Portrait of an Older Woman

When I visited Newton, MA last weekend, I met a friend of my mother’s. She’s now 84. Last time I spoke with her was when she made a shiva call, so that was in 1998. She repeated many stories as I spoke with her. I introduced myself several times; she showed some recognition when I told her who my parents are, but at the end, when I said it was nice to see you again, she said, it was nice to meet you.

She was the inspiration for my sponge cake recipe. Hers actually had a cinnamon glaze, unlike the one I make. I asked her if she still bakes ten sponge cakes before Pesach. She said, no, she no longer bakes, but someone wanted her to come over to show her how to bake her sponge cake. She declined. She talked about how some people just want to be with you because they want something from you. She said: “I wasn’t brought up that way. I was brought up to be giving.”

She has a sad story behind how she ended up in Newton. She grew up in Rochester, New York and lived there most of her life. Her daughter was very sick with diabetes, so she came to Newton to care for her. Her daughter later died. She became very involved in raising her three grandsons. Her husband passed away as well. Her daughter’s husband remarried; he is very nice to her, she said, but his new wife won’t look at her when she comes over. Lots of hurt.

I can feel how my mother connected with her. Before my mother moved to Newton, she had lived since she was five years old in New York City, except for two years she spent at Smith College. It took my mother twenty years, she used to say, to get used to living in Newton. Once, someone from the shul bikur cholim committee mistakenly called her to welcome her to Newton instead of asking how she was feeling. My mother was not pleased. She told that poor bikur cholim caller she had been living in Newton for thirty years.

Back to the older woman: she told us about the Jewish community in Rochester, and how it used to be much larger. When Kodak hired her husband, they thought he was Italian; they didn’t know he was Jewish until he asked for Rosh Hashana off. His family was originally from Greece; she mentioned the town, it began with an ‘M’. It wasn’t Salonika. Family members also knew where in Spain the family had lived prior to being kicked of Spain in 1492. Her own family was Litvak (Jews from Lithuania).

She spent about an hour talking with me and a friend, and then we set up the shul tables for Seudah Shlishit (the third meal of Shabbat). She said she does this every week, and she was very clear about how the tables should be arranged. One of her grandsons calls her almost every day. It sounds like people look out for her. At the same time, one can feel her loneliness and pain.

6 thoughts on “Portrait of an Older Woman

  • My pleasure. I really wanted to put it down in words before I forgot more details.

    There was another piece to the story, something about her having two advanced degrees and a Phi Beta Kappa key, but it was already getting long. When the “New Yorkers” as she called them didn’t want to talk to her, her husband said, show them your Phi Beta Kappa key. I think the pride of an older woman having advanced degrees was something my mother could relate to as well.

  • Glad you liked it, Jack. I was afraid I was going on and on about someone who was important to me, and it seems like others, even if they don’t know anyone from Newton or Rochester, can relate in some way to the story.

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