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Chaye Sarah


I had heard the story many times. And it never failed to move me. It is one of the many stories about my grandmother, my personal Chaye Sarah.

My mother was about seven years old – which places this story in the winter of 1914. Her father had died two years before, leaving his wife, Chaye Sarah, with a houseful of children; my mother was the youngest.

These were hard times. Chaye Sarah took any job she could to make ends meet. She washed other people's clothes, cleaned other people's homes. She flicked chickens at the kosher butcher. She was a second cook at weddings.

This particular Sunday was bitterly cold, as only a Chicago winter can be. Chaye Sarah had a job this Sunday, cooking for a gala Jewish wedding not too far from home. And the best part was that she could bring home leftovers.

And so, the children still at home – my mother and her brothers and sister – waited all day; all day in a not-so-well-heated flat with very little to eat. They watched for their mother to come home with two precious commodities – dinner and money for coal for the parlor stove, which was as voracious for coal as they were for food.

They tried to keep busy. Maybe they quarreled – hungry and lonesome and bored. Maybe they kept occupied by talking about the good things they would have when Mama came home: kishke, maybe, and farfel, "chassenah" chicken, sweet tsimmes with carrots.

They watched at the window as the day grew late. Streetcar after streetcar passed but no one got off.

Finally, my mother saw her. Chaye Sarah was getting off the Roosevelt Road streetcar with two bags of wedding delicacies. Oh, a few steps and she would be home. There would be good things to eat and the protection of a mother who the children had missed all day.

Another step closer to home ... and another. And – an icy patch of sidewalk, a gloomy evening. A misstep. A fall. And all the wedding treats rolling down the sidewalk. All gone.

And my grandmother, tired from cooking all day and cleaning up after the guests, guilty perhaps because she had left the children by themselves, heartsick because of the accident, feeling the weight and responsibility of raising this family alone, walked into the apartment and burst into tears.

"I have nothing to feed you tonight, my children," she wept.

And they stood around her and watched the impossible. Mama was crying!

But Chaye Sarah didn't give up. She never gave up.

She started her days as a beautiful blonde, blue-eyed girl in Lithuania's Kovno Gibernia. She was promised to the miller's son, because he was rich and she was beautiful and he wanted her. However, headstrong even then, she eloped with my grandfather, Shmuel Behr of the flashing eyes, her one true love. When the Russian army beckoned, they fled Lithuania and went to Leeds, England. They lived in Leeds for many years and had five daughters, these girls the beginning of their family of ten. Relatives tell the story that, one time, the day after giving birth, Chaye Sarah was already in the local marketplace shopping for fresh food for her hungry brood.

They came to Chicago in the late 1880's. My grandfather became a peddler; she was a loyal and loving wife, making do on her husband's small income, raising her children.

The older daughters grew up, married young and had children of their own. Chaye Sarah continued to have children, as well. Soon, grandchildren and Chaye Sarah's own children – all close in age – were playing together on the stoop in front of the apartment building.

My grandfather became ill and died, slowly, with many complications. Chaye Sarah grieved, but life went on. There were still children at home to care for.

And then, the unthinkable. The death of a child. Evelyn, lovely with her father's dark eyes and hair, complained of backaches, leg pains. She limped. Soon she couldn't walk. Then, she couldn't move at all. Death claimed her at age 14.

And this time, Chaye Sarah's life almost didn't go on.

But, as always, children must be fed and kept clean and so she went through the motions over and over again until the motions took over and she was returned to her strength.

When I was young and she was old, I loved her dearly. She took me to the park and to the beach, to the movies and to the dime store. Sometimes we sang songs together. And when I couldn't sleep, she would come to my bed and tell me stories.

She died when I was seven years old. She just sat down in a chair to take a nap ... and never woke up. I felt sad because she was gone and I had nothing by which to remember her. Her candlesticks went to an older granddaughter, her pots to a daughter-in-law. My mother kept the hock messer (chopping knife) and hock schisel (chopping bowl) for making chopped herring. And that's all there was.

But as I have grown up, I realize that I was wrong about getting nothing from my grandmother. Chaye Sarah gave me a lot, more than the sweet memories of the beach or the movies.

She gave me the wealth of herself. 

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