Maria has a unique story - she is the “foster grandmother” of her only granddaughter, Angel.
Maria lives two buildings away from the home where I grew up, in the city I was raised in. When I received her address from Orr Shalom, I was flooded with feelings of nostalgia. It’s been over 20 years since I last visited the neighborhood. Once I arrived and stood in the doorway of her building, I was transported back to my childhood. I gazed at the names on the mailboxes and recognized some names I knew and still resided there today. Only then did I enter the building.
“My only son was born in Ukraine. He was ten years old when he made Aliyah (immigrated) with my husband and I, joined by my parents. I moved quite a few times in my life, but nothing prepared me for the immigration to Israel. On my first day at work I was startled by an appalling comment a woman made. She looked at me and rudely blurted out: “You’re not Jewish; you’re Russian!” To this day, a sense of astonishment and humiliation lingers from this statement she catapulted at me.
My parents grew up during the Stalin era, which in the spirit of those times, distanced them from religion. In contrast, my grandparents were very religious. Circumstances in my life destined me to move frequently, and perhaps because of that, I never felt as if I belonged anywhere. After a few years in Israel, my husband and I left for Germany; our son remained in Israel with my mother.”
“My family is from Ukraine. My granddaughter’s mother is from Kazakhstan, and is a gentile (not Jewish), so my granddaughter is not considered Jewish. Back in Kazakhstan, she married a Jew and gave birth to her first daughter. The three of them immigrated to Israel together, but the marriage ended soon after. She later met my son, and their relationship wasn’t always stable either. Between their breakups and getting back together, she became pregnant with my granddaughter.
My son learned he had a daughter only after she was born, so it was a complete surprise to me when I discovered that I had become a grandmother. He was thirty three years old at the time. After the baby’s birth, mother and daughter stayed at various friends’ homes. My granddaughter’s mother didn’t have the financial or emotional means to raise or support her.
One day, in Germany, I received a call, and from a far distance, I learned that my son was involved in a car accident and suffered a severe head injury. My granddaughter was just a toddler at the time.
My mother, who now lived alone in Israel, was already quite old. I decided to return to Israel to take care of her and my son. My husband chose to stay in Germany, and we separated.
It was during this tumultuous and chaotic period, that my granddaughter’s mother formally decided that she could no longer take care and raise her daughter. She transferred her to a shelter center in Tel Aviv. The center reached out to me one day to tell me about my granddaughter’s situation. I was broken hearted. At the time, I couldn’t care for her because I devoted myself entirely to taking care of my injured son and my elderly mother. Nonetheless, I made a promise to myself and to them, that as soon as I was able to, I would come and take my granddaughter home with me.
As a result of the accident, my son suffered from epileptic seizures and falls. One morning, about three years after the accident, he fell once again; the impact to his head was so severe that he was comatose. This second brain injury required complex surgery, from which he never woke up.”
“Once I sufficiently recovered from the separation from my husband, the years spent caring for my son, his death and my mother’s death, I went to the center where my granddaughter lived. After two court hearings, it was decided that I would have shared custody with her mother.
For a year and a half, the three of us lived together. My granddaughter’s mother didn’t earn any money, and eventually she didn’t function productively at all. The burden of financial support fell completely on me. I tried to encourage cooperation, and explained that we needed to work together to raise this child, but she insisted that she was the mother and educator, and that my responsibilities were earning money and house-keeping. That was a challenging period, and the situation became unbearable. I had no choice, and I turned to the social workers, who realized that she needed treatment.
After a long period of resistance, she was voluntarily hospitalized. When she was released, I explained to the social workers that living together was no longer possible for me and that I wished to continue raising my granddaughter alone and act as her foster mother. I had friends who tried to dissuade me from taking this step. They told me that I wouldn’t be able to manage, but I wasn’t thinking about the challenges; I saw my young granddaughter's well-being before my eyes and I knew that it would be alright. I thought it was my duty both to her and to my son.
I lived in Germany for thirteen years, and when I arrived in Israel, I had no pension to help support me, but it was obvious to me that I was the only person who could care for my granddaughter and raise her with love. I am an engineer by profession, but in Israel, I work as a caregiver. I took care of babies, and now I am a caregiver in a nursing home. Thankfully I also receive financial support from the Orr Shalom organization”.
“When my granddaughter first came to me, it was undeniable that she had been neglected, and it was easy to recognize that she suffered emotional and physical deprivation. She was a ‘lost child,’ and my heart ached for the years she spent without a loving and guiding heart.
After losing my son and separating from my husband, I became a “foster grandmother”; I was aware that I was the only person who could help this child. In my heart, I said: “I was left alone, and she was left alone; why can’t we be together?” I realized that although she loves her mother, she wouldn’t be able to gain all the necessary benefits from her. Unfortunately, they hadn’t established any emotional connection; they didn’t even speak a common language. The mother didn’t speak Hebrew, nor did she make any effort to learn it, and the girl didn’t speak Russian. It isn’t easy to form a meaningful relationship if you are not raising a child continually and are not with her or there for her as necessary.
A few years passed, and my husband, from whom I was separated, came from Germany to Israel. My granddaughter met him and became very attached to him, which made me happy. For his sake and her ability to communicate with him, she even learned a little Russian. He may have even served as a substitute father figure. Unfortunately, about five years ago, he passed away, and once again, she and I lost a close and significant person in our lives. When I look at my granddaughter, I often see my son and her grandfather in her; she looks a lot like both of them physically, and resembles them in her personality. She hardly had an opportunity to know her father, so she enjoys it when I tell her stories about him, which is comforting to both of us.”
“My son was born fifty years ago. I raised him in a country where we had no freedom; today, I am raising my granddaughter in a country and during a period that are both entirely different. My granddaughter shares much more with me than I ever shared with my mother, and I am happy that we live in more open and accessible times. She asks for my advice when she buys clothes, and I love to see and meet her friends who visit our home.
I made many mistakes with my son; I spoiled him, and when he was an adult, he once told me that I was too good and that if he had children, he would not let me raise them; but fate intervened, and today I am raising his daughter. More than anything, it hurts me that he didn’t get to see me with her. I have no doubt he would have been proud of us.
My mother opposed my marriage to my husband, who was ten years older than me, and she was furious when I married him. I hope that I will know how to guide my granddaughter with tenderness, and that I will manage to accept the decisions she makes without getting angry and without imposing influence on her. I often place myself in the position of being both her biological grandmother and her foster mother.”
“We are fortunate to have each other. My granddaughter and I have a special bond. We were both born on the same day; perhaps this is another sign of our shared destiny. The year I turned 70, and she turned 16, we went on a trip abroad together.
When I look back over my life and summarize it, I choose to see the good things. I remained alone, without a husband and a son, but this girl has given me the strength to continue; I continue for her, and it is thanks to her that I want to continue living.
If I had the chance to do it over again, there is no doubt that I would choose foster care. I don’t regret anything I’ve done. I don’t think or worry about questions about what will happen in the future when I won’t be there for her. Right now, I want to continue living for her, to see her settled in her life, and in the hopes that I will never become a burden to anyone.”
In the three years since I interviewed Maria, Angel - the granddaughter - graduated from high school and enlisted for military service in an elite intelligence unit.
The unusual and significant name that Angel received from her birth mother, and Maria’s frequent repetition of the phrase “The girl is my savior more than I am hers” inspired me to create a necklace for Maria. A necklace that encircles her neck like the wings of an angel, and the rustling of glass adds a delicate touch that reminds me of angel wings.
Photo: Zohar Ron