My father’s mother died long before I was born. He loved her enough to name me, the firstborn, for her, Rifka. I’ve, of course, heard stories about her. The one that resonates the most is the oft-told tale of Zayda leaving his family, his wife and three very young children, to come to America, while Rifka was in advanced pregnancy. Within three weeks she would deliver my father……..and his twin sister Itka. Hearing stories like that about this gutsy, determined, bold and brave woman makes me yearn, impossibly, to have known her. How did she do it?
My mother’s mother died when I was five years old. I have a wispy recollection of her, sitting in her wheelchair, peeling potatoes. She was very old, at 62! That is my single memory of Peshka but I’ve been told many stories about her working so hard that it ultimately killed her. She wanted to succeed for the benefit of her children, her American children. And so, Dave owned a thriving business, Charlie became a dentist, a graduate of NYU Dental School, and my mother attended Brooklyn College. But Peshka’s sacrifices were monumental. How did a new immigrant from Augustow, Poland, a picturesque town of canals and tourism, arrive in the teeming slums of the Lower East Side, raise a family in a cold water flat, and eventually carve for herself a life as the proprietor of a small Catskills hotel, The Bauman House in Parksville NY.
And so I was blessed with two amazing grandmothers, who I never knew; thus missing the most magnificent relationship that families own, a grandmother and her grandchildren.
I had a mother and I am a mother. That relationship, as we all know, is sometimes challenging. Often a mother and her children have different perspectives. Arguments are common. Rebellion, of course! It’s the impossibly rare parent-child life together that is only harmonious, peaceful and without tension and rancor. Of course, my mother and I loved each other deeply. And of course, I would give my life for any of my children. But, to say that life was always filled with equanimity ……..well, I cannot. And it wasn’t.
And I can’t say that about life with my spouse who is amazing, gentle, loving, kind and with whom I frequently do disagree. Not always politely or kindly. Really!
But move now to our grandchildren, and, without any dishonesty whatsoever, I can tell you, I am never ever the same imperfect creature that I was or am as a daughter, mother or wife. Grandmothers and the children of their children, grandchildren, don’t fight. They love in peace and tranquility. They’re always on the same page. Always. It’s unique and beautiful. I always want to be with them, to share their triumphs or wipe their tears. There are just no discordant notes. No fierce arguments. We’re perfect together.
And so it is, reflecting on grandmothers, that I recall the Pesach Seders of long ago, when, at the age of 17, I finally began a relationship with grandmothers, the Big Babba and the Little Babba, grandmothers to my husband-to-be. The Big Babba reached no more than about 5 feet on a ruler but she was considerably taller than the Little Babba who was no more than 4 feet 6 inches. Nonetheless there was a mighty woman tucked into that tiny body. Everyone knew it and no one neglected her or didn’t give her the respect she deserved. And like with our own grandchildren, both of these women looked at their grandchildren with amazement and awe. How had they come so far, these two women born in the Pale, to have grandchildren, college-educated, unaccented English speakers, who lit up their lives.
I ask questions as well. Where did these perfect beings come from, my grandchildren? I am so proud to be their grandmother. And, no Dayenu here, we now burst with pride as we engage with two incredible great-grandchildren. I could never imagine having any encounter with Noam or Itai that would lead to an argument. Like all grandmothers and great-grandmothers, I adore them. I kid you not! (Pardon the pun.)
The Big Babba was fiercely religious, passionately Jewish, and up to any task. And so it was she who made the annual family seder in her cramped apartment on President Street in Brooklyn. Her table grew with the crowd size. Sometimes it seemed she would have to build an addition to the living room, but it always worked in the end. She did every bit of cooking herself. Her gefilte fish did not emerge as a frozen loaf from the butcher’s freezer. Her fish, carp and pike, swam in her bathtub until she deemed it the proper time to make them into the delicious sweet fish. I never saw this process take place and I never would have wanted to, but she continued the mayhem until the end of her life.
The meal each year was classic and unchanging, but authenticity was the first order of business. She made sure not a word of the Haggadah was left out and, somehow, with her serving chores still to come, she was on top of all the “sedering” so that it really was beseder!
There was always enough kneidlach in the soup for the grandchildren to get a second. The others need not bother asking.
The chicken was usually on the dry to very dry side. Hard to watch the chicken when you’re watching the davener.
And, as is traditional, the homemade wine was always shared with the freshly laundered tablecloth. If you were a grandchild, no need to apologize. It was “nothing.”
That’s what it was like to have a grandmother. I learned it from the best. I couldn’t at that tender age see it coming but, quick as a wink, here I am, not only a grandmother but a great.
The two babbas are long since gone, but memories of them linger in the mind of the teenage girl who was to marry their grandson. Both of them can be seen in the wedding video, adorned with corsages, proudly walking down the aisle, arms linked, in their blue dresses, teaching the bride what a grandmother is supposed to do. Now I know and it’s grand to be a grandmother and a great-grandmother. Grand indeed! On Pesach and always.