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More Than A Grandmother, She Was My Hero
by Marty Goldstein on 2002-09-23

My sister called this morning with the sad news that my late father's mother Sarah, 92, had passed away after a short illness. I want to pay tribute to my families matriarch, the kindest person I have ever met, a considerate and warm person who was also my hero.

Sarah, or Sorque to her friends, was a throwback to the stereotypical European Jewish mother. She spoke with a thick Russian accent, peppered with all sorts of Yiddishisms, and generally only spoke English to us little kids. She never had an outside job. Being a mother and grandmother was her life, and her job was raising 4 sons and 1 daughter, serving her community and celebrating the religion and culture passed down for generations. At that she excelled.

My grandfather Aaron aka Zaida, ran the family soft drink business and then became Executive Director of the Canadian Zionist Federation, and worked for countless charities organizing dinners and making speeches. My grandmother was totally oriented to school and synagogue and raising her family, belonging to Pioneer Women and other groups and sisterhoods, always pouring at a charity tea. We called her Baba, which is Yiddish for grandma, and I actually thought that everyone called their grandma that. I found out I was mistaken. Our white European community was surprised one year by the arrival of a Morroccan clan, the Bennaroches and Cohens, who had dark skin, different customs, spoke a kind of spanish and arabic, and nary a word of Yiddish, let alone English. Thank G-d my family was colourblind. Baba and Zaida (my grandfather) welcomed them into the congregation and to us they were lifelong neighbours, playmates, schoolchums and friends. And to them, my grandparents were also "Baba and Zaida".

I was so lucky to be raised in such a close community. Our home was 1 street south and 2 blocks east of my grandparents house, and they were but 1/2 block east of the School/synagogue (shul). That little radius pretty much defined our lives. Rabbis were their neighbours and it was like a modern-day shtetl. On holidays we would walk from shul with the adults, in our best clothes, knowing that what awaited us was a belt-busting Kosher gorgefest. My family has a very healthy appetite and we came by it honestly. One year for Passover there were 27 seats around the table, which was a lot of work for Baba, my mom and my aunt. The family was so big that when Baba got annoyed, she would reel off 4 or 5 names in a row before landing on the right one -mine - and proceeding with the lecture.

(Every wrestler, journalist, date, cabbie and friend who has ever enjoyed my roast chicken and rice concoctions or tuna melts, I learned it all from Baba. She was an amazing cook.)

Her passing during the Festival of Succot also brings to mind a fond memory. A Succah is a wooden hut which Jews erect for a week every fall to commemorate our forefathers homes in the desert as they wandered in search of the promised land. One wall is allowed to part of an existing structure. So every fall, we would enjoy the exotic pleasure of having meals outdoors in the hut, the ritual of thousands of years, with Baba passing the courses thru her bedroom window. Even in the coldest weather, my uncle (only 10 years older than I) would insist on trying to eat the meal in the Succah and I would tough it out with him, frosty bite after frosty bite, while the rest of the family sat in the dining room thinking us odd. There was a contest for nicest Succah and for years she proudly accumulated out school artwork of the season to decorate the walls with.

My older brother, younger sister and I always knew we were safe, because our grandparents lived so close. We hardly ever ate bag lunches, preferring to hike it the half-block to enjoy a good meal with Baba and Zaida. After school we would duck in for a snack and this became another ritual.

Coronation Street a BBC soap opera was incomprehensible, a slow plodding drama about bleak Cockney lives, their pub and their gossip. I literally could not understand a word of it. Of course that meant it was forbidden to interrupt Baba and her crocheting while she watched the show every afternoon, because she alone on earth seemed to get it. So I became adept at making Quik for my sister and I and at raiding the sweet baked bagel supply, which was kept under the oven. When I grew up I was shocked that people kept pots and pans in the slider under the stove, I thought everyone kept their bagels there.

