Two weeks ago, my Bubby was admitted to the hospital, because she came down with the flu. She was originally supposed to stay there for a matter of days, but due to complications, she wound up staying longer than usual.
To make matters worse, the only other relative I could talk to, my sister, was away on a long-deserved break, and didn't want to disturb her free time with news of her impending demise, which meant that I couldn't even do a Facebook post on that topic, lest she happen to glance upon the unwelcome news.
I seriously thought Bubby would last until the weekend when my sister would come back, so we could visit her one last time. But Bubby'd degenerated to such an extent that she could barely remember anybody or anything past five minutes, and couldn't eat anything. I even suggested feeding her some chicken soup, since it helped me when I had no appetite during my Kawasaki experience, but she'd apparently lost her will to live.
Many other Jewish grandparents' stories of World War II often deal with the Holocaust as a base. But my grandparents decided to avoid the growing German occupation and move towards Communist Russia instead, believing that their Socialism ideal would be more favorable to them. That turned out to be a mistake, since as soon as their intentions were known, they were immediately arrested, split up and sentenced to the Gulag. Hitler gets a well-deserved bad rap for his "Final Solution", but Stalin has a cleaner reputation by comparison, largely because people are unaware of his equally harsh treatment towards Jews. Zadie wrote about his experience in the Gulag where (SPOILER ALERT) he was imprisoned not once, not twice, but THRICE during his stay in Russia. My mother later translated his memoirs "Under Stalin's Yoke" into English, but has yet to find a publisher, since she's been so busy with other personal matters.
When my Zadie died, I was concerned, because everybody seemed to be displaying more emotion towards his loss, while I was disappointed that I wasn't going to have an extra allowance to look forward to. I was worried that everybody was displaying varying states of sadness while I didn't feel any sense of loss. Now that my Grandmother's gone, and hardly anybody's paid any respects in my direction, I'm beginning to understand my reaction. I had little personal connection with my Grandfather, save for playing a few board games, and thus, didn't feel much loss when he died. But since I never shared any concern towards Bubby with anybody else, they didn't get the sense of loss I felt.
My sister once drew a caricature of Bubby, displaying her finest qualities, and compared them with her closest facial companion - The Queen. However, despite this flattering celebrity doppelganger status, Bubby hated being associated with Royalty, simply because "The Queen looked too old".
She might not have appreciated it, but you can't admit that there's a remarkable similarity there from birth:
She and Zadie used to run a cotton and thread shop, which I remember rummaging around, and still have plenty of spools of threads for sewing the occasional torn clothing. What I mainly remember is her spacious apartment. It was filled with assorted knick-knacks such as heirloom figurines behind fancy wooden cabinets, candies hidden in various locations, and elaborate pictures made out of wool. For years, I thought she'd hand-woven these impressive paintings herself one thread at a time, until I saw an unfinished design of one of these pictures and found out it was nothing more than an elaborate pant-by-the-numbers version of needlecraft. There was a carpet that always kept moving towards the wall, no matter how many times it was repositioned or barely walked on. It was one of the great unsolved mysteries of that apartment.
Bubby had a Hungarian accent that made talking to her very difficult because half the time I couldn't understand her, though she could understand me. In addition, she had a tendency to forget how to communicate with me unless reminded. She would call "Dinner's ready!" from the kitchen while I was in the living room, and wondered why her guests weren't showing up. It didn't help that she always spoke in a soft voice. While I had trouble communicating with Bubby, I could still make her laugh with the occasional wry quip. She often remarked that I shared similar traits with Zadie, such as my ability to instantly recall any similar funny story to whatever subject we were talking about, to coming up with spontaneous one-liners to answering the universal question "Was the food good?" with, "I ate it, didn't I?" The fact that I would say things that were JUST LIKE what Zadie would say, probably helped negate the loss somewhat.
They say that you can choose your friends, but you can't choose your relatives. Bubby was the model of kindly old Jewish grandmothers, and I'm fortunate enough to have had her for as long as I did. Frankly speaking, I'm amazed that she's managed to hold on this long. My general outlook of people is that they're all basically one foot in the grave. Technically speaking, that may be true, but older people have a higher statistical probability of it happening to them, and once Zadie died in the hospital, I would've thought that Bubby would be wanting to join her business partner sometime soon. But she kept fighting the good fight, never quite relinquishing the last sparks of her life. I suppose having the rest of her family around helped cope with the loss.
The last time I physically kissed her was due to a misunderstanding. When I was leaving her place one day, she mentioned something that sounded like "I'm dying". Normally, I'm apprehensive about touching people and being touched in turn. But I felt it was customary for her and myself that I display some form of affection for her after neglecting any close contact for years. After the ritual, I said that I was sorry to hear the news. There was some general confusion for awhile, until it turned out she'd ACTUALLY said, "Good night". At least she got a long-awaited hug and a kiss payment in advance.
