Sophie's Little Red Suitcase
The Texas Story Project.
Jewish people have been a presence in Texas for a very long time and supposedly have been traced back to the first European explorers who arrived in the 1500’s.
Though the first Jewish Texans were Sephardic, the vast majority of Jewish Texans are descendants of Ashkenazi Jews. There were Jews who were here during the fight for independence from Spain and Mexico and Jews who came later to begin new and, hopefully, better lives. They settled and thrived in very small Texas towns as well as the much larger cities as was the case in my hometown of San Antonio. Some were prominent people who contributed to their communities and to the great state of Texas in many fields. They were involved with retail businesses, banking, politics, ranching, philanthropy, medicine, education and more. The Jewish Texans and their contributions are an interesting part of Texas history. They were and are proud to be Texan Jews. My story is not about a prominent Jewish Texan, though, but one about a very special little Jewish lady like many of her era. It was with great sadness when I learned accidentally as an adult that I was not biologically related to her but this did not cause any of my memories of my relationship with her, my mother, and my mother’s family to be any less special. If there is a quintessential Jewish grandmother, then I certainly had one. She was not called Bubbe but rather Gram. She was a very important part of my life even if I was not raised in the Jewish faith. My mother was Jewish but my father was not. In the years that my parents married, it was much more difficult in many ways to attempt an interfaith marriage than it is today. I feel blessed, though, to have been part of a blended family and to have had shared experiences and unconditional love extended to me by a character like my Jewish grandmother. I should aspire to be that kind of woman and grandmother.
Sophie Siegel Sack was born in North Carolina in 1880 when her father worked for a tobacco company according to my now deceased mother. However, on all records I have seen while researching, it shows she was born in New York City. Nevertheless, the family did eventually move back to New York when she was very young. Until the day Gram died in San Antonio, Texas, she retained a distinct Manhattan accent. As a young woman she had marched for women’s right to vote and attended Hunter College. She married in 1906 and she and her husband, Nathan, moved to the Rio Grande Valley a few short years later. What a cultural shock it must have been for Gram to move from New York City to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas! My mother said that Mexican money was still being used in those years in that area of the state and I envision Gram thinking that she must have arrived in the wild west. To her credit she decided that the town doctor, who was also the town drunk, would not deliver her second of three daughters. Instead, she returned to New York where my mother was born in 1912 before returning to Texas where she and her husband settled in San Antonio.
When Gram became a part of my life she was older and divorced. She lived alone in a big white house I loved because it was in the city and I lived in the country. It was always a pleasure to go visit her plus she had a big claw foot bathtub I loved! I recall many happy times as I sat with her at her formica table eating salami sandwiches on rye with big kosher pickles and a ginger ale. It was in her refrigerator that I discovered a mysterious jar when I was a child. It was schmaltz…chicken fat! and Gefilte fish! On a few occasions I have prepared chopped liver for my husband and me though my husband insists on calling it pate….it’s not! So my love of Jewish food goes back to early childhood. A neighbor in rural Texas in certain years certainly might have found it rather strange to find a box of Matzo crackers in our pantry. My younger brother and I ate it all the time smeared with jam. To this day, I crave Matzo Ball soup. During a trip to visit NYC, I had to order a bowl at Katz Deli. When I attended junior college in San Antonio during the summers, Mom had me stop at certain small family owned delis to pick up corned beef to bring home. I am not sure any of these small delis even exist anymore in San Antonio. Mother prepared Kreplach when she cooked chicken soup but It was mainly at Gram’s house that I learned preparation and love for not only Matzo Ball soup and Kreplach but also Cholent, Potato Latkes, Mandel Bread and more. Potato latkes are still my favorite. One aunt fixed Tsimis for me and my future husband once and I fell in love with that dish….sort of like a sweet stew. Not one Spring arrives that I don’t think of my Gram in her kitchen preparing a special meal, or smell the delicious aromas, or feel the warm Texas breezes drift in from open windows, or recall all the love she extended to every member of the family.
