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Tessie, Horowitz's paternal grandmother, and Pearlie, her maternal bubbe, seem at first like typical, indeed stereotypical, Jewish grandmothers. Alternately cute and irritating, they share homely wisdom and recipes for stuffed cabbage and matzoh balls, and their life stories—from immigrant to young married, working to help support the family, widowhood—are not as original as Horowitz seems to think. But as the narrative progressess, Pearlie's and Tessie's inner strengths emerge, and the very ordinariness of their difficult lives creates a solid link for readers to hold on to. Pearlie has outlived her son, Steve, who died in his 50s of a heart attack (and to whom she continues to write letters). Tessie, too, may outlive her son; Horowitz's father is being treated for mesothelioma, a usually fatal lung cancer. Pearlie still carries the shame of her husband Moe's drinking ("Waves of anger alternate with the impulse to cover up for him," Horowitz writes). And Tessie literally held her mother in her own arms when the older women died at home. Despite the joy they take in their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, both women are left wondering why they are still alive when so many whom they have loved are gone. But live they do: Pearlie, until recently, performed with a dancing group called the Dolls; Tessie is a fierce player of gin rummy. Horowitz emphasizes their different personalities: Pearlie is generous in expressing her love of family and of life. Tessie is more stoic; she is stunned when Horowitz says she should tell her ailing son she loves him—she assumes it's understood.
In her portraits of these two very human women, Horowitz has written a loving tribute to the power of sheer survival and the wisdom that derives from it.
Posted December 12, 2008
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