The Gray Hairpin

by Linda Albert (Longboat Key, FL)

Granny, who was my mother’s mother, stayed with us every year when the High Holidays rolled around because we lived within walking distance of a synagogue, and, as a traditional Jew, she would not drive on the holiest days of the year. Each time she came to visit, I had to share my bedroom with her.

Her name was Rose Bennett. Born in Russia, she had come to Detroit, Michigan when she was eighteen to marry Louis Solovich, the brother of her sister’s husband. The two families lived next door to each other. Her sister had ten children; Granny had six. Along with Granny’s other sisters and brothers and their progeny, I used to think I was related to the entire city.

As a young girl I pretended to be asleep while Granny prepared for bed and would peek as she undressed, releasing her pendulous breasts from the confines of her corset and undoing the pins from the bun in her snow white hair. As interesting as these observations were, however, they didn’t make up for the loss of privacy I felt forced to endure. And the stray gray hairpins that remained scattered on my dresser after she left were an irritating reminder of that sacrifice.

Whenever Granny was with us, she took it upon herself to try to get the snarls out of my hair, which was blond and a feature my strong-minded mother called my “crowning glory.” Despite my complaints, I was not allowed a haircut from the ages of three to twelve. Instead, I wore my hair, which otherwise would have hung down to my waist, in fat, ugly, and unfashionable braids. Not only did I hate those braids, but I despised the unpleasant pinches on the cheek that they prompted and the comparisons to “pretty little Dutch girls.”

In an attempt to distract me from the pain of the hairbrush working through my knotted hair, Granny tried to tell me stories about the Old Country. But I whined and carried on so much she was never able to get to an ending. How was I to know until years later that Granny had collected rain water to wash her own hair? In her own gentle way, she had tried to teach me to take pride in myself and value my gifts.

When I turned twelve, my oldest cousin Ginny convinced my mother to allow me to have my hair cut short. Without my braids and those awful snarls, Granny’s reason for story-telling stopped. It never occurred to me to ask her to finish her stories. I simply assumed she would be around forever and I could hear them later.

My mother used to say that while Granny kept kosher, at least she wasn’t “crazy kosher,” and didn’t inflict her ways on her children, all of whom became Reform or liberal in the practice of religion. When she was with us, Granny performed her rituals in quiet corners, lighting Sabbath and holiday candles while we went about our worldly ways unaware of the richness we might be missing. And every year I continued to share my room with her, finding forgotten gray hairpins on my dresser as reassuringly annoying souvenirs of her visits.

These visits came to a jolting halt for me when I was a sixteen years old. Though she had looked like an old lady from an early age with her white hair and flowered dresses, her corsets and matronly bosom, and her old-lady tie-shoes with the thick black heels, Granny suffered from nothing more than hypertension and arthritis, and otherwise had the energy of a girl. Yet one night, in her seventy-second year, she announced to my aunt and uncle, with whom she lived, that she didn’t feel well, lay down on her bed, closed her eyes, and quietly died.

I was devastated. The minute I heard Granny was gone, I knew I had thrown away a priceless opportunity to understand my grandmother and to know more about my heritage. What was it like for Granny to have come to America when she was only eighteen to marry a stranger? How did she manage when she was left a widow with six children? (My mother, the youngest of six, was only eight month’s old.) How far did Uncle Max, the only boy in a fatherless household, actually get when he ran away from his home in Detroit to find his grandfather in Russia? Was he punished or hugged when he was finally found? Why didn’t anyone talk about Grandpa Louis, the handsome man in the picture and the hinted at “brains of the family”? And why did she stick to her traditional ways? Nobody but Granny could really answer those questions, and now it was too late for me to ask them.

The minute it was too late, I knew how much love and patience Granny had bestowed upon me, despite my lack of deservedness. I knew then with painful clarity that Granny would always be one of my greatest teachers, not only by her example as a woman who had taken the challenges of life with grace, but by the lesson of her death. I promised myself that I would never again take anyone or any situation quite so for granted. I would ever after be instructed by the inevitability of endings in life.

For years I regretted my failings in relation to Granny. I found my heart warmed by anyone who pronounced my name with a foreign lilt. I gravitated to other people’s stories. And then in a writing class twenty years after her death, I wrote about Granny in a character sketch, starting and ending with the memory of those gray hair pins, how real they remained to me, how much I still loved my very special grandmother, and how much I would have liked to thank her.

I read the piece later to a group of other writers. Just as I got to the last line in which I said I hadn’t seen a gray hairpin in twenty years, the woman sitting next to me spied something on the floor and leaned down to pick it up. Incredibly, it was a gray hairpin.

Ever since then I like to think that I have redeemed myself in Granny eyes and have been forgiven.

Linda Albert’s essays, articles, creative non-fiction, and poems have appeared in many publications, including McCall’s Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Sacred Journey, Today’s Caregiver Magazine, Itineraries, and the Borderline and SNReview Literary Journals. She lives on Longboat Key, Florida with her husband. You can visit her on-line at http://snreview.org/ (autumn 2008, poetry section) or at her website http://www.lindaalbert.net/

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6 Comments

Filed under American Jewry

6 responses to “The Gray Hairpin

  1. Sheila Frank

    This is my first visit to this beautiful website.
    I really enjoyed reading The Gray Hairpin. It made me miss my grandparents and all they had to teach me about life. Linda captured so much in this piece; the glimpse into her childhood self, a bit about her grandmother and her generation, and a hint at her mother’s generation, and how they moved away from their parent’s beliefs and customs. She has told the immigration and assimilation story in this very compact vignette/essay. I was very moved reading about those lost opportunities to hear family history, and to understand where we’ve really come from.
    As much as we hear, it is never enough, once those family members die. Thanks for publishing this piece, and for this unique website.

  2. Bruce Black

    Sheila,
    Many thanks for the kind words about Linda’s story and the website. We’re so glad you stopped by.

  3. Myrna Kirschner

    This is such an incredibly warm and touching remembrance of your Granny and it brought tears to my eyes. I know the hairpin on the floor was a sign. It had to be.
    Your telling of this story got hold of me right from the getgo. Loved it. Thank you so much Linda.
    I felt my Grandma, who lived with us for three years before she passed away, was a huge intrusion in our home and usurped my mom’s attention, just when I, a teen, wanted it. My attitude about grandma was akin to sibling rivalry though I didn’t understand it until years after she was gone.
    And now from time to time, I like to think she’s watching, and knows how I regret not telling her I loved her. It just took time for me to realize it.
    And a grandchild of my own.
    Linda please keep on writing…and sharing.
    Thank you.

  4. Bruce Black

    Myrna,
    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your response. I’m sure Linda will be grateful for the support and encouragement.

  5. Febuary 4th, 2009

    Warm and remembering, heartfelt and appreciative, I read your story with heart and soul. Live stories told and remembered from so long ago.
    Knowing those early days of growing up with parents of our parents leaving deep imprints , photographs of days gone buy but not forgotten. Our heart of heart memory banks keep them alive.Remembering all the fun ,listening to life lived stories of travels ,running for thier lives . Learning about journeys from Europe to this new world, not knowing where or what was to be found . Stories that are shared fromGrandparents to parents to family , and continue to be told to my children.
    Lessons learned about surviving, hardships and joy.
    I have been gifted nine grand children , a great grand child and four children of my own. What kind of “presents”will be there to savor for each one of them to share about our times together?

    You have again popped opened those little draws in my memory bank. Thank you for writing
    “The Grey Hairpin” with love and appreciation.

  6. Bruce Black

    Susanne,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. Glad you enjoyed the story.

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