Tuesday, January 31, 2012


I mentioned previously that my grandmother passed away this month.  I was fortunate to be able to speak at her at her funeral, and I've decided that the experience of growing up with her is worth sharing with a wider audience.  of She was 97, or at least we think she was, but she may have been as old as 99.  Record-keeping was a little iffy where she grew up.

Bubby had a long, interesting life, but not an easy one.  There were many people who loved her very much, but she had a lot of sad experiences.  At ten years old she left the village where she spent her childhood, never to see the relatives who remained again.  Almost everyone who stayed behind was killed during the Holocaust.  She grew up nearly fatherless, first because he immigrated to America when she was very young, and because he passed away not long after he was able to bring his family over.  She outlived her beloved husband, my grandpa Jack, by more than 45 years, and one of the reasons I try to keep her absence in perspective is that she wanted to be reunited with him for a very, very long time.  I miss her a lot though. 

In some respects, I got to experience the best third of her life.  By the time I showed up she was retired, she was in good health into her early 90s, and she made caring for my brother and I a top priority.  She had great friends, she traveled a lot, and had a wide variety of interests and pursuits.  She was special, and we were really, really lucky.  Here's a snapshot of that experience. 

Hello Everyone.  It’s really good to see all of you, even if we are all sad today.  My grandmother Ida, or “Bubby,” as I liked to call her, was very good at bringing the people in this room together, and I feel like she has accomplished that today.
My younger brother has told us about our Bubby’s life[i], and the things that she did.  I would like to take just a few moments today to explain what it was like to be her grandson.   I’m getting to share my thoughts because I spent a lot of time with her, especially early in my life, but Ida was very lucky to have four grandsons, each of whom she loved dearly.  Daniel and I saw her all the time because we lived 10 minutes away, but one of her great joys was a visit from Joshua and Simon. 

(As an aside – I really saw Josh and Simon as kind of exotic when I was little – they lived far away, they were older, they had long hair, and they were into Phil Collins… this was pretty advanced stuff for a 7-year old in 1985 Toledo).

So here is the main thing I want to convey today about Bubby – she was able to do extremely special things, and to make you feel extremely special, but she made it look so easy.  For example, almost every Sunday evening, from the time I was extremely young until I went to college, we would go to Bubby’s house for dinner. 

We would usually arrive at around 5:30, walk up the steps into her house, and say hi to her back, because she was usually pulling a kugel out of the oven with her bare hands, pulling spaghetti out of the oven[ii], or grilling lamb chops at her table broiler.  If you’ve had her lamb chops, then you already know that you could tell when they were ready because the smoke alarm just went off. 

Usually we would be handed steaming potato latkes when we walked in, sometimes right out of the searing Crisco, which needed to be eaten with a napkin holder, unless that night she made round fries, which we would have with the aforementioned lamb chops, or a potato kugel, or some whole potatoes roasted in fat, which would go alongside the brisket or the turkey, or some mashed potatoes, which would have some kind of gravy from the meat.  After a latke, we would make our way to the dining room, maybe turn on the radio for a little background noise, and have soup, which would be chicken with matzoh balls, or kreplach, or noodles, or noodles and kreplach, unless it was split pea or lentil, or unless she was serving blintzes, in which case there would be cold borscht for grownups and fruit cocktail for Daniel and I.  The grownups, knew not what they were missing.

Once we were good and full, it was time to eat dinner, which would be a brisket, or a turkey, or more of those lamb chops with the delicious marrow, or London Broil, or broiled steaks, or spaghetti and meatballs, or meatloaf, or stuffed cabbage, or blintzes.  Dinner was on about an eight week rotation, and on the side there would invariably be an iceberg salad, some kind of a potato, kishke if the occasion merited, and a little dish of pickles and olives. Occasionally frozen kosher egg rolls made an appearance. 

After dinner, as we staggered into the living room to watch “60 Minutes” and take a nap, Bubby would put on the coffee, do the dishes, and get dessert ready.  Sometimes it was just us, and sometimes Uncle Ben and Aunt Nettie or Uncle Harry and Aunt Leeta would come for dessert.  When Aunt Molly visited from Dayton, or sometimes just because, dinner would perhaps be replaced by a lunch of corned beef and pastrami from Siegel’s, unless there was turkey or pepper beef, with marble rye and Bubby’s own potato salad, with its eggs and celery a meal in itself. 

Think for a moment about the amount of work she would do for us every week of every year for decades, and then think about the staggering amount of food that would emerge from her kitchen on Passover for a couple of dozen people,  or the extra latkes that we would gorge ourselves on at Channukah.   Think about her cleaning it up in a sink with no disposal, and cooking it without a microwave or even a mixer.  I’ve made kreplach with her, and she did it with a fork and a spoon. 

The phrase “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” is batted around regarding all sorts of things – cars, homes, cast-iron stoves, but they really don’t make them like her, and Bubby was our cast-iron stove.  She was solid.  She was reliable.  She warmed us with her love.  She loved us unsparingly, all of us in this room, and those no longer with us.   She endured a lot of change and loss and pain in her life, and she could have become cynical and embittered, and I have seen her in her sad moments, but she was overwhelmingly positive and happy, at least to see us. 

I have never heard her point out a fault in an acquaintance.  Perhaps she saved it for her bridge group, but we never saw sarcasm or fun at someone else’s expense.  That said, I can recall the countless times we laughed at her table until we cried, and we had to put down our strudel because, in our mirth, powdered sugar was getting everywhere.   Daniel and I saw her sensitivity to personal slights, and she did not forget them, but she rewarded friends and family’s loyalty with a lifetime of care.   She was tough, and she had to be.  She had to take care of people from an early age, and she never retired from that role. She took care of her family, she took care of her tenants, and she took care of her friends, whether they were from North Lockwood or from the gym she joined in her 70s, as progressively fewer of her friends came to the Jewish Community Center.  Daniel and I remain somewhat awed that into her 80s our grandmother exercised more than we did in our 20s.  Collectively.

