My mother worshipped her mother, Yetta Wachstein Hochman, even more than she worshipped me. While that left me as a runner-up, I still liked my grandmother’s visits in the 1940s, when I was a boy in Houston. Even my little dog did. When my grandmother walked haltingly up the stairs, grasping the railing with both hands, the dog kept two steps behind her, as if poised to catch her if she fell.
Every year as July 4 approaches, I have an image in my mind of Granny defiantly holding the American flag high in a small Texas town one afternoon. I wasn’t there to see it, but she told me what happened. She was what John Lennon would call a “working-class hero” that day—and always—who knew her own mind and looked after her family in a country and world far different from the one into which she was born. But that’s getting ahead of myself.
I had always associated everything about my grandmother with her European origins. That was, of course, wrong. She was not one to dwell on how wonderful things were in the “old country.” In fact, when someone remarked that they were taking a trip to Europe, she would say out of the side of her mouth, “Big deal. I was born there and I couldn’t wait to leave.” And although she and my grandfather belonged to the Orthodox shul in Galveston, perhaps out of respect for her own father, she saw her Orthodoxy as baggage from Europe and sent her own children to a Reform congregation, which, in her view, offered an environment more in line with the America they had moved to.
When I knew her, my grandmother was in her 70s and looked very old. By then she was only 4 feet 8 inches tall, her body shriveled, her movements labored. At home she wore a housecoat that hung like a muumuu. Her yellowish-gray hair fell below her shoulders and was rarely combed; she put it in a bun when she went out. On those occasions, she wore black leather shoes with thick, wide heels that added perhaps an inch to her height and hose held up to just below her knees by a garter. The only dress I remember was black and fell just below the top of her hose. Although she bathed every day, she had a smell I thought particular to old people because my cousin’s other grandmother had it too. The skin on her face was much less wrinkled than the skin on her body. Her deep blue eyes were youthful—they sparkled when she was happy or joking. When she was angry, she suddenly seemed much taller than she was, and her eyes pierced.
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