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The Graduation Gift
                                 by Miriam Silver
My Grandfather was a dapper man. After he retired at the age of 50, he hennaed his hair red, wore spats, had a closet full of beautifully tailored suits, and always smelled of Knize, his favorite after shave lotion. But, he was rarely at home. He occupied a small alcove on the second floor of his family’s large home in South River, New Jersey. It must have been a walk- in closet. That was his private domain. His bed practically took up the entire space, and his many pairs of shoes were lined up neatly under it. As a little girl, I used to love sneaking into his tiny nook to get a whiff of my grandfather, even though he was not there. It was my secret thrill.
As I got older, I saw him come home mostly for holidays, where he joined his wife grown children and grandchildren around their dining room table covered with delicacies. After dinner, while the women cleared the table and did the dishes, he, my dad and uncles would sit in a large kitchen and play cards or dominoes. All the men around that table had purchased one of my grandfather's several factories after having worked for him until he retired. Sometimes among the cigar smoke and glasses of tea, there would be heated discussions of Roosevelt and the New Deal, Unions and the NRA (National Recovery Association). One uncle was a maverick and a Republican, but they were all Zionists. I didn't understand it, but seeds were planted there for my continuing interest in politics. The mood was always one of camaraderie. Often I sneaked behind my dad to see how much money he was winning or losing. Then someone would joyously knock on the table and say, "Rummy!" It all seemed quite gemutlich.
                

Soon, my grandfather would disappear until the next time. Sometimes when he returned, he would bring us kids a gift from wherever he had been. I cherished a "shaker" from Havana, where he said he had vacationed with his cronies. Then he began frequenting Atlantic City for months on end. One year, we even had a family Passover seder at the hotel where he stayed. That was the first time it was not held in my grandparents' home. We all hated it. Soon it became very apparent that my grandmother was having a very difficult time accepting his absence. 

Soon, my grandfather would disappear until the next time. Sometimes when he returned, he would bring us kids a gift from wherever he had been. I cherished a "shaker" from Havana, where he said he had vacationed with his cronies. Then he began frequenting Atlantic City for months on end. One year, we even had a family Passover seder at the hotel where he stayed. That was the first time it was not held in my grandparents' home. We all hated it. Soon it became very apparent that my grandmother was having a very difficult time accepting his absence. 

Soon, my grandfather would disappear until the next time. Sometimes when he returned, he would bring us kids a gift from wherever he had been. I cherished a "shaker" from Havana, where he said he had vacationed with his cronies. Then he began frequenting Atlantic City for months on end. One year, we even had a family Passover seder at the hotel where he stayed. That was the first time it was not held in my grandparents' home. We all hated it. Soon it became very apparent that my grandmother was having a very difficult time accepting his absence. 

Once my mother took her to visit him at the hotel where he stayed overlooking the boardwalk in Atlantic City. That was a mistake. He reserved a separate room for her down the hall. The visit was short and she returned home soon after she arrived. 

When my senior year in high school was almost over, my grandfather offered me a most unusual graduation present. "After you graduate, as a gift from me, I would like to pay for you to take a train trip to California in a private compartment all the way across the country to visit your Aunt Anna and her family."  I had never been to California and Aunt Anna's daughter, my cousin, was close to my age and we had once been dear friends. I truly missed her. It was an exciting prospect. Then he said, "I want you to take your grandmother with you and leave her there to live with Anna and her family." It was an offer I could not refuse. I wanted so much to please my grandfather.

So, in June, right after my graduation, we left on the Pennsylvania Railroad's Silver Bullet train to LA. I loved being on the train. When my grandmother was napping or already in bed for the night, I went to the dining car for my meals. I had cocktails in the lounge and met strangers with whom I held amazingly intimate conversations. I learned so much about people traveling by train and the details of their lives. 

I carefully coaxed my grandmother to join me in the dining car just once for some tea and crackers. In Yiddish I talked her into ordering dessert. I was on such a

high! I was determined to make her comfortable. I wanted nothing to get in the way of carrying out my sacred mission.

At one point during the trip, a porter knocked on our door early in the morning. He wanted to know if I was the girl who could speak Yiddish. Apparently there was an elderly lady in a double decker refusing to move when he needed to make the bed into a coach seat. I was hoping my Yiddush could come to the rescue, but she held fast to her refusal. She had told her son she would not move until Chicago, when he would board the train. So, there she remained. She had special foods that had a familiar smell. She also had her quilt and prayer book, just like my grandmother. 

The summer was a catastrophe. My grandmother hated LA and she made my aunt's life unbearable. Yet, Aunt Anna tried hard and was always accommodating. My uncle was also unhappy, and I finally heard him say, "Either she goes or I do."

We returned to NJ together in a smaller coachette. We did not speak during the entire trip home. I felt like a failure having been unable to complete my mission. My grandmother returned to her old familiar ways of being as miserable to her daughters as before. My grandfather never returned to South River. He died in Atlantic City a year later. We all went to the funeral, including my grandmother. He left instructions to be buried there, and so he was. 

March 2, 2001

Areas We Serve

 

Beth El serves a broad geographic area including southwestern Vermont, northern Berkshire County in Massachusetts, and eastern Resnsselaer and Washington counties in New York. Click Contact to see a map of our location.

 

Vision Statement

 

Congregation Beth El is a diverse and welcoming Jewish community, balancing traditional Jewish core strengths and values with a forward-looking perspective that respects our ever-evolving culture.

 

Building on an inherited congregational history dating back to 1909, Congregation Beth El looks to its history and roots for inspiration, while forging multiple paths for its members to address and express their Jewish identity.

 

Programs and activities that appeal to a wide range of congregants, opportunities to socialize with our geographically dispersed membership, and responsible financial stewardship are actions which will carry Congregation Beth El onward through a sustainable and secure second century

 

 

Congregation Beth El  107 Adams Street  Bennington  VT  05201

 

Tel: 802-442-9645     Email: cbevtoffice@gmail.com

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