This started as the Prologue of my book. After many revisions and edits, I felt it was best to cut this from my manuscript, but I still cherish the memories contained in these paragraphs. This is how I will always remember my grandmother, not as a survivor of the Holocaust, not as a woman confined to one room in assisted living, suffering from dementia, but as my happy, chatty, flirty Bubbe. I remember all the things we shared . . . weekly lunches followed by trips to the grocery store, holidays around her large table, watching Fiddler on the Roof and Crossing Delancey in her living room. While this is no longer in my manuscript, I couldn't say good-bye to it completely. Enjoy.
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I remember my grandmother’s hands.
Her fingers were always soft and smooth, the tips plump as miniature pillows. My grandmother took pride in her hands. She scheduled weekly trips to the manicurist so her nails were always buffed and polished to perfection. When she washed dishes, she wore yellow rubber gloves. I had never seen anyone wear gloves except in Palmolive commercials. Lotions and creams lined her bathroom counter and bedside table. Large rings adorned her fingers in shades of turquoise and opal white, emerald and ruby red. On the many occasions when we sat and talked, she would take my arm, draw it across her lap, and run her fingertips along the soft inside of my arm, wrist to elbow. I would close my eyes and sigh contentedly, sinking into the deep cushions of her sofa like sinking into a warm, familiar hug.
“You like?” She asked in her heavily accented, broken English.
“Yes,” I would answer with a nod.
“You know, you liked when you were a little girl, too.” And she would close her own eyes and hum a small tune, perhaps from her childhood, as her fingers caressed my arm. Then the words would come. She enjoyed words, even though she rarely read and spent most of her time watching television. She often gossiped about this neighbor or that family member. She always reported something she’d seen on the evening news or the morning talk shows. She even spoke of characters from her favorite soap operas as if they were real, living beings. She would argue stories she’d read from the Star or National Enquirer. She was not cultured or educated, but occasionally, her words were heavy with history. To me, she spoke of a world long forgotten: she spoke of war and loss and family members whose ghosts still lurked in the shadows and dark corners of her home. I would see, when I looked into her brown eyes clouded by age, the reflection of the small apartment where she’d lived with her family, in the Polish shtetl where she grew to be a young woman.
Before taking the name of Sala in a crowded immigration office on Ellis Island, she was known as Chaya Sarah . . . or more affectionately by her family as “Vilda Chaya,” the “wild one.”
She grew up in a large religious family in Olkusz, Poland. By most standards, my grandmother’s family was poor, but from the way she described her childhood, she neither knew nor cared. She fondly recalled the youthful games her siblings would play, or how her father would come home from his bakery smelling of dough and sugar, white powder clinging to his long dark beard.
“He ran a very successful bakery in our little town,” my grandmother told me.
“Yes. My brothers helped in the shop. We lived in a resort town, you know?”
It was hard for me to think of any place in Poland as being a ‘resort.’ But my grandmother insisted that people would holiday there in the summer, to soak up sun and swim in the Baba river, both Jews and gentiles. And that’s what brought business to her father’s store.
“He would come home early every Friday for Sabbath. My mother would already have the house prepared for sunset. My brothers and sister and I bathed outside in the barrel that was our bathtub. Papa would come home with a challah, take off his apron, wash dough from his fingers, and join the other men who walked to the synagogue for the evening prayers. I would watch him go. I admired the prayer shawls the men wore. My brothers would accompany him once they were old enough. It was a Friday ritual.”
“Was your father a very religious man?” I asked.
“Yes he was. But my mother was even more observant. To her, keeping a proper Jewish home was a job, and she worked hard at it. She was also very superstitious. She was always spitting three times into her fist, pu pu pu, whenever something happened that she interpreted as a sign of the evil eye.
“Although she lived a hard life, my mother was a beautiful woman. Ah, I remember her well,” my grandmother said with a small smile. “She had long, thick auburn hair and a very pale complexion. She seemed frail next to my father, who was a hefty man. He was a mensch. He loved my mother so much. Her name was Brocha, you know, like the prayer? My father always said she was the answer to all his prayers.
