Bubbe books astounding tales reveal extraordinary grandmas

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In the summer of 1923 — after two days of trying to get out — Mike Horowitz finally emerged from his mother's womb with his elbow cupped over his head.

Chaim Teitel, his Brooklyn, N.Y., grandfather, spent those 48 hours passing out from fright over the thought of losing his daughter to childbirth.

But by the spring of 1996, Toby Teitel Horowitz Weinreb — "Tessie" — had outlived her son, and proceeded to mark her 95th birthday on July 14.

"What was amazing to me," said Tessie's granddaughter Joy Horowitz — in town recently to promote the book she wrote about her bubbes, "Tessie and Pearlie" — "was that story became unbelievably important to me in the last days of my father's life."

Dying from mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lining of the lungs, her dad in slumber "would cup his elbow over his head," she said, demonstrating the pose he struck at birth. "It was like he was going back to where he came from."

Comforted, the author praised Tessie, who "had unwittingly given me this remarkable treasure, just by telling me a simple story."

As Horowitz compiled the material for her book, another insight emerged. This one came while lunching with her ailing father:

"I'm writing this book about your mother and about Pearlie," she told him, "thinking about their lives and interviewing them, and I realize the person I most want to talk to is you."

She wrote, "I watch the tears slide down the creases edging his blue eyes, onto his cheeks. The only time I ever saw my dad cry before this moment was at the funeral of my baby son, when he told me there is no greater sadness in life than a parent losing a child."

Yet, coping with the death of her mother in 1947 nearly did Tessie in. Her granddaughter learned the details of Tessie's breakdown during the hundreds of hours she spent in her Queens, N.Y., apartment.

"She refers to it as an `almost breakdown,'" said the writer. It was the custom for members of the Jewish Burial Society to come to the house of the deceased and scrub the body before taking it away for burial. This is what they did with the body of Tessie's mother on the floor of her apartment.

After they left, "Tessie tells this unbelievable story of just washing the floor and washing the floor and washing the floor where her mother had been cleaned before she was buried, and then talked about how it took her three years to deal with that."

Horowitz was shocked that the "shtarkeh [strong woman] of the family" had nearly cracked up, but was equally startled by the news from her mother's mother, Pauline Rosenwasser Feldman — "Pearlie" — now 94, who revealed a dramatic method of birth control she used in the 1930s.

"She told me about it ironically when we were shopping…to get my daughter Lucy a baby doll and baby stroller," said the writer. "So, as we were crossing the street in Santa Monica, somehow she started on about…how she had had two abortions before my Aunt Didi [was born]."

Horowitz stated in her book that "nearly one million pregnancies resulted in abortion in 1930, representing 40 percent of all conceptions." By 1936, she wrote, the incidence of abortions had risen to one pregnancy in three.

"It was the Depression," she said, "and guess what? Economically, people couldn't afford babies."

The journalist, whose stories have been published in Time, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, the New Yorker and other magazines, astonishes with her unabashed persistence in pursuing the truth about her own grandmothers' lives.

Didn't she wince, for example, when asking the question "How was Grandpa in bed?"

"It's really different asking your grandmother that than your mother," she said. "You're a whole generation removed."

Watching Horowitz wolf down a piece of birthday cake from a Bulletin staff party made it easy to visualize a girl visiting her grandmother for an after-school snack, and between bites, possibly asking for the facts of life.

Bonds were formed while driving Pearlie to gall bladder X-ray appointments and dealing Tessie winning hands of gin. Yet, there were instances when Horowitz flicked on the tape recorder, announced, "OK, we're going to talk about sex now," and found herself blushing.

"The fact that my grandmother and grandfather are having sex in the nursing home, oh, my God, do I really need to know that?" she said.

Her readers seemed to. They wanted more after the Los Angeles Times published her first chapter two years ago, and mailed 400 letters saying so.

"Everybody wants a bubbe," said the writer.

Borrow the pair that belong to Horowitz. They'll give you advice on how to let go of your children ("You'll be happy to get rid of them!" says Tessie), offer their philosophy on marriage ("You need to be a good actress to be a smart wife," says Pearlie), their opinion on death ("You just become nothing…like before you're born…" says Pearlie. "They bury you," says Tessie), plus recipes for chopped liver, matzah brei and rich noodle pudding.

"In some ways they're really ordinary people," said the granddaughter about the two significant others who "bored" her while she was growing up in Cleveland.

"But that's precisely what I wanted to go into — how extraordinary the ordinariness is — how it takes unbelievable courage to face a day when you're 95."