March 25, 2021 | Narrative
piecing her together
on not losing family stories
Sophie’s father invented the chocolate-covered frozen banana. I’ve heard the story at so many Thanksgiving dinners that I don’t believe it anymore. He had a sundry, a shop that sold candy and ice cream, on a street corner in Strawberry Mansion, a neighborhood in Philadelphia. I’m told that at the end of the Second World War, he stood outside with a box of tin whistles and handed them out to neighbors celebrating in the street. I like to imagine jars of licorice and chocolate pretzels, kids on bicycles who didn’t know what the war was about, really. Root beer floats and arm-round-the-waist kisses like a Time magazine cover.
My great-grandmother Sophie arrived in Philadelphia at around six months old. She travelled with her three older siblings and parents from Kiev. On the ship across the Atlantic, she was given her mother’s wedding band to clutch: her cries were grating on tired parents with no toys to keep a wailing baby occupied. Sophie promptly threw the ring overboard.
When she was a teenager, Sophie fell in love with a boy who lived a few houses down. Jimmy took her to see a movie and promised to call her after. She told me about him once when I went to visit her in her nursing home. She was dwarfed by a cushy recliner, her white hair a coiffed halo. She wore big gold rings and lipstick and told my mother to go to medical school. “How smart you are.” We reminded her that my mom had graduated in ‘90. “How smart she is.” When she talked about Jimmy, her eyes widened, all twinkly, the way adults tell you your eyes will when you’re in love. I remember hoping I’d find that kind of fairytale so easily; I wanted to go to the movies and have the starry look she had then. Jimmy never called her back after the movie.
I think Sophie fell in love again, but I’m not sure. I know it wasn’t the wide-eyed kind of love. One day, she was working in her father’s sundry when a man walked in, bought an ice cream cone, and fed it to his dog. She married Herb for stability, and because he was a dog person. A partnership of security is not one to take for granted, but there was something disappointing about the way she lacked verve when she talked about her husband. He worked at a gas refinery by the Philadelphia Navy yards, taking up unpredictable shifts to cover long hours. Herb was a strict man, angry and temperamental. “He worked hard” was the excuse. He made the money and set the rules. She did the rest. I asked my grandmother, Sophie’s daughter-in-law, what things were like in the earlier days. She knew Sophie as a shadow. “Every time I’d call and ask how she was doing, she’d say that she was weary,” my grandmother says. “She kept her mouth shut.”
When Sophie’s son Bill was getting married to my grandmother, Sophie and Herb went on vacation to Florida with the bride’s parents. Getting time away from the refinery was rare: this vacation was special. One night, they attended a show at a nightclub, a kind of “review of Vegas,” with singing and dancing and a big band. Sophie loved it. But when dancers twirled onto the stage in pasties, Herb grabbed Sophie and blurted, “Soph, let’s get going.” He refused to be exposed to such indecency, even if it was part of an act. She would do what he said. And so they left.
I only knew the version of Sophie that was alone and bright, put-together and expressive. I think Herb’s death set Sophie free. She made the rules or decided there would be none. During the years I shared with Sophie, she was in a partnership with a man named Aaron. They considered moving in together, but Sophie decided against it because he kept kosher and she liked shrimp too much. Aaron’s hearing deteriorated over a few years, and then his sight started to go. Sophie kept him driving though, insisting on playing copilot. “We only drive around the neighborhood, so he’s familiar,” she’d say. Their relationship slowed after he drove straight through a garage door. Less familiar than they’d hoped, I guess. With neither of them driving, they relied on friends to drive them to one another’s apartments. At my parents’ wedding, Sophie caught the bouquet. I never met Aaron, but I remember what Sophie said when her grandchildren, my aunts and uncles, asked her why they never married: “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”
This is how I knew Sophie: funny, blunt, honest. She lost her mental acuity as she aged, but it didn’t affect her sense of humor. You don’t need the memories to be in the right order to bring them to life. Her stories bounced back and forth through time and place, the fog in her head breaking as she retold moments from her earlier years.
She told us how she got a job as a court stenographer above all the other women in line for the job because she was wearing a green hat and the judge was Irish. How she used to go to the Jersey Shore every other week to play the slots and eat at the buffet because there was a $25-off deal at the casino. How she spent her entire life lying about her age because it was uncouth for her to be a year and a half older than her husband, so she said she was a year and a half younger. She couldn’t remember all the story threads of her growing family’s lives, but she could tell us about her teenage years like they were playing on a screen behind her eyes. The closer to the present her stories were, the less intact they felt. She told us about the turkeys that were growing under the windows at her nursing home and couldn’t remember much about my mother. “I need new glasses. You should be an ophthalmologist! How smart she is.”
I don’t know why I didn’t go to her funeral. I was young but not too young to know what was happening. Perhaps my parents were shielding us from the sadness, or maybe from something else I wouldn’t have been able to understand. I don’t remember the last time I saw her, either. Maybe it was that night at the nursing home, when she leaned back into that recliner and painted her childhood all over the room for us to see. I must’ve been around 10 years old and close to her height—gravity had done its thing to her bones over the years. I wish I could remember more of the details: how the room smelled, what she was wearing, what decorations she had chosen for the walls. More of her, not just fragmented stories.
I found out years later that Jimmy actually had called her after that movie. Sophie’s father had picked up the phone, taken a message, and forgotten to relay it. I don’t know when she found out, but I like to imagine that she knew the whole time and had decided to move on by herself. Her own rules.