Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Grandma & The Prince - Part 17

That's the 1930 Census for Glen Cove, Long Island. Look down near the bottom of the form and you'll see Max Glassberg, his wife and children, Edith Morgan and her son, and Charles Dimler. Grandma's secret laid out for everyone to see if I'd only known where to look.

Sometimes the answers are right there in front of you but you're not asking the right question.

You already know my Grandma El loved to share her stories. Sometimes she shared them in embarrassingly intimate detail. But who knew she left out the best story of all.

The thing is, all families have secrets. My best friend used to tell me wonderful stories about her big extended Italian family. Love and death and family fights, all the stuff that I, a budding novelist, soaked up like a human sponge. But there was one story I found impossible to believe. It seemed her cousin Annette grew up as the spoiled, happy, only child of my friend's Aunt Fran and Uncle Bill. Annette knew chapter and verse about the day she was born, how much her parents wanted her, how she looked like her mom but acted like her dad. The usual loving details we all hear when growing up.

Except for one thing: Annette only knew part of the story. It turned out Annette wasn't Fran and Bill's biological daughter: she was the daughter of Fran's baby sister Anita who had "gotten in trouble" at 15 and given birth to Annette who was adopted immediately by Fran and Bill and claimed as their own biological child. How they managed that in a tightknit, gossipy neighborhood is anybody's guess--especially since everyone in both families knew the truth.

I mean, even I knew the truth and I was just a friend.

Well, one day somebody let something slip and Annette found out the truth. She was twenty-seven years old and devastated. Her entire world had been turned upside down and she no longer knew who she was or where she belonged.

Oh, I had so many problems with that story. Who could keep a secret for so long? You mean, nobody in that family even hinted at The Big Secret over the years? Was Annette really that surprised or had she pushed her suspicions to the back of her mind and ignored them? I mean, how could you not suspect something was brewing? Besides, she was still Annette. Her parents were still the couple who loved and raised her. Why all the drama?

It took awhile but I found out the hard way.

I sold my first book in 1982 and the experience was everything you'd hope it would be. My family was ecstatic for me and a few weeks after I got The Call, my mom put together a celebratory dinner for me at their apartment in Queens. Grandma El was there, of course, and so was my Grandpa Larry. (Remember their romance back in the 50s? My dad's mom and my mom's dad--oy!) My aunt Mona was there too (El's daughter) and like the rest of us she enjoyed the champagne. Maybe a little too much because at one point she lifted her glass and said, "I could say something right now that would blow this family apart." Which struck me as utterly ridiculous--so ridiculous that I started to laugh right there. Everyone laughed with me and the moment passed but for some reason I never quite forgot it.

Now cut to early 2001. My dad was in the last stages of his battle with colon cancer when my healthy, never sick mother was diagnosed in late March with pancreatic cancer and died less than six weeks later. I don't have to tell you what that did to our family, especially to my dad. My husband and I did everything we could to help him through it but his grief was devastating. Mostly all we could do was be there for him and hope it helped at least a little. About ten days after my mother died, I took my dad out for breakfast at the diner and then we went back to his place to watch tv and talk. He was at that stage of grief where he would suddenly burst into heart-wrenching tears then snap out of it a second later. Totally uncontrollable, a little unnerving, but very much to be expected.

So when he started to cry as I made him a cup of coffee I wasn't surprised. But then when I sat down and he took my hand and said, "I have something to tell you. You might hate me when I'm done and I understand. We did the best we could but--" and then started crying again--well, my imagination went in a million different directions. Mostly I had the most awful feeling that I wasn't my mother's daughter. She'd lost babies before me and after me. I'd never seen a photo of her pregnant with me. I looked so much like my father it was almost scary.

"Oh God," I said, my voice trembling. "Mommy didn't give birth to me, did she?"

He looked at me for a second before a little smile broke through. "She definitely gave birth to you."

Where was this going? "You didn't have an affair, did you?"

He started crying again and I'll tell you I died a little inside. Some things you just don't want to know.

"It's nothing like that," he said. "It's about Grandma."

"Grandma? Grandma's been dead for twelve years." Why would some secret about Grandma El make him cry today?

And then he told me the truth they'd all be hiding since 1935: Grandma's first husband wasn't her adored Bert Fuller, the rich man's son from Halifax who adored her right back.

Her first husband was a 25-years-older Romanian Jewish tailor named Max who lost his business, his savings, his hope during the Depression and left his family while he went away in search for work.

"Abandoned us," is the way my dad put it, but without bitterness or irony. It was the Depression. These things happened. Marriages broke apart. Families crumbled. Dreams were destroyed.

"So why the secrecy?" I asked my dad as I tried to take in my new reality. "I know Grandma wasn't anti-Semitic. Why didn't she ever tell me?"

But, as you'll find out next month, some secrets take on a life of their own.

<==My Uncle Cass behind the wheel of some fancy-schmancy car on the North Shore (Gatsby territory) of Long Island

PS: I'm Barbara Bretton and I can be found here and here and on Facebook too. SPUN BY SORCERY, the third book in my Sugar Maple series of magic-and-knitting books will be on the stands in November.


Estella said...

Can hardly wait for the next 'episode'.

Michele L. said...

Hi Barbara,

Thanks for the latest installment! You certainly have an interesting family!

I just adore your magic-and-knitting books! I can't wait for your next one to arrive on the shelves!