My father married into a family of powerful, strong-willed women. My grandmother, Sara Schwartz, was a stern, no-nonsense matriarch who didn’t suffer fools gladly. “She was tough as nails. Dominant,” recalled my cousin Jean Adnopoz, who grew up in the first-floor flat of our grandparents’ house on Willow Street, the same apartment I grew up in 20 years later.
Nana was a stout woman with a round face framed by short, wavy white hair tinged with blue. She had thick, slightly bowed legs that appeared to connect to her feet without the benefit of ankles. Her swollen appendages were symptomatic of “milk leg,” a painful condition associated with childbirth in which the principal vein of the thigh becomes inflamed. She wore thick rubber stockings for support, but even so she was prone to falling, a susceptibility that kept her at home much of the time and landed her in the hospital on more than one occasion. “Grandma’s fallen again,” Jean recalled, was a common refrain when she was growing up.
My grandfather Sam was by all accounts a sweet, soft-spoken man who, like most of the other men in our family, was overshadowed by his wife. The image of Sam that sticks in Jean’s mind is of him dutifully drying the silverware with a dishtowel and placing the utensils, one by one, into a pot. Although my grandfather died just three months after I was born, I insisted that I had a vivid memory of him watching over me in my crib, an assertion that would elicit a bemused smile from my mother.
Like her mother, Aunt Nan was a tough cookie who commanded attention. She was short — a full head closer to the ground than Mom, who stood five foot eight — but what she lacked in physical stature she more than made up for with her glamorous looks and dynamic personality. She had a round, pretty face and short, wavy hair that turned into a regal white bonnet in middle age. Nan was an elegant dresser, favoring tailored suits accented with understated jewelry and colorful silk scarves. Even when she was feeling under the weather, she was always well put together, her outfits carefully coordinated and her hair perfectly coiffed.
Unlike Mom, who tended to be withdrawn in unfamiliar social settings (a reticence she more than compensated for around her immediate family), Nan was naturally social and outgoing. She had lots of friends and was always dashing around to card games, luncheons, and dinner parties. I can still picture her roaring up our driveway in her hulking Chrysler New Yorker, her snowy hair barely visible above the steering wheel. She would charge up the back stairs, heels clicking on the narrow wood steps, and burst into the kitchen as if she owned the place. Helloooo. Anyone home?
Sara Schwartz, 1960. Detail from family photo.