They were German-Jews living in New York more than fifty years ago. I don’t know if they fled to America before or after the war. I don’t know if all their family perished in Hitler’s inferno or some survived. All I really know is the one time I met them they showered me with love.
We weren’t related. They were my cousin’s stepbrother’s grandparents. It sounds more complicated than it was. When I was three-years-old and my cousin (whom I’ll call Jerry) was two his mother died. Several years later his father remarried a widow with a son (I’ll call him Ronny) a year younger than Jerry. All this happened on the eastern seaboard and for us living in the Midwest it seemed a perfect situation. So much so that my parents planned a family vacation to spend with them.
I was eight-years-old when we drove back east. It was three long days of driving before we showed up at my uncle’s home in a lush, middle class suburb. We were greeted warmly and I was thrilled to have children to play with. Besides Jerry and Ronny there were the neighborhood kids. After just a day or two, though, the seven of us all stuffed into one car and again I found myself in for a drive. Thankfully, this one wasn’t so long and in less than three hours we were already in our hotel rooms in New York.
Jerry, Ronny, and their parents were old hands at visiting the big city. My parents and I, however, resembled the proverbial country mice. The building were so tall and the subways were so crowded. We wanted to see it all and didn’t stop for the three days we were there. As for the evenings, well, the evenings were for the adults.
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Two nights Jerry, Ronny, and I stayed in the hotel and Ronny’s maternal grandmother babysat us. I guess we probably watched some TV and she must have made sure we had some supper but what I remember most was being bored. The grandmother obviously adored Ronny, her only grandchild. No doubt she kept an eye on Jerry and me, too, but it was just a peripheral eye.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t a love-starved child. My father’s parents adored me, their first grandchild. And even though my mother was an orphan her oldest brother and his wife became surrogate grandparents for me. Ronny’s grandmother could treat me like a second-class kid but in my heart I know I wasn’t one. I could only imagine how Jerry felt.
I have no idea why Ronny’s grandmother didn’t watch us the third night. Maybe our parents understood how bored we’d been. Maybe Jerry had complained. Or maybe the grandmother had her own life and wasn’t available. Whatever the reason we were taken to Ronny’s paternal grandparents. His father, their only child, had died several years earlier.
If I’d expected to be more-or-less ignored again I was in for a big surprise. After hugs and kisses Grandma Trudy and Grandpa Julius, as I’d been instructed to call them, gave the three of us rubber bouncing balls and sent us down to play in their apartment building’s courtyard. I don’t think I ever saw so many children in one spot before. The following year when I’d learn the song The Sidewalks of New York in music class I’d remember the noise and bedlam of that summer evening.
After boisterous playing Grandpa Julius called us to supper. We were fed and had stories told to us. At one point I wandered over to a bookcase and saw it contained a novel my mother remembered from her childhood. She’d searched for it in a number of used bookstores to no avail. Without any inhibitions I told Grandma Trudy that my mother’s father had died when she was fourteen and all sorts of precious belongings, including her favorite book, had been given away when the house was sold. I wasn’t the least bit self-conscious when I told her that my mother wanted me to read the book because she’d loved it so much. And I wasn’t at all embarrassed when Grandma Trudy gave me the book as a present.
Later I would see her son’s name on the flyleaf of the book. My mother would explain that it couldn’t have been easy for her or Grandpa Julius to give away any of his belongings but she gave it with love. I would write them a childish thank you note and there would be an exchange of a few letters.
Two years later Jerry and Ronny’s parents divorced. Marriage is always complicated and there is never just one reason to end it. As a child, though, I was convinced their marriage ended because Ronny’s mother was just like his grandmother and could be nice to Jerry but never love him. What, I always wondered, would have happened if she could have been like Grandma Trudy and Grandpa Julius?
Not everyone can love a child who isn’t a blood relative. Those who can are as blessed as the ones they love. Although I only met them once I have never forgotten Ronny’s paternal grandparents. Now that I’m a grandmother, it is my desire that fifty years hence, my grandchildren’s cousins will remember me as fondly as I remember Grandma Trudy and Grandpa Julius.