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In Memory of Lottie Morris
Bennington was a wonderful place to be a kid. In the winter there were pristine white snowbanks towering over our heads. In the spring lots of black mud which to dig little holes perfectly crafted for shooting marbles over the soft earth into those muddy holes. The summer brought swimming in the ice cold creek, which was my father’s delight, and for the kids, swimming in the pond in our friend’s backyard. The autumn brought cool winds with a visual treat of painted trees and busy squirrels hiding their acorns.
There was the good: going on Sunday mornings with my father to buy the Sunday newspaper and if I deserved it, a small package of marbles; sometimes the small marbles for a dime and sometimes large ones for quarter. The bad: Peter (my friend who lived next door) whose father was a severe alcoholic,
a drunk, and an abusive parent. As a child I had hardly grasped my friend’s situation, now I can only imagine what a horror his life must have been. The ugly: one of the few black children in Bennington elementary being blocked into an exterior nook in the building structure by a mob of about 10 to 20 boys and then pelted with stones. Wow, did I learn a personal lesson! I was pulled in front of the principal and asked to explain why I had joined the mob. I was shocked by the accusation and I vociferously explained that when the mob formed I ran over to see what was happening from beyond
the edge of their violent activities. I watched the pelting but had nothing to do with it. Fortunately, the principal accepted my excuse. Unfortunately, I was hit over the head. The principal explained that my excuse was lame and that one does not just stand by and watch such an event (that taught me something for life) and second, as a rabbi’s son,I was to be held at a higher standard (and that taught me something for life).
So now you might guess that I was Rabbi Chaim Gross’s son. The son of the rabbi described in the
CBE brochure (during the 80s and 90s) as the last Orthodox rabbi of CBE. My name is Yaacov Gross back then it was Yaki. And my idyllic childhood was about to vanish with a rude awakening.
I remember that cloudy day in November 1970 when Mrs. Lottie Morris, my mother’s best friend in Bennington (and afterwards), ran into school and rushed myself and my sister home. We discovered that our father had passed away. The blur of the next day was a funeral in CBE with me watching my father’s casket draped with an Israeli flag, followed by the burial at the Jewish cemetery south of the city (where you can see his grave near the upper opening to the Jewish section) and where at the age of eight I said Kaddish for only one time in that year, in his memory. The next year was excruciatingly painful and a deeply sad time, especially for my mother. She reiterated to me that one of the few positive assistances that she received was the support, comfort and friendship of Lottie which helped her make it through the sorrows of the year after my father’s passing. My mother was ever-grateful for that. In fact I saw how the friendship lasted when years after we moved from Bennington, after a visit
to my father’s grave, we stopped by the Morris home to greet Lottie, in person, and to have a heart to heart talk discussing the events of the intervening years.
In the past three decades I lived in Boston and now Miami but in the summer I make a pilgrimage to visit my father’s grave. With beautiful green mountains surrounding and towering over the cemetery,
an incongruous thought often crosses my mind: this must be the most inspiring and beautiful place to be buried. My sister and brother usually do the same visit in the autumn, closer to our father’s yahr-
zeit which occurs in late October or November, and so they even have a chance of seeing the beautiful mountains capped with snow. After visiting the cemetery (and praying there every year to G-d that our father should always be proud of his children and grandchildren) I generally wander around town looking at how things have changed (lots of new stores, no Pennysaver etc.) and how things have remained unchanged (Deer Park, monument etc. ). I also visit CBE usually from the outside, but sometimes I’m able to see the hallowed inside and how it too has changed over the years.
I’ve been fortunate to meet some of the rabbis over the years and I even once crashed a board
meeting in the basement of the shul. One year in the 80s (?), in fact I was lucky enough to arrive as
the shul basement was being set up for a rummage sale and I was able to say hello to one of Lottie’s daughters who was there. That was the last time we had contact with the Morris family. Over the years my sister tried to reconnect and once went to their home (and probably ended up at the wrong add-
ress) and was told that “they had no idea of who the Morisses were.”
This was true until this past summer. My son and his wife, on their way to vacation in northern Vermont, decided to detour a little and stop by my father grave. Returning, he called me to tell me about his trip. He stopped in a local store in Bennington and something interesting had happened
when a man came over to him and after commenting on not seeing a yarmulke in town for so many years asked him why he was in town. After responding, he told my son he remembered his father Yaki who had been his son’s, best friend and Yaki’s father who had been the rabbi in town. What I heard
next I could not believe. The man’s name was Morris. That meant that the Morris family was still there. Quickly, I made up my mind to see if I could track down Lottie.
A few days later, being that it was summer-time, I made my yearly pilgrimage to the cemetery. On my way out of town I stopped by CBE, rang the bell on the office building, and was brought in by Susan (aka Susala, your wonderful administrative assistant). I explained to her that this building had been
my home and I showed her where my bedroom had been and where my grandmother who was paraplegic had lain in bed for the last few years of her life. Then we started talking about what was happening in CBE and she brought me up to date. After talking for a while, I asked if she knew the Morrises which she did. Then I asked, “Is Lottie still alive?” She gave a sad look and said “Lottie had been in the Veterans Home for a while due to an illness, but I think she has since passed.” That was
an awful moment. I had missed my chance to say thank you one last time. Disappointed, I was ready
to drive home.
As Susan kindly walked me out, a little miracle occurred. Another woman was walking in with whom Susan stopped to chat for a moment. As they talked Susan brought up the sad occasion of Lottie’s passing. The other woman responded, “No, that’s not true, and I have never heard anything of the
sort!” So back we went to call the Veterans Home. Moments later we had verified that Lottie was quite alive.
A few minutes later I was in the home making a right down the hall then a left down another hall and then another left in the opposite direction of the first hall. Arriving at Lottie’s room, I called out if I could enter and she gave me permission. As I stood in front of her I said, “Hi, Mrs. Morris, my name is Yaacov Gross. You might remember me as Yaki.” She responded, “Sure I remember you.” Her face scrunched up and was contorted in anger and she continued, “You’re the one who came to visit with your mom after you left town and to whom I offered milk to drink and who was scared to drink it be-
cause it might not be kosher.” I almost turned white in shock and shame, and felt like sinking into the ground would be a good option. Then a bright-as-the-sun-smile shows up on her face (ha ha on me, a real I finally gotchya moment after more than 40 years!). “Of course I remember you. Please sit down.” As I sat down to talk I was overcome by feelings of an emotional, surreal and real dramatic moment, accomplishing my quest at close to the last possible time, as I saw her ravaged by disease, but tenaciously holding onto life. As we talked she told me how proud she was of her children, grandchildren and their accomplishments. I revealed to her that my mother had passed away two years earlier. Most importantly, I thanked her one last time on behalf of my mother as I knew that we would
be saying goodbye for the last time.
Recently, I saw on the CBE bulletin that Lottie had truly passed. I called Ira, her son and my former best friend and we talked for a short while and caught up on a synopsis of the events of five decades. I added my condolences and wished him and his family all well with the traditional Jewish blessing for every mourner, “May God comfort you together with all the Jewish people who mourn the destruction
of Zion and Jerusalem” (if you’re not familiar with that blessing it definitely beckons explanation). I
also told him that I knew that the Morris family would have a hard time finding a minyan to say Kaddish in memory of his mother. So I volunteered to say Kaddish in her memory for the year. Jews are all
about gratitude. It’s the very least I can do. Hopefully, our mothers, the two best friends are friends again.