Letters to a Lost Soldier: Meeting my Russian great-grandparents

Dear Daddy,
(I originally wrote to you in January, 1945), We went to visit Bepa’s parents, my great-grandparents Bubbe and Zayde Dichter, to help celebrate their 60th Wedding Anniversary. Bubbe is very small, even shorter than I am. She sat perfectly still on a little chair with her hands folded in her lap like a statute in the Chicago Art Institute. Her hands are very wrinkled and splotched with brown spots, her face has lines and wrinkles and her grey eyes are tiny, but they are alive. It felt like she knew me, but I don’t remember meeting her before. I’m glad to have a picture of her in my mind now, just as I carry around a picture of you.
“Say hello to Bubbe,” Bepa urged, but I was too shy and Bubbe was quiet, so I touched her warm and soft hand. She smiled. I was afraid to hug her because she might break. Bubbe never learned to speak English. When she and Zayde left Odessa in 1904 for Philadelphia, they brought their six children with them and she kept busy caring for her family. Zayde was sitting bent over in a chair and his white beard almost touched the floor. Bubbe wore a long dress and an apron, and Zayde had on a long coat and hat with a brim.
Bepa’s brothers and sisters who live in Chicago, their children and grandchildren were there to celebrate. I saw Aunt Sarah and Uncle Simon who invited me to visit them again and sleep over. “But next time don’t ask for burnt toast for breakfast.” The last time I was there, they wanted to know my favorite breakfast, and I said soft boiled eggs, cantaloupe, cocoa and burnt toast. “Burnt toast? We don’t have cantaloupe and we’re out of eggs. Will orange juice, cold cereal, cocoa and burnt toast do?” The kitchen filled up with smoke, but it was perfect burnt toast, even if there was oleo and no butter on top.
Everyone wanted to tell me about Mimi and Bepa’s love story. He was twelve and she was eight when he saw her in Philadelphia and immediately fell in love with her. He told the boys in the neighborhood to stay away from her because he was going to marry Mimi, but was too shy to tell her himself. When the boys didn’t listen to him and he suffered from a bloodied and broken nose more than once, he started taking boxing lessons at the gym near his home. He became a neighborhood celebrity as a champion lightweight contender and Mimi married him when she was 15. He still calls her his bride.
Mimi brought potato kugel, there was plenty of other food at the party, and I found a cupcake that I could pretend was your birthday cake. Mimi and Bepa said I couldn’t celebrate at home until you come back from the war. We can have a combination birthday and welcome home party with balloons. We could hire a hall and a band and invite everyone we know. I love parties.
I saw Cousins Laurel and Bobby and we played together until they were tired and had to leave for home. They invited me to celebrate Purim with them next month and their parents, Cousins Jeannette and Art, said I could come over early to make groggers and we would go together to hear the reading of the Megilah. I want to create a pretty costume and not wear last year’s Halloween witch outfit. Mimi said she’d help me because she loves to sew and has taught me all the shortcuts she knows. So many people here are being very nice to me.
That includes my teachers at school, the librarian, the principal, my Brownie leader and Brownie sisters, and practically everyone I know, who always ask about you and how we are doing at home. My teacher said it is a difficult time for struggling wives of servicemen who are away at war and that I should be extra kind at home. I will try.