The Meemah

Once upon a time there was a small village called Klimentov in what is now southeastern Poland, about halfway between the Bug and Vistula rivers.  In 1913 this village was part of Russia and did not actually become part of Poland until Pilsudski in 1921.  But when it was still Russia, in 1913, there were two brothers who lived there.  One of them was my great-grandfather.  I never met him.  I never knew him.  I never knew his first name.  My mother never knew his name either.  She called him Zaydie which translates loosely as “little grandfather” although she remembered him as a large man with big rough hands that would pull hot potatoes out of a fire and break them into little pieces for her to eat when she was six years old.  His younger brother’s first name has also been lost but I did know him…in Rockaway, New York, in the 1950’s and I always called him The Zaydah, which translates as the “big grandfather” although he was a tiny man and not really my grandfather.  His wife was called The Meemah which means The Aunt, so go figure.  It totally makes no sense but that’s what they were called by everyone who knew them, no matter what their relationship and no matter what their generation.

In 1913 The Zaydah and The Meemah decided to leave Klimentov and emigrate with their five sons and two daughters to the United States.  My great-grandfather with the big rough hands was furious.  He was very religious and declared that “In America the stones are treif (unclean)!”  He pronounced his brother dead and never mentioned him or spoke of him again; or ever acknowledged the man or his family had existed.  My mother grew up with no knowledge that her Zaydie had ever had a brother or that she had relatives living in America.

In 1939 the Germans came into Klimentov and when she was 12 years old, my mother was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp with her older sister, Dora.  Six months later, Dora was beaten to death for falling asleep on an assembly line and my mother lost the last living member of her immediate family.  She stayed in Buchenwald until she was 16 years old when the Russians invaded Poland near the end of the War.  Interestingly, she was finally liberated by a brigade of Italians.  A little-known footnote to history is that there were a number of “free Italian” brigades that revolted against Mussolini and joined the Allies to fight Germany.  She stayed with these Italians and eventually ended up in an international camp in the Russian sector of Poland.  Eventually she found her way to the city of Lodz where she met my father.  She was immediately attracted to him because he wore baggy pants stuffed with potatoes.  They were married and found their way to the American sector of Germany where I was born in December 1946 in a displaced persons camp outside Munich in a town called Turkheim.

The following Spring their plans to emigrate to Canada were dashed when my father was robbed of the $500 relocation fee they had been saving which was required for passage.  This was their lowest point and they were in despair.

Then a miracle happened.  My mother got a letter from New York.  It was from the HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, USA.  The letter was brought by old man Goldvassar who distributed all the mail in the camp.  He was followed by 15 or 20 girls who wanted to know why Luba Eisenberg would be getting a letter from the HIAS and what could possibly be in that envelope.  What was in the envelope was a very short letter written by Meyer Silverstein, the eldest son of the Meemah and the Zaydah who had left Klimentov in 1913.  The letter was in Yiddish and it always makes me weep when I quote it because it is so simple and so profound and had such a lasting effect on the lives of my parents and me.  The letter started, “Ich wunde mich, as die veist nisht as die hast a grosse familia in Amerika!”  “I’m surprised you don’t know that you have a large family in America.”

Then everything changed.  We came to America.  My father earned a dollar a day for not smoking cigarettes on the boat and, adding that up to the 21 dollars he had saved, brought him to Boston Harbor with his wife, his now three-year-old son and $28 American dollar bills in his pocket.

We were met by Meyer Silverstein.

I called him Uncle Meyer for the rest of his life but I’m sure you can appreciate his exact familial relationship to me was never precisely defined.  Be that as it may, we moved into an apartment with the Meemah and the Zaydah in Rockaway, New York for our first year in America.   I think my father’s first job was breaking in new shoes for relatives and friends who paid him a dollar a day to walk the streets of Brooklyn until the leather softened enough to make them comfortable.  He eventually found work in a dress factory and we moved into a small apartment of our own in Borough Park in Brooklyn.

I don’t remember much about our days in Rockaway but know the Zaydah was a very small man and very quiet and very old.  I also know the Meemah was very religious and wore a sheytl (wig).  She taught my mother how to keep a kosher kitchen and how to cook and how to care for a family.

They had seven children who had grown successful in America.  Meyer ran a paint contracting company, Joe owned a hotel in Atlantic City, the others were established with their own families and businesses in and around New York.  When the war ended, the Zaydah ordered his sons to find all the surviving residents of their village, Klimentov, and bring them to America.  In total, they found 68 survivors and over a period of several years sponsored and brought all 68 to this country.   They paid for passage and expenses.  They found jobs for the men and nurtured and cared for the women and families and watched over the years as those 68 survivors grew into a thriving community of Klimentovers in the new world.

Every summer they would host a huge gathering in their backyard in Rockway.  The Meemah and her daughters would cook and prepare a huge feast and go from table to table cooing over the babies and talking and laughing with the parents.  I remember for us children how special it was to hear this old lady tell us about the grandparents we had never know, whom she remembered well and could describe in minute detail.  She described the village and the life and the world from which we came that no longer existed.  The Zaydah would sit by himself watching and smiling.

