Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.
We start off the series with a story by Sharon Bonin-Pratt about an unpleasant trip to Grandma’s house:
Judy often spent the weekends with her paternal grandparents, dropped off by a mother so indifferent to her needs that she never knew where she was going.
Not told to pack a book, a clean pair of panties, or a toothbrush, her mom pulled out of the driveway as soon as the car door slammed. Twenty minutes later, she traipsed into her Bubbie’s kitchen. Bubbie probably said something in her Yiddish-New Jersey accent but Judy never remembered what. It was never, “Mort, look who’s here. Neshomeleh, glad you came.” No, not that. She would remember being called “darling.”
Years later she realized her parents enjoyed adventurous fun with her younger brother and sister on those weekends while she dusted Bubbie’s fragile porcelain tchotchkies and ran the Bissell over the worn rugs. Zaydeh’s accent growled with warning. “Judy, don’t bang the table.” Though she never did while maneuvering the sweeper. At ten, she knew to go slow, to be careful.
Then she sat in the living room, engulfed by Zaydeh’s cigar smoke with its rotting food stink, crossing and uncrossing her legs because there was nothing to do. Her grandparents hadn’t kept kids’ toys or books. Moving from house to house every two years or so required scaling down. Toys would have been an extravagance to cart around. If the weather was warm, she was allowed to walk outside but her grandparents lived in the dying neighborhoods of aging residents, children long grown and moved out. “Don’t wander away, Judith.” As if there was some place wonderful to go. Someone to visit.
So she sat on the steps at one house, in the crab grass of another, on the Southern-style porch of the house she loved most, and watched summer days wander across the sky, as bored as she was. “Judy, don’t touch that.” Either one might have ordered her though other than dusting, she rarely touched anything. But she looked – at clouds meandering toward the horizon, at the elaborate pattern of heavy drapes at the windows, at the splendor of sunlight blazing through the stained glass panel on the stair landing. There was little to touch after all.
Judy was the quiet child who spoke when spoken to, who startled easily, but also laughed hysterically over incidents others found only mildly funny. She was the unwanted one, foolish enough to have been born female at the wrong time to a mother too young, to a father too busy to notice. She was the child who ruined everything, so her mother said.
The oldest in her generation, she watched as newborn cousins were celebrated by the family. “Judy, don’t touch the baby.” That she heard from everyone, though she would have held her cousins lovingly. Had she been allowed.
Zaydeh’s indifference proved a wall she couldn’t breach. She gave up trying. Bubbie at least might show a caring side if Judy worked at being sweet. So she dried the dishes and tried to eat food she could barely swallow. A skinny kid with no appetite, she couldn’t tolerate runny eggs, or anything with mashed potato texture, and meat fat that made her gag. Still, she was stubborn about refusing food. “Judith, eat your dinner, for crying out loud. Other kids would be happy to eat this.”
“Leave her alone, Mort. She doesn’t want it.”
“Don’t give her anything else, Bassie . She’ll eat what she gets or nothing.”
One of the last weekends she spent with her grandparents was in 1958 when they lived near the train tracks in an apartment that rattled with every pass of the rail cars. She
peered out the kitchen window but was not allowed in the back yard near the tracks. Too dangerous. Side by side in the kitchen, she and Bubbie chatted about school and the little cousins. Bubbie no longer put eggs on her plate, as much to avoid Judy’s tears as Zaydeh’s hollering. She washed dishes, old enough to handle the plates so they didn’t break. Still she heard, “Judy, don’t chip the edges.”
She asked before taking anything, but Bubbie was still probably surprised when she wanted a glass of milk that afternoon. She didn’t like it without chocolate syrup which Bubbie didn’t have, but also didn’t like warm tap water. Her grandmother nodded but as Judy began to pour the milk into a glass, Bubbie yelled.
“Not that one. What are you, meshugeneh?”
She wasn’t crazy but couldn’t figure out what she’d done wrong.
“Now you got to bury it in the yard. Away from the house.”
She held up the jelly glass, saved after the grape jelly was gone. Not wanting to waste the milk, she started to drink it.
“Oy gevalt. Don’t drink that.”
Zaydeh stomped into the kitchen to see what tsouris she’d caused, then glared when Bubbie grabbed the glass to pour the milk in the sink. Anger blazed like she’d seen on her mom’s face but never before on Bubbie’s.
“What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know better?” Bubbie’s nostrils flared. Fury from the one who got annoyed but never angry. What had Judy done?
From Zaydeh the dark expression was familiar. He barked, “A broch, don’t you know any better? You don’t put milk in a fleishik glass.”
Judith was Jewish on both sides of her family but they were about as observant as their Protestant neighbor. They weren’t Orthodox, didn’t keep kosher. Though she knew every curse, swear word, and nasty expression in Yiddish, she didn’t know the difference between milchik and fleishik – milk and dairy dishes. They didn’t celebrate Christmas, but was otherwise foggy about what it meant to be Jewish. At Yom Kippur the previous September, the holiest day of the Jewish year, it was a Catholic classmate who told her she should have been in temple with nearly all the rest of the kids. At Judy’s house, they also drank out of saved jelly glasses, but forget milchik or fleishik. Her parents understood little of Jewish faith or customs.
Trembling, she trudged to the back yard of the house near the railroad tracks. They’d given her a large spoon to dig with, and she knelt amidst the Queen Anne’s lace, shoving the spoon in the dirt and thrusting out clods. Tears made it hard to see, and maybe her snuffling blocked the chug of the train as it passed.
Zaydeh poked his head out the back door. “Stop making such a big megillah out of a little work. You’re lazy, just like your mom says.”
How to explain she wasn’t crying over the task of burying the glass, but for the loss of respect by the person she’d grown to love, who she thought loved her? Three weeks the glass would have to stay buried until it could be unearthed and used for the correct meal.
Judy never got the chance to show Bubbie she was a person worth talking to, worth sharing household chores with, worth loving. That was one of the very last weekends she spent with her grandparents.
In a few months Judy’s family moved to Arizona, two years later to California. She visited her grandparents only once more when she was nearly eighteen and her family flew to New Jersey to celebrate her brother’s bar mitzvah. Judy never pulled the jelly glass out of the ground or said the blessing to make it kosher. She wondered if it remained buried under Queen Anne’s Lace.
Now a grandmother herself, she is still trying to figure out why she’s peculiar, a stranger to most people, even those who think they know her well. Still sometimes using the wrong glass.
Sharon Bonin-Pratt, July 2017
***Please stop by next Sunday for the next Family Histories guest post!