In my early years, when my parents were working, Bubby was my daily caretaker, and then Daniel’s, and our days were full of constant small adventures – bus trips to Downtown Toledo to wade in the fountain or walk around Portside, shopping expeditions in her Nova, and then in her Chevette, and then her Tercel - always with two doors because she thought they were cheaper - to Siegel’s or to Farmer Jack’s, where she would get me my free cookie from the bakery.  To Sanger library, often enough that my dad would be surprised later when the librarians knew me when I came in.  To Wildwood park, where she’d smoke a Taryton while I played on the swingset,  or to Uncle Benny and Aunt Nettie’s for Laurence Welk.  I can smell Uncle Ben’s Dutch Master, I can feel the roll of pennies Aunt Nettie would give me on the way out.  I can taste the Kedem grape juice.  Bubby would teach us to play cards, and to crochet.  She would show us how to paint our nails – with clear polish! – which would drive my dad nuts.     

Some grandchildren get the defining major memory – the Caribbean cruise, or the birthday car[iii].  We got the benefit of the continual presence of someone who loved us and told us constantly how wonderful we were.[iv]  Our self-esteem was never in question, and I think that being adored by small people was good for Bubby too.  She was never too busy for us, never had something she wanted to do more than make us a bowl of soup or watch “The Price is Right” with us while we had some bread and butter.  I am sure that she must have, but I cannot remember her ever having said “no” to me, and we listened to her a lot more than we did to our parents.  I can see the theme repeating itself with Noah, which I guess is a form of justice the universe metes out. 

On Friday, after we had heard that Bubby had passed away, Lauren reminded me of how starting about six months ago, when Bubby wasn’t able to converse the way she did before, pretty much all she could do was wave at us and say “I love you!”  And we'd wave and say, "I love you!" And then we’d do it again.  That moment was the distillation of Bubby’s life, it was what she lived for.  The millions of potato latkes, the loaded table groaning with food, the giant wet kisses I squirmed away from as a kid – they just came from a sincere, open place of love.  Most people are afraid to come from somewhere that unguarded.  When she couldn’t do anything else, when she was away from her home and her friends, and you had to quiet everyone to hear her, she still had love for us.  That love was her motive, it drove her for decades to give and share and lead a vital, valuable life.  I can’t tell you everything I loved about her in 5 minutes, but I don’t have to, because everyone here has experienced it. 

I’m not sure I can ever really measure how lucky I was that she’s the grandmother we drew, but the last thing that she taught me, and perhaps the great lesson of her life, was that coming from a place of love is something we can all aspire to.  Thank you. 

Some uncollected thoughts I had in writing this: 
1.       They don’t make people like her anymore
2.       We were all lucky
3.       She let me win at cards as a kid, and she didn’t let many people do that.[v]
4.       She would take Daniel and I out for non-kosher fast food that she didn’t eat.   My dad says that when he found us in the backyard eating a McDonalds cheeseburger During Passover, he knew she would relate to us differently than him.
5.       She used to take me to the ice cream shop for tin roof – still my favorite flavor
6.       She would make strudel, latkes, soup, and give us those little chocolate/vanilla/strawberry wafer cookies. We would eat the soup right off of the kitchen window-sill as it cooled, looking out the window
7.       She sat on the steps when she babysat to make sure we were not turning the light on and reading (making sure we were OK).
8.       Sparkling grape juice on new years.   
9.       Always, always, always there.
10.   Never said no to me
11.   Always kind
12.   Always loving
13.   Talking around the dining room table, during dessert, or during 60 Minutes.  Wanted to know the gossip. 
14.   Came to every show, play and recital. 
16.   Giving us frozen macaroni and cheese from the aluminum tin – a long lost products since people can’t microwave it
17.   Jello molds with suspended fruit cocktail
18.   Vernors on the table during dinner
19.   Driving to Dayton with her in Uncle Harry’s Town Car
20.   Egg whites with sugar for her for dessert, with strawberries
21.   How to play cards – poker, blackjack and solitaire
22.   Always counting stitches or cards under her breath while she crocheted or dealt a hand
23.   Wore a lot of house coats
24.   Friends with Bert, Kappy, Anna Stauber, Shirley Sanders
25.   Curtailed fear of death, dying old age
26.   Was always doing something

[i] Hopefully he’ll send it along for me to post
[ii] She learned this recipe from an Italian neighbor woman
[iii] In the original draft, this read "the Caribbean cruise, or the birthday car, or perhaps a little cosmetic work."  I decided maybe it wasn't the place.
[iv] Although in actuality my ‘present’ may have just been a case of deferred compensation.  I cashed in my Bar Mitzvah bonds for part of the down payment on our new house.  Bubby and her friends were still helping me out, and we literally could not have bought it without those gifts from twenty years ago.  It’s an amazing thing.
[v] Truly, she was very, very sharp at bridge and gin, and I’m sure poker and other games too, but she saved those for the grown-ups.


Judy said...

Jon - this is utterly beautiful. A wonderful tribute to someone I know was a defining factor in your life.

My grandmother is 96...to be 97 in a bit. It makes me sad to think about writing something like this, but I know her cup overfloweth, her days are and have been full, and I am one of the lucky ones to bear witness to it. Much like you and Bubby.

Jonathan said...

Hi, thank you Judy, that's very kind. We were just lucky to have her for so long, and I am so glad and amazed that she and Noah got to know each other. It's nice that (just like your guys) he will be able to remember his great-grandmother when he's older. I'm happy that you have been able to experience something similar.