Growing up, I never really “got” Mother’s Day. My mother never did either.
The holiday was a big deal, but not for her. It was always about my grandmother, my father’s mother, Ethel Graff, who I think my mother hated. She cast a pall over our family because my dad, a strong, powerful and loving man, was manipulated by her for as long as she lived.
We saw her every Friday night and Sunday. My father physically visited her almost every day when I was growing up. I was reminded of her and my grandfather, Louis Graff, who died three years before I was born, when I saw the latest Henry Louis Gates episode of Finding Your Roots, featuring my cousin, Mandy Patinkin, who I loved in The Princess Bride.
My brother Jim, who is much more of a student of our family than I am, sent me the link to the episode a few days ago and filled in some of the holes in the family story. Three Patinkin siblings married three Pinkert (Pinkevich) siblings. They hailed from a shtetl in Russia/Poland, called Bransk.
Ida Graff, my great aunt, married a Pinkert, Simon. Supposedly, he slept in the same bed she did right after he came over from Europe because he was working at night in a bakery. When she vacated the bed in the morning, he jumped in. He must have liked the scent because they eventually had 12 kids together.
Simon soon started a business with a Patinkin, Max, who was Mandy’s grandfather, the father of Lester Patinkin, a contemporary of my “Uncle” Aaron Pinkert, who was a few years older than my father.
So the Graffs, Pinkerts, and Patinkins were all very close, growing up in the Englewood neighborhood in Chicago. Somehow my grandfather, Louis Graff, ended up marrying Ethel Levinson in an arranged marriage. She was a rabbi’s daughter. A local matchmaker set it up. Louis met her on their wedding day and often told my dad it was the worst day of his life.
I guess divorcing the rabbi’s daughter was frowned upon in those days, and he chose not to walk away.
My father was the youngest of five children, four of whom lived full lives.
He lived with a mother who was neurotic on her good days, psychotic on the bad ones. She underwent many shock treatments and spent time in sanitariums. My father spent many of his growing up hours with his relatives, the Pinkerts, Lavins, and some of the Patinkins.
His father, Louis, never knew how to deal with his wife, Ethel, and died at the age of 54 of a heart attack. My father Leonard took over the management of his mother, except for a couple of years when she moved to Kansas City to stay with my Aunt Edith, his oldest sister. My dad was forever grateful to her for enabling him to start his business and get married to my mother, Thais Kassel.
My mother was swept off her feet by my father and loved him deeply, but at 19 years old she was unprepared for dealing with his mother and their relationship.
I watched this dynamic as I grew up. I saw my Grandma Graff as pathetic, nasty, and strange. Gradually I began to understand the family dynamic, but I never really understood my mother’s anger and sadness about my dad’s situation. My father tried to make it up to her, but the Friday night dinners and Sunday afternoons with Grandma Graff were obligatory to him and everyone just accepted it.
So Mother’s Day was Grandma Graff’s Day. It was never a happy day in our house. My mom sucked up her feelings, my brother and sister said the hollow, expected, laughable greetings, and my dad’s siblings ignored her.
I tried to make the holiday tolerable for my mom, but it ended up being a weird day at our home. I always tried to watch the Cubs game with my mom on TV with broadcaster Jack Brickhouse. He was a much better companion than sitting with my grandmother.
Question: What is one of your favorite memories of your mom growing up?