Another soap that I actually got hooked on watching with Baba was a CBS/CBC staple, The Edge of Night. Now that was a good soap, because it had perfect names for wrestlers. One character was Adam Drake, the lawyer, and another was ex-con Johnny Dallas, trying to go straight after buying the New Moon Cafe. District Attorney,
bombshell Brandy Henderson was played by Dixie Carter who went on to fame in Designing Women. One storyline involved the cops and entire town speculating nervously about what the teenagers were doing meeting a mysterious stranger in a warehouse late at night.

Years later I was driving taxi and a famous actor/comedian clambered in, exhausted after a gig and night of socializing. Frank Gorshin was universally recognized as The Riddler in TV's Batman, which was like a curse for getting jobs afterwards. He was shocked that I marked out not for The Riddler, but for his obscure role as the mysterious stranger. All the character was doing with these kids was setting up an improv/theatre group, and when Gorshin delivered the how-dare-you to the townsfolk it was something else. He kept laughing about my shared obsession with Baba for that soap, as he autographed a Duffy's Taxi charge slip, "Straight Ahead! Frank Gorshin."

Sarah Piesman was born in Propoisk, Byeloruss, near Mogilev in the old USSR, in 1910. Her father Lazer had been a violinist in the Czar's orchestra - gig canceled by the Revolution - and he struggled thereafter. Around 1930 she emigrated to Canada to join her aunt (mom's sister) and cousins who had moved to Winnipeg about 20 years earlier. Her lack of comprehension was mistaken by some as a lack of intelligence, and she was shunned. But Sarah, a beautiful brunette with big eyes and a white perfect smile, fell in love with her cousin Aaron and they were married for over 50 years. They were always there not only for us but for many travellers and visitors that I met at their home. They had 5 kids- 2 later in life - and raised us 3 as much as our parents did.
Often we were mistaken for their own kids rather than grandchildren. My dad always got a good laugh out of that.

In 1978 they curtailed a trip to Isreael when my father took ill. His death that June took a lot out of them. In June 1982 they finally retired to Israel and when my mother suddenly died 5 months later, I found myself very alone. I have told many friends and colleagues, you don't realize how important parents are until the bubble bursts and you need good advice and a meal. My adult life has always had a void due to this loss.

My grandparents returned to visit in May 1987 and Zaida passed away suddenly that December. Baba became an even stronger force in our lives, returning in 1991 to assist my sister when her daughter was born, and again in 1997 for an unprecedented family reunion. My own kids were amazed by the depth of Yiddishkeit, the culture and heritage of our family, as well as the scope of achievement of our relatives. And Baba adored my children, her great-grandchildren, beautiful and healthy and inquisitive.

That was the last time I saw Baba. We spoke on the phone and she was very interested in my braodcast career and travels to Vancouver, Los Angeles and especially the Sundance Film Festival. She never lost any of her mental abilities. And honestly, through all the years she never once gave me grief for my involvement in the pro wrestling industry.

When I have been lonely travelling the past few years, I have thought often of that innocent young woman, certainly scared and lonely herself, surviving a revolution, travelling thousands of miles across a continent and an ocean to find her true love, free to practice her religion and beliefs and to raise a good and honest family. I am blessed to have been under her care and influence, and I hope that you who can will spend some time with your own grandparents and appreciate their love and stories.

I have one last story to tell.

People who know me will vouch that I am not fond of beer. In the wrestling business, hell even in the entertainment business, that has made me stand out like a sore thumb. I never developed a taste for it. And it is all my Baba's fault.

One day when I was 5 years old I walked into the kitchen unannounced. Baba turned and was taking a swig from one of those old-style stubby beer bottles. OY VAY, Baba why are you drinking?? I said. She replied, Oh, Mottel, mein kindt, would you like to try it? So I said sure.

It was a legendary foul Canadian brew called Labatt's Black Label.

YEEEEECH! Baba, I said, this tastes like poison! How can you drink this?
I know, she told me, but it is like medicine for me, I don't like the taste either. Don't tell Zaida, though.

I never did.

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