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A Welcome Shock

It’s not often that a photograph, a family photograph I should specify, has the power to shock me. Yet that’s exactly what happened last month when I feasted my eyes on this:

Freda Leah Kahn

Freda Leah Kahn

That would be my great-grandmother (my mom’s mom’s mom), Freda Leah Soirifman Kahn. This picture was taken in 1935, meaning my Bubbie Kahn would have been in her early to mid-forties at the time. The shock comes from my never having seen a picture of her looking young before. Scratch that. I’ve never seen a picture where she looked middle aged before. Previous to uncovering this photo, which was equally new and shocking to my mother, the youngest and happiest I ever saw her look in a photo is here:

Bubbie and Zadie Kahn

Bubbie and Zadie Kahn

The circumstances of her biography (Ukrainian émigré who arrived in the US in 1922, having escaped pogroms and with seven children in tow), her reputation (serious, pious, formidable), and the time-line of my own life (she died in her mid-eighties when I was just five) conspire to make her forever old in my mind. When I picture her, the faint and fading image that comes to mind is of a tiny, heavily wrinkled woman wearing a house dress with her hair short or pulled back. She’s old. Seriously old.

I never questioned that she was forever old, as it seemed reasonable to me that escaping pogroms, leaving behind home and family, and being in charge of seven kids for a long and stressful trans-Atlantic trip would be enough to make anyone old before their time. But here she stares at me from a remove of nearly 75 years: young, pretty, and vibrant.

It’s a paradigm shifter for sure. In fact, for the longest time I wasn’t sure if it was really her. I had to sheepishly ask the cousin who had the photo for confirmation. I thought maybe it was a picture of my mom’s mom, Pearl Kahn Wolfson. The resemblance is uncanny, but the timing and eyes seemed off. My grandmother would have been just twenty in 1935, and an untreated goiter left her with permanently protruding eyes that his woman lacks. This photo is almost the “what if?” version of my grandmother.

Meanwhile, I’m feeling inspired to finally get that “family wall” going upstairs. Having just discovered this gem, I’d like to be able to enjoy it on a regular basis.

One Response to “A Welcome Shock”

  1. harriette says:

    I always thought my grandmother was old when she died until I was older than her :). However, it was just recently that I recognized the similarity in appearance of me, my mother, my mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother. Unfortunately, we all took after my g-grandmother’s father!

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