My husband’s grandmother, so the family story goes, carried a dust cloth over her shoulder at all times. When the phone rang she would dust her way, from wherever she happened to be, making a resolute path to the telephone table at the farthest end of the apartment. Invariably when she picked up the receiver, the line was dead. “Misteam anti-Zzzzzemite!” she’d sputter. My own grandmother showed me once how to dust a table. The task began with lifting a lamp off the table, unscrewing the finial, removing the lamp shade, dusting lamp and shade separately, putting them back together, screwing down the finial, placing the lamp “gently” on the floor, lifting the table off the rug, “getting underneath…” It was exhausting!
What was it with these women, diminutive, iron-willed matriarchs whose sworn enemies were dust and dirt and mud?
Meir Shalev commemorates the archetype in his wittily elegiac My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner, a family memoir (translated from the Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg, Schocken Books, $25.95). As Shalev explains, his grandmother, a pioneer in the Jezreel Valley, was phobic about dirt. Besides the dust cloth she carried on her shoulder, she kept an army of lesser rags on handles of doors, bureaus, cupboards, and windows. Every day began with the ritual of scrubbing floors and wringing rags. And her enormous General Electric vacuum was locked in a bathroom and never used, because an imperfection in one of its sealing rings raised the possibility that someday a small amount of dust might escape from its interior cloth bag.
The gently comedic story of Grandma Tonia’s vacuum, replete with digression and variations, allows for a glimpse of a family with Tonia as its essence: “stubborn, vindictive, jealous, obsessive, and excessive… she was our source of strength…” She had come to Palestine from the Ukraine in 1923 after her grandfather was hanged in a pogrom. When she was 18 years old, she married her older sister’s widower — a Zionist and socialist who “inclined towards things other than agriculture.” She raised his two sons from the earlier marriage (a source of great bitterness) and gave birth to five more children. Through all the vicissitudes, she held the family together and made sure they kept their farm even when “marshy sludge filled the yards and the cows and the farmers waded knee-deep in it.” If she took out her rage on filth, endless cleaning was the price such women paid for holding it together for everyone else.
As Shalev acknowledges, Tonia’s artistry showed up in other places — in anything having to do with plums (plum cake and plum jam, for instance), and in her wonderful stories that began in a thick Russian accent: “This is how it was…” (a phrase that serves as the book’s original Hebrew title). The book has the lovingly teasing quality of family reminiscence, especially when Shalev honors Tonia’s sharp tongue and unembarrassed fusion of languages and idiom: “Don’t scritch me the walls with it,” “You watch out, Batyaleh, this guy is one decent bird!” “You’re not going to inherit me as long as I’m alive,” and (my favorite, since my grandmother said it as well) “It was a terrible death.”
Frances Brent, whose last book is The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson, is working on a biography of the modern architect Samuel Marx.