When I joined her for her annual visits to Miami during winter break, she had a regular daily routine. Every day, she would get up earlier than me, which annoyed me to no end, because I wanted to spend time watching TV without her around monopolizing the remote, thus trying to enjoy my vacation time with her presence and adhere to my routine was something of an impossibility. After getting up, she would insist on a breakfast (usually assorted of various cereals she had lying around), then a quick visit to McDonald's consisting of pancakes seated next to a Walk/Don't Walk sign, which I always found amazing to be in English, rather than the pictogram signs here. Then it would be a "short" trip to the supermarket where she would purchase various items for later in the day. Sometimes these routines would be broken up by visits to the library or beach, but for the most part, she remained consistent.
Like me, she took great pleasure in saving money, but unlike me, she was a shopaholic. If there was a bargain knock-off price of any food product, no matter how lousy, she would snap it up because it was "such a deal"! Add to her status as a compulsive hoarder, and you've got more long-term food products in the pantry than she could possibly consume. But that didn't matter, just so long as she made somebody happy with a good hearty meal.
In fact, what I'll miss most is her delicious cooking. She used to spend all day in the kitchen cooking up delicacies for us to eat later. I always enjoyed going over to Bubby's since it meant that there would be a surplus of food waiting for us when we got there, and plenty of chicken soup to take home with us, which would last for days afterwards, leaving plenty of free time not having to worry about what to cook the next day. Finding leftovers in our freezer was cause for celebration. So it was with great disappointment that when she developed Alzheimer's, she no longer could spend all day in the kitchen cooking up our favorite meals, and her various caretakers were now the main supplicants of her cooking.
Chicken soup, Chicken with breadcrumbs, Stuffed Cabbage, Cabbage Noodles, Cornbread and Farfel were just some of the typical things she would cook when we came to visit, and she never minded doing so. In fact, she took great pleasure in feeding people. If you'll forgive the terminology, she was part of a dying breed who would literally spend the whole day cooking meals for hungry relatives whose only means of communication was through the stomach. In an age where people choose easy shortcuts by buying processed foods and take-out, Bubby was the rare woman who took joy in the simple act of spending all day on a hot stove preparing her meals to perfection. Our attempts to duplicate her recipes always seemed to fall short of the mark because unlike a recipe in a cookbook, Bubby was never entirely precise with her directions. She would use dabs and pinches for the amount of spices and never quite pinned down any specific measurements.
I'm reminded of a rather poignant Garfield cartoon, where a fast-food franchise offered to buy a kindly Italian Grandmother's recipe, but decided to make a few changes, such as replacing certain ingredients with artificial food flavorings, chemicals and artificial additives. The first taste test result was absymal, and the Grandma retorted that only natural foods would be acceptable. The company grudgingly followed her recipe to the letter, but still fared no better. If the first experiment ranked an F compared to the Grandma's A+, the later experimental results never rated higher than a C. After multiple failures, it was theorized by the cooks that the Grandmother must've left something out of the recipe. At the end of the cartoon, Garfield revealed what the missing ingredient was - the Grandma kept sampling the food, and added appropriate spices to further enhance the taste. With his parting words, Garfield concluded that "Good cooking doesn't come from the kitchen, but from the heart."
As a bonus, here's Bubby's recipe for preparing Chicken soup.
One thing to keep in mind is that the below is my Mother's recipe, with one minor modification. Bubby used to add chickens with skin, so there was plenty of fat. The Grandmotherly way of preparing Chicken Soup is once the first batch of water brings out the excess fat, EMPTY THE POT OF WATER and start a new batch of water in the same pot. The flavour will stay inside the pot lining, and any extra fat left remaining from the chicken and beef will be easier to remove.
- 2 pounds of chicken, 1 pound of beef
- 4 quarts cold water
- 6 onions, cut in half
- 6 carrots, cut in half
- 2 celery stalks, cut in half
- 2 potatoes, cut in quarters
- 2 parsley roots or parsnips, cut in half
- An entire bunch of parsley and dill wrapped in string (to make it easier to take out later)
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Put all the meat in water and bring the pot to a boil.
- Keep on skimming the fat with a strainer many times until there is no fat near the surface.
- Add the remaining ingredients, placing the dill and parsley last.
- Cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. Do not let the water boil, or the soup will not be clear.
- Remove the parsley and dill bunches.
- Taste the soup just before it’s done, and continue adding enough spices to make sure it’s perfect.
Prepare Matzoh balls and noodles to go with the soup while you wait for the timer to ding.
Once everything's all prepared, eat and enjoy!