So many of us who live in relative affluence act as though we earned it on our own and resist the obligation to help today’s immigrants. We in the developed nations pretend that we owe none of our success to the refugees in our family trees who sacrificed to make a better life for us. We ought to have family altars to remind us, as so many do in the East. I don’t have a family altar, so instead I’ll blog a tribute today to my grandmother, who grew up in indentured servitude, experienced poverty and starvation, then spent her last years in a warehouse for the dying.
I chose her to write about today because I so often forget her, even though she lived in my household and was a caregiver to me from birth to age 10. My niece Carol asked me once if my grandmother really was as grim as her photos make her look, and the answer is yes. I don’t ever remember her smiling, although she did enjoy young children, Yiddish songs when they came on the radio, and some of the shows on early 1950s television. Her understanding of English was limited, however, and filtered through Yiddish ears. (Arthur Godfrey, for example, became Arthur Godfield.)
She was Bubby to me, which is Yiddish for Granny; Dora to the gentile world in the United States, and Dvereleah to Yiddish-speakers. Born around 1875 in a shtetl in what’s now Belarus, her parents could not afford to feed her. They sent her to live with a better-off family as a sort of slave, caring for a handicapped child in return for the scraps of food that he didn’t finish. She wasn’t much more than a child when she met a young man, Maishe-Yudel, who had been disowned by his family, and these two outcasts got married. While still in what we all called “the Old Country,” they had two children, but neither got enough nourishment to make it out of infancy.
So Dvereleah and Maishe-Yudel immigrated to the U.S. around the turn of the Twentieth Century and settled in Philadelphia, where they had three boys and two girls — one of them my mother. But Maishe-Yudel was not much of a husband or father. He sold produce on the street and spent the little money he made on liquor. Their home had one toy for the five children, a doll that the two girts shared. There was little to eat, with their ice box — literally an ice box, not a refrigerator — holding just a block of ice and a few scraps at a time.
Maishe-Yudel died around the age of 50. His half-sister later told me it was Prohibition whiskey that killed him. His three sons had to earn enough for the family to get by. One of them went into what was known as the “numbers racket.” As the children grew up and married, they helped each other out.
I was a late child, the youngest of my generation on the family tree, and that was part of the reason that Dvereleah came to live with my parents and my older brother and sister when the family moved into its own new row house a few months after I was born in 1946. She did much of the cooking and stayed home with me when my mother went to work with my father. I remember her eating the feet from the chicken she had cooked and serving us the rest.
My father had a heart attack when I was 10, followed my my mother’s heart attack. Bubby by then needed care herself and could no longer live with us. My father never recovered and died a little more than a year later.
Bubby lived for a while with two of her other children’s families, but nothing worked out, and the next and last stop for her was the Jewish Uptown Home for the Aged, a dismal institution founded in 1913, where she spent four or five more years warehoused among the old and unwanted.
I doubt that anyone ever told her she was pretty, so now more than 50 years after her death, I send her this song. Bubby, bei mir bist do schoen. To me you are pretty.
Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine