Thursday, August 23, 2007

Bubbe Mieces

If Bubbe had a blog, what would she blog about? She was not a person who shared her innermost feelings, unless contempt for stupidity is an innermost feeling.

Perhaps she could have told us about her early history, about which little is known. Unlike the cliche yiddishe mama, she did not grow up in a shtetl, but out in the country. I know nothing of her mother, whose name was Leah Fagel, or her father, sisters or brothers. She told me instead of living on or near a river, and how on nice days she and her friends would row down the river, singing songs. It sounded like an idyllic childhood. She learned to read and write at a Russian school.

My mother told me that my grandparents had lived a comfortable life. (Of course, mother would never admit having been born in Russia. She felt she was American through and through.) Uncle Moe did remember being a child in Russia. The family left Russia because my grandfather, then the father of two children, and having already served one term in the army, was about to be compelled to serve another four years.

Where did they live in the old country? Somewhere that was constantly being disputed by Poland and Russia. First the Russians would invade and conquer, then the Poles. My grandparents found themselves living first in Poland and then in Russia, without moving an inch. Consequently they were fluent in both languages. My uncle told me about living across the river from, I believe, Pinsk. The river fits what I know about her. When my mother and her siblings were small, she would take them on a streetcar from their home on the South side, to the North side, to rent a rowboat. My grandfather stayed home. "Papa was afraid of the water," according to my mother.

My grandfather had a promise of employment in Columbus, at the Hebrew school. Either the offer fell through, or he became ill, because it didn't happen. However, the family found themselves in Columbus, OH, in a place called Will Alley. The place was still there when I was a child and was a squalid slum. Eventually, like most of central Columbus, it was torn down and replaced by a highway, to no-one's regret.

My grandfather earned money by rolling cigars at home. This is confirmed by the US census, which also lists a son named Jacob. They had five children in all, two of whom, including Jacob, dropped off the face of the earth. They were never mentioned and as far as I could tell, no tear was shed for them. Being a parent myself, I am sure that plenty of tears were shed in private over losing two young children. But the only evidence of their existence was the occasional yahrzeit candle commemorating someone's death.

We never knew what happened to most of bubbe's relatives. I seem to recall, as if in a dream, seeing letters with foreign stamps arrive occasionally. These letters stopped coming before I was old enough to ask questions about them. Some of zayde's brothers and sisters had made it to America, mostly to Milwaukee, and another brother ended up in England, where he was a musician. But there was never a trace of bubbe's family. More yahrzeit candles appeared, with no explanations.

My mother also told me of one occasion when the three children shared a can of sardines for supper, along with bread and tea. When she asked what the grownups were eating, bubbe said, "Papa and I aren't hungry," and had plain bread and unsweetened tea.

They survived somehow, and things got better. A piano appeared, and lace curtains, and brass candlesticks. The two older children were excellent students who rushed through their studies at a breakneck pace. Mother graduated from high school at the age of 14 and got a job at the telephone company. Uncle Moe made her quit. She was destined for college.

The man who became my Uncle Doc was another story, always up to mischief, getting into trouble at school, bringing home stray animals. On one occasion he was expelled from high school for letting some white mice loose in the halls. My poor grandfather had to go to the school and beg them to give him another chance.

One of the reasons my family loved Columbus so and continue to do so has to be Ohio State University, which all the children attended with distinction. There was no thought of dorms or fraternities: they lived at home and took the streetcar to their classes. Uncle Moe went there through medical school and beyond; he became a professor of medicine. Uncle Doc also attended the medical school and became a surgeon.

Mother raced through college and law school (Ohio State, of course), passing the bar exam before she was legally old enough to practice law.

But I have strayed from bubbe's story, of which more later.


Tatyana said...

You might know very little of your babbe's life, but not for lack of interest.
My son actively rejects any mention of family history. He doesn't want to know.

miriam said...

Your son might be interested later. It is helpful to write this stuff down while you remember it.

My cousin has a lot of info about my father's family which I found interesting.

dick stanley said...

It's imperative to write down what you know now, in case something happens to you. None of the young ever care about geneaology. I didn't until I inherited in my thirties a bunch of old diaries and letters. People usually don't start caring until they are in their fifties or sixties. Faced with the realization that they actually will die, they start getting interested in this stuff, for some reason. My poor wife is trying to piece together hers, but is stuck not knowing any names beyond one of her great grandfathers.

Tatyana said...

Miriam, I gave it a try, by your example.