Mindy Newell: Family, A Love Story
No, not my dad. My mom. She was in the hospital.
I’ve talked about my dad here, but have rarely mentioned my mom.
She comes from a large family. Eleven kids. All of them, the girls as well as the boys, were raised to be independent, to be able to stand on their own two feet. My mom became a nurse, and down through the years, like Cherry Ames, she has worked in many areas of the field.
Laura Newell, Army Nurse. Laura Newell, Labor and Delivery Nurse. Laura Newell, Dialysis Nurse. Laura Newell, School Nurse. Laura Newell, Camp Nurse. Laura Newell, Public Health Nurse. Laura Newell, Emergency Room Nurse.
I thought a lot about my mom this past week. A professional woman before that was unremarkable. Able to sustain a marriage now 65 years in the making while raising two kids and continuing to work before there was daycare and flex-hours. Being in love, married to a man who was as proud of ability to help others heal as he was of her looks and housekeeping skills and never minded if she had to work an extra shift or stay overtime at the hospital? How had she done it? Where did she learn to how to do it?
And then I thought of my grandmother.
It was during the second wave of the East European Jewish immigration (which lasted from 1890 to 1924) that my grandmother, Anna Pecker, with her two young children – my Aunt Ida and my Uncle Phillip – crossed the ocean to America sometime in the early 1900’s. She was from a shtetl (Yiddish for “small town or village”) near Vilna, a city always known for its culture and book-learning, and which was sometimes part of Poland and sometimes part of Russia and is now a major city of Lithuania.
The thing is, no one knows what happened to her first husband. We don’t even know his name.
There are two theories. The first is that, like many young men of the times, he was conscripted into either the Polish or Russian Army and never returned. Her brother advised her by letter to come to America, saying that he could pay the steerage passage.
The second, and this is what makes it such an intriguing story, is that her husband was a miserable lout, always drunk, and always beating her and threatening the children. She hid her brother’s letters from the brute of a husband, as well as secreting money from him, as she saved for the journey from Vilna to Hamburg, Germany, where the ship would be docked. And then one day, young Anna had enough. She waited until her husband was asleep (or in a drunken stupor, or not home), took her kids, the money she had squirreled away, and left.
They mostly traveled by foot, saving money, and Anna would hire herself out as a maid or a cook to earn more, hiding the kids in a field or a forest. Supposedly they only travelled at night because it was safer, especially for a Jewess with two young children. I don’t know how long it took, but it must have taken weeks, if not months, to get to Hamburg. Either she wrote her brother and sent it from one of her stops along the way, or, reaching the German port, she wrote her brother to wire her the passage money. (No one is sure about that.) At any rate, she paid for and received booking on a steamer to New York.
When they finally reached America and Ellis Island, my Aunt Ida, who was about five, was almost turned back because the immigration doctors said she had tuberculosis. But my grandmother refused to allow that, and my grandmother’s brother, who was waiting for them, must have greased a lot of palms. Ida was allowed to stay, although she had to be in quarantine for about three months. Think little Vito Corleone in Godfather II.
Anna and her children lived with her brother and his family in Bayonne, New Jersey, which had a large and thriving Jewish community. Jacob Yontef, a tall, handsome widower with seven children, and considered a “hot catch” by widows or mothers with marriage-age daughters, saw Anna at a dance, and fell instantly head-over-heels in love. I mean, he only had eyes for her, as the song says.
But Anna wasn’t interested. She literally scoffed at him, or so the story goes.
Was it because Jacob already had seven children? Of course, back then large families were the norm, but still, I think any woman would hesitate inheriting such a large brood. Unless her name is Carol Brady. Or…
Was it because she was still legally married? Was she worried that her husband would track her down? The mind boggles at the possibilities.
But Jacob never gave up.
Finally, at least three years later, though some in my family say it was more, Jacob won his woman.
And Anna Pecker became Anna Yontef.
And into this family was born my mother, Loretta Yontef, called Laura by everyone. Three years later, another girl, Anita, who would almost immediately be rechristened Augie – though that’s a tale for another time – was born.
And it wasn’t until I was 19, after my grandmother’s passing, that not only did I hear this story for the first time while we sat shiva (a period of mourning) but also learned that only my mom and my Aunt Augie shared parents.
Now my mom is 87, the matriarch of the family, the last surviving member of a true Yiddisher mischpacha (“family” in English, pronounced mish-PA-cha, the cha as in Chanukah – a sound that is like clearing your throat.)
Last month she fell, but thankfully did not break her hip. Still, for the last four weeks she has been in a great deal of pain and she was finding it hard to walk. Then last Friday I got a call. My mother was in the ER. There was a reason for her constant pain of the last month. No, she hadn’t broken her hip. (Thank God, for that would have been a horrible nightmare.) But the fall had caused a linear fracture of her lower pelvis, and of course walking around for the last four weeks had exacerbated it.
There really isn’t anything to do for a fractured pelvis (dependent on the severity, of course) but to rest it and allow it to heal, which means bed rest and wheelchair, with appropriate physical therapy.
So now my mom is in the same rehab/nursing home facility as my dad. We tried to get them into the same room, but weren’t able to, which, in fact, is a blessing in disguise, because knowing my dad, he would most certainly get up in the middle of the night to check on her and considering his fragile state – he is confined to a wheelchair these days and his cognitive state is not good, to say the least – well, I don’t even want to go there in terms of what that could lead to…But my mom is three doors down, and they spend their days together. I tease them about “wheelchair races.”
Yesterday, after a wonderful day partying and celebrating my niece Isabel’s 13th birthday, we brought my parents back to the nursing home/rehab center. They were both exhausted. The nurses said they would put them to bed for us.
But before they were wheeled off to their separate bedrooms (something that is hard for me to watch), they leaned towards each other, and kissed each other good night.
That’s 65 years of marriage.
TUESDAY MORNING: Emily S. Whitten
TUESDAY AFTERNOON: Michael Davis