When I was in elementary school, I went to my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn, New York, almost every day after school. I had no idea at the time that we went there so my mom could help my grandmother.
I was about 4 years old when my grandmother became paralyzed from the waist down. She had a tumor on her spine, and surgery to remove it was unsuccessful. She used a wheelchair to get around her house. She lived on the second floor of a two-story home, and the steps made it very cumbersome for her to go places, so she rarely left her home. My grandmother’s life in Brooklyn was simple and quiet, but her life before Brooklyn was not.
She was born in Poland in 1915. Her father died a week before her wedding to my grandfather — an arranged marriage. She had three brothers and one sister.
Her sister, mother and two of her brothers died in concentration camps, and she witnessed one brother, Abe, being taken away by the Nazis. He was sent to a concentration camp but survived. During the Holocaust, my grandparents lived in hiding, moving from place to place to stay safe. They had a daughter who died of whooping cough at 2 years old.
When the war was over, my grandparents, along with their two children (my mother and her brother), migrated to Germany with other families who had survived. My mom says my grandparents were happy to have a place of their own in what they called The Displaced Persons Camp. In 1949, my grandmother and her surviving brother, Abe, decided to go with their spouses and children to America to start a new life. They had heard the streets were paved with gold, and even though this was not literally the case, they were still happy to be in a land filled with opportunity.
My grandmother survived so much horror that once she was in America, she appreciated the little things that anyone else might take for granted. Just being able to cook meals, celebrate holidays with her family and feel safe in her own home gave her immense joy.
Even after she became paralyzed, she never lost sight of the good in her life. Her life was mundane, even boring, but she never complained. In fact, my grandmother seemed like one of the happiest people I knew. The simplest things seemed to make her happy. She loved to sit on her porch and talk to a neighbor who lived in the house attached to hers. She loved to cook and to bake cookies. She loved her “stories” — The Young and the Restless and her favorite, Guiding Light.
Most of all, she loved my brother and me. When we walked into her house, she would light up. She would make snacks for my brother and then played games like cards or dominoes with us for a few hours. She was the worst domino player — or maybe she just let me win — and made the best apple cake.
When we went to visit her, I had no idea we were there because she needed my mom to help her, to bring groceries and take a shower. I look back on those times and think how much we needed her to help us, to make us feel loved and safe and to remind us that the littlest things in life are actually the things we should treasure most.