Speranza & Elias
The patriarchs of the family
My father (Morris) shared a story about his mother. It would have been around 1950 that this story takes place. He sent me the letter in 1987. Here is the story.
Grandma refused to graduate elementary school. She was 63 years old and had completed her eight year course in the adult education of P.S. 225 in Brooklyn. Although she would have been proud to show off her diploma to her eight children and five grandchildren, she did not want to graduate for it meant that she would have to travel by bus and subway to get to the high school on DeKalb Avenue. She hated to give up her pleasant walk to the school twice a week and the treasured hours she spend in class. so, with her sympathetic teacher's permission, she did not graduate.
When I started school, Nona told me about her first day in school -- how excited and nervous she had been. When she announced to her family that she had registered for school, her children smiled tolerantly and my grandfather ridiculed her.
"You've gotten this far through life without reading and writing, why bother now." No matter how much he teased her, she would not be deterred. After her first day at school, she returned with her books and spoke about her homework. Her children laughed at her.
Most of her class was composed of young adults of various ages, accents and backgrounds. She was the oldest student in the class. They all had one thing in common. None of them could read or write English. Some, like herself could not read or write any language.
One of the reasons that Nona was determined to learn to read and write was that her oldest daughter had announced that she was pregnant. How embarrassed and humiliated she would feel if her grandchild asked her to read to her and she would have to admit that she couldn't read. She would be so ashamed. That's when she registered for "English" in the adult education program.
Every evening after dinner, Nona would clear the kitchen table and spend hours studying. All her children were glad to help her. Only my grandfather continued to tease her. Grandpa's sarcasm was hard to understand especially since he could read and write. The only time he ever complimented Grandma was on her performance in the kitchen. She was an excellent cook. He felt, like most European men at that time, that a woman belonged in the kitchen. Nona decided she would show him she was good for other things.
My mother told me how proud the family was of Nona, especially when they each received their first letter from her. My mother saved hers and showed it to me. Grandma's handwriting was neat and legible and the letter well written and grammatically correct.
By the time I was born, Nona could write letters with ease. Each of her letters was written with loving care.
Nona told me about the first letter she received from my Uncle after he had gone off to war overseas. She remembered how glad she was when she saw the envelope in the mailbox...how she quickly tore it open to read its contents. She didn't have to carry it around for hours, like her sister had to do, trying to find someone in the family to read it to her.
She told me how wonderful it was to be able to sit by herself in the evening and read a newspaper, or book. Even Grandpa was proud of her wonderful progress. She became interested in politics and was able to participate in discussions about current events. He was even a bit jealous because she could write much better than he and she soon become the letter writer for him.
Soon after all her children were married, Grandpa died and Nona was alone. Although she missed him very much she managed to keep busy and was thankful for her days at school. Her books surrounded her and filled the gap in her days and nights. When television became available, her children bought her a set. She enjoyed certain programs, but there was nothing quite like reading a book or writing a letter.
Nona told me that one of the biggest thrills of her life came when her firstborn grandchild, Carol, who was in the first grade, came to Nona and pointing to a word that had her stymied she asked, "Grandma, what's that word?" Grandma smiled and said, "Let's sound it out together..Hor....ssss. Horse." Her granddaughter never knew how happy and proud Grandma was that she was able to answer her question.
Nona never missed a day of school for she enjoyed good health. Through rain, snow, hail or heat, Grandma arrived at class on time. She was teacher's pet.
When Nona was absent from school for a whole week, we knew how terribly sick she must be. The following week she was hospitalized. All through her hospital stay, besides visiting her, everyone wrote letters because they knew how much she loved receiving them. Most of all she loved answering them.
A few weeks after entering the hospital she died. There was a book lying next to her when the end came.
Nona is well captured in a short story, The Charm, (link) written by her granddaughter Rhoda for her Professor Philip Roth in January 1967.
The letter Nona gave to me when I turned 13.
June 26, 1955
To my dearest Martin,
I want to congratulate you on the Bar Mitzvah Day. I'm writing a few lines to let you know, That the envelope with your gift, please do not destroy it.
I want you to keep it in your album also whenever you opened the book you are going to remember your thirteenth years birthday. I wish you with all my heart to be able to continue your education and be wish and truthful whatever you do.
I like to advise you to be honest and thoughtful to your father and mother and benevolent to people with whom you will live in this world.
I hope and pray for your future prosperity and happiness.
Love grandmother and Nona
I still have the letter which is cherished to this day.