Family Secrets: The Momzer

by Debby Waldman

Not long after my grandmother died in 1992, my aunt Freda and I went through her photo albums. The people in the frilly-edged, black-and-white snapshots looked vaguely familiar, although I’d never met them: they’d died or rolled away from our branch of the family tree before I was born.

When I pointed to a snapshot of an enormous woman with her arm around a slender girl, Aunt Freda said, “That’s the momzer.”

Momzer is Yiddish for bastard. I’d only ever heard it as an expletive, but Aunt Freda’s voice was matter-of-fact. This wasn’t a horrible person she was identifying: it was an actual bastard. That’s when I realized who the girl was: one of two children my great-aunt had conceived after being molested by her father, my great-grandfather, the other kind of momzer.

To be honest, I hadn’t been looking at the girl. It was the mother who had caught my eye, because she looked like a younger, fleshier, and more worn-out version of my late grandmother, Bubby. Now I understood that she was Bubby’s older sister. I’d never known her name, which Aunt Freda told me was Rose. I’d never thought about her, except in the context of Bubby’s biography: Rose was the reason Bubby had married at age 12.

I was in elementary school when I learned how young Bubby had been at her wedding. I don’t recall how I found out, but I had been reading Little House on the Prairie books and was psyched to discover a child bride in my family. Even when I did the math and figured out that my informant was wrong, that Bubby had actually been 14 when she became a missus, I told people she was 12 because it was more dramatic.

I didn’t stop bragging about it until high school, when the rest of the story dribbled out. It wasn’t something you advertised, that your grandmother was married at 12 (or 14) to stop her father from taking her to Alaska, ostensibly to pan for gold, but really to have his way with her as he had with her sister.

It was my great-grandmother who thwarted her husband’s plans. She spoke no English, but she was determined to save her second daughter. This being 1914, matchmaking was her only solution.

The husband she chose was from the Old Country, a fellow landsman who had arrived in America penniless and was saving up for a dairy farm in Central New York. He was 24, and cherished my grandmother until he died nearly 50 years later, leaving five grown children,15 grandchildren, and a farm that stayed in the family for more than a century. By the time Bubby died in 1992, she was a great-grandmother 19 times over.

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Bubby (third from left in front row) and my grandfather (same spot in back row) and the family they created, circa 1958. (I didn’t show up for another few years.)

My mother’s cousin, Joy, told me that Rose married a sea captain in the Bahamas, where she ran a store. Eventually she moved stateside with her two children/siblings. Neither Joy nor Aunt Freda knew much beyond that.

“Mama never talked about it,” Aunt Freda said. “She was so ashamed.”

I’ve wondered if I should be ashamed. But as Joy says, “we make our own lives and reputations.”

As a writer, my life is about telling stories. The momzer — both the literal and figurative — belongs in mine.

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