For my grandmother, who was born at the wrong time

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.

12 Replies to “For my grandmother, who was born at the wrong time”

  1. This is a powerful and insightful eulogy, Miriam. My own grandmother’s story is not unsimilar. The cultural, economic and societal forces were so different back then.

  2. Your poor Grandmother! Your great-grandparents had no clue they were denying her what every parent wants for their child: The Very Best.

  3. A lovely eulogy, Mim. Sorry to miss you as you swung through Boston. As much as I complain about the things that suck about the present day, comparisons like this are a worthy reminder that, overall, change has generally been for the better.

  4. Lovely eulogy, Miriam. Your grandmother was certainly a victim of her time and I have no doubt, based on your story, that she would have excelled in a professional pursuit had the opportunity been available. Crism, the feminist movement of the 60’s and 70’s made possible where Miriam and so many other women are today, no questions asked. So many women, now in their 20’s and 30’s rail against feminism, having no idea the opportunities the movement made possible. There’s still a way to go, particularly in STEM,but that door’s been open more than a crack. Again, Miriam, you have memorialized your Nana beautifully. Talk soon.

  5. Beautifully-written and bittersweet, Miriam. My condolences to you and your family. I’m sure your grandmother would have been proud of you for remembering her this way.

    WWII was a window in time (not so much a crack as much as a microscopic breach in the weatherstripping) where a few women were able to escape and show their brilliance simply out of necessity. My cancer chemotherapy idol, the late Gertrude (Trudy) Elion, was only able to get a job as a chemist with George Hitchings at Burroughs-Wellcome because so many male bench chemists were off serving in the war. They shared the Nobel Prize in 1988 with Sir James Black. But Elion’s experience (without a Ph.D. as well) was far more the exception than the rule, as illustrated by your eulogy.

    My grandmothers were also both as tough as boiled owls and they too had to settle for what society allowed at the time. Let’s keep moving forward with each generation.

    Thank you so much for writing this.

  6. Terrific, Miriam. Your Nana might not have been able to relate to your marine explorations, but she must have been both grateful and a little bit envious that you could pursue them so brilliantly and successfully.

  7. Thanks for the insightful post. Helps me understand my own mom a bit more–similarly bright, incredibly well read, and known for her stiletto like sharp tongue interspersed with her wit and humor. Mine was constrained by village life in Hungary and Holocaust experiences. I appreciate your having posted this lovely euology.


  8. Dear Miriam,

    You do capture Nana’s frustration very well. I was her daughter and had so many problems growing up, especially when I could have used approval rather than criticism. But in my video, look at her pictures as a young woman. She appears to be quite happy. I think that life battered her. Listen to the video when she implies that she wasn’t especially in love with papa when she married him (it just happened rather quietly.) I think, over time, she was frustrated and inhibited as a powerful woman having so little power (as you imply). And Papa, though loveable, was a difficult husband, so passive agressive, doing exactly what he wanted when protesting that he was doing the opposite. Their relationship was negative for both of them, as well as for their children. But when you say that she did not apreciate your career, I don’t see that. She was always talking about you and how successful you were and showing me newspaper articles about you. She highly aproved of you–and you know, the last time I saw her alive, she even said to me, “I never knew you would be so successful.” referring to my political activities. Wow! I am glad I heard that from her mouth because she was not one to give direct complements.

    Anyway, with all of her flaws I love her still. I always really liked your blog.


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