This is my grandmother, Bernice (Kolichman) Cohen in South Haven, MI on her 19th birthday. I particularly like this picture today because she passed away earlier this morning, a few months shy of her 91st birthday. Even at the end, she was just like the spunky woman in this photo.
My grandmother had a difficult childhood. Her mother was nine months pregnant with what would have been my grandmother’s second sibling when she caught the flu and died. The fetus died, too. Her father, an immigrant from Kishniev, Moldova, eventually was sent to a sanitarium. When he recovered, he married a woman who did not treat my grandmother and her brother well. Then her father died, too, and her stepmother cast my granny and great uncle out. They lived with different cousins, forging a close bond. (I guess that’s the silver lining.)
The cousins called themselves the Nisht Mit Allem Club, which is Yiddish for “Not All There.” (I always forget that my grandmother grew up speaking Yiddish – or as she said, Jewish – because she was born in America, unlike my father’s parents, and so I always thought of her as my American, English-speaking only grandma.) The Nisht Mit Allem Club, though, is a good insight into who she was. She had a rocking sense of humor, often a ribald one. Once, my mom told me, she went to visit my mom at the school she taught it. When my mother introduced Granny to the principal, my granny asked if he liked fruit. “Sure,” the prinicipal said. My granny smiled. “Then take a bite of my ass – it’s a peach!” she replied.
My sister and I spent a lot of time with our grandma when we were kids. Running a few simple errands – going to the bank, post office, and grocery store – turned into an all day adventure. Most kids do not look forward to going to the eye doctor, but our annual visit was always exciting for me. We picked Grandma up early in the morning, drove to the Skokie Swift, and took the L downtown. After we each had our eyes inspected, we had lunch at the Marquette restaurant. This may have been where I uncovered my unfortunate love of cheesecake. (Even if Grandma did not introduce me to that treat, she definitely got me hooked on root beer, but I digress…) Once we returned during rush hour, and the trains were packed. My (maybe) five foot tall granny elbowed past hordes of people and smushed us onto the packed train. Later, my mom described her with wonder as “brutal – just brutal.”
She wasn’t brutal, though, when she took us to Marshall Field’s for lunch every year and then bought us Easter baskets. My bubby disapproved, but I couldn’t understand why. It wasn’t until I made a Catholic friend at 4th grade that I learned that Easter was actually a Christian holiday! With Granny, I just thought it involved cute bunnies, fuzzy chicks, and a lot of chocolate. She was fun like that.
Grandma was also super fun at Cubs games. Whether we were all the way up in the nose bleed seats along the 3rd baseline during the epic 1984 season, cheering for the Cubs with all the camp groups, or just a few rows behind the dugout, where she yelled “I love you (insert name of Cubs player here),” we had an awesome time.
In 1995, Granny came with my mom and bubby to visit me in New York. Needless to say, adventures were had! The best night, hands down, was when the fire alarm went off in my dorm, and my friends and I descended on their hotel room. We ate cookies, and of course, Grandma had everyone busting up with her jokes.
The thing about Grandma, though, is that she didn’t just love me, Dana, and my cousin. Any of our friends who didn’t have grandparents were “adopted” by her. When my friend Nancy heard that Granny had passed, she said that she always loved Granny’s sense of humor. My friend Julie, her voice cracking, said she was the sweetest woman in the world – much nicer than her own grandmother. My mom’s former student Rachel said she was a real classy lady (although this makes me wonder a bit if Rachel is confusing her for someone else…). Dana’s friend Sara said, “Your Grandma was wonderful. She will be missed.”
She is. She already is.