4

To Grandma, On Her 103rd Birthday

Dear Grandma,

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Grandma, happy birthday to you! It’s your best grandson here, and your only grandson.

It has been almost nine years since you’ve been gone, but I still think about you all the time, especially today, on what would have been your 103rd birthday. Time flies, doesn’t it?

So much has happened since I’ve last seen you. When we last talked, I had just moved to Washington, DC. I ended up switching out schools and finishing up at UMass Amherst, when I started writing plays. In 2008, one of my plays won a competition and was performed in downtown Baltimore for a whole week! I know you would have been there with Mom, Dad, and Aunt Ruth in the front row center, and you would have been so proud. You would have also been proud when I decided to move to Jerusalem for a year, and when I would call you every week, you would immediately call my parents and all of your other friends, telling them that your grandson called you from Israel. You would have baked a challah and sent it to me and it would have been delicious. You would have been puzzled when I moved to Houston for two years, but proud when I successfully graduated with my master’s, and got into the University of Wisconsin, where I sit today, on my way to become the first of your grandchildren to get a doctorate. Well, Susan technically has a doctorate in pharmacy, but never used the title. I will most definitely refer to myself as Dr. Jacob when I get that degree in my hands. I think you might have been confused over what I am deciding to get my degree in, and what I am going to do with it. You would not have been alone. But you would be proud nonetheless.

I don’t know how you would have felt learning about our family trip to Germany and Prague two years ago. I think you would have listened patiently on the phone or on Skype (if you knew how to use it) but you would have been sad not going with us and maybe a little worried for us. You would have loved to have seen the pictures and videos, and you would have felt much better about being here in America seeing how much things have changed. You would have been amused by our dinner at the American Embassy in Prague, and you would have not wanted any souvenirs at all.

You would be pleased to know how much all of us have grown up. You would be proud of my sister’s cooking and her job, and if you were feeling up to it, you would be right there in her kitchen helping her. She might also feel better about herself, since you were really close with her, and you would probably say things to her that would have helped her get through things. You would be so proud of having a great-granddaughter with a degree (and a job!), two great-grandchildren in college, and two others in high school. You’d also be happy to know that your name comes up at every single family function, and we are constantly asked by those outside the family if we remember you, and that you are remembered by others as a “tough lady” even though we all know how much you love us.

You would be very concerned about events in Europe and the Middle East, so I am glad that you are not here to worry about those things.

I don’t know how you’d feel about my decision to apply for German citizenship. You would probably not be happy with that choice, since they gave you nothing. But you might support our decision after we explained to you about the job market. Even still, you probably would be kind of weirded out. But you would love us all the same.

You would be shocked to learn that Cookie died, among others, but not at others who have also left. You would be pleasantly surprised by some of those from your generation who’ve stuck around, like Irma and Bluma.

Finally, you’d be happiest to learn that we still celebrate Jewish holidays together as a family as much as possible. Usually we have a few who are absent (I’d be the worst offender, so sorry about that :-/) but Thanksgivukkah was a blast. You know I’d call you every week and visit when I got the chance. You’d still be happy knowing that we’re keeping the family jokes alive and passing them on to the younger ones.

From your greatest, best, and only grandson, as always, with love,

Jacob

6

Heard It Through The Laptop

Today, I heard some voices through my laptop.

No, it wasn’t Marvin Gaye. Nor was it Gladys Knight and the Pips. Nor did it tell me to plow under my corn and build a baseball field.

My dad sent me a link to an mp3 tonight, and with him and my sister in the room, I opened it.

And what I heard amazed me.

The crackle of the static and the whistle of the feedback yielded to the first voice, accented by the chirp of a parakeet in the background.

“Stanley? Stanley…Stanley?”

It sounded like a sweet old lady, but not at all who I thought it was. But as she began her recitation, it became clear exactly who it was.

