How I finally found compassion for my lonely grandmother

Mar 3, 2016 at 6:00 p.m. ET
Image: Kalila Borghini Family Archive

My grandmother was a self-made Russian immigrant. She came to this country in 1903 at 16 years old, during the great migration to the United States from all over Europe.

An orphan in her native Russia, she had a marketable skill as a seamstress when she came here, enough resources to get her second-class passage (as opposed to steerage) and some contacts on New York City’s Lower East Side, then a teeming Jewish Ghetto. She learned English, and through her own diligence and determination, for a short period of time she became a well-respected hat designer.

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My grandmother didn’t talk much about these early experiences, and unfortunately I never pressed her for information. I do know she married and stopped working in 1915, when she became pregnant with her first child (my uncle) and then my father in 1918. Like many women of her generation, she became a full-time wife and mother. It seems she lived a charmed life for a very brief period of time.

However, her husband — my grandfather, a very successful real-estate executive — died after a protracted illness in 1929, just prior to the stock-market crash. Left with huge medical bills, no life insurance and two young children, my grandmother was forced to work in a factory to support her family.

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Her losses became tragic when her firstborn son drowned in 1938 at 23 years old. He was her favorite, and his death was devastating for both her and my father. When I was a child, I never stopped hearing stories of what a shining star my uncle was — smart, handsome and ambitious. My father not only lost his only brother, whom he adored, but he could never measure up in my grandmother’s eyes. They both became depressed, didn't get help for their grief and began to drown in their sadness.

My father never achieved success in his life and struggled to earn a living. He married my mother against my grandmother’s wishes, and thus a lifelong antipathy existed between them. My grandmother thought he deserved better, that my mother came from lower-class stock and was not on his level.

When I was born, I was a disappointment. They had hoped for a son, a “replacement child” to fill the void left by my uncle. Thankfully, my grandmother got over her ambivalence toward me and instead tried to instill in me her own thwarted ambitions and those she had for her dead son.

A self-educated woman, she read many of the great books of the Western world and took me to art museums and concerts. She wrote sad poems that she would recite whenever she had a captive audience. She stressed the importance of being fashionable, educated and successful. “You have to make something of yourself — you have to be a professional," she repeatedly said to me.

My grandmother’s joy and happiness were very short-lived. She ended up poor and alone in a roach-infested apartment — way before Washington Heights was gentrified — until she was 93 years old, bitter and angry about the hand she had been dealt. My father had remarried and lived on Long Island. His ambivalence toward her was apparent in the way he ended up not caring for her. I also neglected her, to my own shame, though in my defense, I was struggling to keep my own life going.

My grandmother’s life here was sad and difficult. Her grief filled her with bitterness and hate, so that although she loved and nurtured me, her criticism of my mother created a lot of conflict for me. The end of her life filled me with terror about what can happen to old people who live a long time without financial resources.

Nevertheless, despite her shortcomings and the spillover effect of her suffering, I did take my grandmother’s advice to heart. I have made something of myself, and I did become a professional. I think she would have been very proud.

I don’t think I fully appreciated the devastation caused by my uncle’s death until I found his gravesite and paid him a visit. Both my father and grandmother were dead at that point, so I had to do my own research. Standing there reading the gravestone and thinking about such a tragic loss hit me very hard, and I was able to understand both my grandmother and father in a more compassionate way.

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