Today is the twentieth Yahrzeit (Jewish anniversary of death) of my maternal grandmother, Leah Reiss (née Levy), and another e-memorial (I posted the first on the Yahrzeit of Jonny, my late brother) presents an excellent opportunity to remember a real character and, in her own unique way, Eishet Chayil (woman of valour) . . .
If there is a Platonic ‘universal form’ of Polish Grandmother, my guess is it will not be too dissimilar from “Grandma”. Neighbours would often hear her call out to her then fifty-something year old son – when he picked my grandfather up for work – to check that he hadn’t forgotten his chocolate!
Grandma was born, at the close of the nineteenth century, to new immigrants – from Rozwadów, Galicia – to the East End of London. She married my grandfather, Sam Reiss, a furrier by trade, who took over her family’s hosiery business on Brick Lane – the precursor of today’s Reiss global fashion chain – before moving it to Whitechapel High Street (where one store is still trading today). Grandma lived for her family and “the business”, and my mother grew up on a counter rather than in a pram.
A firm believer that “blood is thicker than water”, “Auntie Leah” would do anything for her own, especially nephews and nieces, for whom she would often stand up against tyrannical parents. Sadly, this benevolence did not extend to my grandfather’s family, who (for no good reason in particular) could do no right in her eyes, and the relationships between the numerous Reiss sisters-in-law made those of the Dallas Ewings seem harmonious!
And Grandma didn’t give her children’s spouses an easy ride either. When my uncle dared to date a French-Egyptian girl, from a non-Orthodox family – and, perhaps more significantly to Grandma, one of modest economic means – Grandma flew to Paris, unannounced and uninvited, to inform the girl’s mother that this was a wedding that would not be happening (it did). Grandma would also often chide my father – like any good Irishman, fond of a glass or three of the “hard stuff”, when popping in on his way home from synagogue – for drinking too much (my grandfather would wink at him, as if to say “ignore her” . . . which my father always did!)
There was a flip side, however, to all of this. Grandma was a woman of rare substance and steel, and, when my brother Jonny’s problems began, she came into her own – Jonny would go round to Grandma, already in her seventies, for TLC, at a time when no one else could cope with him.
Grandma was a worrier as well as a warrior – her motto should have been “Work won’t kill you, not worrying will” – and, whenever we told her to stop, she would reply “If I don’t worry, who will worry for me?” To her way of thinking, worrying – far from being harmful– was essential.
The most memorable story involving Grandma, however, and the one which perhaps best illustrates her unique character, relates to the occasion on which she was a passenger in my mother’s car, stopped for speeding on Hendon Way. My mother wound down her window, but Grandma was not taking a back seat: “Thank you, Officer,” she interjected, “I am so pleased you stopped us . . . I always tell her that she drives too fast.” And there was no way my mother was getting a ticket after that!
Grandma only had peripheral vision for the last ten or so years of her life, though her immense pride would never allow her to admit it – in an attempt to get to the East End, to ‘help’ in “the business”, we would sometimes catch her trying to feel her way down to Hendon Central Tube station.
A cliché maybe, but Grandma . . . they don’t make ’em like you anymore. Hope you’re not giving the Angels too hard a time!