A few days ago, I got the most amazing photos via email from my mother, who received them from a second cousin she recently reconnected with, via facebook. Strangely enough, this social networking brought to my screen images vitally important to me from a time long before even televisions, let alone computers. The photos were of my grandparents, taken sometime in the 1930s, long before my grandmother Molly descended into debilitating mental illness, very likely rocket-fueled by a number of tragedies. The sadnesses that overtook her life included the loss of her first child, Irwin, to pneumonia, and the loss of all her brothers and sisters back in Poland to the Holocaust.
For my childhood, I new my grandmother — who we called Nanny — as wickedly funny but also prone to intense criticism of others in the family (lucky for me, I was usually excluded by virtue of being a beloved grandchild) and long stretches in mental hospitals when her manic depression got the best of her. I also knew Papa, my grandfather, much as he appears in these photos: loving, calm, steady, quiet but holding the family together.
Irwin died at age six, several years before my aunt and then my mother were born, but now I get to see as a well-loved and happy boy the great-uncle I never knew. Moreover, I have the immense pleasure to seeing Nanny back when she was Molly, a young mother, smiling and holding her son’s hand while her husband held her (and to his right, his Irwin’s aunt). The woman I only knew as a old woman with a flair for driving my parents crazy and entertaining me by occasionally pretending to be a gorilla is young again, not so crazy yet, and not yet so sad and wounded. I see here who she was just a decade or so after she came to this country from Poland, brought here by her sister Ida, and determined to make a life for herself, and in these photos, happily occupying that life.