Today She Would Have Been 94
Don’t forget the most amazing people in the world are next to you.
Grandma pretended to be a simple woman.
I should have known something was up when this small lady would continue to amaze me as a child and into adulthood. Whether it was sitting down at the piano and playing some songs, running the books for dad’s office for the past 30 some years, hoping on a computer with little difficulty to speak with her great grand children (sometimes naked, not realizing exactly that a web cam worked both ways) and even becoming a proficient painter in just a few short years after the age of 80. When I was little, she would hide it behind simple acts like making fresh squeezed orange juice whenever I went over to her house. She could make life feel as simple as a nice fresh squeezed glass of juice.
She was a storyteller and over the years as she told me her life story — it played out as 3 acts, Her Mother, Harold Bruck (Grandpa), Raising a Family and finally being Grandma.
Speaking to Grandma, especially on the phone, tended to be quick and to the point as if she had a limited number of words and didn’t want to waste them. She was always practical even with her conversations. She only cared how you were doing and once she knew all was fine, she would hang up the phone abruptly.
About 10 years ago, I sat down with her to record her stories and before we can understand what made her such a wonderful Grandma to us, I wanted to share a little bit of her story that made her.
There was no script, I just said to her “Talk” and unlike her phone conversations she went on and on to help me understand how she became who she is.
“We will start with my mother because I think that is the beginning of how I became who I am.” she started.
Her mom was from a Jewish farming family in Russia with 19 children and at the age of 14 she emigrated on her own to America where many of her siblings were already living.
Immediately, she went to work in the sweatshops and made very little money. Grandma told me “My mother was smart, she worked in the sweatshops and she didn’t like what was going on and when she didn’t think she made enough money she would leave and go to another one until she made more money.” For Grandma the lesson stuck.
If you don’t like what is going on, then change it.
Her mother was a survivor, tough and proud and a shrewd businesswoman. Grandma was the 4th of 6 children from 3 different husbands. The fathers never lasted long in her story. Even to this day, to Grandma, her mother loomed as a giant, strong and mentally powerful.
After her mother’s 1st husband died from the Spanish Flu in 1918, her mother bought an apartment with 3 stories and opened up a cigar store on the corner that she ran — 595 4th Avenue, Brooklyn, New York.
One day a man named David Brill came to work there and he lived in a little room in the back of the store. A few months later they were married and soon after, Tillie Leah Brill was born — Grandma.
When Grandma was 4 years old, her parents sold the lease for another shop they had for $26,000 in 1924, which was like $2M today she assured me. I checked, it was closer to $300,000 (one of the rare times I found her to be wrong about a number). At this point, they all moved to Richmond Hill where she would live for the next 20 years.
$10,000 from this sale was put in Grandma’s name because of all the children, her mother thought she was not very beautiful. She was too skinny, her eyes were too small and she had a big nose. Her mother was afraid she would never get married.
Unfortunately, her father was not a healthy man, he had a bad heart and he died very young at 32. Grandma was just 6½ 2 years old and when he died. She said a piece of her life died with him and that she never got over it.
Growing up with her mother was not easy for Grandma, she could be tough, judgmental and controlling. Yet, as hard as her mother may have been she was always protecting her family.
Grandma worked up until early the age of 91 when she retired. It is easy to see where she got her incredible work ethic, and her iron core. She didn’t look for short wins when it came to business and money and made sure that the family was always first, but she missed the warmth she got from her father.
Harold Bruck and Raising a Family
Harold Bruck came to live two doors down from them on Richmond Hill with his Aunt and Uncle. She met him when she was 23.5 years old (always precise with the numbers) and Harold just came out of the service when he was 25.
Grandma would sit outside the house, he would walk by and they would talk, they would go for walks, he would take her for ice cream and soon they became “involved”. All of a sudden he asked me to Marry him and he brought over this ring.
“Harold Bruck was so handsome”, she told me with youthful exuberance, she always had such youth in her voice when she spoke “he was adorable, cute, funny, good looking and had a great sense of humor. There was a lot to him.” Chas (my brother) reminded her of him.
She fell in love with him. He was exactly the opposite of the home she came from. “Harold was adventurous,” she beamed, “and wanted to do and try all kinds of things!”
The night before she was to be married, her mom begged her not to marry him. “He is never going to be a success and make a living for you” she told her.
