My paternal grandmother was an artist, and she was my biggest fan. Hours of my childhood were spent on her lap being hugged and told over and over, in Yiddish, what a beautiful girl I was and what a sweet forehead I had, “A shayne meidle, a ziss kepela.”
Grammy paid for my art and music lessons and saved every painting, drawing and sculpture I did from the time I began scribbling until my interest shifted from the material arts to the martial arts. And that’s when I fell from grace. “A nice Jewish girl doesn’t do karate.” She actually said this!
One holiday afternoon in 1975, Grammy and Aunt Estelle ganged up on me and insisted I find a more feminine outlet for my artistic side. I took them to task for contempt prior to investigation. “Have you ever seen a kata?” I asked. No. “How can you disapprove of something you’ve never seen?”
On her oriental rug, next to the baby grand piano and a large vase full of pussy willows, I performed Gekisai Dai Ichi; the first kata and the one that requires the least amount of space.
When I finished I looked at them, expecting applause and beaming smiles. Instead they looked grim, distressed. “It’s so ugly,” said Aunt Estelle. “Why don’t you take up ballet, instead?” Grammy nodded. “Yes, ballet is nice. Or perhaps modern dance?”
A few months later my grandparents came to visit my father, who lived next door. They stopped in to say hello to me. When my grandmother came to the entrance of my studio apartment she stopped and stared.
Hanging over my desk was a gigantic poster of Bruce Lee. But that’s not what caught her eye. She stared at the top shelf of my bookshelf where I had lined up all my trophies and medals. Some of the trophies were quite large. The medals, which were from the Massachusetts Regional AAU competitions, meant more to me because these tournaments were the first step leading up to the WUKO world championships, but to the untrained, the trophies were much more impressive.
Now Grammy was beaming. She walked over to the shelf and examined each symbol of victory as if it were a diamond. Then she turned to me and said, “My grand-daughter, the karate expert.” There couldn’t have been more pride in her voice if the last two words had been ‘doctor’ or ‘lawyer.’ My biggest fan had returned.
(Aunt Estelle never gave up on the ballet idea, but she and Uncle Louis contributed generously to my travelling fund when I went to Spain in 1980 for the WUKO world champions. So I felt loved, if not understood.)