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  • Ellen K. Reichman

My Hero, My Grandma

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

Published in Persimmon Tree, May 1 2021

My grandma emigrated to the U.S. from Hungary around the turn of the 20th century. Number six of seven children. Her mother and youngest sibling died during childbirth. But her father married a “girl” half his age, and together they had seven more children.


Illiterate and plagued with life-threatening illnesses, my grandmother became my rock. Old country tough.


We lived close to each other in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, until my family moved to Canarsie. A few years later she moved across the street.


My high school years were hell.


After spinal fusion surgery and being in a body cast flat on my back for six months, the world I once knew went away. Or rather, I went away. I turned into an overweight, chain-smoking, tough-looking adolescent who didn’t give a damn about school. I dressed in tight sweater blouses and stretch pants and wore a black leather jacket. My teased hair and bright red lipstick completed my trampy appearance. I was crying out to be noticed. To be visible. No one seemed to hear or see me. Except Grandma.


My hero, my grandma. Every night, I’d visit her to do homework. She’d serve me pure sugar cookies she received from the welfare line as I sat on the sofa bed trying to make sense of my assignments. She’d sit on a hard chair watching TV with the sound off so I could concentrate. A safe haven, unlike the tumult and dysfunction in my home.


Then, we’d play gin rummy. I could see her hand in her glasses and kept showing her how to hold the cards so I wouldn’t see the reflection. She didn’t care. I tried not to look but I couldn’t help it. I’d usually win. She liked it when I won. It’s as if she did it on purpose.


My grandma nursed me back to life. Just by being her.


In her broken English, she instructed me to do well in school, practice the piano, observe the Jewish Sabbath, and wear a kerchief to keep my ears warm.


One evening, the snow came down hard. I thought I could skip a visit.


But a force came over me and I ran across the street without a jacket. Or kerchief.


The smell of gas nearly knocked me out.


“Grandma,” I shrieked. Apparently, she had left the burner on, and having no sense of smell, could not detect a thing.


I turned the gas off and opened all the windows even though it was freezing. I embraced her round body in relief.


“Don’t cry, Ellen Coo,” she said. “Where is your kerchief?”


Years later when I told my brother this story, he told me I saved her life. I corrected him. “No, she saved mine.”

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