They're Pioneers, and Adventurers, Matriarchs and Shtarkers . They Are My Gurus, My Personal Guides to the Existential Dilemma.
Compared to my grandmothers, I'm a shmegegge . That's shma-geggy , Yiddish for nerd or ineffectual slob. They, of course, would fiercely deny that their granddaughter is a nudnik . How could I be anything but brilliant and beautiful in their eyes? Perfect, even. But the truth is that next to them, I am a regular shmo .
Take gin rummy, for instance. The last time I played Tessie, my father's mother, she killed me--98-0. She knew she would. When I asked her to play, she replied, without malice: "Why? You vant to see how you can lose?"
As for my mother's mother, Pearlie, her particular genius resides in a ball of yarn and a crochet needle. You need a toilet-paper cover? A doll with braids? A place mat? An afghan? A beret? You name it, Pearl makes it. She shouldn't, because of her arthritis. But sometimes, a yarn master can't help herself and sneaks in a baby sweater for her great-granddaughter, packaged inside a knotted plastic bag. ("She's so beautiful, kineahora ," Pearlie tells me, invoking one of her oft-chanted Yiddish expressions to ward away the evil eye while pressing another crocheted goody into my hands for my 10-month-old daughter, Lucy. I am pathetic and bring Pearlie nothing. She waves her thin, veiny hand, as if to bat away my guilt, and says, "It's nothink, dahlink.")
My grandmothers are the strongest women I know. True, their health is fading. But in my mind, they're pioneers and adventurers, brave and fearless. Shtarkers , to be precise, who live by themselves. Tessie Weinreb in Queens, N.Y., Pearlie Feldman in Santa Monica. They're also the first women I've watched grow old, outliving, between them, 12 siblings, three husbands, one son and most of their friends. Pearlie is 92; Tessie is 93. "Maybe," Tessie says with a shrug, "God forgot my address."
Always with the jokes, they can get on my nerves. They can even drive me crazy, with their Old World superstitions and Neanderthal attitudes about a range of issues. Pfui! And yet, they are my gurus. Just as striking as their longevity is the sense of utter constancy they offer in a world that seems to speed along faster and faster. Like it or not, they are my personal guides into old age and the existential dilemma.
"You shrink, this you should know," Tessie advises.
"You shrivel up, just like a potato," Pearlie agrees.
Two matriarchs, they are my bubbes --the Yiddish term for grandmothers, pronounced with the vowel sound in bubbles, bub-ees. They are not in the least pretentious, nothing fancy-shmancy about them. And they offer no sugar-coated prescriptions for life: It is hard, it is complicated, it is not forever. There is joy in sorrow and sorrow in joy. Always, there is family. And passion. Even now, the titles of their favorite TV shows speak volumes. Tessie's is "The Young and the Restless." Pearlie's is "Mad About You."
The last of a breed, they are still close to their immigrant past, hardened by wars and the Depression and shaped by discrimination against Jews that began to dissipate only in the 1950s. Now they have little patience for basic questions. What is, is. Ask Tessie, for instance, why being an Orthodox Jew is so important to her, and she answers rhetorically: "Why does an Arab wear the shmatte on his head?" Ask Pearl why she continues wearing her wedding band, 17 years after her husband's death, and she quips: "I'm married forever to him. All my life. I'm a Jewish nun."
I should say, at this point, that I am utterly baffled at how middle age has turned me into a sentimental sop. Pathologically so. I cry over stuff that is embarrassing--my 10-year-old's Little League game, my 7-year-old's musical-comedy debut, my baby girl's weaning. I am a boomer sandwich, eyeing my children's growth, my parents' aging and my grandmothers' frailty as signs of my own mortality. So I unearth the past to make future connections, keeping the continuum alive. I go back to the Source.
To Pearlie and Tessie. My grandmas. My heroes. My bubelehs .
I first decided to interview my grandmothers when I realized that they were having a difficult time recuperating from falls they suffered in the summer of 1993. Both had slipped and broken their arms. Pearlie's stumble was especially traumatic, since it occurred when she was two-stepping with her folk-dance troupe, the Dancing Dolls, during the rousing finale of "Achy Breaky Heart."
I phoned them both to say that I wanted to write an article about them.
" Oy vaysmere ," Tessie complained right away, "Can't you get a better subject? I can't see. I can't hear. I can't talk. What else?" Translation: She couldn't wait to see me.
Pearlie was equally happy to comply. "Joyala, my life is an open book. You just tell me when."