I stopped going  to these gathering as a teenager but went to my last one shortly after graduating from college.  By this time the Zaydah was gone.  He had died right after his 107th birthday and everyone said it was a shame that he was taken so soon.  But he had lived a good life.

The Meemah was now 98 years old, living alone in her third floor walkup.  She hadn’t seen me in years knew me instantly.  “You’re Leibish the baker’s grandson,” she pronounced and then sat with me telling me about how my grandfather  was a foolish man for baking pastries and cakes in a town where people could barely afford bread.  She told me how she danced at my grandmother’s wedding and what a beautiful bride she had been.  The Meemah did all the cooking but relied on her daughters Sarah and Gloria to prepare and pass out the food.  “I’ll have Gloria  clean up, I’m getting to old.”

I was living in Baltimore at the time and a few weeks later I got a phone call from my father.  I heard his voice say “Larry….”  Now this was a surprise.  My father never made the phone calls.  He expected us to call, or else my mother would call and talk and at the end she’d say something like, “I’ll put your father on the phone.  But this time it was his voice.  “Larry, we have to say goodbye to The Meemah.”

What happened?  What happened was The Meemah was cooking dinner for herself, frying up something in a skillet and the skillet turned over and spilled hot grease, setting her house dress on fire.  She rolled herself up in a rug, put out the fire, then walked down three flights of stairs out onto the street where she hailed a taxi to take her to St. John’s Episcopal Hospital.  Why Saint John’s?  It was the closest and she didn’t want to pay the extra fare to take her to Mount Sinai.

So she checked into St. John’s and was put into intensive care with second and third degree burns over 60% of her body.

So we went to say goodbye to The Meemah.  She was breathing softly; she couldn’t speak but was able to smile at us with recognition.  And we said goodbye to the Meemah.  But we weren’t the only ones.  For two solid weeks people came from all over the world to pay their respects and say goodbye to this dear lady.  They came from every major city in the U.S.  They came from Canada, from England, from Israel, Australia; from Argentina and Brazil, from Russia.  Doctors and lawyers and politicians and scientists; and farmers and professors and people with great accomplishments; all coming to say goodbye  because she had touched all their lives.  A generation of people connected to her and her family and to a small village in southeastern Poland.  For two solid weeks there was a constant stream of humanity washing into the halls for St. John’s Episcopal Hospital to pay homage to The Meemah.

And then she got better.

The doctors couldn’t believe it but she survived.  She went to live in a big house with her daughter Gloria and rested comfortably for almost an entire year before she passed peacefully in her sleep.

That was THE MEEMAH

What I learned about cancer from my cat and the Galapagos Islands

My younger brother Phil moved to Loja Ecuador about two years ago. Several months ago I got a phone call in the middle of the night informing me that he had been rushed to the hospital and and would undergo emergency surgery the next day. Loja is a city of almost 200,000 people, high in the Andes, at approximately 6500 feet. I speak no Spanish and was thrown into a huge panic….how do I get to Loja in time for Phillip’s surgery and how in the world do I manage the task with “no habla espanol.”

As it turned out, the next morning the doctors determined surgery would not be necessary and that Phil’s condition could be managed with diet and other treatment.

I was off the hook….

But that’s when we decided I needed to take a trip to visit him in Ecuador so that if such an emergency were to ever recur, I’d be better prepared. I also purchased a 5-level online Spanish course from a company called Pimsleur and began a slow and steady approach to the language.

We also arranged a November trip. It had been almost 8 years since I’d seen this brother and as the Galapagos Islands had always been part of my bucket list, we agreed to meet in Quito at midnight on November 10, then proceed to the Galapagos for 6 days and then to Loja for its 4th Annual International Arts Festival for an additional 10 days.

I’ve posted a number of photos and anecdotes about this trip on Facebook but am now using these pages to be a bit more expansive and tell this story a little more completely.

There was once a Twilight Zone episode called “Next Stop Willoughby.” I don’t remember who starred in it but essentially the main character gets off a midwestern train in a small town called Willoughby and finds himself back in time 50 years…band shells, carriages, people friendly and warm; a rediscovered sense of promises at life’s beginnings that can be reclaimed following the regrets of aging and passage of time into the future…a future missing those simple warming charms found when children are safe to wander the streets after sunset; where neighbors invite you in for a chat, when unexpected visitors are welcomed and warmed by your fire and company.

My Ecuador trip was a little like that Willoughby tale. It came at a time when I needed to remark less on my complaints and more on the magic of good company and simple pleasures.

Charmela Kneller doesn’t know how old he is.

