Aunt Sadie and the Coal Dust
By Laura F. Deutsch
My paternal grandmother, Nana Evelyn, was born in Latvia sometime around 1895 (the year of the big snowstorm according to family records). Her father, Paul, had a dry goods store, but since it was against the law for a Jew to own such a business, he did what many Jews of that time did: A Gentile acquaintance put the store in his own name for a share of the profits.
The Gentile owner never came into the store, but his wife did, strutting in like the Queen of Romania as my grandmother put it. She would leave with an armful of parcels (all carefully wrapped by one of my great-grandparents) offering neither payment nor a simple thank you, knowing full well that the family could no nothing but wait on her and smile because of the ownership agreement.
Once after one of these shopping sprees, Nana Evelyn, who was about four at the time, saw her mother go into the back store room, bury her face in her hands and weep at the humiliation and injustice.
When she was in her eighties, Nana Evelyn told me that this remained one of the saddest scenes she had ever witnessed.
My grandmother had countless stories of her childhood (some happy, some not) and although she enjoyed sharing her experiences, she often ended her tales with: But I dont look back. Nana Evelyn was a firm believer in keeping her eyes forward. For her, the struggles and joys of the past were not meant to intrude on present day life; they simply provided topics for conversation when she felt like reminiscing. To think too much on previous hard times, she believed, was to indulge in self-pity.
She was fiercely devoted to her family and friends but was not particularly charitable outside her immediate circle. She was as tough as nails, outlived her six siblings and died two months short of her one hundredth birthday, faculties intact, still of the attitude: I dont look back.
Sadie, one Nana Evelyns sisters, was a tiny woman filled with energy and genuine goodness. She did not lack for suitors, and the family worried when she returned the affections of a much older widower who had six children.
True, he was a kind man and immensely wealthy (self-made in America), but why would Sadie want to marry an old man and raise someone elses children? But Aunt Sadie was in love, and by all accounts the marriage was blissful; she was adored by her husband and step-children alike. She eventually had two sons of her own.
This marriage allowed Aunt Sadie to enter a world of great wealth, but she remained distinctly down to earth. Her husband, Uncle Abe, was extremely philanthropic (he was one of the founders of Brandeis University), and Aunt Sadie also took a keen interest in many charities. However, she was not content with simply writing out a cheque; she wanted hands-on involvement. So when Aunt Sadie donated clothes to an orphanage, she dressed simply and brought in the bags of clothes herself. When she volunteered at a local hospital, she donned an apron and pitched right in.
Uncle Abe expressed concern because some of the neighborhoods Sadie visited were not particularly safe, and he insisted that she stop taking public transportation and taxies and let the chauffeur drive her in one of their Rolls Royces. Aunt Sadie reluctantly agreed, but she made sure to have the chauffeur park down the street from her destination to keep the car out of sight.
Nana Evelyn went to visit Aunt Sadie on a cold winter day, and my grandmother noticed a dusky mark on her sisters forehead. She exclaimed: Gott in Himmel, Sadie! Where did you get that bruise? Aunt Sadie hurriedly looked in a mirror.
Oh, she laughed, wiping the smudge away with a handkerchief. Thats not a bruise. Thats coal dust! Aunt Sadie explained that she had loaded up the trunk of her car with bags of coal, been driven to (or near) the homes of the needy and lugged in the coal herself. Nana Evelyn was shocked.
Sadie, what are you, meshuga? Youre as rich as Midas! If you want these people to have coal, pay someone to deliver it! Remember where we came from and how we had nothing!
Thats just it, was Aunt Sadies reply. I dont forget.
* * * * *
There certainly is value in remembering the unpleasantness of the past. It keeps our own personal growth on the right path; it reminds us of the horrors mankind is capable of committing so that we try to prevent such tragedies from reoccurring as we honor the memory of the dead. And sometimes, we use prior difficulties to motivate us to assist those who are in need as we once were.
Aunt Sadie embraced life. She was a wonderful wife and mother, daughter, sister and friend. Still, she remembered the past not because she wished to indulge in self-pity, but because she wanted to maintain her natural humility and use those memories to improve upon the present.
The Talmud says:
I always got the sense that while my grandmother never quite understood Aunt Sadie; she wished she could be more like her. We all suffer through hard times; we all have the tendency to wallow in self-pity. Nana Evelyn was absolutely right when she said: Eyes forward! After all, the past can not be re-written.
So how do we discover the balance between paying homage to the past while focusing on the future? How do we make use of troubled times without sinking into the mire of self-pity? How do we make sure that we never forget where we came from regardless of where we end up?
I believe I know the answers to these questions because of a tiny woman with a loving spirit and a joyful heart who sat in the backseat of a car, her forehead smudged with coal dust.
from the May 2014 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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