Tuesday Morning with Nanny; I Laughed, I Cried
I have two grandmothers who are widows. At almost every family occasion, both grandmothers are present. They could not be more different people.
My dad’s mom lives in a retirement residence and that’s what she talks about: her meals, her routine, her trips to the various malls. My mom’s mom lives in her own apartment with a live-in caregiver. She talks about her independence and the things she loves to do in her own home.
Over the years, they have become somewhat competitive, and they have had the occasional “words”.
I have heard the story about the first time my two sets of grandparents met from each of my grandmothers separately. The stories follow the same general plot, but the adjectives used are opposites. The roast beef was bloody according to my North American-born grandmother, and cooked perfectly, according to my European grandmother. The hors d’oeuvres were tiny according to my North American grandmother, and beautiful French mini quiches made from scratch and fancy paté according to my European grandmother.
What’s more, my grandmothers are not shy to tell me stories about each other. This morning was no different. I giggled over a few zingers, as Nanny A and I ate breakfast and drank our deliciously strong coffee.
After breakfast, Nanny wanted to see the website dedicated to her friend Sonja van der Horst. Sonja was from my grandmother’s town in Poland (now the Ukraine), Tarnopol. They both avoided extermination by pretending to be Russian peasants who were stopped to get water at the train station in their town. In short, they dressed the part, mixed in and boarded the cattle car with the others on the train bound for work in Germany. There were apparently seven individuals from their town who survived this way.
Nanny and Sonja were not friends prior to the war, though they knew of each other. When the train stopped somewhere for a bathroom break, Nanny walked by Sonja squatting to go the bathroom. Nanny noticed her and noticed her silk panties, which the Russian peasants did not have. Nanny said to her, “With those panties, how can you be here ?”
Sonja replied , “I don’t know you”.
To which Nanny replied, “I don’t know you either”.
They connected after the war and were in touch until her death a few years ago. She is still in touch with her children.
Sonja kept her work card from Germany, and because of that, she had evidence to receive reparations from the German government. She had a prosperous life after the war, and she donated her reparations to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill to establish the JMA and Sonja van der Horst Distinguished Professorship in Jewish History and Culture. Her children also created a website dedicated to their mother. You can check it out here.
Nanny and I spent awhile looking through the site, and I asked many questions. Nanny asked me to print some sections with dates and places on it for her to have since she doesn’t have a printer.
Today, Nanny told me a story that I had not heard before about another friend that she made after the war. It is so horrible that I am not ready to type it here, but it is the first time so far in our interview that I have broken down in serious tears. It’s so incomprehensible to me. I will type it very soon, maybe even later today, but not now.
This week I decided to record our session with voice recorder that my dad lent me. Um, thanks dad – It’s circa about 1982 “but it still works”. When I thought I had figured out how to get it to record for more than 5 seconds at a time, I placed it on the desk beside us. Five minutes into a great story, I hear my dad’s voice say, “Yours very truly, xxxx (his name) M.D.”
We both burst out laughing. My grandmother exclaimed in her Polish, French accent, “He really gave us a shitty one!”.
We are investing in a proper new twenty-first century digital recorder for next week.