Thursday, June 28, 2012

'Granny Cahn' set the example

        Janice Cahn showed us how to be a great grandparent.
        Beatrice, my sister and I find being grandparents an absolute joy, for different reasons.
        Bea, who has fond memories of three grandparents and a great grandmother, went through two colon cancer scares and wasn't sure she would be a grandmother. Happily, she is -- three times.
       Elsa and I never knew our grandparents. We knew from the time we were young what had happened, and I occasionally think about them -- and my aunt and uncles -- being murdered in the gas chambers.
       Not looking for sympathy here, but it's an empty spot. I would hear kids at school talk about their grandparents, or visit with our neighbor kids' grandparents, and there was a bit of envy.
       We had aunts and uncles -- at least in name, if not by blood -- in Holland who looked after us, and my mother's cousin, Maurits, and his mother and stepfather who lived two houses over and treated us like family.
        Then we came to America, to Shreveport, and we had Mr. Abe Gilbert (my dad's boss) and his wife -- and we were almost like grandchildren. And we had Janice Cahn.
         We call her "Granny Cahn" in retrospect, although we didn't do that as kids. We began doing that after Bea and I had our two little ones, and she treated them as kindly as she had Elsa and me.
         She was as close to a grandmother as I would ever have. But she was more than that. She was the mother figure my mother needed so badly.
       She "adopted" our family soon after we came to Shreveport. But she did the same for several other families who came to town from foreign lands.
         She and her husband -- Abry S. Cahn Sr. -- for decades were among the most generous, involved people in Shreveport-Bossier, particularly in the Jewish community but not limited to that.  Mr. Cahn, who founded Cahn Electric Co. in his basement in 1907 when he was 19, was the more visible of the two; Mrs. Cahn was honored over the years, but preferred to stay out of the spotlight.
          She was wise, savvy, well-read -- and classy. She dressed neatly, her hair was always perfectly done, she drove a big Cadillac, which honestly looked out of place in our driveway in Sunset Acres. She and Mr. Cahn lived in a beautiful home at 241 Gladstone Boulevard.
          Janice Pfeifer grew up in Little Rock, and she married Mr. Cahn in 1921; they were married for 42 years until he died in 1963. Her younger sister, Marion -- just as polished and classy -- also married a prominent Shreveport man, Samuel G. Wiener, one of the city's top architects for decades (among his designs: Woodlawn High School).
           Kind as she was, Mrs. Cahn also could be outspoken. There were people she didn't like, the rabbi at the Temple for one; she didn't appreciate some of his views of the world, and she would say so. She could be quite funny, too; often told jokes that might be a bit off-color -- she'd get this twinkle in her eye -- and sometimes her language might include a non-ladylike word.
          She gave our family so much -- gifts, clothes, furniture, even a car after she stopped driving. She adored her own three grandchildren -- Jan Hirsch, Susan and Abry III ("Tab") -- but she treated the Van Thyn kids like her own, too.
         Mostly, though, she and my mother had a bond.
         Other than our family and Lou Gwin -- our longtime neighbor and Oma's best friend for 50 years -- there is no one who knew my mother better than Mrs. Cahn. There is no one my mother trusted more than Mrs. Cahn.
          She knew my mother's strengths and she knew her frailities. She helped guide her through the depressive stages, and she relished the attention my mother received from elsewhere.
           Soon before Bea and I were married, we planned to go to dinner with my parents and Mrs. Cahn. Just minutes after we arrived at her apartment to pick her up, she began having trouble breathing. We had to call her doctor, and an ambulance took her to the hospital.
Janice Cahn, with our Rachel and Jason, in 1980.
           It was congestive heart failure. She was 75, and too heavy, and had smoked for years and years. But she recovered, stopped smoking and eventually lost weight, made it to our wedding reception a few months later, and in the next few years got to know our Jason, and later Rachel.
           Before the rescheduled dinner outing, my mother had told Bea -- a longtime smoker, too -- that she couldn't smoke at the table. After dinner, Mrs. Cahn said to Bea, "Aren't you going to have a cigarette?" Bea sheepishly looked at my mother, and my mother told Mrs. Cahn, "I've asked her not to smoke."
           Mrs. Cahn laughed. "Not only do I want you to smoke," she told Bea, "I want you blow it this way."
            Through the years, Mrs. Cahn and Bea would talk a couple of times a week. "How's Rose treating you?" she'd ask Bea. "Fine," Bea would reply. "OK, but don't let Rose push you around," she'd answer. "She can be a powerhouse. If she ever gives you trouble, you let me know."
            Significantly, for the last few years of Mrs. Cahn's life -- she died in 1986 -- it was my mother who often did the chauffering and the caretaking. To the end, they were as close as could be.
             As a young woman, Mrs. Cahn had been a champion amateur golfer. She still played some after we met her in the mid-1950s, but soon gave up the game. However, she remained a fan of golf and other sports, so that was a talking point for us.
            For some reason, she told me before I was even a teenager that my voice reminded her of Hoagy Carmichael. Did I know who Hoagy Carmichael was? No clue. She told me he was a famous composer, singer, bandleader, the man who wrote Stardust and Georgia on My Mind.
            Of course, I love Stardust, especially the Willie Nelson version.
            Janice Cahn sprinkled stardust all over our lives. She was one of our greatest blessings. She was "Granny Cahn."

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