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Grandma Rachel's Scary Story

by Shirley Coles © 2003

I believe that Grandma Rachel looked forward to my after school hours as much as I did. There were always milk and cookies waiting for me and, if the weather was nice, my friends would be waiting for a game of Simon Says, Red Rover, or Dodge Ball. But, there were different reasons why she was always happy to see me for those few hours before dinner. From breakfast to dinner, she would be alone in the house, working her magic on our meals, cleaning, and thinking her private thoughts.

I always knew those times when she wished I would stay; there would be a deck of playing cards on the table, and an expectant look in her warm, brown eyes. We were friends, she and I, and it was her chance to talk to me in Yiddish and listen to my English. Young as I was, I often chose to keep her company. Grandma Rachel was very good to me.

We would play Gin Rummy, or Go Fish, or a game she called Pisha/Paysha. But the best thing of all was that, while we played, Grandma would tell me stories. Her voice would waver with emotion at times, or she would stop talking altogether, remembering happy times, and would giggle a bit, shaking her head and leaving me to wonder where she had gone during those moments.

I learned that I must not interrupt or question until the story was done. There were many times I didn't understand all of what she said, but it didn't matter, as long as she chose to share these stories with me. One such story I shall never forget…a very scary story.

"Do you know, Tsureleh, where you came from and that you almost weren't here?" My toes curled as I thought this was going to be the dreaded birds and bees lecture. Mutely, I shook my head and gripped my cards. As the story unfolded, I could almost see the younger version of Grandma Rachel, boarding the great ship Praetoria.

Her journey had begun in a place called Kobrin in Eastern Europe where she traveled by train to the coast and a seaport whose name she could no longer remember. Her worn suitcases, tied with stout cord had been stowed. One hand held tightly to a four year old daughter, called Malka; her other arm carried her purse with its precious papers, and two year old Chaiya. The smaller child was one day to be my mother.

I forgot the rules about interrupting and asked about Grandpa Joseph. She sighed mightily and told me that he had gone before by three years to start a business and establish a home for his family. He was a tailor by trade. Before he left for America, he had sewn some money and two diamonds into the lining of my grandmother's coat . . . the coat she wore on this long journey. I was later to learn that, for each of the eight children they were to have, he presented his beloved wife with a diamond.

The ship was crowded with immigrants; it sounded like the Tower of Babel. Conditions were bad and some became ill. It was the thing they dreaded most, she said, because if you were ill when you arrived at Ellis Island, you would likely either be detained or sent back to the old country.

She kept a constant vigil on her two daughter, fearful that they would tread where they must not, or at worst, fall overboard. In bad weather they were herded down into the passenger quarters where the air was bad and people bickered over space. It was only on fair weather days when they could be on deck that they were free to think of the joyful reunions and freedom awaiting them.

After what seemed like an eternity, the Statue of Liberty came into view . As she attempted to describe this to me, her eyes filled with tears. "God was good, Tsureleh, He brought me here safely with my two babies to be again with Grandpa Joseph". I thought this was the end of the story, but, at this point her body tensed. She looked intently into my eyes "They took us all into a big building, lines and lines of us.

When we got to the tables with all the people and books of names, I looked around for him. The man who asked me for my name and papers had a red face and a big mustache….there was no smile under it. I said my name, over and over again, but he could not understand. Each time, he said it wrong. He stamped my papers and sent me to a room to have my eyes examined and then Malka and Chaia and I waited for Grandpa.

"In a little while, I heard names being called out so the people who came to meet us would hear. When they came to my name….vay is meir…they called it wrong!! Grandpa was there, yes he was, but he did not hear our name. He waited and waited and when nighttime came, they told him to go home. He was like a crazy man…where were his wife and daughters.

But, thanks to God, my Joseph came back the next morning. In his best English, he told the man at the desk that maybe the name was mixed up and he described us very carefully. We were going to be sent back. Can you imagine? We were going to be sent back!!!

"Finally, finally, they found us, he found us, and all of us were given a new name. We didn't care, we were together, in a new land. If we had gone back, Tsureleh, your mother would not be your mother, and you would not be here, winning this game of cards."

~~~~~~~

from the October 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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