I grew up practically without grandparents.
When my mother was only 25, several years before I was born, her parents were tragically killed in a car accident in New York City. My father’s father also died at an early age of a heart attack, when I was only three years old. Out of all of my grandparents, I grew up knowing only my father’s mother, whom I loved and admired with all my heart, but who also died when I was in my early twenties.
It was as though my mother’s family simply did not existAs a child, it did not occur to me that my lack of grandparents was something exceptional or tragic. That was just the way things were. It is only now, when I see my own children’s close and special relationship with their four grandparents, that I understand the extent to which my siblings and I were partners in the tragedy that my parents faced when they both lost parents so suddenly in the early years of their marriage.
In the aftermath of anger and pain that surrounded the terrible car accident that took my grandparents’ lives, my mother lost all contact with her family for close to twenty years. Growing up, it was as though my mother’s family simply did not exist.
Throughout my childhood, we met my cousins and my uncles from my father’s side several times a year at my grandmother’s house. My lone grandmother showered my siblings and me with attention and affection, and we saw many photographs of my deeply mourned grandfather and heard wonderful stories about his life.
In contrast, my mother never said a word about her own parents. It was only when I was in college that my mother mentioned in passing that my great-grandmother had died alongside my grandparents in the car crash. And it was only when I was married that I heard the details of the crash—how a massive truck with faulty brakes was suddenly unable to stop behind my grandparents’ car at a stop sign. How the truck ran over them, tearing the roof off their car and killing everyone inside it.
Looking back, I think that my mother’s silence was similar to that of Holocaust survivors, who lived through something so traumatic, so painful, that the only way they could cope with what happened was by covering it over with a veil of silence.
Four years ago, my husband and I heard that our synagogue needed a parochet, the ceremonial curtain that covers the ark containing the Torah scrolls. We decided that this was a project that we wanted to do, in order to honor the memory of our deceased grandparents.
After a few months of searching, we tracked down an excellent embroiderer whom we hired to make the parochet. The next thing was to find out the Hebrew names of our grandparents, so that their names could be included at the bottom of the parochet.
We easily found the Hebrew names of my husband’s grandparents and of my father’s parents. We also had no difficulty finding the Hebrew names of their parents, our great-grandparents, so that we could follow the traditional Jewish practice of listing our grandparents’ names alongside their parents’ names.
But we had one problem, which stemmed from the veil of silence that had surrounded any discussion of my mother’s family since their tragic and sudden deaths 35 years before. We knew that my mother’s parents had been named Chana and Yaakov. But we did not know the Hebrew names of my mother’s grandparents.
We tried to track down my great-grandparents’ birth and burial records, but after weeks of searching, we came up empty-handed. We decided that we would have to find someone to visit the actual graves of my grandparents and great-grandparents in New York City, in order to see the Hebrew names written on the tombstones.
But when we contacted my mother’s relatives in order to find out where my grandparents and great-grandparents were buried, we ended up banging our heads once again against the old, now petrified veil of silence. E‑mails went unanswered; questions asked over the phone were met with silence, confusion, and even suspicion.
This was not going to be so easy.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” I prompted her. But my mother remained totally silentWe turned to an old friend who was living in New York. This friend, it turns out, would have made a great private detective. He tracked down the original New York Times article describing the tragic crash that took place on July 17, 1968, smack dab in the middle of the three weeks of mourning leading up to Tisha B’Av, the most tragic day of the Jewish calendar. I read the terrible details of the crash that has haunted my mother for her whole life, and now haunts me as well.
Our friend called several distant relatives of my mother’s, in hopes of finding information about the cemetery, but he was met with the same stony silence as we had gotten. In the end, our friend called close to a hundred Jewish funeral homes in order to track down the burial records of my family.
A few weeks after we made this unusual request of him, we received a package from this friend at our home in Israel. It contained photographs of the graves of my grandparents and great-grandparents, which were scattered in graveyards across Long Island and Queens, New York.
And there they were, the names for which we had searched for so many months. At long last, in that long-awaited package, I met my long lost grandmother, Chana the daughter of Chaim and Tsippe. And my long-lost grandfather, Yaakov the son of Mordechai Laizer and Alte.
The Torah curtain that hangs in our synagogue today is by far the most beautiful parochet I have ever seen. It is made of burgundy velvet, and scattered with flowers in different shades of pink and red. I hope that its beauty inspires the hundreds of people who surround it every Shabbat with heartfelt prayers, singing, and dancing.
But the most important effect of this parochet is the transformative and healing process that it started within my family.
After several months’ delay, when my mother was in Israel for a short visit, we received the phone call that the parochet was finally ready. When I unfolded the curtain for the first time, I showed my mother the names of her parents. She stared at it with a tired, blank face, and did not say a word. “Isn’t it beautiful?” I prompted her. But my mother remained totally silent, and only nodded vaguely. I was disappointed that she did not react with more enthusiasm.
Little did I know.
Several weeks after she saw the parochet, my mother announced out of the blue during our weekly phone call that she had planted a garden in the backyard in her parents’ memory. A week later, she told me she was planting a butterfly bush. Two weeks later, she was adding a patch of her mother’s favorite flowers.
Soon after that, my mother started telling me the first stories I had ever heard about her mother and father. She recalled with laughter how her father had once boldly stood up against her school principal when her sister had gotten into trouble. She told me with clear love and awe how my grandmother had organized every detail of my mother’s wedding to my father, from buying the wedding dress, to preparing the food, to tracking down a pair of white satin shoes.
I am my late grandmother’s continuation in this worldThen my mother sent me a CD of restored photographs of her parents and herself as a young child. Aside from a lone wedding picture in a family photo album, these were the first photographs I had ever seen of my mother’s parents. In the pictures, my grandmother Chana, or Anna as she was known, looked so kind, so lovely. I watched the CD over and over again, looking closely at my grandparents’ faces, their posture, their style of clothing, any details that could provide me with clues about these grandparents I never knew.
This past year at a family celebration, I met a cousin of my mother’s for the first time in my life. When he saw me, he shook his head, and said, “You know something? You look just like your grandmother Anna did when she was young.”
I smiled, then ran to the bathroom and cried and cried. This relative had no idea just how much his comment moved me. He also had no idea that his beloved grandmother Anna was my namesake. I was born just three years after her death, and was given her Hebrew and English names as my own. While I had known this fact since childhood, until that moment I had never fully grasped that I am my late grandmother’s continuation in this world. In spirit. And even, it turns out, in my manner and appearance.
How I wish that I had had the chance to know her!
While every parochet serves the holy purpose of covering the Torah Ark, the parochet that my husband and I made in honor of our grandparents served a different holy purpose even before it took its place of honor in our synagogue.
This parochet fixed something inside the heart of my family that I had long thought was irrevocably broken. It tore down the 35-year-old veil of stony silence that had surrounded my grandparents’ deaths, and replaced it with a blossoming garden of memories. In a way, it gave my mother back a part of the parents she had lost on that terrible day in 1968. It also performed the impossible. It gave me a precious glimpse of my own namesake. A woman I never met, and never will.
May the memories of my grandmother, Chana the daughter of Chaim and Tsippe, and my grandfather, Yaakov the son of Mordechai Laizer and Alte, serve as an eternal blessing.