By Harriet P. Gross
I’m between yahrzeits — my Boubby the Philosopher’s, which was some days ago, and her husband, my Zayde Dave, which is this coming weekend. I remember them with candles and prayers, but mostly by recalling things that I lived through with them.
Example: When my daughter was a baby, she had chicken pox — a case so bad, my husband and I, along with a relative called in for the emergency, sat with her around the clock to stave off hospitalization. After she was well, I asked Boubby how she had ever managed her many children if they all had chickenpox at once.
“Chicken pox was easy,” she told me. “What was hard was when some had measles and some had the flu at the same time.”
Boubby and Zayde had 12 children. “The flu” was the killing influenza epidemic that followed World War I, when almost every family lost one or more of its members to the disease. Their dozen became 11 after that. I decided then that I’d never ask Boubby again about how to manage health issues.
I did ask her about housecleaning before Pesach. In their traditional home, where I’d been told that the ever-present tub in which diapers were always soaking (no disposables yet, remember?) went down into the cellar before Shabbat sundown and wasn’t allowed up until the day ended, I knew the spring job must have been massive and intensive.
“Everybody washed walls,” she said. “The big ones climbed ladders and washed from the top down. The little ones stood on the floor and washed up, as far as they could reach.”
I did not ask her how she kept her sanity, which she retained in an ever-sharp mind until her heart took her from us 47 years ago. But others have told me what I suspect was her secret weapon: After Shabbat, she would get up early on Sunday morning and pack an immense picnic basket. Then she’d wake everyone and send Zayde Dave to the park with the whole brood. So she had half a day, every single week, all to herself — for reading, or thinking or sleeping. Most women of her time did not have that.
What I learned from Zayde Dave was less direct, but much more interesting. I had been married, making traditional housewife meals and setting traditional housewife tables for about four years, when one evening at dinner, my husband asked, “Why don’t you ever put glasses and a pitcher of water out at mealtimes?”
I’d never thought of that before because, as I told him, “We never had water on our table when I was growing up, so I’ve just never thought about it.” But why had my family home itself been so waterless? I put the same intriguing question to my mother, who gave me the same answer I’d given my husband: “I don’t know. We just never had water on the table when I was growing up, so I never got into the habit.” But — why not? “Better ask your Boubby,” Mom said.
When I put the question to her, my Boubby the Philosopher, who was at base a traditional housewife of her time, gave an uncharacteristic, non-philosophic answer: “Dave told me not to. I don’t know why, but I listened. So you’d better ask him.” And when I did, Zayde gave me the reason for a family “tradition” that was then already into its third generation: “With so many kids at the table, who needed all the spilling? If they wanted a glass of water, they could go to the kitchen and get it from the sink!”
(Four generations by now, actually. My daughter doesn’t put glasses and a pitcher of water on her table, either.)
Other lessons were not so practical, or so laughable. When Zayde Dave choked on a bone at the Seder table, my father the doctor was there to do that day’s version of the Heimlich maneuver, and the victim suffered no permanent damage. But I didn’t eat gefilte fish for many, many years. And I didn’t drink orange juice, either, because Boubby had insisted that my disgusting daily dose of cod liver oil would go down more easily if mixed into it.
These days, I enjoy both orange juice and gefilte fish, but I still do not drink water with my meals — even at the tables of others where glasses are poured in advance. Thus are family traditions born. I think of them as I say Kaddish for my greatest, most beloved teachers.