At four years old, in 1930, with a mop of brown curly hair, bright hazel eyes, and light skin, Ruth Pinsker waited with her family on the side of a slickened Detroit avenue for a cable car they would never ride. Her family was comprised of Zlate and Shmuel “Sam” Pinsker; two immigrants who had recently migrated to the U.S. from Russia; as well as her younger sisters, Mildred; two years old, and the newborn Eleanor; still swaddled in her mother’s arms.
An attorney, driving while heavily under the influence, careened out of control down the boulevard toward Zlate and the kids. Although Sam would have been spared, he instead shoved them out of harm’s way, taking the full broadside in exchange and killed upon impact. Zlate was dragged under the auto’s wheels, breaking several bones. The children — short of emotional trauma — remained untouched.
Zlate did not speak English, and since the only kin she had in this country was her brother, officials felt it would be “better for all” if the children were removed from her custody while she healed. It took an act of congress to allow her entry into the United States. It would take more than that to get them to take away her children. With the help of the community and friends, my grandmother raised her children from a hospital bed until she was able to leave; becoming a pioneer, one of the earlier women in Michigan to pilot her own business, a junkyard, which survived for decades.
Every family has its history, passed from mother to son, father to daughter, weaving its way through generations and across time. Obviously, I am unclear how much of what I know actually occurred as I relate it. Families tend to make their backgrounds more heroic and less bland.
What I do know is that Ruth Marcus would have turned 85 this week. Her memory, unfortunately fading, is still a guiding light.
As a young woman, Ruth earned her keep as a radio actress and copywriter. In her sixties, she retired as an executive assistant for the California State University system. She was married once, for 25 years; it ended poorly (I won’t go into details). Aside from my sister, my aunts, and myself, her greatest joys were playing the piano (never took training), acting, traveling, and reading. She never went anywhere without a dog-eared paperback in her oversized purse.
What I remember most was her laugh, a rowdy unrestrained explosion of ela-tion. Ironically, the recollection is so strongly charged because she became so angry at me once when I asked her to “tone it down.” Our family and the Barabashes were attending a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, Mom and Mrs. B hooting hysterically in the last row of the shuttle bus. Being a teenager, embarrassed by virtually anything my parents did, I rudely request they be quiet because everyone on the bus was looking at them. Bad move on my part…
My mother froze mid-guffaw, her expression transformed from happiness to humorlessness as she faced me down. “Don’t ever tell me not to laugh. There are plenty of times in life when we will cry. You never know when we’ll get the chance to laugh. Any time you do, take it — and apologize to no one for it.”
Families come in all stripes. However, my wish for you during this season, no matter the structure of your “family,” is that you share wondrous stories, be of good health, hug much, and laugh often. In the end, that’s all that really matters.