Parents and grandparents were a different breed in the 50’s and 60’s. I don’t recall Gram playing games with me (and she was a really big card player) or taking me shopping much or going to my dance recitals. She certainly would not have shown up at any Christmas program at the Lutheran church I attended or at my parochial school for any event. I understood all of the reasons why at a very young age and I loved her dearly without expecting her to see me in every single activity….and I DID learn some Yiddish along the way! She visited our home often, though, and traveled with my family throughout the country and our large extended family gathered at her house often and always for Seder dinner during Passover every year. I never once felt strange or confused to sing in the choir at an Easter service and, within the same week sometimes, partake in the very meaningful Seder meal. I still have Gram’s Kiddush cups and her prayer book which are priceless memories of her.
Gram had a suitcase that looked like a small red box to my young eyes. Like many grandmothers of a certain generation she wore no nonsense sturdy shoes and a nice housedress. One cousin swears that she wore a corset. Gram had beautiful silver hair by the time I was a teenager and I would lovingly put rollers in her hair and then tease and style it into a bouffant. On occasion, she wore nice pearls to set off a pretty dress or conservative dark suit to go out or to travel somewhere. Travel she did! Not only train trips to New York to see her sisters either. Someone said that if you told Sophie there was a trip in the works she would pack and be ready in 30 minutes. Since I find it difficult to travel lightly, it was amazing to me as to how she did this. My necessities as a teenager included hair rollers, dryer, makeup, and several changes of clothing. Not so with Gram. She only used a little face powder and needed only a dressier pair of sturdy shoes, her gown, robe, house slippers, a simple cotton dress and maybe one nice suit, and only enough underwear she could wash by hand. She probably sensibly packed a sweater, as once Dad took us to Carlsbad only to end up in Colorado with only our summer clothes and we were greeted with cold weather. Gram knew my Dad very well and would have expected the unexpected. They had a funny and begrudgingly loving relationship in later years but what drove him crazy, if he got turned around on a road trip, was Gram saying that we were probably going to wind up in a place only known to Gram...Hutzy Plutz!
When I was in high school, Gram was taken to the hospital with a high fever and eventually went into a coma. Family gathered and I stood in the doorway to her room and listened as her long time female doctor yelled “Sophie come back!” Sophie did not come back, as she was on her final journey. I walked to the end of the hallway where a cousin’s wife stood by a window holding Gram’s red suitcase. We stood there in silence knowing that we would only be taking that little suitcase back to my aunt’s house without the matriarch of the family. I learned so much from that fine lady about the many ways to be gracious and kind and, yes, even a little direct and blunt. I learned from her beliefs about love and family and how to appreciate a child’s saying thank you only with her eyes. This is what she told my mother once when I forgot to say thank you. “She thanked me with her eyes, Dorothy!” I am still thanking her! I learned that what really matters is family, I learned acceptance and tolerance and being ecumenical in my thoughts, and I learned that the necessities of life should be as simple as what one packs in a very small suitcase. The other baggage that one carries through life can only weigh you down. I would love to see Gram standing now at my door with her little red suitcase as there are so many days that I need to remember to lighten my burdens and concern myself only with the necessities and what is really important in life.
Sherrill Pool Elizondo graduated from Southwest Texas State University with a degree in English and Education. She is a sixth generation Texan with an interest in genealogy. She has been an aspiring writer for over 35 years and is the proud parent of three sons and has six talented and remarkable grandchildren who now all reside in the state of Texas. Some of her stories can be seen online at Boomer Cafe, 70 Candles, Grand Magazine, and Texas Escapes. Texas Escapes published her account of the time she spent as a United States Pavilion guide during Hemisfair’68 in San Antonio. She was born and raised in San Antonio and has lived most of her adult life in the Houston area and now enjoys another home in Rockport. A portion of this story about her maternal grandmother was first seen on Grand Magazine in 2015.
Posted May 22, 2019
TAGGED WITH: Unforgettable Characters