The Anti-Zen of Grandma

To begin with, my mother was a marinater. To those of you who have no idea what the process of marinating entails or why I would utilize this as a definitive attribute, let me explain.

Marinating requires a plan. One must have on hand the ingredients, a vessel large enough, and the time to engage in the process. If the pan or bowl isn’t large enough to submerge the whole roast, if indeed a roast is the item, the marinater must be available to turn it at regular intervals. The closer together these intervals are, the more infused and succulent the roast. In fact, one can take a fairly cheap brisket, an old chicken, bland vegetables or even simple potatoes, and soak them into delicacies that will excite even those weariest of tastes. There are accolades, patience rewarded. Even crap tastes good. Not that it mattered. We were very comfortable, and able to afford the best cuts of meat. That wasn’t ever the point.

Let me start out in my own voice. It’s my story, yes, but also the story of my Grandmother Rivke, my mother, my sister, a whole intergenerational meshugas. If I switch to third person and back again, forgive me. We begin, we end, with such diffuse boundaries.

A marinater is often preoccupied and not entirely present for those around her. In fact, a marinater is almost always involved with similar behaviors in other arenas of her life. Similarly detailed execution of duties at the PTA. The laundry. Arranging the shopping list a certain way on a certain page from a certain small notebook that is reserved especially for the shopping list. Dairy, upper left-hand corner. Paper products halfway down. Meat in an entirely separate column. And so on.

Preoccupation with process can be seen as enlightenment. Or escapism. I understand that now. A simple act, marinating, it allows one to excuse oneself from all other challenges for the time it takes to produce the succulent object. Accolades just secondary gains, attached but not the objective.

The child of a marinater learns a self-sufficient gratitude at an early age. I could not complain that my mother did not play checkers or Barbies or go ice-skating with me. I needed to appreciate that she was in the process of doing something that we would all savor. Later. Delayed gratification was my secondary reward.

So my involvement with particular types of spiritual practices was not without some basis, despite how stubbornly I went about ignoring that fact. I was going to be different. Turning vegan at 15 was to be expected. As if the roasts were ever the point. Other themes of ambivalence emerged and played themselves out in our family, sheer fortune that things weren’t worse.

It was expected that I could take care of myself in the subtle ways that make you never quite know whether people are on your side or not.

My younger sister was disabled for life by these same parents. On summer vacations she was always shielded from the sun. I could be developing third degree burns while they would proudly state “Becca tans well… Toby on the other hand is very sensitive.” This denial of obvious reality would continue as I lay in the dark with oozing blisters from the previous day’s scorching exposure, while my sister happily played away in the shade with a slathering of zinc oxide across her nose and double t-shirted protection from life, for a while anyway.

Once begun, myths such as these continue. I remember, with great discomfort, my postpartum near-psychoses, and the attitude that “Becca is very independent,” contrasting sharply with the fairly unremarkable births of my sister, after returning temporarily to the fold, which were treated as major affairs of state.

Grandma Rivke, on the other hand, always tried to make up for the avoidant parenting style of my otherwise occupied mother and my upwardly striving father. Grandma was sound, solid, all 220 pounds of her, living in the moment, playing out her terrible anxieties in other ways, loving ways. Had it just been her influence, any self-sufficiency would never have flourished and I would not be the autonomous tangle that I am today.

It’s a trade-off, I know now, comparing oneself with siblings. A dangerous concept that only leads to a quagmire of guilt, confusion and psychotropic medications.

rivke was only 16 when fate cast a dubious eye in her direction. Some 50-odd years before she became “Grandma,” the matriarch, Rivke was just a girl, running around the little yard of her little house, in a little shtetl outside a larger town, in Russia, just past the turn of the century. A shtetl could loosely be described as a suburb, a small borough of a larger metropolis, although a suburb conjures up the idea of voluntary attrition from a larger area… a pleasant migration to a better place. Rivke didn’t talk much about it, but from what she did say, this was barely a step up from a concentration camp. “It was a village where Jews lived,” she would explain and turn away. But where, Grandma? “You wouldn’t know the place,” But where? “Near Minsk.” Where? “Minsk. I told you, you wouldn’t know the place.” But why did you leave? The grandchildren would plead to know. Why did you live there in the first place? “Because that’s where the Jews lived.” But why, Grandma? We’re Jews. We live wherever we want. “Because.”

