Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Family Surprises

I'm not sure I can build this story up to a point, or to anything resembling insight. Maybe it's just another story about my paternal grandmother Fanya, a story I just learned, and the point is that you can still learn new things about people even a quarter century after they die. There's nothing dramatic here, like learning of a long-lost relative or an out-of-wedlock previously unknown sibling. Except it sort of is. And actually, every story involving my grandmother Fanya is somewhat dramatic, now that I think about it.

You all remember Fanya. How could you forget? I once posted a naked picture of her in this journal. Fanya was a professional pianist and teacher in New York City, having studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in her youth -- apparently at the same time as Jascha Heifetz, who was a little bit younger. In fact, Jascha Heifetz was from the same town in Russia as my grandmother (Vilna) and my great-grandparents remembered him performing around town as a child prodigy. I'm not entirely clear on the details of my grandmother's musical life and career, which I should probably remedy, although my father has a recording of her performing on the radio.

The grandmother I remember was not your old-fashioned apron-wearing stereotypical grandmother. If Aunt Bea from the Andy Griffith show defines one end of a continuum, my grandmother defines the opposite pole. This is the anecdote I recount to summarize my grandmother: When my older brother Michael went off to college, my grandmother, at her next visit, announced that she missed Michael being there. Our jaws dropped in collective astonishment, since this was not at all the sort of grandmotherly remark we had ever heard her make. But then she continued, "...because I could always bum a cigarette from him." She said this without irony. This was not a joke.

Last weekend I went to New York City to attend a luncheon my Aunt Helen and Uncle Will hosted in honor of their 60th wedding anniversary. My Aunt Helen told me that I would be at a table with my family and with what she described as a "very interesting couple". The couple consisted of a woman named Marie and her husband (forgive me for not recalling the name -- Dave?). They were, in fact, an interesting couple, and also extremely nice. Just lovely. Kind and pleasant and warm. Marie is a few years younger than my father.

It turns out that I had met Marie previously, at my grandmother's funeral. I wouldn't have recognized her, but I certainly remember her from the funeral because this was a woman I didn't know, a full generation younger than my grandmother, who was clearly in mourning for my grandmother. My father told me she had been a piano student of my grandmother's, even something of a protegee. I do remember thinking it notable that I didn't know this woman at all, but as I say I didn't know a whole lot about my grandmother's musical world in general. Marie and her husband live near my aunt and uncle, and they had recently reconnected because they saw my uncle out walking while they were driving and they stopped the car to talk. That's how Marie wound up at the event, at the table with us.

I may not have been able to recognize Marie, but she knew who all of us were. She wasn't merely a student of my grandmother's -- my grandmother had taken her in as something of a daughter. Marie's husband said that Marie cried more when Fanya died than when her own mother died. Marie still teaches piano; she says she's been teaching since she was sixteen, at Fanya's insistence. Fanya had taken Marie around, into her musical circles, and encouraged her playing. No doubt Marie had been a gifted and dedicated student. In my head I've now made up a story, about Fanya feeling she was passing along the training and traditions she had learned at the fine conservatory in Russia, the way artistry is passed down the generations.

So there I was, sitting next to a woman I don't know but who clearly had a family relationship to my grandmother. I'm having some trouble reconciling the grandmother I know with a woman who would take on a motherly role such as this. I pointed this out to Marie, that my grandmother wasn't exactly the earth mother type, and Marie said something like, "Oh no. She wasn't. She was wonderful." My grandmother, I suspect, offered Marie entree into a world outside of her Bronx neighborhood. (I'm assuming the Bronx, since that's where my grandmother lived and taught.) Marie evidently needed exactly what my grandmother had to offer, and my grandmother obliged. As my mother noted, my grandmother did love being adored, and Marie clearly adored my grandmother.

Here's another thing I learned: My grandmother had strong hands and played a strong piano. That, I'm going to imagine, was the Russian conservatory training.

And it all goes to show: You just never know.
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