Package Deal

Getting married usually brings much more than a spouse. In my case, it brought an aunt who beat the odds time and again.

When you get married, you usually get a lot more in the bargain. Your new spouse’s parents and siblings are included. A new marriage may come with ready-made kids, too.

But there’s more! Just like in the late-night commercials, a new husband or wife comes with extras, otherwise known as aunts, uncles, cousins, exes (they don’t just disappear), school chums, BFFs, co-workers and various hangers-on. When you understand this, you suddenly realize why wedding vows include the line “for better or for worse.”

Sometimes it’s worse. But often, these fellow travelers make life’s journey much more rewarding.

My wife, with whom I will celebrate our 29th anniversary next week, came with two of the best in-laws anyone could want. I knew this even as a clueless 25-year-old bridegroom. The bonus in my wife’s package was her aunt, Margaret, who occupied the downstairs part of her family’s compact home in Queens, N.Y.

Margaret was born in 1916 to a Hungarian Jewish family. The armistice that ended World War I came on Margaret’s second birthday. Her elder sister emigrated to Palestine as a young woman; her younger sister, Eleanor, arrived when Margaret was 4 and (much later) became my mother-in-law. There were also two brothers, one of whom became a rabbi, and a third sister, Lily.

Much later, in America, Eleanor raised a daughter into the wonderful woman I married. She also, for 25 years, supplied me with chocolate cake as though it was her life’s mission. But Margaret was different. Her mother tried to teach her the cooking and other domestic skills that were expected of a young Jewish woman in Hungary between the wars. It wasn’t that Margaret did not want to learn; she just never got the hang of how a kitchen operates.

Not too long after I was married, my wife and her parents left town for a relative’s funeral. I remained behind because I was a tax accountant and it was the height of the busy season. My mother-in-law carefully prepared some food for me, and I came over to enjoy the meal. Not wanting me to have a cold dinner, Margaret put it on the stove and incinerated it.

Margaret wanted to be a scientist. Few Jews were granted access to higher education in Hungary in the 1930s, and not many women went beyond gymnasium, the rough equivalent of high school. The odds were stacked high against the bookish Margaret. But somehow she made it through the system and, in 1943, received her Ph.D. from the University of Debrecen. Her thesis topic was “Ultramicro Mercury Determination Under Various Conditions and in the Presence of Other Metals.” The printed diploma bore typewritten cross-outs and corrections to acknowledge the gender of the recipient; it also recited that she was “26 years of age, of the Hebrew religion.”

And then the Nazis came.

Hungary had a Fascist government that was aligned with Germany through much of World War II. Jews were subjected to many restrictions, but while huge numbers were shot or sent to extermination camps in territory that Germany had captured in Poland and the Soviet Union, Hungarian Jews were relatively safe under their own country’s government until 1944. That year, as the tide of the war turned and the Germans fought to hold back their collapsing Eastern front, they took direct control of the handling of Hungarian Jews.

Margaret’s older brother Joseph, the rabbi, was sent to Bergen-Belsen that April. He was beaten to death there. By June, the three sisters and their mother had been sent to Auschwitz. They never saw Lily or their mother again, but Eleanor and Margaret were just the right age for forced labor. They found one another in the camp. (Their other brother survived another concentration camp and lived in Hungary through the postwar Communist era.)

Just before the Soviets captured Auschwitz in the winter of 1945, the Germans marched the remaining able-bodied inmates westward, to a munitions factory in Germany. Margaret and Eleanor worked there for the remainder of the war.

Allied soldiers were horrified by the condition of the surviving Jews at the end of the war. Eleanor and Margaret were relocated to a displaced persons camp. One day, the young American actor Mickey Rooney visited the camp, leading a dog on a leash. He spotted Eleanor and, sensing she was hungry, handed her a piece of salami. Unimpressed, or maybe just not hungry, Eleanor fed the cold cut to Rooney’s dog. For decades afterward, she and Margaret chuckled at the story.

My wife’s parents met and married in the displaced persons camp. Margaret and Eleanor had relatives who lived in the United States prior to the war. They sponsored the family and, in 1946, Margaret and my wife’s parents were among the last immigrants to pass through Ellis Island.

Female Ph.D. scientists were almost as uncommon in New York in the early postwar years as they had been in Hungary before the war. Margaret pursued her independent course, finding work in a series of hospital laboratories. She enjoyed the Manhattan cultural scene with her many friends, and when my wife was born, she became a doting aunt.

She bought the home in Queens jointly with my future in-laws in 1969. Desk drawers in a basement office are filled with her spiral-bound lab notes from that era. She saved money conscientiously, putting most of it in Treasury bills and bank accounts – she and her sister seemed to try to open accounts at every bank in Queens – but also collecting a few blue-chip stocks like AT&T and Consolidated Edison.

Margaret and our kids adored one another. Our first daughter, as a toddler, could not say her great-aunt’s name, so she called her Mimi. “Mimigo! Mimigo!” she would demand when she wanted to go downstairs to visit Margaret. Later, as she strung more words together, it was “Mommymimigo!” Margaret retired in the 1980s but remained mentally sharp for a long time. Deeply interested in health and medicine, my wife’s aunt fed her copious information as we confronted the usual childhood health issues.

Seven years ago, Margaret suddenly declined. She became confused and depressed, and her medications made her unsteady on her feet. She went to assisted living, but she would often fall in her apartment. The facility’s monitors would find her and send her to the hospital, but with each hospitalization Margaret seemed to become more frail and confused. She soon needed 24-hour private aides, even at the assisted living apartment.

Through a combination of sheer persistence and luck, my wife found some excellent aides. They restored Margaret to a semblance of herself. One day, she looked at the on-duty aide and said, “Let’s go home.” And they went back to the house in Queens.

This put Margaret back under the same roof as her sister and brother-in-law, and it stretched the money she had saved. Competent, caring, 24-hour home attendants are not cheap, but Margaret’s savings, pension and Social Security were enough. Besides the physical benefits – Margaret never had a serious fall again – the aides offered conversation and companionship. An aide’s toddler granddaughter delighted Margaret. So did her grandnieces, my daughters, as they grew up, graduated college and started their own careers.

My wife managed Margaret’s aides, the household and the doctors; I looked after her finances. And, to the occasional irritation of my wife, Margaret came to see me as her chief caretaker and benefactor. The aides advertised my visits days in advance. There was always a big cup of tea and a stack of cookies for me. Fortunately, the aides baked the cookies.

Margaret died this week, nearly two years to the day after her sister Eleanor. We will say our final goodbyes on a patch of lawn a short stroll away from my mother-in-law’s grave in Hastings-on-Hudson. The marker next to Margaret’s plot bears the name of another woman called Mimi, with the legend, “What a loss!”

Amen. We lost a lot when we lost Margaret, but I gained much more when she came in the package with my wife. It’s all part of the deal.

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Mary Koshak July 19, 2012 at 08:15 PM
Very sweet and loving story of a life well lived. RIP MIMI.
Jennifer Studwell July 20, 2012 at 11:21 AM
Thank you for sharing such a wonderful family story. It is unusual for one to be so caring and even proud of the "package" into which they married. May Eleanor & Margaret rest in peace and may their memories always be be blessings to you all.


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