Honoring International Women’s Day: Gratitude to my Grandmother

In honor of today, International Women’s Day, I would like to dedicate this posting to my grandmother, Regina Reinharz Klein because of what a huge inspiration she was to me as a young woman. Although she died when I was ten years old, her teachings will be with me forever. The teachings she left with […]

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In honor of today, International Women’s Day, I would like to dedicate this posting to my grandmother, Regina Reinharz Klein because of what a huge inspiration she was to me as a young woman. Although she died when I was ten years old, her teachings will be with me forever. The teachings she left with me was learning how to type, journal keeping and doing needlepoint.

When I was six years old, my grandmother taught me how to type on a black Remington typewriter perched on the vanity in her bedroom, which was right beside mine. It was a hot summer Saturday morning when she invited me into her room.

“Have a seat,” she said, pointing to her vanity chair. “I’m going to teach you how to type.This is a handy skill for a girl to have, plus you never know what kind of stories you’ll have to tell one day.”

She stood behind me, her reflection in the mirror—dark roots framing her bleached-blonde hair, and her glowing smile revealing the rather large space between her two front teeth. I wasn’t surprised to learn years later that as a young woman she’d won beauty contests in her native Vienna.

Grandma took my right hand and positioned it on the home keys, carefully placing one finger at a time on each letter, repeating the same gesture with my left hand. “This is the position your fingers should be in. When you become a good typist, you won’t have to look at the letters. Let’s see if we can type your name.”

With my left middle finger, she had me press on the “D.” Then we moved to the right middle finger and moved up a row to type an “I.” Then my left pinkie pressed the “A,” a tricky maneuver for a novice typist. She then instructed me to move my right thumb down to the bottom row to type an “N.” Then my left pinkie typed the final “A.” I glanced up at the paper to see the results of my efforts, and then proudly looked up at my grandmother’s face in the mirror.

“You see—you did it!” she exclaimed, squeezing my shoulders. “Like anything in life,the more you practice, the better you’ll get. You must work hard to get results; you’ll learn that soon enough, my love.” Needless to say, I wrote my first short story on that typewriter.

Four years later I found my grandmother dead in that same room. As was the case on most weekends, on this Labor Day weekend my parents were working in their general-merchandise store in Brooklyn; and my grandmother Regina stayed at home to look after me. It was ten o’clock in the morning when I knocked on her bedroom door. She didn’t answer. I cracked the door open and got a whiff of her perfume, Soir de Paris. She lay beneath her checkered

Scandinavian blanket, and in the window beside her, the sheer white curtains swayed back and forth. On her chest was a Graham Greene novel, The End of the Affair, and on her headboard was an open bottle of prescription pills.

Scandinavian blanket, and in the window beside her, the sheer white curtains swayed back and forth. On her chest was a Graham Greene novel, The End of the Affair, and on her headboard was an open bottle of prescription pills.

“Mom, I think there’s something wrong with Grandma!” I blurted out. “She’s not answering when I talk to her. Please come home. I’m scared,” I said with a deep sense of urgency.

Before long, my parents were rushing up the creaky wooden stairwell to Grandma’s room,followed by two uniformed paramedics. I waited at the bottom of the stairs, and moments later, I watched them descend with my grandmother strapped to a stretcher. Her eyes were closed, and I remember that she looked quite peaceful. The ambulance was parked right outside the front door of our small two-story shingled home, which my father had painted pink the day I was born. The paramedics placed the stretcher in the back door of the vehicle, and I never saw my grandmother again, but the image of that moment, and the one where she taught me how to type, will be forever etched in my mind.

My parents never talked much about how my grandmother had died, but I sensed that it was a choice she’d made. When I was a teenager, it was confirmed when I found her death certificate, which stated as the cause of death: “Suicide.” Since that day, I’ve been obsessed with not only trying to figure out why she took her life but also with why, in general, others commit suicide.The recent passing of two of my heroes, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, have reignited this lifelong curiosity.

Many years after my grandmother died, my mother stumbled upon my grandmother’s journal,where she chronicled her childhood growing up in Poland. I read about how at the age of twelve,she’d been orphaned during World War I. Her father had died earlier, and she wrote about trekking for hours through the countryside to identify her mother on an infirmary floor lined with other deceased individuals who’d also died of cholera—not an easy task for anyone, let alone a child. When my grandmother was thirteen, she and her younger sister emigrated to Vienna to be near their older brother. The girls moved into an orphanage, and while attending school, my grandmother earned her keep by working at a local bank.

As I read more about her life, I felt as if this journal was a gift to me, her loving granddaughter. I also realized that I’d never connected with another woman in the same way. As a child, I was an extension of my grandmother, and even more so as an adult after her passing. She was the person who planted the seeds for my life as a writer—not only because she was devoted to the written word herself (evidenced by her daily journaling and her propensity for leaving notes on the kitchen table)—but also because she taught me how to type and shared her love for telling and sharing stories, which I continue to do today.

***

I will be forever grateful to my grandmother for all the gifts she shared with me. In 2007, my first memoir, Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal, was published, which shares the story of her life as an orphan in Poland during World War I woven with my unique bond and relationship with her. She inspired the writing in me and taught me the importance of finding passion in my life, and for this reason, I have the deepest gratitude to my grandmother Regina.

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