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Essay: A special gift from my grandmother

Fanny never liked her given name and insisted that everyone call her Phyllis. She made my mother promise that if she ever had a daughter, she would name her Phyllis, too!

A card written by her mother to Phyllis

A card written by her mother to Phyllis Weinberger on Phyllis' 36th birthday in 1984. Photo Credit: Phyllis Weinberger

My mom was joyous, sentimental, yet painfully preoccupied on my birthdays. Each Aug. 3, she put on a display of baking chocolate birthday cake, lighting candles and vociferously singing the most popular birthday song ever written.

She celebrated by my side, but I could see the memory of her own mom in her forlorn gaze. I was born on the same day that my grandmother, Fanny Leichter, died six years earlier.

It is almost impossible to imagine my grandmother as a 14-year-old girl who traveled on a boat from Poland to Ellis Island alone around 1910. She met up with relatives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, as many immigrant families did in the early 1900s.

As I was told, my grandfather, Morris Leichter, a 17-year-old immigrant from Poland who painted houses, fell madly in love with her beautiful blond hair and green eyes the moment he saw her. She was 15 when they wed. My grandmother was only 16 years older than my mom. Not only were they mother and daughter, they were best friends. Fanny had three more children, but Mom was her oldest and the closest to her.

Fanny never liked her given name, and she insisted that everyone call her Phyllis, a name she adored. She found it fascinating and new. She made my mother, Anne Lefkof, promise that if she ever had a daughter, she would name her Phyllis, too!

Fanny died at 47 from stomach cancer. There was not much that could be done to save her. Cancer was a painful death sentence in the 1940s, with little treatment available. My mom would often say in defiance that by the time I grew up, there would be a cure. She was convinced of that after the Salk vaccine ended polio. She repeated these words every year like a broken record until she got tired of wishing for it.

This past fall, while digging through a drawer of old papers and birthday cards I should have tossed but couldn’t, I found a special card with a note reminding me of how much my mom loved her mother.

My mother’s words, written in 1984, capture both her happiness for me and an unrelenting ache for her best friend. I was celebrating my 36th birthday.

“August 3rd is and always will be a date with important memories,” she wrote.

“My daughter was born 36 years ago.

“My mother died 42 years ago.

“Life was kind enough to try to replace my loss. Can’t ever forget it but must continue with these memories. That is why you carry her name.

“Aug 3rd — a day of happiness.

“Aug 3rd — a day of sadness.”

I had forgotten that I shared my name with Fanny even though her portrait hangs in my dining room. On my next birthday, I will raise a glass and toast the original Phyllis, someone I never knew but wish I had.

Reader Phyllis Weinberger lives in North Woodmere.

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