He remembers that when he came to America in 1949 after the second World War, he lied about his age to the people at Ellis Island. He remembers he lied but he doesn’t remember exactly why he lied and he’s not sure in which direction he lied; but he knows he lied and he admits that he lied and everyone thinks that he is charming and if he’s 102 fine and if he isn’t 102 it’s charming anyway so why bother with an old man. So the mayor of Lakewood, New Jersey, is planning to show up at the assisted living facility where Charmela lives…and also where my father lives who happens to be exactly (exactly….and I repeat the word “exactly”) 97-years-old and there’s no disputing it with him. He does know how old he is. He’s vague about other things but he does know he was born in Iwaniska, Poland on April 20, 1922 and there’s no dispute or question-marks there. He also knew Charmela in Poland.

So the mayor of Lakewood is coming in September with the newspapers and they are going to bring cake for Chermela to help this remarkable holocaust survivor from Poland celebrate his 102nd birthday.

And my father says, “You know, I don’t really don’t remember a lot of things. You tell me 97 and I got no reason to fight with you but one thing I do remember is that back in Poland I was older than Charmela. But this is America and maybe he’s older here. So I’m not gonna fight about it.

At the end of times…

I’ve had the opportunity (maybe “opportunity’ is not the right word)….I’ve had the occasion to be with certain people at the end of their lives and these have usually been people I’ve cared for and even (usually) people I’ve loved. And when these events have occurred they have been blessings to me and I am filled with a tremendous sense of privilege to have been in the presence of loved ones at the end of their lives….

I know what she likes…

And that’s the problem between us. i think i can improve what she likes. Yes, Wilderness Salmon and Turkey is always something’ she’ll leap to; usually, but sometimes her stomach problems keep her from enjoying Wilderness Salmon and Turkey. So I try to give her variety and mix in some Instinct and Wellness which she likes alot of the time. And because I’m a human and she’s a cat, if We were both humans, we’d like a little variety and have conversations about the subtle differences between the various brands of cat food and no matter how great an actor Paul Newman was, not everyone one of our cat animals are going to let us get away with buying Newmans Brand catfood from Whole Earth and thinking they are going to allow it.

But I know she always likes Wilderness Salmon and Turkey, so why the fuck don’t I just buy her what she wants and lay it down in front of her and stop trying to pretend for the pretty Pet Lady Store person that I have an interesting relationship with this last of a 72-year-old man’s array of cats dating back generations.

So let her eat what she wants and “Yeah, I;’m buying my cat 43 cans of Wilderness Salmon and Turkey because that’s what she likes and i’m not taking any chances.”

This is a picture of me and my old cat.

She didn’t used to be an old cat. But neither did I.

She’s learned to imitate the expressions on my face. I smile, she smiles; I frown she frowns. I have to get her a pair of matching eyeglasses.

Actually when I first got her I already had an old cat. His name was Binks but he’s dead now and he was remarkably stupid…..my Boy Binks….I think I miss him more than she does….but he’s dead and she’s old and time doesn’t stop for any of us.

A Cat Has Nine Lives

  1. You introduce me to another old guy who’s from my world and an old hippie probably and I say to him, “Dude….I never thought I’d be looking at somebody that I recognized from my world and my life and I’d be calling him “Dude.”
  2. And I step through the years of my life and my world of cats, going back through history to Margaret, the first of my cat lives, but even that one wasn’t the first. I could go back to the cat from Will Love that we had on the farm in Cockeysville, Maryland, just down the road from where John Waters was working on Pink Flamingoes.
  3. And then there was Behemoth who is a whole story on her own. Her head was cockeyed. I knew her when I knew Arnold the BlueJay who lived with us at the Newman House….was it it the Newman House?…no, I don’t think so. Maybe it was…it was a little coffee house building where we did one act plays back in my days as a student at Drew Theological Seminary.
  4. Then to California and after a generation and a life as a dogman….when I broke off with Cheryl and moved into that Santa Monica house with Ed and Robin and John Tays. And that was the start of my CAT-LIFE….and Margaret was her name. So yeah. Margaret was my first CAT LIFE; no offense Behemoth and no offense, un-named cat that lived with me in Cockeysville, Maryland, that once belonged to a guy named Will Love, but that’s another story.
  5. I remember I was taking a creative writing class with the wonderful T. Chorogison Boyle and one of the stories I sent in was called “That Asshole Cat.” It was only a few lines (like maybe 6 or 12 lines) and people said it was too short to be considered a story and that I shouldn’t get credit for it because the story was like 6 or 10 lines but Tom said no, it was a real and full story even if it was very short and that it actually was a very good story.
  6. I gotta say that made me feel very good…and it was true, it was a good story. I wish I still had a copy of it but it was back in the days of carbon paper and I never saved those things and they were impossible to digitize and now I understand they have been the contents of my life; the chronicle of my passage here.
  7. I’m talking about the cats and their lives….not the carbon paper.
  8. So there was Margaret and her litter of babies…and there was that little calico I called “Beanie.” He ran out into the street on night and got run over and that ended the history of cats with freedom to come and go.