Reflections of a Lifeguard

We were both lifeguards.

Beyond that, our lives were different.

She lifeguarded at a settlement house camp in New York early in the century, protecting poor immigrant children who were able to leave the City despite their poverty and enjoy summer and the miracles of camp. I lifeguarded at a suburban day camp in the ‘80’s, protecting, by and large, children with much opportunity before them.

She was Goldie, my Grandpa Morris’ first cousin. We never met. Well, we did when I was a little girl, amidst those preschool years in which a one-time meeting with an elder relative makes little if any lasting impression.

Goldie was a presence in my childhood, in an ongoing though unlabeled way. Periodically, a box with “Temple coats” would arrive at our home. These were coats for my sister and me that were to be worn for temple and other dress-up occasions, clothing items that are today a relic up against a backdrop of fleece jackets and denim.

As an adult, I heard about Goldie in my daily conversations with Morris. Periodically he would speak of his cousin. At some point I learned how they were related, later I heard that her mother, not yet married to her father, came over on the ship from Rumania with my great-grandmother Frima, a young, young Morris, and his older brother Harry. I never learned much more, about either their connection or her history.

Fifteen years ago, Morris died at 102. We journeyed through his meticulously penned address book. We found Goldie’s name, and I called her in Arizona, not sure what to expect. She was saddened, and she was, a pistol, as my mother might say — dynamic and sharp-witted. She asked me to call her again. I assured her I would, noting the seriousness of that promise and considering such a call a means to honor my grandfather’s memory in the very least.

A few months passed, and I picked up the phone. I reminded Goldie who I was – which I didn’t really need to do. We engaged in some basic “getting-to-know-you” conversation, but, really, she picked up with the conversation as if we had known each other for years.

Over the next four or so years, I called her, and she called me. She called me, and I called her. The messages on my answering machine were classic. In her raspy, New York accented voice, Goldie would announce, ‘Lis-er, it’s Goldie. I am calling to see how you are all doing. Call me back.”

When we spoke, we’d check in on the pleasantries and current events. She took a great interest in my work, pointing out whatever article she may have seen on women rabbis. On nights that weren’t too late, I would try to engage her to recall family history. These were the best. Goldie’s stories took her back to times and people she cherished. I learned about her life and our family history. She, like my grandfather, grew up on the (Lower) East Side to immigrant parents. She shared tidbits about my great grandparents, and recalled the big party that they threw when my grandfather, the first in the family and neighborhood to attend college, graduated Fordham with his law degree.

Goldie’s father was a shopkeeper in the Bronx. She talked about his basic lessons in commerce and the bottom line. She lived most of her life in New York, a bookkeeper in a children’s clothing business. She and Murray were never able to have children; she talked openly about their attempt to adopt and the pain involved.

Goldie’ life was not an easy one. Some would say her life was not remarkable. She didn’t make headlines or history. Yet, her countenance was positive, ever looking for the good, appreciating who and what she had. She taught me with her attitude, through her history, by her stories, and with her curiosity. We began a relationship based in a love of Morris. From there we built a kind of friendship. As different as our lives seemed, we shared more than one might expect. Lifeguarding was part of it. History another.

Goldie and Morris were my lifeguards, guardians of my history. Last week as I said Kaddish for Goldie, I stood for her and realized that now I am hers.