I remember the hundreds of mornings my own mother brushed the tangles out of my hair as I look at this photo of my grandmother patiently plaiting my mom’s curls. I think of the mothers before her and the ritual of taming girls’ hair and of those moments together in the morning, of watching my mother’s face behind me in the mirror — the patience or exasperation or concentration knitted across her brow — and of all these quiet, quotidian practices we take for granted as the duties of mothers.
Today on Mother’s Day I am filled with gratitude for my own mother, and for my beloved Grandma Lillian who I miss every day, and for my Grandma California June who I never met, and for all the mothers who suffered and loved and brushed their children’s hair on countless mornings because that is what mothers do.
This is my maternal great-great grandma in Russia around the turn of the last century. She carries her history in the lines of her mouth. I’ve seen my own mother make this exact face.
If you look closely, you can tell her pupil has been inked over; in the one other photograph I have of her, it looks like she may have lost an eye completely.
Her son Abraham Lazar Brodsky was the father of grandma Lillian. We are not absolutely certain of her name, but the death certificate for her daughter, who died in Chicago in 1981, lists her mother as “Schandel Finkle.” My grandma Lillian once said she thought her name was Ida Schoendel. We believe she lived in Kirovohrad (Elizavetgrad) which is whence my great-grandparents came when they left for Canada around 1911. Her husband was Lazar Brodsky and they had at least three children — Abraham Brodsky, Miriam (Mary) Brodsky (Lord) and Lillian Brodsky (Rubin). I imagine she was born some time between the late 1850s and early 1870s, as my great-grandfather was born in 1887.
Abe traveled first to Canada where Clara joined him. After their children were born, they moved to Dayton, Ohio, where his sister Lillian had married a Rubin man. Both families eventually moved to Chicago, along with sister Mary who — legend has it — divorced her Russian-Jewish husband and married an Italian gangster, last name Lord.
I do not know if they wrote to their mother, or if their mother would have been able to read their letters. I do not know when she was born or when or how she died. I do not know if she survived the pogroms or if she lost an eye in an attack by the cossacks. I can only think how incredulous she would be to see her descendants alive and lucky, a century after this photo was taken.
Mondays! Grandma Lillian worked as a bookkeeper at the Easy Washing Machine Company at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. She changed her name from Brodsky to Brodsly on her resume to get the job, saying she was a Christian Scientist instead of a Jew.
When it was built in 1930, the Merchandise Mart was the largest building in the world. In her nineties, Lillian would talk with such excitement about her time working there, taking the train to work, walking through the snow in her silk stockings, finding out that her boss was having an affair with a secretary — and she took her first-ever plane ride on a business trip to upstate New York.
This was her only time as an independent professional woman. Later, after her children were born, she did bookkeeping for my grandfather’s business, and made a name for herself as a volunteer and activist in San Francisco. But I could always tell this moment in her life was precious to her as a young woman supporting herself and her family by the way she talked about it.
This is my maternal great-grandma Clara Reznikova Brodsky, pregnant in Canada, some time in the nineteen-teens.
Here is what we know: She and my great-grandpa Abe fled the pogroms in Elizavetgrad, Russia (modern-day Ukraine) and took a boat from Germany to Canada. They settled in Hamilton, Ontario, where she gave birth to six children — three boys and three girls. One girl, Miriam, died an infant.
In this photo, she may be holding my grandma Leah; however, it was common in that era for male infants to wear gowns, so it may be one of the boys. But given Clara’s age in the photo and a gut instinct I have about that child’s face, I’d say this is Clara around 1918, holding Leah and pregnant with Annie.