ESL Bubbe

G. is almost 21/2, and talkative. We don’t always understand, but recently I heard her have a rather complete conversation with her dad, Tim. It is partially that they are close, and share an interest in his work–excavation.

Tim: I’ve been cleaning out my parents’ yard while they’re away. Took up a lot of sand.

G. Pop John’s?

Tim: Yes, at his house.

G. Mud?

Tim: There’s caliche mud under the sand. Working on that too.

G. MY sand? (with the worried look of a home owner).

Tim: I haven’t touched your sand or the playground, don’t worry.

Work is a big topic, as she lives on a family ranch with numerous businesses. She hates it when her mom Isabel and I retreat for our weekly studio date, but we do need to focus.

Tim: Does bubbe (that’s me!) work?

G.: With mom.

Tim: Alone?

G. No. (I never so much as take a phone call or check my email when we are together. I’m hers).

Tim: So what does Bubbe do?

G.: Talk.

Bubbe Report: I Have Not Lived In Vain

During the pandemic, when social life was at a low and I could zoom in nice earrings and pjs and no one was the wiser, I still got dressed up to hang out with G., the baby. She liked my earrings from the first, and as an infant turned towards bright colors.

She is now 2 years, 3 months. She is talking up a storm, more often than not hitting a full sentence.

And this weekend, it happened. I really was dressed up–wearing a new white tunic printed with big pale strawberries. And fruit earrings that don’t match on purpose. And apricot colored drawstring pants. Sure, I look like the Santa Fe old lady hippie I am, and the clothes are comfy enough to sleep in. But I was feeling good.

And G. said, very clearly, “Grandma, I like your dress.” About thirty years ago her mom had popped in while I was dressing and told me, “I like your shoes.”

Both times I have felt in complete harmony with my universe.

Bubbe Report: Language Is A Virus

I may be a writer, but I’m not the enemy of non-standard English. This is particularly useful because here in the pandemic’s “Bubbe’s Daycare” I spend three afternoons a week chatting with a toddler. I often feel we’ve had rather extensive conversations on the topics of “can you eat soap?” and “what happened to the cookie in the tea?” as well as more philosophical explorations about “if something is big, is it a mom?”

Speaking of moms, it seems that is my name too. I’m not bubbe, grandma, Mir or anything like that. Generically, I am a mom, and called as such.

My youngest niece called all her aunts and uncles “Steve.” She had an uncle Steve, and she extrapolated to the rest of us. I didn’t mind and I knew what she meant. One nephew called Rich “aunt Richard” which I also found cute. Anthropologists are interested in kinship systems, and little kids are no exception.

My daughter Isabel of course refers to me as mom, and so the toddler sees me greeted that way. My vibe must be similar enough to Isabel’s that the comparison is obvious. I try “yes, grand mom” but that does not take. The truth is, everything is mom right now–people, animals, large blocks, a Navajo doll. And I am mom too.

After all, Isabel once, in a toddler fury, called her father “a suitcase.” As long as you don’t angrily refer to me as an inanimate object, I’m fine.

Bubbe Report

I spent rather more time than I could have imagined putting a pair of reading glasses on a pastel confetti-covered toro pinata.

I might have created a monster as 19-month old Grainne now expects me to sing from “Carmen” whenever we engage with this bull-shaped pinata.

She was scared at first, and I understand why…the new creature seemed “real.” But unfamiliar and potentially too wild. Now it is part of the domestic scene.

Things are changing and fast. G. has new words such as “mine” and “no.” “Boom” and “dog” seemed easier on the ear. I wouldn’t exactly say the grandma/baby honeymoon is over, but we’re entering a new stage.

I don’t quite remember this feeling, though, from motherhood–that we are entering it together. Maybe I was bossier as a mom.

I bring her into my world and she lets me in to hers.

