Thanks in part to the groundbreaking television series of the same name, we boomers are the generation that grew up mindful of our roots. Not that a lot of us have dug very deep, but BoomerCafe’s co-founder and publisher David Henderson did. And learned some lifelong lessons in what he found.
It was the Israeli-made documentary, The Flat, that again got me thinking about my late grandmother. As I was growing up, I always saw her as a respected businesswoman, a strong woman. But I also thought she had a secret side of her life.
In the film, director and screenwriter Arnon Goldfinger takes on the real-life task of helping his mother clean out his grandmother’s apartment in Tel Aviv after her death. In the process, he realizes that neither he nor his mother nor any other family member knows much about his grandparents. Yet in the process of going through old papers, he becomes aware that his grandparents had lived a remarkable life in pre-World War II Berlin before moving to Israel.
My own maternal grandmother, Fay H. See, lived through an impossibly difficult time in her own life. She had received a helping hand through the kindness of strangers, and had risen to become a highly respected woman in her community. Through my eyes, she was a woman who defined dignity. But few people in my family knew much about her past. What was her story?
“Sometimes we realize that we miss quite a lot of knowledge about the life of our parents,” Arnon wrote to me from Tel Aviv. How true his words.
Genealogy never interested me because I saw it as dry and lifeless, just family trees with names of people and their birth and death dates. I thirsted to actually know those people, not just read their statistics. What kind of people were they? What did they do in their lives? If we baby boomers fail to gather the family stories, who will? Will all those lives be lost to time and memory?
My sister and I spent a lot of time visiting our grandmother while growing up. It was after my parents divorced. Our grandmother lived in the small village of Louisa, Kentucky, on the Big Sandy River. Louisa was on the still fairly prosperous edge of eastern Kentucky’s coal region. And even though it was cultural worlds apart from my home in the Washington, D.C. area, I watched, listened, and learned.
My grandmother was the manager of a discount clothing store — it was referred to as “dry goods” back then — called The Bargain Store, and I was amazed at her business savvy. She always knew precisely how much cash was in the till, who among clerks or customers was stealing, and she always made me turn away when she dialed in the combination of the large safe at the close of business each day. Most of all, she had the grace to know who was in dire need. If a workman came in to look at coveralls or boots, she would tell him to just take them and pay when he could. Even though the worker might live in a mountain shack with a large family and scrap to make a living on a tiny piece of land, the debt would be repaid. There would be no piece of paper, just honor to “Mrs. See,” as she was called.
On Saturdays, she would have her hair done. On Sundays, she would attend the Baptist Church and always walk by the post office to get her mail from box number 3. To this day, people who knew my grandmother speak of her dignity and add, with a smile, that she made outstanding cornbread.
But none of it came easily. What I have learned about her life, mainly her earlier struggles, is that she was born in 1895 in the tiny town of Kermit, West Virginia. Kermit was desperately poor then and is still poor today. If as a young girl she wanted to get to the next town, she would hop abroad a passing Norfolk and Western freight train.
Grandmother married Samuel David See when she was 17 and had three children during the years of the First World War. My grandfather was a civil engineer who worked in Rising Sun, Indiana, on the Ohio River locks. He died in July, 1924, in a freak accident: he touched a power line that had fallen in their front yard, the result of an overnight storm. My grandmother, my mother, and two of her siblings were standing on the front porch and saw it happen.
I cannot imagine what might have gone through my grandmother’s mind. I do know that she brought his body back to Louisa, his hometown, for burial. And there she stayed. I have thought about my grandmother and about the challenges of life in the mid-1920s— the eve of the Great Depression— for a widow with three children, no college education, no profession, limited resources, few close family members, and living in a humble town.
She never remarried because … well, in those days, few men were interested in a widow with three children. But, a stranger named Jake Isralsky brought new opportunity to her life.
Isralsky was born in 1875 in Poland and, like so many Eastern European Jews at the time, immigrated with his family to America. Early records indicate that he spoke English when he arrived in this country in 1900. The family settled in Cincinnati. Isralsky apparently saw opportunity in Louisa and eastern Kentucky. He moved to the region and opened a low-priced dry goods store. He called his store, “Jake the Jew.”
I don’t know how they met but Isralsky not only gave my grandmother a job but he really taught her the retail business. In doing so, he gave hope to my mother’s family after unspeakable tragedy. A man who no doubt had struggled much of his own life, he offered the kindness of a stranger, and my grandmother never forgot him. Tears would come to her eyes whenever I’d ask her to share a story about those days, long ago. I believe they were tears of gratitude for Jake Isralsky.
She worked in Louisa for Isralsky until his death in 1935. Then, as I understand it, she sold his store to a chain of department stores and delivered all of his financial resources to his relatives in Cincinnati. Even though she went back to square one in her own life, he had taught her the retail business and from that time until she retired in the 1960s, my grandmother worked at what had been Jake’s dry goods store, renamed The Bargain Store. She passed away in 1991. She was 96.
There are many other chapters in her life story that I may never know. As the director of the Israeli documentary wrote, “Sometimes we realize that we miss quite a lot of knowledge about the life of our parents.” I learned much from my grandmother about acts of kindness and the enduring value of offering a helping hand.