So we grandchildren got the musical details from “Fiddler on the Roof” and waited impatiently for those quiet moments when Grandma would tell the tale of how she came to America.

“I was just a young girl. I didn’t know about anything.” She would say, a meaningful look in her eye. One grandchild would have curled up in her large lap, another on the fraying carpet leaning solidly against her sturdy shins. Another might be perched on the wide arm of the easy chair, the crocheted antimacassar long ago having fallen to the floor. The older children understood something about the secretive “anything.” That it wasn’t good. The last child to join in ended up across the room in the sticky red leatherette Barcalounger and would interrupt often, “Louder! I can’t hear!” Sometimes everyone would just get comfortable when Grandma would remember that she forgot to put the chicken in. Everyone would pile off and scurry around to redistribute themselves when she returned from the kitchen smelling like celery. The arguing about who got to sit where was inevitable as the loser would sulk in the Barcalounger for a few moments until Grandma would start her story again.

Becca, in contrast to her grandmother, her namesake, was self-contained, subdued. A blend of flattened planes of gray and black and hues of eggplant against Grandma’s complicated and colorful prints and rounded, softened substantiality. Considered bad luck to name a Jewish child after someone still living, the family hoped they had gotten around this by Americanizing the name “Becca” to the point where it was hardly recognizable from the Yiddish “Rivke.” God would understand.

Grandma, far more superstitious, of course, renamed the child “Shaney,” pretty. “Becca” never passed her lips even though Shaney was the term of endearment her own mother had used on the shtetl, during rare, quiet moments of calm, as she brushed Grandma’s hair. For many years Rivke could not remember her mother’s face. Then, in the hours before her death, it all came into focus. Momma’s face, the face of all the others left behind. It was like a gift.

“I was just a girl. In those days a 16-year-old girl was still a child. Not like now.” Grandma would pause to give a tender glare to whichever of the grandchildren was appearing too grown-up that day. Usually Toby. “Imagine that. Leaving your momma. So I got on this big boat. I didn’t even know where I was going. Just that Poppa and Silvie, my oldest sister, would meet me. What did I know from America?” She would make her little grunt. Pause. The children were always afraid at this point she might stop and wander off to the kitchen to do something about dinner.

“Grandma, don’t stop,” someone would whine. “Tell us about New York, about Grandpa.” If Grandpa were there he would pretend he wasn’t listening. He would settle into the Barcalounger, displacing whoever was already there, with the Yiddish newspaper but somehow end up not turning the pages. This was his story, a life that had long ago disappeared with little fanfare.

Always adapting, the Jews made good in their new country. Grandpa retired early, living out the rest of his days sleeping late, with half a grapefruit and a bowl of kashe served to him every morning promptly at eleven and dinner promptly at six, doing God-knows-what every day in between. He went someplace. No one ever asked, until he got too old to drive himself and we all ended up taking turns driving him to the old Elks Club building where he played cards every day but Saturday, until too many of his friends died and there was no more card game. And then, shortly thereafter, he died too. Leaving Grandma dispossessed once more. She never ate kashe. She did not know what to do with herself after that.

“So. They put me on this boat. Only my brother came to see me off. My father, as you know, was already in America, with Silvie, my older sister. As you know.” We would nod enthusiastically. Of course we knew Tante Silvie. She was the sister who made matzoh balls as light as a cloud. Grandma’s were like bowling balls. We argued every Passover about whose were the best. There was schmaltz in the matzoh balls, and eventually I could no longer partake.