“Dear children, and grandchildren, and the children who will come after we are gone…”

It was my grandmother. She identified herself, and announced the date as November 17, 1972, and began to tell the story of how she, along with my grandfather, great-uncle, great-grandmother, and aunt (a baby at the time) escaped Nazi Germany in 1938.

I’ve heard this story many times, from my grandmother before she passed away in 2005 at age 94, and then from my father. Even I have retold the story, a few times. First, shortly after my grandmother’s death, to a group of students from my college, and then one day to my friend Stacey over lunch at Franklin Dining Commons, during my junior year at UMass, who listened with wide eyes and a spoonful of cereal that never made it to her mouth. My grandmother openly told the story at school assemblies, in synagogue, and even on camera for the Steven Spielberg Holocaust Archives at Yale University.

But this was the first time I heard it through the voice that my father knew, that my aunt knew, before age deepened and roughened it slightly. She spoke slowly, with grace and dignity, adding dramatic pauses for effect and choosing her words very carefully.

After a few minutes, another voice emerged from the background.

It was not a familiar voice, but it was one that I felt like I had known forever.

My grandfather.

My grandfather, whose name is in mine, who died in 1973.

I had never heard his voice…until now.

For the next twenty or so minutes, we listened to the story that we all knew, now told by my grandfather. His voice was slightly more accented than my grandmother’s was, but it wasn’t hard to match the voice with the photos I’ve seen of him, notwithstanding the fact that I always imagined him speaking in a deep voice with a German accent, which is exactly what I heard.

But listening to him, it was like hearing the story told for the first time.

4

My Redheaded Firecracker Grandmother

Today would have been my grandmother’s 100th birthday.

She was my mother’s mother, and my last surviving grandparent, whom I affectionately called Mimi because my oldest cousin couldn’t say “grandma” when she was a toddler.

Over the course of her very full life (97 years and 89 days) she accomplished an amazing number of things before she succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease.

Here are ten of them.

 

  1. She was remarkably well-educated at a time when not all women in America had that kind of luxury, drive, or wherewithal. Not only did she complete high school, but studied accounting at City College, today known as City College of New York (CCNY). 
  2. She was a member at the workforce at a young age; we think it was 16 since she lied about her age to get a job as a saleslady at Macy’s in Herald Square, which started her lifelong trend of denying her age. A true lady never reveals her age.
  3. She helped with the war effort; after seeing an ad in the newspaper, she moved to San Francisco to work as an accountant for a meat-packing plant. She lived with a cousin, and remembered how she got chauffeured to work every day in a private company car; a luxury. She also fondly remembered how her employers offered her a competitive salary.
  4. After the war, she returned to New York City, where she worked in accounting at a private hospital on Park Avenue in Manhattan, where she billed the rich and famous. One of her favorite memories (which she told me, and only me, over a plate of pasta at Noodles & Company) was the day she met First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In those days, hospitals had doormen, and one day, one of the said doormen came into her office, saying that Mrs. Roosevelt had walked in with a bouquet of flowers. Along with all the other hospital staff, she went down to the lobby to catch a glimpse of the First Lady, who had just finished visiting her friend and was walking down the stairs. I like to picture it as a Hello, Dolly! moment, only in more sensible shoes. All the staff members lined up and Mrs. Roosevelt went down the line, shaking everyone’s hand. Mimi also remembered that plenty of other celebrities came in as patients and visitors, but by the time I asked she had forgotten who else she had met.
  5. She traveled around the country and around the world, managing to hit up most of Western and Eastern Europe, China, Japan, and Indonesia, as well as visiting Israel six times.
  6. Her skills with numbers won her money in canasta and gin, and though she always liked bridge, she never replicated the same success. She was also a gifted singer. My grandfather, who was obsessed with audio/video recording, made a record of her singing some pop songs. My uncle found the records a few years back and shipped them somewhere (Wisconsin, I think) to have them converted to mp3 files. I heard it once, but since then I don’t know where that recording is. I wish I had it.
  7. She was strong in faith and in giving; she was a lifelong member of Hadassah and loved all Jewish holidays, especially the ones with sweet treats. One of my favorite memories of her later in life was Chanukah 2010, where even though most of her brain was gone, she still remembered the blessings over the candles and said them out loud, in Hebrew, without any help.
  8. She was also strong-willed; she gave up smoking in 1949 when smoking was the glamorous and popular thing to do. She did it when she got pregnant with my mom, her first child, because her doctor suggested that smoking while pregnant might be harmful to her and her baby’s health. After my mother was born, she lost interest in cigarettes.
  9. She was beautiful, with short, fire red hair and a New York accent and was often compared to Lucille Ball. She was also known to crack a good joke in her time. Her fiery hair and personality made her my “firecracker grandmother.”
  10. She always had a good sense of humor. At her 97th (and final) birthday, after the cake was served and eaten, I turned to her, saying “Thank you so much for inviting us to your party and being a wonderful hostess. Same time next year?” Her response: “Absolutely!”