Grandma wasn’t worried, “I can take a penny and make a million” she boasted to me. Something to think about the next time see you a penny. They got married. They lived on Liberty Avenue, started their new lives and Grandma got pregnant with my dad.
“I can take a penny and make a million”
They bought a Candy store, the 1st of many, many businesses. A candy store at this time sold more newspapers, cigarettes and cigars than actual candy. Harold would open it up in the morning and Grandma would close it at night. Harold made it a huge success because he was so personable, he would greet everyone by their first names as they passed by she told me and soon the people who sold them the store were jealous of their success and offered them $10k to buy it back from them.
Grandma wanted to keep it and use it to grow new businesses. Harold disagreed and they sold it. Shortly after she was pregnant with Sandy.
For the next few years this scenario repeated itself, making money, selling short, living off it for a while, trying a new venture, losing it all, making some more money. repeat.
Finally, he started the Campus Diner with a partner and Grandma did the books and for a while they were stable. They travelled, they bought a boat, they bought a home. Eventually, things slowed down and Harold yearned for a new adventure, they sold his share for $1.
While Grandma needed Harold, he in turn needed her, she anchored him, as she told me “you don’t run away from your problems, you face it”.
They started over, this time with a Hot Dog cart hitched to an old station wagon her brother Sydney gave them. The bottom of the car was made of wood.
It’s hard to imagine looking at My Dad and Uncle, but my Grandpa was a Bohemian.
About a year later, Harold discovered Baskin Robins which at the time was a novel idea. The two were always forward thinking. “Who ever heard of a store that just sold ice-cream?”, her mother critiqued before they opened it. She, Harold, David and Sandy worked the shop and it was a success from day one. The way she recounted, their best moments always seemed when Grandma had them all working together as a team.
Grandma and Grandpa travelled the world to places like Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, Europe and Africa during this time and she has many pieces of art from these trips.
He taught Grandma to see life as an experience. He would tell her
“Do it! because you’ll never go back again, try it, see it, feel it, smell it because in your lifetime you never go back to where you were, you have to go on.”
Her mother was right that Grandpa would never make a proper living for her, but she was wrong that this was what Grandma needed. In the years of marriage to Harold she said “he made me very strong”.
While there are plenty of stories about David and Sandy as you can imagine, they are mostly about them blowing something up, breaking something or crashing something. In her stories, she always tried to have money set aside so they can have opportunities to experience things growing up.
One summer when they still had the Campus Diner, Grandma rented a locker at Rockaway Beach because she wanted to make sure Sandy and David knew how to swim. Her real goal though was that she thought it was very important that they never be afraid of anything. Apparently, the water was the metaphor for this particular lesson.
They were like her” she said. “They were always hard workers”. David “the difficult one” and Sandy “the easy one”. When Sandy was born David would climb into his crib and give him a smack.
When Grandpa Harold died, she told me that Mom offered to have her come live with us. “Sandra was always good to me” she said. Grandma told her at the time, “I like being alone”, she told me that “(she) really didn’t, but (she) had to change again.” They developed a special bond and her knowing that she had my mom and dad behind her played a very important role in helping her change again.
If she was an ugly duckling as her mother thought, this is when she became a swan. Grandma had a whole new life again. It is here where most people in this room have come to know her. Few would know the strength and endurance she had as year after year she would work hard, took wonderful care of her grandchildren and continued to travel to faraway lands.
She was an uncommon woman veiled in a common package.
She never judged us, and never overly doted on us. She thought buying toys was so impractical that she started to give us stock instead, when we were just small kids, teaching us again in her own way and helping us gain our independence. She taught us how to invest in ourselves and showed us that you are never too old to learn something new, you are never too old.
Creating something of real value take times and we should take time to enjoy it while we create it.
I can’t remember a moment in which Grandma wasn’t happy to see or hear from us and if she was disappointed you wouldn’t know it — she celebrated our victories. She had a spirit that was unbreakable and loved to laugh, you could feel like a real comedian with her, which is probably why my Dad thinks he is so funny to this day. In turn, she passed on the best qualities of her mother and husband to us that she uniquely made hers.
She had a goal for everyone in her life to be their best, and she adeptly navigated you towards this goal without you ever really knowing it.
Just a month before her passing she was playing swords with my son Harold and sharing a popsicle with my daughter, Madeleine, despite having just broken her back and cracked her skull. She rehabbed herself, walking first one lap around the house, then two, then three and more. We all rooted for her to go farther, to get stronger unaware that she was truly being eaten by a cancer from the inside.