“Silvie was already in America. Somebody had to go with my father to take care of him. Momma stayed behind with the children. You see, one at a time, we were going to America. To live a new life. Little by little. One at a time.” She would go on to explain the process that she had not understood when it was her time to go. Her departure was sudden. As a young girl she wasn’t worth much in America; it was the plan that she would go with Momma and the little ones at the very end. The older brothers were supposed to go next. There were jobs waiting for them in New York. No one had bothered to explain any of this to Grandma. What for? All she knew was that when the money for the ticket arrived by post, her oldest brother was too sick to leave. Momma was scared and did not want her other son to go quite yet. “Send Rivke.” And so it was.

“I gathered up some things. . .they made me food, lots of food, big huge bundles, I’ll never forget, it was a six-week journey. I kissed my Momma goodbye. I never saw her again.” A fire had torn through their little house soon after Rivke had left. The origin of this fire was never clear; it was a dangerous time for Jews in Russia. Rivke was already a New Yorker by the time anyone found out. She told us she was called a greenhorn. We never understood the term but the cartoon-like image always made me laugh. The idea of Grandma shaped like a big green trumpet.

On the boat she started her period. She had no idea what was happening to her. She spent many days thinking she was dying. Bleeding to death from a place no one could ever talk about. This was not a piece of the story Grandma shared with us. We knew this from Mother who dutifully and with deep embarrassment told this to us as part of the “Talk,” emphasizing how different it is nowadays when mothers can talk openly about “such things.” She gave us the pamphlets and told us where the supplies were and that was pretty much that. Toby, although younger, filled me in on the rest.

Grandma alluded to more. There was a man on the boat and he did something to her. More than that we don’t know. A secret that has died with her, as is the fate of so many secrets such as that. At Ellis Island, a doctor told her she could not be admitted to America because of her eyes. “What was wrong with your eyes, Grandma?” She never knew. She didn’t talk about what transpired in the holding area, except that eventually they let her through and her sister fetched her.

She went to work. Sewing. At least she knew from sewing. Her Momma had taught her. She worked the big machine alongside Silvie, while their father went to shul and ruled over their little lives.

And then the best part. The romance.

By the time I knew him, Grandpa was a diminutive man, already long retired, his suspenders frayed and his big thick glasses always smudged. Tales of power and responsibility accompanied his legacy. Alone at 16, a refugee himself, he got off the boat and, as the story has it, began a series of successful businesses. It was his rule book for life. You got up early in the morning. You ate a good breakfast. You drafted a business plan. You implemented this plan. You came home, and supper was always at six. With leftover money, you bought State of Israel Bonds for your grandchildren and a car for your son-in law. You didn’t waste time talking about it. Not an outwardly romantic man, he conveyed his love and his loyalty quietly.

They say he laid eyes on my grandmother, young, robust, and I’m sure, beautiful. Rivke. Done. His older sister, little Tante Mae, did the talking, and gave this young woman his gift. A beaded velvet purse, a luxury, and the only such thing anyone ever saw him buy. Maybe a little note was tucked inside? They would never say. My grandmother is said to have immediately understood, the rest being history, as the story goes.

“Why a purse, Grandma?”

“Why not?” Grandpa would interrupt. He was always practical.

“It was beautiful.” She would sigh.

“Where is it?” We would want to know.

“Where is what?”

“The purse, Grandma. The purse.”

She could never remember.

Along with Rivke came the responsibility for her father, Chaim. A terrible and intimidating responsibility. Bitter allusions to hypocrisy, misspent power, and conflicting loyalties surrounded the relationship between these men, both struggling to revere the fragments of the past in the midst of day-to-day reality. Nonetheless, we always laughed at Grandpa’s story about the plates.

The plates. They were still poor, Mother being about five or six years old. And of course, Chaim could now be the scholar whose daughter had married a hard worker. It was all up to Grandpa. They couldn’t afford another set of plates.

