We picked up two large plastic bags of clothes, a box of photos and my baby portrait from Weinberg Village,
Miriam’s home for the past 10 years. She lived in lock down on the fourth floor dementia ward. Don’t get me wrong. Weinberg Village is a lovely place and the care given is top-notch. It couldn’t have been better. I stopped in to express my long overdue gratitude to the angels of mercy who cared for my aunt in my absence and for all the others whose care they are entrusted. Their job is truly thankless. They are the lifeblood to so many, and for Miriam, her savior. She would have been long dead if it were not for them.
Miriam passed away on March 7. She was 91. Single, never married and my father’s only living sibling.
But, how well did I really know her? As I gazed at the bags, I couldn’t help but wonder. It this the sum total of what was left? Two bags and a box. What could it tell about my aunt who lived most of her life in a self-imposed solitude.
While her death certificate read March 7, she really died 10 years ago when dementia took over her mind. It was a gradual process. The defining moment was when her car was stolen from in front of her house. She reported it daily for a month. As her only living niece, I was the only person who could help which is kind of ironic because I was always her least favorite. I was, however, the closest living survivor.
I’d like to think that I imagined it…her distaste for me. But even my aunt Sarah recounted a memory of when I was only three and Miriam was arguing with me about something. She couldn’t understand why Miriam was picking on a three-year old. Sarah said that even then, I ignored her.
Now years later, picking up her remains, I have to ask: how well did I know her? I knew that she was an “old maid.” Not something that I called her but often heard in whispers around the house. She was 37 when I was born. Hardly an old maid by today’s standards. But in the 60s, an unmarried woman of 37 was considered past her prime. Miriam seemed not to mind. She had a group of friends, all unmarried. All interesting, mostly educated and all attractive. She was perhaps the most intellectual. They traveled together and often talked of their escapades with men they had met at the Grossinger’s in the Catskills.
Today, we would question whether or not Miriam was a lesbian. She wasn’t. At least I don’t think so. She loved men. Her favorite was my brother Phil. And, while she loved to fight with my father Charlie, he was a close second.
She wasn’t, however, so crazy about women. At least, not my mother or me. She did seem to like the underdog though. She maintained a relationship with my father’s first wife Ann and my half-brother Marshall. It didn’t seem to bother my mother Ruth. She was always kind to Miriam and even took her in during her bout with bone cancer in the mid-60s.
I wasn’t alone in not really knowing Miriam. No one really knew why she never married. She didn’t talk about it.
I was four when my grandmother Dora passed. My brother and I were visiting Miriam. My father and mom were at my other grandmother’s house across the street. I remember the phone argument like it was yesterday. Miriam was yelling at my dad about the funeral plans. It was when I learned that my dad was adopted and not “really” Dora’s son. It turns out that my grandfather Isadore arrived in Pittsburgh in the early 1900s, young “Saulie” in tow. A single man with a son. He married Dora Mervis and they had two children together, Miriam and Maury. My father was their older half-brother.
As the telephone fight ensued, I couldn’t stand listening to Miriam’s maligning my dad. I left and walked across the street to join my parents. Phil stayed.
Miriam always found something wrong. She didn’t like my bangs, the way I wore my hair, or the clothes that I had on. She wasn’t crazy about my friends and she thought my parents loved me more than they loved my brother. She loved to criticize everything about me.
When it came time for Valentine’s day, she’d send my brother a large box of chocolate. Me, a small one. My mother was furious. She returned it telling Miriam to treat us equally or not at all. Miriam just grunted and mumbled, she’s just a little girl.
My feelings were always hurt and for whatever reason, I knew that Miriam just didn’t like me. I didn’t know why. It was just the way it was.
If Miriam were alive today. I don’t think that she’d disagree. She once told Stefanie, her social worker, that she didn’t know why I treated her so well. She had treated me so poorly.
Well, Miriam, you have my dad to thank for that. He never held a grudge, no matter what someone said or
did to him. Aside from being a good role model, he also made sure that I always visited and called Miriam. I can still hear him ask: “did you call Miriam?”
It made me crazy but dutifully I called. And long after he was gone, I continued, making sure to visit, call and ultimately taking over…the bills, the care, the advocacy… everything to make sure she was comfortable and well care for.
As difficult as she was in her youth, she seemed to mellow in her senility. While others around her were loud and argumentative, Miriam was kind and gentle. Polite and appreciative. Something that she had in common with my father. In the end, they both knew how to make others feel good about themselves and in return, they were treated well by caregivers.
I watched in amazement. When my dad was sick and in the hospital, every doctor and staff person would stop by to ask “Mr. Kurman, how are you today.” He introduce the nurse like this: Cindy, this is nurse Mary, isn’t she beautiful? Or Cindy, this is Dr. Jones, such a handsome man and great doc too!
Wouldn’t you stop by to say hello and be complimented? They all did faithfully.
In many respects, Miriam turned out the same. The staff at Weinberg remembers her as a kind, quite woman. Never a problem. Always nice. And she genuinely always seemed happy to see me. Luckily, she always remembered me and was eager to introduce me to the other people sharing her Weinberg space.
But who was she? While she couldn’t remember what happened five minutes before, she could remember what happened 30 years ago. But she was never a big talker. And, rarely talked about herself or about her life.
I was surprised to learn that she saved every canceled check that she had ever written. Her attic was full of them. And reviewing them gave me insight to who she was. She made a lot of small donations $10 here and $20 there. Dozens of charities, mostly Jewish ones, and ones for animals.
She also saved ever letter that my dad sent to her and my grandmother during the war. Details from every port. Discussions about their living situation. The sales receipt for the home he bought them on Mellon St.
I was surprised at how eloquently my dad wrote. I knew that my mother was a writer. She made a living at it. I had no idea that my dad was equally talented.
What I didn’t find was equally telling. No hidden boxes of love letters. No personal memorabilia. Really not much more than some knitting needles, embroidery hoops, plastic jewelry and tchotchkes from exotic trips and the synagogue.
The most that Miriam ever talked about herself was at my 50th birthday. She was over medicated and giddy like I had never seen. I actually hired a private nurse to help manager her for the affair.
We had a large group of friends and relatives. Since Miriam was so talkative, I took advantage of the opportunity to ask the burning question.
Did you ever have a boyfriend and why did you never get married? The answer was sad and perhaps helps me to understand Miriam better.
She said: “I was in love once. He was a boy. He wasn’t Jewish. My mother told me that he was anti-semitic and that I couldn’t marry him. I told her that if we couldn’t marry, I will never marry. And I never did.”
That had to have been more than 70 years but at that moment, for Miriam, it seemed like yesterday.
I’m guessing that every family has a Miriam. In the end, I don’t really believe that Miriam didn’t love me. She just thought that I was loved too much by others and didn’t think that I needed any more. I’m not sure if this makes sense or not, but I think this is how she felt. I do know that she appreciated all of the things that I did in the end. She permitted me to provide for her and whether or not she felt deserving, she was comfortable. My father would have been proud.
I’d love to hear your own story. Tell me about the Miriam in your life.