When I was growing up, most of my friends had two sets of grandparents—bubbies and zeidies who filled my playmates’ pockets with sweets and spoiled them with all manner of treats. They called their precious grandchildren tender names like “zeeskeit” (sweetie) or “sheffeleh” (little lamb), even when their darlings were not at all behaving like sweet, innocent lambs! Many grandparents were energetic enough to take an active part in my friends’ childhoods.

Most of my friends had two sets of grandparents

In contrast, I had three maternal great-aunts, matriarchal figures who were treated like priceless antiques. They regarded me with special affection (I was their deceased sister’s granddaughter, and my mother was their only niece to have survived the Holocaust), but I was more likely to get a pinch on the cheek from Tante Fruma, a pat on the head from Tante Gittel or a kiss on my temple from Tante Temma than anything else. Nevertheless, I enjoyed visiting their homes, largely because they contained not-to-be-found-elsewhere treasures, like dainty porcelain dolls and a delicate Noritake demitasse set, which I was allowed to admire but not touch until I had proved my trustworthiness.

Despite their similarities, the tantes (aunts) had distinct personalities, and I learned to appreciate each one. Tante Temma was soft-spoken and emotional. She laughed or cried easily and, even under trying circumstances, never uttered a cross word.

Tante Gittel was very practical, no-nonsense and authoritative. This came in handy during a minor emergency one day, when my sister and I were left briefly in her care. I was lying on the rug with a picture book propped on my knees, when I suddenly noticed that my eighteen-month-old sister was playing with a pearl-shaped button she had apparently pried loose from the jumper I was wearing. Worried that she might pop it into her mouth, I extended my hand to take it from her. Perhaps realizing my intent, she somehow quickly shoved it into my nostril, and I was unable to dislodge it! Alarmed, I ran to the kitchen. Afraid to speak lest I aggravate the situation, I pointed desperately at my nose, tilting my head back very slightly so the tantes could see the problem.

Tante Temma cried hysterically, “Don’t breathe in!” Of course, I panicked further.

“Blow out hard,” Tante Gittel instructed dispassionately. I promptly did so, and to my relief, the button flew out. From then on, I made sure not to be alone with Tante Temma, sweet as she was.

The oldest of the three, Tante Fruma, was—true to her name—quite frum (religiously observant). She had a rather sardonic sense of humor, I later realized, but hardly smiled. In retrospect, I believe this was due to her disappointment in the minimal religious observance of her descendants. She often remarked wryly that she wished her son-the-doctor’s MD degree could be traded for a “Mitzvahs Done” degree. Providentially, her tears during Shabbat candle lighting yielded results that she lived to see: One of her grandsons became a baal teshuvah (returnee to Judaism), whose Torah-observant family gave her much spiritual nachas (fulfillment). As a sprightly septuagenarian, a ready smile began to grace her face.

I regarded the tantes as a trio, and an incident that occurred when I was a fourth grader left an indelible impression about the powerful potential of unity, especially when disparate personalities are involved.

It was report-card day, to which I usually looked forward. A model student, I had been sailing through school with a solid reputation, which made my immigrant parents proud. Teachers had always liked me: I was well-behaved, conscientious and eager to please. My report cards were becoming boringly predictable, especially in the conduct column: solid A’s traditionally festooned it. But fourth grade brought an unwelcome change—a B minus forMy report cards were becoming boringly predictable conduct. I felt mortified upon seeing it. How could I bring home so devastating a report? Such blight on my excellent record would irrevocably undo it, I worried too late. True, I hadn’t been perfectly attentive during my secular studies teacher’s lessons, preferring to chat with my seatmate, but surely my lapse didn’t warrant such a Humpty Dumpty-like fall from the heights!

I straggled home listlessly, envisioning different scenarios, all of them decidedly unpleasant. A delicious aroma greeted me when I opened the door. Tantes Fruma and Gittel were at our kitchen table, baking their specialties alongside my mother. Mother knew I was getting my report card and was eager for her tantes to share her joy in my achievements, so there was no possibility to delay revealing the shameful truth. I lowered my eyes as I handed the report to my mother, blushing furiously, at a complete loss for how to explain this fall from grace.

Mother raised her eyes after what seemed to me an interminably long time.”Is this a mistake?” she asked. Her question shocked me, because in our house, educators were held in the highest esteem. They didn’t make mistakes.

I shook my head from side to side and bit my lip, feeling miserable about having let her down so badly that she had to resort to thinking in this completely out-of-character way. Tante Fruma said something in Polish to my mother, who nodded.

Nisht azoi gefehrlach (Not so terrible)!” Tante Gittel declared. “Mine Hymie was not such a wonderful student in grade school, and he’s a CPA today!”

Tante Fruma, who had seen my card by this time, corrected her sister. Speaking in Yiddish, which I understood, she assured her that my grades in each subject were basically as good as usual, but my conduct mark was disastrous. She called it a “bushah” (embarrassment), and perhaps because this was the first reproach I had ever heard from her, my eyes filled with tears. Tante patted my trembling hand and said it was good I was ashamed because that was the first step to teshuvah, repentance.

Tante Gittel, ever goal-oriented, decided to get to the root of the problem in order to take care of it. When I admitted guilt for being a chatterbox, Tante Fruma was pleased. “Good!” she said again. “That’s step number two towards teshuvah, Bashaleh.” Her use of a pet name began to reassure me that the situation wasn’t irredeemable.

I admitted guilt for being a chatterbox

Relieved, I went to answer the ringing telephone. It was Tante Temma, whose cheerful voice was a further boon to my mood—until she spoke to her oldest sister, who filled her in on “a shtickel nisht gitteh nayis (a bit of not-such-good news).” My conduct mark had become a family concern! Would Tante Temma cry? I heard Tante Fruma saying into the receiver, “Tell her what you just said,” and she handed the phone to me.

Gently, Tante Temma repeated her remark: “Except for one B plus, even my boychiklach didn’t get less than an A minus for behavior.” I smiled, in spite of myself, at her calling her married sons “little boys,” but a moment later, when I absorbed the implication of her mild-mannered rebuke, I cried outright.

Mother placed her hands on my shaking shoulders. “There, there,” Tante Temma was saying. “I just wanted you to know that in our family, there is nothing more important than derech eretz (respect)for parents, elders and teachers.”

My three great-aunts, so different in personality, all agreed that being a mensch was an absolute, non-negotiable value. This was a lesson that has come to mind repeatedly in my own role as mother, grandmother and teacher—one I strive to impart to my children and students. Thank G‑d, whenever I’ve faced a challenge in doing so, retelling the story of “the tante triumvirate” has always yielded positive results!