“I remember she sang lullabies to us in Yiddish when we were children. We spoke nothing in our household except Yiddish, though we knew some Polish and German, of course. Our mother also made sure that we never wanted for anything.
“Once, I saw a little girl on the street with a doll carriage. She was pushing it in front of her with her doll neatly tucked beneath a small blanket. After that, I talked about nothing else. My brothers and sister grew tired of me complaining all the time that I didn’t have a carriage for my own baby doll. I’d had her all my life and had named her Shayna because, to me, she was the most beautiful doll there was. She was so well-loved that the stuffing had begun to seep out of a hole in her stitching; so much had escaped through the years that her left arm fell at her side, limp and shriveled. But I didn’t care. I cherished Shayna more than anything else in the world.
“So my mother, who couldn’t afford a new toy for me, pulled down an old shoe box she kept stored in our closet. I remember watching as she opened it. I remember the smell of moth balls that rose from the box. Curiously, I watched as my mother reached inside and pulled out her best scarf, the one she wore for the Sabbath and the high holy days. A scent of powder rose from the fibers of the scarf, creating a small cloud as she handled the beautiful silk. A rainbow of embroidered flowers, suns, and moons covered its surface. This was her most valued possession.
“She set aside the scarf and lifted the carving knife she used for cooking. For a moment, my heart stopped. I couldn’t imagine what she was going to do with the knife! Surely not cut the scarf? But instead she held the shoe box upside down, shook out the tissue paper, and began to cut perfect little squares into the side of the box.
“When she had finished, she took the tissue paper and spread it on the table. With just as much care, she started to cut into the paper, her wrist moving expertly back and forth in small curves. I watched, realizing she was cutting curtains out of the tissue for the windows she had carved on the sides of the box. She gave me the task of mixing flour and water together until it became a paste, and then we carefully applied the paste to the curtains and pressed them against the inside of the box.
“My mother told me to go fetch Shayna, and I did so eagerly. When I returned, she had replaced most of the tissue paper back in the box. She took Shayna and laid her on the bed of paper, then gave me another surprise. She took a second scarf, not as nice as her Sabbath scarf, but even more beautiful, I thought, because of it was purple, my favorite color, and tucked it around Shayna’s small body. Finally, she took some left-over tissue and stuffed it into an old dish rag, sewing it shut. This she stuck under Shayna’s porcelain head.
“The last thing I watched my mother do was cut four holes at either corner of the box, and one above Shayna’s head. She took four empty spools from her sewing basket and wove a heavy yarn through their centers, then through the four holes, making small wheels. She cut one final piece of yarn and drew it through the hole above Shayna’s head, looping it to create a handle that I could use to pull it behind me. I stared in astonishment at the shoe box when my mother had finished. She had transformed it into the most beautiful carriage I had ever seen! I threw my arms around her, happier than I had ever been. Then I paraded the doll carriage through our home, showing off to my brothers and sister.”
My grandmother had five brothers. She smiled when she talked of them. “Jacob was the oldest, then Samuel, Isaac and the twins, David and Meyer.” My grandmother also had a sister, Esther. “She was older than Jacob,” my grandmother told me. “She was older than all of us. She was such a beauty.”
Her expression often changed when she spoke about her sister. She grew wistful, staring off into space. For the longest time, I assumed Esther had met the same fate as the rest of my grandmother’s family, but I was surprised when she finally told me about her sister’s life.
We were sitting in First Watch, a local breakfast restaurant, when my grandmother first opened up about Esther. “Grandma,” I asked as I poured syrup onto my pancakes, “what about your sister? Was she taken away when you were, since you were both girls?”
My grandmother paused for a moment, staring at her omelet. “No,” she said finally. “No, she wasn’t.” She looked at me now and I noticed tears in the corners of her eyes that hadn’t been there a moment ago. I felt a stab of guilt. What had I said to make her cry? Why was this sudden memory harder than the others she had told me numerous times before?
I often recorded my grandmother’s stories in a little green notepad, but as we sat in the sunlit café surrounded by the smell of fresh fried eggs and the chatter of other diners, the story that unfolded from her stopped my hand. As she began to speak, I felt myself slipping out of time and place. The membrane between past and present became permeable and soft, and I followed my grandmother across the threshold.