My grandmother, Edith Goldstein (“Nana”), passed peacefully away in her sleep on Tuesday night at the age of 99. She was known for her intelligence – she did the New York Times crossword in pen until the end, even the Sunday edition – and for her sharp tongue. Though she was always a part of my life, I never felt emotionally close to her – though proud of her grandchildren, she was not a warm woman.
But the reason that I write about her here is that Nana was a very, very smart lady born into the wrong family at the wrong time. Had she been in a different time or place, I suspect she would have been a fearsome lawyer or brilliant scholar – but instead she turned 18 at the beginning of the Great Depression, and her family (immigrant millworkers in Lynn, MA) didn’t let her accept the scholarship she had won for college. She worked to support her family, married my charming but flawed grandfather, moved to NH, had children, ran their store by herself while he was fighting in WWII – but could not find the respect or fulfillment that I think she wanted. We found some correspondence written during the war where she took a store vendor to task for selling her shoddy goods, and instead of responding to her directly, the vendor wrote to my grandfather to ask him to curb his wife.
Nana thought my career in marine science was hilarious and a bit useless – she always asked why I was spending all that time underwater, and what on earth I expected to find there. (I never got too far explaining Gulf of Maine rocky subtidal ecology to her – she pretty much saw it as treyf and more treyf.) What I never told her was that as I reached adulthood, I realized that I am in many ways an alternate-universe version of her. I am quite sure I would be just as frustrated as she was had I been denied opportunity for education and independence.
So many people – and women are in fact people – need intellectual challenge to be fulfilled. Nana could not find satisfaction in her roles as wife, mother, and small business second-in-command. Had she been able to turn her ambitions outward, perhaps she would have been famed for her work instead of for her sharp tongue.
Sleep well, Nana. Y’hei sh’lama raba min sh’maya.