Annie who was Anna.

My great-aunt Annie, born Anna Brodsky, became Levine in 1941 when she married Harold, an enchanting, handsome lawyer whose family ran a booming luggage company. It was a faerie tale for the littlest of the Brodsky-Reznikova clan who, according to legend, didn’t speak a word until she was six. But just a few months into their marriage, a bomb dropped on Pearl Harbor and Harold clamored to do right by his country. He joined the Marines and went off to training in San Diego before he was shipped overseas to the Pacific.

Annie and her sister, my grandma Lillian, moved in together in Chicago, with their two young daughters, Susan and Robin. The details of their everyday lives are recorded in the daily letters my grandma sent to my grandfather, who was stationed in the south: what they fed the girls for dinner, when they could afford new bed linens, which grandparent they visited with over the weekend. As anxious as both women must have been with their husbands away, I can’t help but think how wonderful it might have been for the little girls to have each other and for the sisters to go through it all together.

But the faerie tale had no happy ending for Annie. On July 22, 1944, when his daughter was 16 months old, Harold Levine was killed on the beaches of Guam, 7,364 miles away from home. Annie received the news on Monday, August 14. No one would believe it. Not his parents, not his wife.

Harold’s death lingers in our family. It feeds a story of lost love, of lost hope, of neverending grief. It’s hard to explain what that generation in my family was like — my grandmother, her brothers, her sister; my grandfather and his brothers. All of them, and all of the children, and all of their parents, would vacation together, would supper together, would trade kids for the summer and go on road trips. Harold’s death must have felt like a hole drilled in her center, for her whole life. She married twice more, and her third husband was an extraordinarily kind, gentle soul who was with her until the end. But the work she had to do, compared to her sister, must have felt unconquerable.

When I was growing up, my great-aunt was a fanatic for health food and yoga, long before it was en vogue. My favorite memories of us are on the wide deck of my parents’ backyard under the mulberry tree, cross-legged on towels, her always dressed immaculately in draping white, teaching me to straighten my back and telling me over and over again to breathe.

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Father/Daughter

I started this iteration of my blog (and corresponding instagram @instagrandma_100) as a daily ritual to remember and honor the women from whom I came, and to share their stories. But I wouldn’t have stories (or grandmothers) without all the fathers too. So today I share a letter fragment from my own beloved and exceptional dad, who made the startling point that I am “the next daughter” after dear Agnes and Margaret, both of whom died as children in 1911 and 1912. His own father and mother had only the two boys, and my father’s brother had no children of his own—only a son through marriage. His mother’s three siblings died in childhood, never married or had no children of their own—again, one son through marriage. 

So it was my father and mother, seventy years after the last little girl died, who brought the next O’Connell daughter into the world.

He writes:

Will and Alene would, if they were omniscient, be pole-axed at the idea that the only modern-day (and next) daughter of their family would be the one family member to visit their baby girls after 105 years. Sweet old Alene would gather you to her capacious bosom for sure!

In memoriam of the O’Connell girls and who they might have grown up to be, and to the mother and father who loved them.

Will & Agnes, 1909
The apple of his eye; Agnes & Will, 1909

 

Red lips, gold mirror.

My grandma loved style, and she had loads of it. Knowing how poor her family was, I marvel at how put together she always managed to be, without exception. She was a huge fan of lipstick and wore it until the day she left us at age 95. I still have a gold tube of her favorite in later years — Estee Lauder’s Candy.

My family always remarks on how much I look like Lillian, but it’s only when I put on a dark red lipstick and catch myself in the mirror that I freeze in my tracks, thinking I’ve just seen her face instead of mine.

My grandma, the human computer.

In the 1960s, grassroots organizations across the United States began to form as a result of the hideous treatment of Jews by the Soviet Union. My grandmother was no stranger to Russian mistreatment of Jews: her parents had fled Russia in the first decade of the century as victims of pogroms. Her mother Clara suffered from undiagnosed PTSD her entire adult life after witnessing brutal murders in their shtetl.

When her closest friends Selma and Hal Light and Rose and Ed Tamler began the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews in 1967, my grandma was fully on board. She devised a magnificent filing system documenting thousands of Refuseniks and held names and faces in her head. The note at the American Jewish Historical Society (where my grandma’s papers are archived) reads: her system “became a resource for BACSJ and other Soviet Jewry organizations in the United States. Foreman helped connect Jewish families in the US and USSR with special projects such as Adopt-A-Family and Bar/Bat Mitzvah Twinning. She visited the Soviet Union in the 1970s and met with many Refuseniks and Prisoners of Conscience, including Ida Nudel and Leonid Slepak.”

Hal died tragically in 1974, but the BACSJ continued to thrive. Often overlooked by historians is the enormous impact of women driving this movement. During Natan Sharansky’s prison interrogation, the KGB itself derided the American Soviet Jewry movement for being mere “students and housewives.” But what power these students and housewives held! In the Bay Area, my grandma Lillian Foreman and her dear friends Regina Waldman, Rose Tamler (nearly 100 years old as I write this), Natasha Kats and many more, led this oft-forgotten revolution.

In the 1980s, my grandma became president of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews. She traveled to the Soviet Union multiple times, smuggling in goods that could be sold on the black market to raise money for Jews and other Refuseniks to escape the oppressive USSR. The KGB had a file on her. She put her life on the line to save strangers. My grandma’s integrity, empathy and courage inspire me every day.