It's hard to believe that if my maternal grandma Tessie Luck were alive today, she would have turned 100 this month. If you are fortunate to still have your grandparents with you—I'm lucky to have both of my paternal grandparents—I urge you to interview them, and record them so you have their words of wisdom with you and your family for always. I interviewed my grandmother back in 2000, seven years before her death. What follows are excerpts from what I wrote about my grandma after our conversation in 2000.
"Can I tell you about our specials?" our waitress at a Milwaukee restaurant asks my grandma Tessie Luck and me. Tessie looks regal in her navy blue skirt-suit, and her silver curls stand perfectly still, only hours after her weekly beauty
"Dear," says Tessie, more concerned with showing off photos of her family members than with the menu. "I want to introduce you to my granddaughter."
"Great," the waitress interrupts politely. "We have a lobster special this evening..."
Tessie steers clear of the lobster. She has never eaten shellfish or pork in all her 85 years. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, she keeps remnants of her kosher lifestyle to this day. So Tessie, content with simplicity, opts for the fresh salmon with lemon juice.
The gourmet salmon is a far cry from Tessie's days of eating fried onions and not much else. During famine in Russia, after World War I and around the time of the Russian Revolution, her family could scrounge up little more than onions, which they ate for months on end. Despite their ubiquity back then, Tessie always loved onions.
Her love for something as measly as onions illustrates how Tessie has always seen her world through rose-colored glasses. The same Tessie who never met her father until she was 9, who lived through czarist Russia as a persecuted Jew, who lived until adulthood in poverty, and who has seen countless loved ones die, including her beloved husband and son—that same Tessie has never once complained about her life.
Ironically, Tessie describes her dirt-poor upbringing in a Russian shtetl called Davidivkah as "elite." "We were considered a very fine family," she said. Born on the eve of World War I, the fourth and last child, Tessie began life in a most precarious corner of the world-Russia.
She was a Jew at a time and place where it was unacceptable to be Jewish. During her mother's pregnancy, relatives in Brooklyn urged Tessie's father to emigrate to the United States. As a poor Jew in Russia, her father had to seize this opportunity to get out, but he would send for his family as soon as resources became available.
Illiterate, because no Jewish girls or women were taught to read and write in Russia, Tessie's only contact with her father until she was nine came through letters and stories her family shared with her.
Once, she recalls, the Cossacks invaded her family's small home in search of grain. To protect little Tessie, her brothers propped her up on a shelf and told her to hold as still as her rag doll. Storming past the shelf, the Cossacks found the grain and left Tessie unharmed.
Forbidden by the czar to attend school or synagogue, Tessie spent her time watching and learning from her tight-knit family. Although Tessie's world held few material possessions, music and dancing abounded in her home.
In 1923, word finally came that 9-year-old Tessie and her family could join her father in the United States. Tessie was elated with the idea of leaving the "dreadful place" and coming to a land she envisioned paved with gold. Tessie vowed never to return to Russia.
Her family arrived in July, unversed in English. By September, after only two months of playing with American children, Tessie was practically fluent in the new language.
Meanwhile, Harry Luck immigrated from Russia to America in 1924, shortly after Tessie. On the way, Harry's family awaited visas in London, where Harry was befriended by an Englishman who wanted to learn Russian. A member of the Fabian
Society, he often took Harry to meetings where George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and George Orwell would also attend. To make a living, Harry picked strawberries.
After Harry arrived in the States, he fulfilled a life-long dream of buying a farm, thus becoming one of the first Jewish farmers in Wisconsin. Soon, Harry and Tessie were introduced in New York. When she speaks of Harry, she glows: They courted for only three weeks, just long enough for Harry to "realize he couldn't live without me," she laughs. One evening, while watching the opera "La Traviata," Harry popped the question.
Early in their marriage, Tessie and Harry moved to a 200-acre dairy farm in Mapleton, Wisc. There, they raised cattle, corn, two sons, and a daughter—my mother. There were no other Jews for miles around, but Tessie kept a strictly kosher kitchen. Every few months, a Yeshiva scholar would come to live with the family, to learn about farming before moving to a kibbutz in Israel. In turn, he would teach the two small Luck sons Hebrew and Talmud.
As the kids grew older, the Luck family moved back to the city, where Tessie became active in Jewish causes. When Israel was born, Tessie and Harry would buy bonds, investing in Israel even though it was a gamble on an uncertain future. "If this is worth nothing," Harry would say, "then our lives are worth nothing."
After a full life together, Tessie lost Harry to a heart attack. "I loved him for his kindness and his brilliance, and his love of all things beautiful," she says. Two years after Harry died, her younger son, Max, died unexpectedly.
Despite the dark times in Tessie's life, she's always emanated light. "Darling," she says, "I am the luckiest woman in the whole wide world."
Note: I've launched an online project with my sister to record the wonderful words, wit, and wisdom of grandparents. Share the best advice you've received at Ofthewise.tumblr.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.