The first time I got in trouble at school I was in kindergarten. One day, after we had successfully read “See Spot Run” and in the midst of painting a forest with our big, fat paintbrushes, my teacher, Miss Flanagan, strode over and accused me of having lied to another student in the class. Even now, forty years later, I can still feel some of the shock of this accusation. Lie? What lie?
“You told Cindy that your grandmother is a doctor,” Miss Flanagan said. “Everyone knows that ladies aren’t doctors.” My shock deepened, but I suddenly felt outrage as well. This was back in 1965, when women doctors were indeed a rarity, and Miss Flanagan could not conceive of them at all. Yet I had not lied. My grandmother, who never referred to herself as a feminist, had nonetheless chosen this trailblazing, demanding career.
The next day, I listened with great satisfaction as my mother set Miss Flanagan straight about my grandmother, the doctor. Miss Flanagan apologized.
Even though I was only five, I realized that Cece was radically different from other grandmothers, including Nana, my other grandmother. Nana was a traditional bubbie from Russia who cooked with shmaltz, sighed “oy vey” at regular intervals, and alternately shepped nachas from and worried incessantly about her family. I don’t mean to minimize Nana’s accomplishments; every mother is a working mother, as the saying goes, and in addition to raising her family and running her home, Nana also earned a real estate license to help subsidize the modest earnings of my grandfather, a pulpit rabbi.
Still, it was loads of fun to brag about Cece’s star status as a “lady doctor” because it had such wonderful shock value. I didn’t know a single other kid in 1965 (or even later) whose grandmother had such novel cachet. (I usually didn’t bother adding that Cece was also a homeopath and an acupuncturist. Most people had no idea what homeopathy was anyway, and the idea of acupuncture simply raised suspicions of communism.)
Cece was not technically my grandmother. She married my paternal grandfather when my dad was a young adult, but long before my brother, sister and I were born. By virtue of her love, devotion, and constant involvement in our lives, Cece was every inch our grandmother. Like my Nana, Cece had been born in Russia, and named Baila. But a public school teacher, like an officer at Ellis Island, Anglicized her name to Cecelia, and the name stuck.
Cece’s parents were less than thrilled that their Jewish daughter had been renamed after a Christian saint, and at home she remained Baila. But they were thrilled at her achievements in school. She was such a quick study that she skipped four grades, and entered college as a young teen. She was so young in medical school that professors would stop her in the hall and ask her if she were lost or looking for an older sister. (Cece attended a women-only medical school, one of the only such schools in the country where women could earn an M.D. at that time.)
I’m sure that Cece would have loved to have married earlier in life and had her own children, but I suspect that her professional achievements and passion for her career may have intimidated many men of that era. She ended up with my grandfather, a successful businessman and unrepentant practical joker. In his later years, Papa manned the reception desk in Cece’s office. Sometimes, when a patient would call to cancel an appointment, Papa would reply, “Good. We didn’t want you to come in anyway.” But Cece’s patients, who included many Hollywood celebrities, were a devoted lot. Despite my grandfather’s quirky deskside manner, he didn’t drive her out of business.
Although I felt abiding love and devotion from both my grandmothers, Cece understood me better than Nana did. When I was very young, Cece predicted that I’d become a writer one day, a desire I had not mentioned to anyone. She also knew me more deeply because I wasn’t simply her granddaughter; I was her patient. Through her art and science of homeopathic medicine, Cece could discern many things about me, not only my physical condition, but even when I was under stress, much as I tried to hide it. While Nana may have been cooking a Shabbat dinner for our family to share later that night, Cece was sticking me with acupuncture needles in her office to harmonize my health. A traditional bubbie and a secular humanist, homeopathic healer: those were my two radically different grandmothers.
Cece’s life revealed possibilities that I wouldn’t have known existed, at least at such a young age. She also revealed much of the world to me, by taking me to Europe when I was 12. We met with the British doctor who had personally taught her homeopathy; chased off an eager Italian suitor who thought I was much older than I was; cruised down the Rhine river, toured the Louvre in Paris, and woke to the remarkable beauty of the Swiss Alps. It was the trip of a lifetime, and I knew how very lucky I was to have a grandmother who not only had the means but the desire to show me the wonders of Europe.
Although Cece wasn’t religious in any traditional sense, she retained a spiritual calm about her. “When she walked in a room peace and serenity came with her,” wrote one patient in a condolence letter after Cece died. Cece had told me that she planned to work until she died, and that’s pretty much what she did: At age 80, she still saw patients three days a week, and died from a heart attack just a few days after having seen a full caseload of patients.
I loved being with Cece, sleeping over at her house, going with her to the office and chatting up the patients in the waiting room. Yet even as a young child, I felt something was missing from the beautiful home she shared with my grandfather: the furniture was fine, the books were leather-bound classics, the views from nearly every window spectacular. Although I couldn’t have identified the problem at the time, I sensed that a home without mezuzahs, and a kitchen filled with the smell of my grandfather’s frying bacon, was a home that was missing something elemental, something, well, Jewish. I felt a little sad that neither Cece nor Papa could understand or appreciate my enthusiasm for Jewish youth groups and Jewish activity. It probably struck them as too parochial.
Cece was right when she predicted that I’d become a writer, and due to her influence I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the world of medicine, even starting my career in healthcare public relations. She also gave me a yearning to do work that made a difference in people’s lives. No, I’m far from a medical healer, but I like the idea that my work can give people a lift through laughter or inspiration; something that any good doctor might prescribe.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.