Field Notes

Life lessons from a woman dearly missed

Life lessons from a woman dearly missed
My grandmother looking over my shoulder.

“No one is going to bite you, so you can just relax and after the first few minutes of talking I think you will probably get over your innate nervousness.”

It was Sept. 27, 1950 and the man talking, Myles Lane, was an assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.  He was talking to a witness who was appearing before a grand jury investigating Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Lane may have claimed that the witness had nothing to worry about, but the whole situation was intimidating on several levels.

 

First, Lane was not a small man. Six feet tall and nearly 200 pounds, Lane had played professional hockey with the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins (helping the Bruins win the Stanley Cup), as well as football at Dartmouth.

Second, and foremost really, the United States in 1950 was not the kind of place where one wanted to be accused of being a Communist.

And that’s what was happening.

“Now as a matter of fact, weren’t you a member of the Bronx County Communist Party in New York?” Lane asked.

“You say you were not a member of the Navy Department cell in Washington?” he wanted to know.

“Did you ever attend any meetings, any Communist Party meetings?” he asked.

“You appreciate that this is all under oath, and it is subject to perjury,” he emphasized.

After about one hour, he told her: “I will tell you frankly, I am a little disappointed with your testimony. To me, from what I have heard, and in the light of other testimony that has been adduced before this body, the conclusion seems inescapable that you have told some untruths before the grand jury.”

Of course, he was wrong.

The woman he was accusing had never been a member of the Communist Party. She had been accused by a woman who gave up all sorts of people – most of whom had never done what she accused them of. And, to top it all off, the accuser later recanted.

By that point, though, it was kind of too late. People had been traumatized. Lives had been forever altered.

Since this all happened some 60 years ago, why bring it up now?

The woman being accused was Sylvia Danziger. She was my grandmother and she died nearly thirty years ago from breast cancer. And she’s been on my mind a lot the past couple of weeks as my station prepared to cover the Komen Race for the Cure.

She went on to become a high school biology teacher and she taught me more than I will probably ever be able to impart to others.

From playing Scrabble with me to taking me to the American Museum of Natural History to see a preserved specimen of a coelacanth to encouraging me to read anything I could get my hands on, she instilled a love of language that is still dear to me.

She believed in me far more than I fear I will ever believe in myself.

She didn’t like to talk about her grand jury experience, or the days when the FBI used to follow her and my grandfather.

Except for one story, which she did enjoy telling me – the time, on one particularly hot day, when she and my grandfather bought ice cream cones for the agents who were following them.

Breast cancer took her away before she got to see me get married – or even meet Amy. Even though she always encouraged my love of journalism, she never got to see my byline in The New York Times, The New York Post or anywhere outside of my high school paper.

It’s estimated there are more than 32,000 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in the United States this year and nearly 40,000 deaths from breast cancer.

While nearly $2.5 million was raised over the weekend, clearly more needs to be done.

My grandmother used to offer this advice – take a walk, read a book and make a friend.

Based on her life, I would add, never give up and don’t allow yourself to be bullied.

Lane the prosecutor kept telling her that she could be indicted for perjury, that he hoped no one had encouraged her to lie, that she needed to take time and think really hard about what she was saying.

She stuck to her story. She was never indicted.

She believed in the truth.

A good lesson.