By TED ROBERTS, the SCRIBBLER ON THE ROOF
As I look back at my grandparents, I’m filled with wonder. Now, I’m a grandparent, too. And by the way, we never called them Bubbe or Zayde. It wasn’t cool then. Only today, for some reason, I don’t understand.
And they showed little attention to me and my brother. Love was a rare commodity. Had they seen the bumper sticker urging hugs and kisses, they would have said, “Why? Did he save somebody’s life?” They weren’t warm to say the least – they were formally polite and asked appropriate questions about my adaptation to life. Looking back I think they were too busy making a living – a full time obsession. There was more than a double generation gap between them and me. They had worked in muddy fields digging potatoes – I played America’s game, baseball.
They would politely inquire as to our health, never forgetting to question our digestive functions. And if you passed that quiz with “oh, yes, every morning this week”, next came the goose grease threat. I always breathed loud and forcefully in their company. No chest congestion suspicions or you’d find yourself laying on the couch marinating in cold, yellow fat that used to belong to a chicken – now deceased. The smell was awful and it defeated three to four baths with ease. I guess it had its advantages. Basically, since you smelled like a spoiled chicken you were quarantined from any schoolhouse diseases.
I’ll admit that Grandma’s (we never called her Bubbe) hatred of my puppy didn’t help our relationship. She couldn’t understand why we kept a border who paid no rent and ate like a small horse. What did he contribute besides dog hair on the couch and a mobile stumbling block to send you sprawling down the stairs? She called him – in broken Yiddish – “Der Hunt”. That’s what it sounded like to me; and she bit off that last consonant, sharply, so it sounded like a curse. A cat? Ah, that was different. Cats killed mice that subleased their quarters over the store. They paid for their cat food with extermination services.
The grandpapa had his own collection of Yiddish phrases – none with good ol’ American hatred that accused the victim of strange sexual practices or blighted ancestry. When angry, he’d demonize his opponent with something that sounded like “Haben a chollentia in der zeitin”, which I think meant, “You should have a pain in your side”. But his most awesome (and comical) uttering sounded like “A mis a mus shin off dere”. When I matured enough to be trusted with the secret, I was told it meant, “I hope you have an ugly daughter”. An ugly daughter? That’s a curse?
There were How ‘bout: “Ich chub der in bud” – interpreted in my family (rightly or wrongly) as: “Ah, I have you helpless – I have you in the bathtub.” Yiddish – a dying language – who knows? – did not lend itself to curses.
My grandmother, not to be outdone, had some verbal quirks of her own. The car was referred to as “the machine.” Not inaccurate. We saw them frequently and I’m sure they loved us, but hugs and kisses were rationed. Dr. Spock’s nonsense, remember, hadn’t yet been invented. He would have suggested unearned outpouring of love and I probably would have ended up in jail.