’s collection of papers, I find interesting items. Among them a xerox copy of a letter written by Grandma to her oldest daughter, Diane (who was called Dinya by the family). I was initially puzzled that a xeroxed letter, not addressed to her, was included in Aunt Clair’s collection. After reading it I understood why Aunt Diane would have shared it and Clair kept it.

The first page of the letter, with the date, is missing so I don’t know exactly when it was written but based on the subject (and reference to their wedding anniversary) it appears to be early in my grandparents’ retirement to Florida, either the winter of 1970 or 1971:

In the almost 43 years of our marriage this is the first time Daddy went with me for clothes. He’s a panic. He wants me to buy everything I try on. Dinya, I think he is really seeing me for the first time in many years. Daddy could be walking with me, suddenly he stops and tells me I look good, is enough to drive me crazy. Daddy is completely relaxed and thank ‘God,’ he feels good. Remember the wise words from your mudder. Nothing like a love affair at 65 and 67. When we walk into a store and I try a dress on and walk over to Daddy to ask if he likes it etc etc, he tells me it is very nice, shakes his head up and down and tells me I look very good. When I walk back to the dressing room with the saleswoman, she asks if I’m ‘going with him,’ if I’m going to marry him. She thinks he’s my Romeo and I’m taking him shopping. Dinya, I fall apart. Dinya, you, Paul and children have a very Healthy Happy New Year. We miss you all very much. Heaps of love from Daddy and me.

                                                                                    Mom

How adorable is that? It gives me hope as a spring chicken of 62 and married for only 38 years that romance can be alive and well in the years ahead. I am quite fortunate in that, even with the natural ebb and flow of relationships, the love has never gone out of my marriage. It is nice to know that the flame can burn brightly again.

I also appreciate Grandma’s word choices. She writes, “He’s a panic.” I can hear her saying that – she used that a lot as I recall, and it shows up in any number of the letters in Aunt Clair’s collection. It meant the person, or their behavior, made her laugh. I don’t think we use the word panic that way anymore, do we? She also refers to herself as ‘your mudder,’ spelling it as she would say it. But it wasn’t that she had an accent and thought it was spelled that way, she was perfectly capable of saying and spelling mother properly, she was being humorous. The letters are filled with her amusing touches.

In another way, it feels odd to read this. These are my grandparents! And she is writing to her daughter! There is nothing off color or even too personal in it, it’s lovely, but still not what one expects in communication between a mother and daughter – especially of that generation. But, maybe I’m wrong and if I could survey letters of that era I would find intimacies shared. I wonder if I wrote something along those lines to my daughter how she would react.

More interesting to me is that it was my impression that though they cared for each other, I didn’t perceive much of a spark between Grandma and Grandpa. After all, they slept in separate twin beds like Lucy and Desi on television. Most of what I heard and saw of their interactions revolved around their respective health. Grandma regulated Grandpa’s diet rigidly and often spoke on his behalf. I thought he was the quintessential henpecked Jewish husband. Maybe he was.

Grandpa, with his gentlemanly, reserved ways, was considerate in a formal way, but I don’t recall romantic gestures. It was a different time, though. Emotions were more closely held. I certainly didn’t know them in their youth. Plus, they had been through so much.

Young adulthood, which for Grandma and Grandpa was during the early 1930s when the country was suffering, is a time of striving – to find your place, to establish yourself. Grandpa had the spirit of an entrepreneur. He came to America to seek his fortune; he was willing to take risks. He came by himself, leaving his parents, sister and extended family in Poland in 1921. He was 17. Grandma, American-born, was much more cautious by nature. The Great Depression heightened her fears. This difference caused friction. Aunt Clair told me that Grandpa felt stifled by Grandma. Then in 1945 Grandpa learned that what remained of his family had been killed by the Nazis. I can only imagine what that did to his spirit. It is a lot of strain for a marriage. Growing up in the stress, trauma, and sadness colored the childhoods of Diane, Dad and Clair and shaped their perception of their parents.

Both Grandma and Grandpa worked hard; they put in long hours at the stores they owned. Over the years they had a dry goods store, a luncheonette and then a laundromat. Some of their businesses were more successful than others. Their financial situation was a mystery, even to my father. They moved to a nicer apartment on Prospect Park West when Dad was in high school and it didn’t include a bedroom for him, though there was one for his sisters. Was that about money? Though they said they would contribute to his wedding, they gave less than they committed to, leaving Mom and Dad to use their gift money to cover the difference.

I knew Dad harbored many resentments about the way he was treated by his parents. He was determined to do it differently with his own children and he did. Recently my mother told me that when Grandma was dying, she and Dad talked it out. Tears were shed and apologies were made. I’m glad to know that, though I wish I knew it years ago when Dad was still alive.

Marriages go through phases, it seems, and children absorb the ripple effects. The beginning can be tough as the couple figures out if they are on the same page in how they approach life. Children can strengthen the bond but also create other tensions. Throw in a natural disaster (like the New England Hurricane of 1938 that upended Nana and Zada’s life) or economic calamities (like the Depression) or violence (the Holocaust) and a marriage may be stretched to the breaking point. If the marriage survives all that retirement can come as a balm, or a couple may find themselves strangers to each other.

Grandpa was able to relax and enjoy himself in his retirement. Not all men are able to do that. I know my father-in-law struggled with the transition, perhaps because retirement wasn’t on his terms. But it was likely more than that. Many men are defined by their work, their identities are wrapped up in their profession, and the loss of that can unmoor them. I imagine women can have that issue too, but I think it is less common for a woman to be so invested in their career that she can’t adjust when it is over. Having hobbies and other interests helps too.  

Most of the letters Aunt Clair saved were written by Grandma when they first became snowbirds (1970-75), after their retirement. The letters reveal that the last five years of Grandma’s life were very happy ones. Though it was abruptly cut short by cancer, she took great pleasure in those final years, even more so because she enjoyed the renewed attentions of her husband. I’m glad Aunt Clair saved those letters so I could know that.

Living their best lives

2 thoughts on “Living Her Best Life

  1. Marriage, retirement, personal hardships, and how world events factor into our lives make for such wonderful food for thought. Especially through the looking glass of personal correspondence. It’s really a mystery how some marriages survive and thrive and some don’t given the same kinds of circumstances. I had to laugh reading about your grandparents’ sleeping arrangements…my parents also had a “Lucy and Ricky” setup and it didn’t seem to be a hindrance to their romantic life one bit.
    It’s truly a gift to have the opportunity to learn about family all these years later.

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  2. I must admit my first impression upon reading the letter was the feeling that this is not something you tell your child. But then I thought about what a nice and happy piece of news it is. It is nice to hear that your parents and grandparents are happy. It is nice to know that happiness in a marriage at that age is possible and to even see a role model for that happiness.
    I would almost say that it was courageous of your grandma to write those letters but it actually feels more natural, more ordinary and just not so mired in the ruminations we subject our thoughts to. Look at that photo. These were two happy people. Good for them. And us.
    Thank you for the delightful blog post.

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