Mimi, I miss you, I love you, and I will always love you.

Ruth Ellen Feingold Wilen Cooper

4/18/14 (The Bronx, New York, USA)  – 6/18/11 (Baltimore, Maryland, USA)

1

אין סוף (Without End)

I normally wouldn’t do something like this, but something recently made me want to reread a book I’ve already read. I originally read it for a project for which I didn’t even end up using it, but it stuck in my mind all the same. I haven’t thought about this book for awhile, but when I remembered it, I knew I had to get a copy and read it again. Astonishingly, the library didn’t have it so I had to order it through ILL, and since it’s due tomorrow, I should probably write something about it now. It’s one of those hidden gems of literature that says little (90 pages, exactly) but says a whole lot. It’s a novella entitled Bubbeh by Sabina Berman.

I continued eating grapes and talking, mocking the congregation and their Amens, while laughing with amusement at my own cleverness, all with the same mouth, a mouth that was very big indeed that day. And my grandmother, absorbed in her own thoughts, continued putting the pieces of the broken plate together.

Suddenly I felt sad. I stopped talking. The water continued running out of the tap into the sink.

Finally my grandmother said: “Close your eyes.” I squeezed my lids shut.

“What do you see?”

“Nothing.”

“And in that nothing, do you see a light?”

I concentrated. Beneath my eyelids in that darkness something like a yellow and white dust shimmered, a light.

“Yes,” I said. “But I always see that.”

“Always?”

I thought. That light didn’t seem extraordinary in any way.

“Yes,” I said, “always.”

“Always,” my grandmother repeated. “Well, that light is God, and it has many names.”

– Sabina Berman, Bubbeh, page 30

Bubbehor La bobe in Spanish, is a first-person account of the author’s relationship with her grandmother, “bubbeh” (which means “grandmother” in Yiddish). This true story takes place in Mexico City in the 1960s, but Berman’s grandmother comes from the “old world” of WWII-era Eastern Europe.

We are introduced to the grandmother as a woman who “lived tidily,” in Berman’s words. So tidy, in fact, that she has committed suicide by drowning herself in the bathtub, thereby eliminating the need for a traditional body-washing. Backtracking, we see the author as a little girl, moving into her grandparents’ house alongside her newly-divorced mother. Berman uses this opportunity to uncover the secrets of this mysterious, ladylike woman, with a faith in God that is foreign to her. The generation gap between mother and daughter is quite clear, with Berman’s mother’s aggressive and abrasive nature clashing with the grandmother’s more reserved and traditional ways. The more time that Berman (and the reader) spends with her grandmother, the more and more we see the beauty of the grandmother’s reticence and her unshakable faith in God despite having survived the horrors of war alongside her husband. The grandmother says very little herself, preferring to be dutiful to her husband yet maintaining a queenly presence as she introduces the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays to the author. After the author describes her grandmother’s funeral, she returns to the opening image of her grandmother’s death, which takes the reader by surprise even though it was revealed at the very beginning.

