Note: I love to write about strong women. This essay, published in its original form in Victoria Magazine in June 2018, is about my grandmother, who had the courage to come to this country from Eastern Europe a century ago – and about the love story that accompanied her here.
My grandmother, Mollie, was the perfect image of what grandmothers used to look like – a plump, silver-haired woman, face lined with life, apron tied around her middle, baking up delicious treats from scratch. She styled her wavy hair in a roll at the back, always wore dresses, and often went visiting in her big-collared, blue-grey coat and hats with tiny veils. Her only jewelry was a beautiful gold wedding band, an heirloom sapphire and diamond “cocktail” ring (for “special” occasions), and a heart-shaped, sterling silver pin.
Growing up, I saw that pin almost daily on her dresses or her coat, so much so that I began to equate it with her.
My grandmother’s story was not unlike that of many other women of that time. She left Poland in 1920 to follow her husband to the United States in search of a better life. My grandfather had gone to New York seven years earlier, leaving my grandmother and their baby girl behind until he made enough money to send for them. It had taken a long time, but he finally booked passage for my grandmother and their daughter, who was now eight years old, on the Rijndam I, a ship of Dutch registry sailing out of Rotterdam, Holland.
And so, knowing not a single word of English, my grandmother arrived at Ellis Island, holding her daughter (my aunt) tightly by the hand and scanning the crowds for my grandfather.
When a stranger approached and tried to take her arm to lead her away with him, she pulled back, aghast. “I don’t know you!” she insisted in Yiddish, her voice raised. “I won’t go with you – you’re not my husband!” The customs officials rushed over to calm everyone down. “This is not my Max,” she said firmly. “When my Max left seven years ago he was young and strong, with a full head of hair. Not like this old man standing here. I don’t know who this person is!”
“Malkala, Malkala,” the stranger said softly, trying to soothe her. “Don’t you know me? I’m Max, your husband.”
At the sound of my grandfather’s affectionate name for her, my grandmother’s eyes got big, her face pale. “Max?” she whispered. “What happened to you?”
My grandfather’s eyes welled up. “It’s been seven long years, Malkala,” he said gently, “and my heart was missing you.”
It had also been seven years of backbreaking work and of saving every penny to bring his family to America, and time had taken its toll. My grandfather was now a bit stooped over, losing his hair, his face creased, his young-man muscles gone soft. But the eyes – those blue eyes that had wooed my grandmother and showed up in my aunt’s little face – those were the same.
And so my grandparents were reunited, my aunt meeting her father again for the first time. But that wasn’t the end of the surprises.
Once they got home to the tiny apartment my grandfather had found for them, he took a little pouch from his pocket. “For you, Malkala,” he said. “My heart.”
From inside the pouch, my grandmother pulled out a little silver heart-shaped pin of a Dutch boy and girl, the boy offering the girl a bunch of tulips as they kissed. A Dutch ship had brought my grandfather back his heart and the loves of his life – and he would never forget it. Nor would she.
I inherited that pin (I also inherited my grandmother’s fondness for a good romantic story and for a beautiful bunch of tulips). And whenever I polish it (old silver needs extra care) I am struck by how, despite the passage of time, it always returns to its original soft glow.
Just like true love. Dutch treat.
©2017 and 2021 Claudia Grossman