From Generation to Generation


Irene Reti

My grandmother Margit Grunbaum, who was born in Budapest in 1900, died four years ago, at the age of 96. When she died, I inherited 25 fine lace doilies. Every arm of every chair, every table, every cabinet, in my grandmother's apartment in California had been adorned with these doilies. They are elaborate, demonstrate great skill with the crochet needle. Although I received the doilies gratefully as part of my inheritance, my feelings about them are ambivalent. For the doilies were crafted by my red-haired great-grandmother Regina, and to me they symbolize her constricted life as a woman.

I picture Regina in her apartment in Buda, her fingers nervously crocheting doilies, twisting the sadness and anxiety in her hands into permanent creations of lace, lace I hold in my own hands, across the world 100 years later. Her husband Jakab is mocking her, harshly criticizing her. Perhaps it is the Sabbath. Perhaps it is Passover. She has prepared the dinner according to his wishes but again he has found fault. She sat trembling, while he screamed about a mistake she had made. Now she is sitting rigid in the living room, the needles jerking back and forth. She wants to read, but remembers him jeering at her last night, "Again you read! My electric light costs good money." It is the early 20th century. There are no such words: battered women, abuse.

But still she found the strength to rebel. This rebellion took a variety of forms. Sundays she snuck off to the Catholic Basilica, where leaning against a marble pillar, she felt closer to God. As a young girl my grandmother Margit accompanied her on these journeys of rebellion, in what Regina called, her double religion. Secretly she studied French, secretly because Jakab did not believe women should study. And she refused to teach her daughter how to cook and clean house. In this way she believed she would help Margit become a professional woman, and live the life she herself could not lead. When my grandmother was a teenager, she helped Regina escape on the train to Sarospatak, the town of her birth. But when they reached Sarospatak, Margitís two brothers beseeched their mother to return home, said they could not live without her. So she returned to her home, where she dressed in the finest clothes, and created more and more doilies.

Jakab was opposed to Margitís decision to attend nedical school. Because of rising anti-Semitism under Horthy, (Regent of Hungary) Margit was forced to leave Budapest and attend school in Prague. When she asked her father for tuition money he said, "A woman to be a doctor!? Go wherever you want. I will not send you a penny!" She went to Prague anyway. She received some help from her uncle Erwin Moskowits, of Sarospatak, who was also a doctor. Still, she was very poor. My grandmother often told me how she would buy an apple and ration sections of it for each day. She was literally starving. But she was determined to be a doctor. By the time she came home to visit her parents she was emaciated. She, for once, was ashamed. Her mother kept feeding her, and whispered that her greatest wish was for her to be a doctor. This wish she inscribed on a photograph of herself which hung above my grandmotherís bed.

Regina coughed through her last years, and died of tuberculosis. When Margit left Hungary in 1939 she missed Regina terribly. War made communication difficult, and my grandmother only learned of Reginaís death from a Hungarian-language newspaper in Turkey.

My grandmother did become a doctor, first in Budapest, and then in Russia during the 1930s. The Holocaust propelled her out of Hungary, and years as a refugee, first in Turkey, and then in Venezuela. Being a refugee prevented her from practicing medicine for over twenty years. But when she immigrated to the United States at age 60, my grandmother studied for her medical exams in English, my grandfather prompting her with flashcards. She once again became a doctor, and practiced medicine in the United States until she was 75.

It is the year 2000. I am visiting Budapest for the first time. I am standing by Regina's grave. "Moskowits Regina: 1878-1941," the gravestone reads. I imagine that we are studying together under a pool of electric light. I wrap my arms around the marble, imagining that I am hugging the warmth of my great-grandmother. I learn her Hebrew name: Rivka. "Rivka," I whisper, and decide to take her Hebrew name. I trace the stone tenderly, with fingers that have never crocheted doilies.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2007.
All rights reserved.