What really moves me about Bubbeh is Sabina Berman’s style of writing. The text is translated from Spanish to English but the words are so smooth, you’d never know. The way that Berman catches every detail, all the colors of the room, each crease in her grandmother’s wrinkled face, provides a rich context and a place where you can settle in and embrace the simplicity of faith and familial love. The undertone of her grandfather’s taste for secrets and Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed adds a nice through-line that brings the story together, especially for the grandmother; although grandmother does not read and study like her husband does, she has some secrets of her own.

This story reminds me of my own mother’s mother, my grandmother Mimi. She was also a woman who spoke very little, especially in her Alzheimer’s-ridden final decade, in contrast to her own mother, who died shortly before I was born, whose outspoken nature made her the very image of a family matriarch. In contrast, my grandmother ruled with a different sort of nature; it would be incorrect to say “ruled,” as her equanimity (and unfortunately, failing mental state towards the end) kept her a silent queen, always present but not needing to make her presence known.

To most people, a person who prefers to keep things to herself is perceived as anti-social, cold, afflicted by either a deep sorrow or a negative attitude. But my grandmother was none of those things; she let her love for her children, grandchildren, and religion speak for her. In her younger days, she was a red-headed firecracker from New York City who traveled across the country between the wars to seek her fortune as an accountant in California, who always knew what she wanted and went for it. Upon marrying my grandfather and having children, this chapter of her life was completely shuttered; a locked file cabinet, never to be spoken of again. Even though she never lost her gleam, her luster, her zest for life, she concentrated all of her efforts on being a dutiful wife and mother. Like Berman’s grandmother, my own grandmother had a vast trove of secrets, some of which came out to my mother, and some only to me. Although after her death we found many artifacts of this life, we were unable to piece together a narrative; there were so many missing pieces. Some of my grandmother’s secrets are lost forever. I guess, in a way, by doing this, she cemented her reign in our lives and in our minds. She wanted us to have pleasant memories of her, as sweet, caring, and kind without fault. Without raising her voice or speaking her mind, she got her way, even after death.

My favorite passage is this one, on page 33-34.

I’m in the big bed, as fluffy as a cloud. A long, white bed. My grandmother covers me up to my chin with the goose-down comforter, and she sits down on the edge of the bed. The bedroom is in shadows.

My grandmother leans over to peer into my eyes. It’s an ageless moment. I’m eight years old, perhaps six or even four. Once more my grandmother becomes that tall woman whose profile extends upward, covering the cathedral’s golden clock. Her black eyes penetrating my eyes. Her face, as white as the moon’s reflection in a pond. The pond, my face, illuminated by her own. She passes her hand from my forehead down to my cheeks, half-closing my eyelids.

Her measured voice, distant and close at the same time: “Do you see that light?”

With her index and ring fingers, she taps the comforter on my chest. I hardly feel the pressure.

Yes, that greenish-white light, inside me.

Ayn sof,” she says, scarcely breathing the words.

Everything is like a secret. What my grandmother is now entrusting to me is, in face, a secret.

Ayn sof,” I reply very quietly.

Years later I will learn that Ayn sof means without end in Hebrew. It will take me even longer to fully comprehend that this is one of the names of God. I will be astonished at the simplicity with which my grandmother has asked me if I see that light and at the ingenuousness with which I answer simply, yes.

I will forever be curious about the things she didn’t tell us, things she didn’t leave clues to, and things she didn’t want us to know. Maybe someday, something will surface, but for now, these things – people, places, events, and how she really felt about them – are hers alone, her travel companions in the next stage. Sabina Berman’s Bubbeh is a testament to those lost memories and is something that should be treasured and read by anyone who is need of a reason to believe.

La bobe

This book review has been brought to you by the library of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the scary heavy winds outside.