Grandma Sylvia's Salamis

On the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Irkutsk, I opened my bag and unwrapped a salami that I had bought for the trip. It was then that I realized, for better or worse, that I was following in some very famous footsteps. My grandmother had made this same trip exactly 80 years ago, and had more than a passing acquaintance with salami.

People say that certain things skip a generation. In my life that's been true, and I've always traced my grandparents' steps backwards. Like my father's father I play the violin and enjoy learning languages. My mother's father was a waiter, and I think about food all the time. My first job in New York was for a labor union, and I lived on the Lower East Side, where my mother's family stayed when they came to America. Now it's the ultra-cool East Village, but my grandmother, who had a very long memory, was horrified that I would live there. (She warned me when I moved to London that people are starving in Europe.) Some traits I'm pleased about. Others, I hope, have been diluted, since one has four grandparents to spread things thin.

Grandma Sylvia never lived on the Lower East Side. As a matter of fact, she never lived on this planet. She would buy picture frames at Woolworth's and never put her own picture in. When my aunt brought her friends around, she'd say, "There's my uncle Clark Gable on the end table, and that's my cousin Deanna Derbin." When she came for dinner at our house, Sylvia would pull out her own sandwich, or would eat a sandwich in the car on the way. When dinner was served she'd say, "No thanks, I just ate".

Not only was Grandma Sylvia eccentric, but she was one of the scariest people I ever met. Even when she was in her seventies, people would cross the street to stay out of her way. Her staunch belief was that everyone in the world was out to take advantage, which is the best justification, of course, to abuse them yourself. To steal from everyone and yell "Thief" is the oldest trick in the book, and Grandma Sylvia wasn't born yesterday.

Sylvia had a real gift for insulting people. Even if she had never met you, she could find something awful to say from thin air. It wasn't just aimlessly awful – she had a knack for making it sound like she knew you well, and did it with such conviction that she could make it stick. Strangers would flee in terror, burly men twice her size would give her a wide berth, and the local shopkeepers would brace themselves when she walked in.

She had endless energy, and was the driving force behind her family. No one ever needed an alarm clock. At 6:30 the Cuckoo chimed up, "Rotten! It's 6:30, you lazy, rotten bums! Good for nothing! Useless!" My grandfather, a retiring, intellectual type, had displeased her in 1919 for refusing to go into business with her brother, and she spent the next 38 years reminding him. He waited until age 65 when his pension came due, and then keeled over from a heart attack. That's how people got divorced in those days.

At Sylvia's own funeral, we found a roving clergyman at the cemetery to say a few words, since she didn't know any – after all, they were a bunch of thieves. He tried to put some words together. "What do we think of when we hear the word ‘Mother'? Her soft voice. Her kind manner. Her…" Everyone rolled their eyes.

As a kid, I found her terribly amusing. She had all sorts of Santa Claus souvenirs around the house, including full-page Macy's Christmas ads, which she hung on the wall. (We finally realized that Santa Claus reminded her of the men from Russia, and she must have thought that Santa was sexy.) During our infrequent visits, she would say the most outrageous things. She told me I'd been a terrible baby because I kicked my grandmother. She accused someone of throwing bleach on her bloomers, refusing to believe they fell apart because she had brought them from Russia in 1919. And when she had a hernia operation, she shrieked that the doctors had stolen her navel – and that she wanted it back. My father had to deal with the doctors, as he did with everyone else. She was hard of hearing, so not only did she drive him crazy, he had to yell to make his point.

Like the bloomers, Sylvia left Russia in 1919, though more accurately, she had left Belarus. In those days all of it was Russia. Sylvia Hyman (she lost that name, appropriately, when she got married) was born into a family of fisherman in Bobruysk, and helped with the family business run by her mother, who, by all accounts, was as scary as she was. In Belarus, Sylvia lived through pogroms, the Russian revolution and civil war, so she really didn't get a rosy picture of how the world worked. She met my grandfather, who left for America in a hurry, and she followed him there several years later.

The question of getting to America was one of financing, and Sylvia was just the sort of person to see the solution. In Russia, things were scarce in one place and plentiful in another. But to bring things from one place to another was a strange concept. Under the Tsar, this exposed the importer to ridiculous taxes, and if you tried to evade them you could be shot on the spot for smuggling. Under the Communists, this was seen as capitalism. Where under the Tsar you could be shot on the spot for smuggling, under the Communists you could be shot on the spot for "Speculation" – a massive improvement, if you ask me.

Sylvia saw the opportunity, applied her considerable guile, and became a successful importer. Her main product was salami. Salami is very popular in Russia because it's preserved meat. It keeps for a long time and travels well. She would buy a whole bunch of salamis, transport them and get them past the authorities. She would then hang around somewhere and whisper, "Psssst! You want to buy a salami?" She also dealt in sugar and tea, but we won't talk about it since they're nowhere near as glamorous as salami. As an old woman, Sylvia was very interested in westerns, another eccentricity, and would watch them all the time on TV. My aunt asked her why. The answer was that she traveled by covered wagon in Russia, and that the westerns reminded her of her smuggling days. Fond memories!

When I got to Irkutsk I mentioned to someone that my grandmother had been a black marketeer. He said that he remembered black market salami very well. At first I thought he was trying to humor me, but until recently, black market salami was a part of most people's diet. In fact, the black market had been a large part of the Russian diet – Russia's official economy couldn't do the job alone. As such, I think that all the talk about the mafia is mostly talk. Even if it's accurate, this kind of thing hasn't been news for quite a long time.

After her career as a salami smuggler, Grandma Sylvia exited by way of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Like her husband, she went east instead of west, since the travel was cheaper and you didn't have to pass through so many countries. Where I went through Mongolia, she took the other branch of the railroad through Manchuria. She went through Harbin and out to Vladivostok, where she sailed to Japan ("Yokagama") and up to Seattle. Later, she moved to New York and took up as a housewife. So, here I was, 80 years later on the Trans-Siberian with a salami. Coincidence, I hope. At least I took the other branch.


Grandma Sylvia

Visa Photo:  For entry into the US


On arrival in Seattle, 1919: The femme fatale and her quarry