Family Histories: The Jelly Glass

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!

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38 responses to “Family Histories: The Jelly Glass”

  1. Sharon, this is a brilliant piece of writing and I was hooked from the very start! 😀My heart goes out to Judith and the treatment by her family…I just want to give her a hug and some toys!❤️ This has a terrific sense of atmosphere and time, whilst the characters are wonderfully portrayed! I see from your comment that this might be the makings of a book…I sure hope so as I just wanted to read on, learning more about her life. A fantastic contribution to Adrienne’s lovely series and a delight to read.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. A charming, poignant and atmospheric story. I felt I was there in the kitchen. Digging in the dirt with a spoon, poor child. I wonder if it’s still there. Interesting you mention Queen Anne’s Lace. Over here it’s an old rural name for one of the umbellifers (a wild flower). Is that the same or is it a garden flower in the US? Just curious.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Queen Anne’s Lace is definitely a wild flower – in other words, a weed – that grew in the Eastern U.S. when I was a kid. According to Wikipedia, it’s daucus carota. Sometimes I see them in professionally arranged bouquets. I loved them – looked like a whole bouquet on a single stem.

      Thank you for reading, Denzil, and for your kind comments.

      Liked by 1 person

    • My best friend’s grandparents on both sides were so cruel to her–and so often. We watched her get beaten with a hose because she dared let us neighborhood kids sip from the hose on a hot day. It was so shocking at the time. She was the only kid who ever got a bar of soap for Christmas every year.

      My ex-husband was still bitter over a secret trip to Disney for only his sister years ago. I wonder how adults don’t take children’s feelings into account even as I struggle to not lose complete patience with a foster child.

      It’s far too easy to slip into cruelty when you have any bit of power.


  3. Queen Anne’s Lace grows in my gardens. I know I should pluck them out but I love the clumps of little white flowers so I let them stay put.

    Growing up going to school with so many kids of the Jewish faith, I understood a little about the use of certain dishes used for certain food. Still, it would not occur to me that a jelly glass had to be treated the same way.

    This is a heartbreaking story, yet, it needs to be told so people know about the traditions, what they mean and how they affect people. You did a marvelous job on this story, Shari.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I wonder why in families certain children get picked out as “stars” of the family while others are treated with such disdain. Does the disliked child remind the adults of some flaw they see in themselves? Do the adults even realize the damage they do? This is a theme I love to explore.

      My parents did their best to hide any mixed feelings they had about us but some of my relatives were very cruel in picking favorites. I was a favorite because they thought I was pretty and nothing more. They knew nothing about me since I was quiet as a mouse and afraid of their judgements. It all seemed so arbitrary and I was aware of how they hurt my siblings and other cousins whom they didn’t like as much.


    • Keeping kosher is an all day task for someone in the household, and is beholden to a few short sentences in Torah that have been expanded over the millennia to address every morsel put in one’s mouth. Trying to figure it out is a monumental job and not one I personally need to consider. I’m more interested in how food is grown and harvested and how safe we keep those who do this work. Still, Judith’s grandparents had been raised to separate all dishes, glasses, cutlery, pots, pans, even storing food, so Judith’s mistake upset them. It struck at their core.

      Liked by 2 people

      • It is upsetting to see parts of who you are disappearing in the next generation. Especially when you believe their ignorance may separate them from god and culture. Sadly in our zeal to pass things on we so often do the opposite of what we want to do.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Sharon, I lost your blog link and have been looking for it, so very glad to receive it via Judith’s “catnip blog” post.

    I can absolutely relate to this story in so many ways. I was luckier than Judy though. The yiddish brought back so many amazing memories of visiting my grandfather once a week, as he used many of the same words that you have mentioned here, as did my mother, and she still does. My grandfather was very kind to me and he even had a little cabinet stocked with “toys” for my visits, although they were strange toys, things like miniature alcohol bottles, unusual bottle openers, and other nick nacks. He also allowed me to have a whole slab of chocolate to myself, something I never got at home and as wel,l coffee sweetened with condensed milk, a forbidden drink for children i my home.

    This is a fine piece of poignant writing and I really enjoyed reading it aloud to Ben, who enjoyed it too.

    Now for Ben’s side of the story: Equally familiar having being brought up in a non observant Jewish household in France. His grandparents on both sides were Polish Jews living in France before and after World War 2. Thick Polish/Yiddish accents in French which still ring clear in his ears to this day. Smiling at the comments about meat fat (schmaltz)… His grandmother considered French bread with a thick slab of fat a quintessential part of her diet. He had none of the kosher stuff even though the history of Jews going through German camps certainly gave his family a firm grounding on European Jewish history.

    The element of rejection in your story is palpable. So here is a digital hug to Judy from Green Global Trek.

    Ben & Peta

    Liked by 1 person

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