The 4 Sisters Nussbaum

Life turns on a dime. I’ll get back to that.

Almost 100 years ago there were 4 sisters.

Now there’s only one left. My Oma (grandmother), my father’s mother.

The first sister perished in World War II. All things considered, it should inform you of the nature of that Nussbaum family and the ladies they raised that only one was lost in the Holocaust. I can’t (and frankly refuse to try) to imagine the pain of losing a sibling, and then under those circumstances, while enduring the difficulty of the time and place. The three remaining sisters managed to safely flee Germany, although that poorly constructed sentence doesn’t begin to illuminate the story.

On Friday I went to visit my Oma, having last seen her briefly at the funeral of her sister, who I knew as “Tante Ellie” (The spelling is all mine). Of course, she was never my Aunt, but my Great Aunt, but that was her “name” to us at least. Tante Ellie has four children (and now many grandchildren and great grandchildren.) Tante Ellie was 89 as of last week at her funeral. She had been written off by her doctors almost 13 years ago. At the time they said she would never leave the hospital. But she and all her sisters are made of sterner stuff than most of us.

I can’t say that I spent a lot of time with my Great Aunt over the years, and as is often the way of these things I saw more of her when I was little, and my parents and their parents and siblings were younger as well. So I have a child’s fond memory of her—her regal carriage, and a voice that always made me think of Julia Child. There was always a bit of an interview when I saw her, catching up on my life and what I was up to, with a touch of judgement, but lacking that inquisition quality some folks bring to that process. She had a gentle nature and it showed. She’s already deeply missed.

When I still rather little, my Opa passed away of heart attack. Things were different then, heart attacks more often than not killed people. My Oma was a young 50 something, and certainly could have found someone if she wished. But my Oma has never been unwed for a moment—there has never been a moment when she was not married despite his passing all those years ago. She found work, made a life for herself in two different places, and to this day lives by herself in a small, unassuming house, where things remain as spotless and clean as one could want. There are certain things around that house that have existed in their place (the towel dispenser above the sink) for my entire life, and to my recollection existed in her two apartments and now here house. There is a lesson there for all of us who are more fickle and frivolous with belongings.

When I was twelve I met my Oma’s other sister. My parents had long planned a trip to Israel to see the Land, and meet the family we hadn’t met until that point. Oma’s sister wore similar glasses, hair style, and clothes. She looked like a twin more than a sister. And of course, carried herself with the same regal dignity. Her voice more similar to my grandmother than to my great aunt’s. Surprising considering how many years they had lived apart at that point. Unfortunately, it was difficult to build a relationship with her as she and I had no real common language, and she clearly wanted it understood that I was not to touch anything, sit still, and generally behave. I was not terribly good at any of those things.

I’m sitting across from my Oma having caught up on the general news she was interested in discussing (jobs, living places, my little one) despite the fact that this is all material we’ve gone over before. Her near term memory is not always that good, and a lot has changed around me in the last 7 years. Then we spoke about her sister for a few moments,and she ended with… “One second she’s here like any of us, and the next she’s gone. Like she was never here.”

I can’t imagine that anyone who knew my Tante Ellie would say that her passing removed her presence “like she was never here.” Her impact went and will go far beyond her family and its generations. But I’m quite certain that to my Oma, the last of the sisters, bereft of her husband all these years, who’s strength of will in her late nineties remains inestimable—who at the funeral of her last living sister was asked how she was fairing and answered by saying “I’m strong inside” and keeping her feelings to herself, where in her opinion they belong. She has a clear understanding of the passage of time and people and I’m in no position to contradict her.

I use the phrase “Life turns on dime.”

One second you’re cruising along in your car and the next second a drunk person is smashing through your windshield. One second your shopping and the next second a homeless person is tossing chairs at your wife and daughter. One second your just riding along, and the next second your covered in road rash and you hurt places you didn’t know you had. One second you’re chasing a hoola-hoop, and the next second you’re staring at the sky wondering what happened after the guy making the strange face in the purplish car hit you…

Larry was, from all accounts, a smart, funny guy. Not too long ago, he found a smart and charming woman and they married. They were planning their future and were on the verge of buying a condo together. Larry didn’t feel well, and rapidly found himself in the hospital. Multi-system organ failure ensued… Larry passed away 3 weeks after he first didn’t feel well. 3 weeks ago I went to Larry’s funeral as the woman in this story is family friend.

I have no great lesson to impart at the end of this. But be aware that life turns on a dime, and in a split second everything you think you know and count on—down to your very existence—can stop or alter in ways that make it “like you were never here”. Make the most of that.

My “Tante Ellie’s” real name was Danielle Chaya. A lyrical name that matched her spirit.

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