On love, detachment, and a relationship that eluded me.
By Margit Novack
My grandmother was a hoot. She was also relentlessly critical. Not of other people, though—just of me.
Everyone called her Anya, the Hungarian word for mother. She became a widow with two children when she was 21. In 1931, without knowing any English, she left her children with her parents in Hungary and came to America hoping to make a better life for herself and her family. Two years later, she married a widower and brought my mother and uncle to this country.
Life during the Great Depression was hard for her, but, over time, Anya achieved a version of the American Dream. She started businesses, and, although many of them failed, some succeeded. Her son became a doctor, and her daughter married a pharmacist. Both had single-family homes in the suburbs.
From my earliest memories, Anya ran guest houses in Atlantic City and headed bazaars for the Hebrew Old Age Home. She was a strong woman, a force to be reckoned with. I remember that she and my mom argued frequently when I was a child. Although they spoke in Hungarian, there was always a sprinkling of English, so I understood that the arguments were often about how my mom was raising me and my brothers. After my mom died, Anya began addressing her opinions directly to me.
“Anya, I got my hair cut.”
“Really? Most people try to look better after a haircut.”
I could say she was a product of her time, that mothers are harder on daughters and granddaughters than they are on sons and grandsons. But that only accounts for so much.
“Margit, why is there a number on the back of your T-shirt?”
“It’s from a work-sponsored baseball team I’m part of.”
“Oh, I thought you were a prisoner.”
Many of her comments centered around her fear that I would never get married.
“Anya, I’m getting a master’s degree.”
“A master’s degree? Who cares about a master’s if you’re not a missus?”
And when I showed her my new cat:
“No man will marry a woman with two cats.”
“No man will marry a woman who walks barefoot…”
“No man will marry a woman who eats raw cookie dough…”
“No man will marry a woman with a sofa.”
In my early thirties, I accomplished what she’d feared would never happen. I got engaged.
“Anya, I met a wonderful man, and we’re engaged. He is Jewish, has a PhD, and is divorced.”
“A divorced man? A divorced man is like a squeezed lemon. No juice left.”
Now that I was getting married, Anya had more to say—lots more.
“How can you marry a man who left his wife and children?”
“He didn’t leave his children; they are with us all the time.”
“Oy vey, all the time.”
“Anya, I went shopping for an antique wedding dress.”
“A used dress? Might as well, you have a used husband.”
Our wedding invitations were not traditional, but they were the invitations we wanted. A calligrapher created the design, we had the invitations printed, and the children and I hand-colored them with magic markers. It was a group project—the perfect invitation for our new blended family. Immediately, we got a call from Anya.
“Do you children need money?”
“Because I just received the invitation and it is cheap. You will get cheap gifts. I will give you money so you can get real invitations, with tissue in between.”
“Anya, we chose these invitations. We like them.”
“Why do you like cheap invitations?”
Finally, the big day arrived. We had a lovely wedding in the horticultural center, with high-top tables and food stations serving contemporary cuisine. I went to Anya during the reception, kissed her, and asked, “Anya, are you happy?”
“How can I be happy?” she said. “The food’s not fit for pigs.”
This was harsh, but I would not let her ruin my day.
The next morning, she called and asked for the name of the caterer.
“So I can report him to the Better Business Bureau.”
That did it. I had had enough. I did what I had never done before, perhaps what I should have done sooner.
“Anya, it is not OK for you to criticize my wedding. You would never go to someone’s home for dinner and complain to your hosts about what they served. You cannot criticize the food at my wedding.”
“I am telling you the truth because I love you.”
“That is not love.”
Then she played her trump card: “Don’t worry, I’ll be dead soon.”
At this point, I was crying, she was crying, but I didn’t back down. “Anya, I don’t want you to be dead. I love you. But I want you to hear this and to hear it clearly. You cannot continue to criticize my husband or my wedding. If you say one more negative thing about either, I will stop visiting you.”
More tears from both of us, and I hung up.
I don’t believe Anya changed her opinion about my husband or the wedding, but I know she heard me. While she continued to share opinions on many topics, she never criticized Bill or my wedding again.
Looking back, what I feel saddest about isn’t her comments, it’s that she wouldn’t share my joy. She had no living children. I had no parents. We both had voids to fill. My marriage should have been a time of happiness, of healing. Anya didn’t ruin my happiness, but together we both could have had more.
For years, I had dismissed Anya’s comments, telling myself, she had so many losses, she was entitled to be difficult, she would never change. Now I wonder, would we have had a different relationship if I had said something sooner? Keeping my grandmother at arm’s length emotionally helped me tolerate her biting comments but turned her into a caricature instead of a person. In the end, we both lost.
When Anya turned 92, she tried to kill herself. Her personal care residence called us to say she had been found unresponsive with an empty bottle of pills by her bed. My brother Mark and I rushed to the hospital and listened to her stomach being pumped. For anyone who has never heard it before, it’s an awful sound. Mark and I looked at each other and wondered: What if they hadn’t found her in time? And also: Shouldn’t a 92-year-old be able to say when enough is enough?
All of Anya’s closest relatives, including her sister and her parents, had been killed in concentration camps. Pain from persistent shingles, pleurisy, and arthritis was constant. When doctors gave her enough medicine to control her pain, she was too lethargic to live independently. So she faced her own brand of Sophie’s choice: live with pain and be independent or have controlled pain but live in a nursing home. Anya opted for a third way.
When we saw her the next morning, she was disoriented and did not mention her failed suicide attempt. While hospitalized, she met with a psychiatrist who told us Anya was depressed. We couldn’t help responding that she had good reason to be. She’d had loss after loss, and was about to lose her independence. The next day, Anya was discharged to a nursing home where she shared a room with three other women. Two weeks later, we received a message on our answering machine that she had died.
I had mixed feelings. Anya was the last tie to my mother. Letting go of that bond was hard. Yet I knew what independence had meant to Anya. I understood her decision. Faced with no good options, Anya found a choice that felt right for her.
Logic suggests that grieving for someone with whom you had a strained relationship should be less intense than when the relationship is close, but that’s not how it turned out. When Anya died, I didn’t just lose my grandmother, I lost the relationship that might have been.
For years, when my husband wanted to annoy me, he would say, “You’re just like Anya.” I knew he was referring to her stubbornness and domineering personality, so I took it as the insult he intended. But over time, I’ve come to realize that I probably am a lot like Anya. Like her, I am determined, driven, a force to be reckoned with. Why is that a bad thing? A lot of good things get accomplished by people who are driven and determined. I am proud of being a force to be reckoned with. That is why, 20 years later, when my children asked what my grandchildren should call me, I told them, “Call me Anya.”
Margit Novack CW’71 GCP’75 is the author of Squint: Re-visioning the Second Half of Life, from which this essay is adapted.