Tuesday, April 03, 2007


I (like everyone else, I guess) had two grandmothers, who were as different from each other as chalk from cheese. Of the two, bubbe, my mother's mother, was closer to me. We all lived in the same town, for one thing, which allowed bubbe to edit our lives and tell us what we were doing wrong. She never told us when we did something right: we were expected to do the right thing always.

Bubbe was a pretty austere character, who had been through a lot. Her father was a prosperous landowner, and she went to the Russian church school in her village, along with the priest's sons. She came out of this experience literate in several languages and with an extremely low opinion of Russian Christians. The languages came in handy as she was living in Russian Poland, and every time the area was conquered everyone spoke the new language, that of the victorious conquerer. The family lived on or near a river, and she had fond memories of boating parties as a child.

She did not have an arranged marriage. My grandfather, a young scholar, met and was smitten by her and sued for her hand. Sometimes, when I listened to their impassioned arguments, I found this hard to believe, but my mother assured me it was true. My grandfather always lost these arguments, as he was a sweet person who believed in peace at any price, while she believed that winning was everything, like Vince Lombardi. As she had a quick tongue and ready wit, she seldom lost an argument with anyone.

As a young mother, accompanied by my grandfather and two small children, she came to the new world. We are not sure why they left Russia--one story is that my grandfather had already served in the Russian Army and was about to be drafted for another term. Anyway, with the traditional diamonds sewn into the hidden recesses of her wardrobe, here she was, and there was no going back.

I don't know the details of their journey, but it was fortunate she had the diamonds, as my grandfather became sick shortly after they arrived and was unable to work. Bubbe scraped up $10 and opened a grocery store in the front room, or parlor, and they earned a meager living. She also had a sideline, preparing boys for bar mitzvah. My grandfather rolled cigars in their home to augment the family income, and eventually became a Hebrew teacher when his health improved.

They lived in a hellacious slum. I know this because I saw it with my own eyes, before it was demolished to make way for a highway.

They had five children, two of whom did not make it to adulthood. These two were never mentioned, but perhaps she remembered them, because from time to time she would light a yahrzeit candle for someone unknown to me.

She almost lost a third child, to influenza. To save him, they took him to the synagogue and renamed him, the idea being that when the angel of death came to get him, he would be unrecognizable. It worked, and he grew up to be my beloved Uncle Doc.

Bubbe didn't believe in a lot of frippery. Personal adornment she had none, but she did eventually have lace curtains and a few nice pieces of furniture, and a piano. My mother took piano lessons, and was not allowed to go out and play with her friends until she had completed her daily piano practice. Bubbe and my grandfather also managed to educate three children through college and professional school.

Bubbe had the goods on all our neighbors and friends and politicians and had no illusions about anyone. The only politician she admired was Harry Truman, because he recognized Israel. This in a family every other member of which worshipped FDR.

Oddly enough, she had a romantic streak, and used to read the Yiddish equivalent of Barbara Cartland in the Yiddish newspaper. My mother told me this. No signs of romantic inclinations were apparent to me.

But she was a lot of fun for a grandchild. I used to love spending the night with her. I would sleep in her bed with her, and she would teach me songs from the old country, and tell me stories of the fun she had as a child and young girl, living on the river. She loved boating. When her children were small she would take them to the park, rent a rowboat, and take them out on the pond. (My grandfather was afraid of the water, so he wouldn't go.)

My other grandmother was a different kettle of fish, and I don't know that much about her. As a young woman, she had trouble bearing children, and as a consequence became very religious. This did the trick, and she had four. My father was the youngest and puniest, and was not expected to live. After his birth, she became ill with some mysterious disease, perhaps tuberculosis, and turned the baby, my father, over to his elder sister, Julia, while she went into a nursing home for six years. Consequently he did not really get to know his mother until he was six. They had a stormy reunion.

She was a pretty woman, but very strict, and not warm to her children. My uncle Ed claims that she never liked him because he was born on Yom Kippur. She spent a lot of time on her high horse. For instance, her children were not allowed to refer to her as "she" when she was in the room, but had to call her "mother." You could not say, if she was at the table, "Pass her the maple syrup." It had to be, "Pass Mother the maple syrup." I don't know where she got this rule, but she was insistent on it. She wanted children, including me, to say, "May I go out to play?" instead of "Can I go out to play?"

I was not her favorite grandchild, and she was not my favorite grandmother, but they lived out west, and who knows? If I had lived closer to her, I might have grown fond of her. As it was, her few visits to our home took on the quality of State Occasions, with everyone nervous and afraid of committing some faux pas.


jp said...

well we all have two grandmothers but i know what you mean - one lived with us and the other about 70 miles away by the sea - so the one by the sea was nice and other not - but now that i am a grandmother with twin grandsons in a foreign country, i realise that i am the nice grandmother - what goes around comes around as they say


That Broad said...

I hope to be the nice grandmother some day. :)

airforcewife said...

I make my kids say, "May I go out to play."

I also make them say, "One moment, please" instead of the old teenage stand by "Hang on a sec!"

I, however, do not plan on being called Grandma or any derivitive thereof. I just can't make that leap, ever. I plan to have my grandkids call me "Joe".

miriam said...

I love being called grandma. My grandchildren are the most wonderful children in the world. But I noticed an odd look on my father's face when my oldest cherub called him grandpa. He was 46.

Your children sound well-mannered and polite. Good for you.