Chaim demanded a kosher kitchen. Grandpa, on the other hand, lived in the real world of frankfurters, passing his love of “trayf” onto Mother, which they secretly cooked in Grandma’s kosher kitchen on the days when Grandma went over to Tante Silvie’s to help her with the wash. Cooking pig in a kosher kitchen—this was a breach beyond imagination. One sunny afternoon great-grandfather Chaim came home early from shul and discovered them standing over the stove scraping the sizzling frankfurters onto the everyday china. The dairy china.

So along comes Grandma, walking down the street, on her hip a large wicker basket of freshly folded sheets, to find every single plate, bowl, serving dish, and cup from her kitchen smashed on the sidewalk. Amidst the mountain of shards were her cast iron skillets, her pots, her pans. Only the good silverware, stored in the darkened dining room in its locked mahogany box, was spared.

Setting the laundry basket carefully at the foot of the porch steps, Grandma put on her apron and went about the business of dutifully cleaning up. As the story was repeated with great humor throughout the years, Grandma remained silent.

There were arguments. Chaim had trouble with everyone. The loss of his wife, unworthy of much acknowledgement, left him with an irreconcilable grief. He despised his brother for immigrating to Palestine instead of America; it was heresy to Chaim that people would one day try to create a Jewish State without benefit of the Messiah. They never spoke again. Grandpa, an ardent Zionist, disagreed vehemently with Chaim. Grandma’s opinions were unheeded, leaving her torn between father and husband. It was hard for her to endure the self-inflicted dispossession that her father suffered; it so efficiently mirrored her own. She worked hard to keep the rituals she had learned as a child, but she could never do it well enough for Chaim. Caught quietly in this dynamic, my young mother began her own rituals. Marinating. List making.

We all identify ourselves somehow. My sister Toby had her hoodlum ways, her thin veneer. Father doted on her, but she left us anyway. The drugs allowed her a separation as incomplete as any of ours.

Father became successful and established as a suburban upper-middle-class American, moving us upstate, bringing Grandma and Grandpa, hoping my sister would follow.

I tried to keep my own struggle less dramatic, but when I explained to my grandparents that I could really be simultaneously Buddhist and Jewish, they reacted with an angry sense of betrayal. Yiddish curses spewed uncharacteristically from my grandmother’s mouth, “A Cholera” upon me, my house, my progeny. But she rapidly undid the condemnation, slipping me a thousand dollars, with Grandpa’s blessing, of course, so I could travel to the Orient to study.

Becca, once grown and long past any of her typical quiet rebellion, often asked herself about her studies, beliefs, meditation. The practiced clearing of the mind, only to envision herself as the singular vessel for her grandmother’s pain, the sorrow of dislocation and banishment much as Toby seemed to serve as the receptacle for their father’s anxieties. It was always Becca whom Grandma would seek. “Call me. Call me when you get home. Let me know you are all right. Please, my Shaney, call me.” It was towards Becca, years later, that she would still lean, trapped behind the large tray which served as restraint, holding her in the large, royal blue padded “Geri-chair,” one of many lining the hallway of the nursing home. “Take me out of here. Please. My Shaney. Take me home.” But the Alzheimer’s grew, steadily short-circuiting more and more synapses, gorging and clogging as it forged its course. Grandma began to forget that she was even in the nursing home, that there had ever been any other home. She stopped begging.

As Becca grew older and began to scrutinize the mirror for her parents’ faces, she often found grandma’s instead. It was not as she had expected. Indeed, one afternoon, dutifully engaged in her Yoga practice, there in her mind’s eye was Grandma. Superimposed. Standing tall. Ankles, hips, shoulders all aligned, straight and strong and serene. Grandma standing in Mountain Pose, Tadasana. Situated. Calm for once against life’s onslaught.

In first person again, I reminisce. For this I waited. When Mother died I felt little of the despair that I felt for the loss of my grandmother. Still, I would have liked for her to make me a roast. Like when I was still a child and simply hungry.

Nina Gaby is a writer, visual artist and advanced-practice psychiatric nurse living in central Vermont.