By Sherrill Pool Elizondo
If there is a quintessential Jewish grandmother, than I certainly had one. She was not called Bubbe but rather Gram. She was an important part of my life even if I was not raised in the Jewish faith.
My mother was Jewish but my father was not. In the years that they married, it was more difficult in some ways to attempt an interfaith marriage. That is another story as well as my true biological beginnings which I did not discover until adulthood. What is important is that I feel blessed to have been part of a blended family and to have had shared experiences and unconditional love extended to a little Gentile girl by a character like my Jewish grandmother. I should aspire to be that kind of grandmother!
Sophie Sack was born in North Carolina in 1880 when her father worked for a tobacco company. The family moved back to New York City when she was very young. Until the day she died in San Antonio, Texas she retained a Manhattan accent.
As a young woman she had marched for women’s right to vote and attended Hunter College. After she married in 1906, she and her husband moved to the valley of Texas and later to San Antonio. What a cultural shock that must have been! My mother said that Mexican money was still used in those years in that area of the state and I envision Gram thinking that she must have arrived in the wild west. To her credit she decided that the town doctor, who was also the town drunk, would not deliver her second of 3 daughters. Instead, she returned to New York where my mother was born before returning to Texas where she and her husband settled in San Antonio.
When Gram became a part of my life she was older and divorced. She lived alone in a big white house that I loved because it was in the city and I lived in the country. It was always a pleasure to go visit her. She had a big claw foot tub I loved! I recall many happy times as I sat with her at her formica table eating salami sandwiches on rye with big kosher pickles and a ginger ale.
It was in her refrigerator that I discovered a mysterious jar. It was smaltz and I keep forgetting to fix my husband and me chopped liver though my husband thinks it’s pate. Parents and grandparents were a different breed in the 50’s and 60’s. I don’t recall Gram playing games with me (and she was a big card player) or taking me shopping much or going to dance recitals.
She certainly would not have shown up at any Christmas program at the church I attended or my parochial school. However, she visited and traveled with us throughout the country and our large extended family gathered at her house often and always for Sedar dinner during Passover. I never once felt strange or confused to sing in the choir at an Easter service and, within the same week sometimes, partake in the very meaningful Sedar. I still have Gram’s Kiddush cups and her prayer book which are priceless memories of her.
My love of Jewish food goes back to childhood. A neighbor in rural Texas might have found it strange to find a box of Matzo crackers in our pantry. My younger brother and I ate it all the time smeared with jam. To this day, I crave Matzo Ball soup and on a recent visit to NYC had to order a bowl at Katz. I do the same at Kenny & Ziggy’s in Houston.
While attending junior college in San Antonio, Mom always had me stop at certain family owned delis to pick up corned beef. Mother prepared kreplach when she cooked chicken soup but It was mainly at Gram’s house that I learned preparation and love for not only Matzo Ball soup or Kreplach but also Cholent, Potato Latkes, Mandel Bread and more. Potato latkes are my favorite and one aunt fixed Tsimis for me and my future husband once and I fell in love with that dish.
Not one Spring arrives that I don’t think of Gram in her kitchen preparing a special meal, or smell the delicious aromas, or feel the warm breezes drift in from open windows, or recall all the love she extended to family.
Gram had a suitcase that looked like a small red box to my young eyes. Like many grandmothers of a certain generation she wore no nonsense sturdy shoes and a nice house dress. One cousin swears that she wore a corset. Gram had beautiful silver hair by the time I was a teenager and I would lovingly put rollers in her hair, tease, and style it into a bouffant.
On occasion, she wore nice pearls to set off a pretty dress or conservative dark suit to go out or to travel somewhere. Travel she did! Not only train trips to New York to see her sisters either. Someone said that if you told Sophie there was a trip in the works she would pack and be ready in 30 minutes. Since I find it difficult to travel lightly, it was amazing to me as to how she did this.
My necessities as a teenager included hair rollers, dryer, makeup, and several changes of clothing. Not so with Gram. She only used a little face powder and needed only a dressier pair of sturdy shoes, her gown, robe, house slippers, a simple cotton dress and maybe one nice suit, and only enough underwear she could wash by hand. She probably sensibly packed a sweater, as once Dad took us to Carlsbad only to end up in Colorado with only our summer clothes and we were greeted with cold weather.
Gram knew my Dad very well and would have expected the unexpected. They had a funny and begrudgingly loving relationship in later years but what drove him crazy, if he got turned around on a road trip, was Gram saying that we were probably going to wind up in a place only known to Gram…Hutzy Plutz!
When I was in high school, Gram was taken to the hospital with a high fever and eventually went into a coma. Family gathered and I stood in the doorway to her room and listened as her long time female doctor yelled “Sophie come back!” Sophie did not come back, as she was on her final journey. I walked to the end of the hallway where a cousin’s wife stood by a window holding Gram’s red suitcase. We stood there in silence knowing that we would only be taking that little suitcase back to my aunt’s house.
I learned so much from that fine lady about the many ways to be gracious and kind and, yes, even a little direct and blunt. I learned from her beliefs about love and family and how to appreciate a child’s saying thank you only with her eyes. This is what she told my mother once when I forgot to say thank you. “She thanked me with her eyes, Dorothy!” I am still thanking her! I learned that what really matters is family, I learned acceptance and tolerance and being ecumenical in my thoughts, and I learned that the necessities of life should be as simple as what one packs in a very small suitcase.
The other baggage that one carries through life can only weigh you down. I would love to see Gram standing now at my door with her little red suitcase as there are so many days that I need to remember to lighten my burdens and concern myself only with what is important in life.
Author, Sherrill Elizondo
of Cypress, Texas
I am the proud parent of three grown sons who are married. I am also the proud grandmother of two grandsons and three granddaughters. I have been an aspiring writer for over 30 years. Some of my stories have appeared on WWN Rockport, Texas Escapes, and Santa Cruz Patch. I’m an avid genealogist, love to travel and crochet, and go to a jazzercise center almost every day.