(Not an Autobiography)
Grania Davidson Davis
Aunt Tillie was the first wandering woman in my family. Born Tamarka Levine, she and her siblings, including my maternal grandmother Shulka, grew up in a Shtetl near Minsk in the early 20th Century. Their father drove a horse and wagon that carried baggage from the railroad station. The horse was such an important family member that he got the best place near the stove in winter. My grandmother told of a young man who took her boating on a lake in summer and played the balalaika. Then came the Cossack pogrom. Brother Dave was hacked to pieces and hauled away. There were rumblings of revolution. It was time to flee.
Brave Aunt Tillie, then just a teenage girl, led the way. She traveled alone to Hamburg and boarded a ship to America, in steerage, eating nothing but potatoes and herring; she was seasick all the way. She got a job in a garment district sweatshop in New York, and sent money home so the others could escape. One by one, they sailed to America. Their parents left just before the iron curtain closed. Tillie the toiler.
Later the family moved to Milwaukee, where my blonde, blue eyed grandmother, and her sister, dark haired Tillie were both wed. But Tillie’s husband, Dave Jerome, was killed in World War One, alas. She never remarried, and she became very active in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. Always the pioneer, she made her way alone to Los Angeles, where she spent the rest of her life, eating healthy food before it was trendy.
Meanwhile my grandmother Shulka had three daughters with my beloved grandfather, Louis Schwartz; Betty, Ruth, and Ethel. The eldest was my mother, Betty, a tennis player in her youth. She married my father, Bernard Kaiman, and I was born in July, 1943, while he was allegedly busy dodging the draft. Then catastrophe struck. My father left my mother for another woman!—a beautiful Catholic divorcee with several kids (he later left this woman, and their young son and infant daughter, and went on to Wife Number Three, with whom he sensibly had no kids. They were still together in Tennessee until his death in 2013.) He refused contact with any of his offspring.
“Rasputin!” hissed my Russian grandmother, whenever my father’s name was mentioned. It was her generic name for con-men.
My mother Betty was now a divorced mother—quite a scandal in mid-1940s Milwaukee. So she boarded a train to Los Angeles when I was one and a half, and off we went to join Aunt Tillie. I don’t remember Milwaukee; my earliest memory is the intense L.A. sun shining on my mother’s (bleached) blond hair.
My grandparents joined us in L.A. after the war. There was lots of good work for my grandfather, who had led bridge construction crews during the war. He got a job maintaining the equipment at the downtown Woolworth’s, and stayed there until he retired. I spent many happy Sundays with him in the (closed) store while he worked, playing with the toys and raiding the soda fountain.
My mother got a job as office manager in a towel factory, until she retired and became a West Hollywood library assistant. We always had nice towels. Other extended family landed jobs in the film and new TV industry. One drew Mr. Magoo animation. Another was PR head of Desilu, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez’s productions. Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance) came to his daughter Barrie’s bat mitzvah.
I grew up in various dysfunctional family situations, mostly with my grandparents in West L.A. My grandpa took me to play at the La Brea Tar Pits. We loved to eat at Cantor’s on Fairfax, and go to the silent movie theatre. My Grandma adored Mary Pickford.
I graduated from Hollywood High School in 1960.
I spent my graduation money on a train trip to San Francisco, where I hung out with beatniks in North Beach (including Andy Warhol’s gay ‘superstar’, Taylor Mead).
I loved to read, especially fantasy, and knew I wanted to write, but how to become a writer . . . ?
Want to read more? There's a lot more to this life story in the book.