Ana Consuelo Matiella and Miriam Sagan on Becoming Grandmothers

Editor’s Note: I asked Ana if she’d like to dialogue with me on this topic. She is “ahead”–in that her grandchild is a year older than mine, and I benefit from her insight as well as hand-me-downs. These pieces were written separately, then we read the whole. Hoping there is more to come–and that you, the reader, enjoy.

Right Here. Right Now by Ana Consuelo Matiella

When I think about what I expected being a grandmother would be like, it makes me ponder still, right now, about what I expect even today.  My frame of reference is not that illuminating.  My mother was Sara’s grandmother for one-year-and-a-half. Then my mom died and that was that. 

What kind of grandmother was she?  She was loving and affectionate and opinionated.  I check all those boxes.  But there is incomplete information. She was gone too soon.

I remember she believed in letting babies cry and I don’t. I don’t let Lala cry and I never expected that I would be “one-of-those” grandmothers.  The way I see it, when babies cry, they’re trying to tell you they need something, and it’s my job to find out what it is.  Luckily, Lala now has an extensive vocabulary and if she needs something, she just tells me what it is and I give it to her.
You hear the word “doting” a lot when it comes to grandmothers.  I dote and I expected to dote.  Doting was something I expected to be doing and doting is what I do but I dote in my own way.  To me, “doting” has come to mean, “ being present.”

Prior to meeting Lala, I had the expectation that doting would be something like buying her lots of clothes and giving her lots of kisses.  Now they have this thing called “consent” for babies and it’s not okay to kiss a baby without her permission.  So we have both perfected the art of the “Mwa.”  She is particularly good at kissing her hand and waving it at me while she says “Mwa,” at the window.

Sometimes, I must admit that I am overcome with joy and have to give her very smoochie and loud kisses on the cheek, Spanish style, and without warning.
And then I say, “You do what you have to do and I’ll do what I have to do.” But it is rare that I do that now, on account of the new consent protocol. Plus, she knows how to say, “I need space.”

I expected that I would be a dedicated and loving grandmother, a little on the overbearing side, and I am that.  But I did not expect to be blown away by a two-year-old. I thought she would be cute, and charming and fun to dress, and she is that. But  I did not expect her to knock my socks off. 

But here’s the real deal and how being a grandmother impacts my existence as a human:  When I am with Lala, I am completely present.  I have zero Attention Deficit Disorder.  I don’t think about anything else but what I’m doing right here, right now.

I was a pretty attentive mother; some would say an over-attentive mother.  The Runaway Bunny Mother had nothing on me, but as a youngish mom, I remember being distracted.  I had all those balls in the air.  I had a husband to manage, and two dogs.  A house and a business to run.  There were many other things that I had to pay attention to.  And now, sure, I still have a full life, a partner, a business, a house. But only one dog.  (Surely, that can’t be it.)

 For me, there’s something about being a grandmother that grounds me in the present. Everything else just falls away. 

And that, was unexpected.


Am I Bubbe? by Miriam Sagan

“Here’s Bubbe,” my daughter tells my grand-daughter. The pandemic has shut down daycare, and so I’m babysitting most afternoon. Sixteen month old tow-head Grainne Rose sees happy to see me. She does her little dance and asks to be picked up. Her birth made me a grandmother, but I’m not exactly “bubbe,” the quintessential Jewish one. I can’t cook and my Yiddish is limited to curses

My mother, a devoted grandmother of seven was no “bubbe” either. She didn’t cook, but instead played the piano and read aloud to her grandchildren. Her mother, my grandma Sadie, was a terrible cook. Her brownies were barely edible when hot from the oven—stone like when cold. She was a fine seamstress—and had been blacklisted as a union organizer. She did give us unconditional bubbe love—scratching our backs for hours, crocheting for our dolls. But even as a child I sensed she was a woman caught in too small a sphere.

My father’s mother was bosomy but emotionally vague. We inherited a love of lavish clothing, massage, and exercising naked from her—she had the Russian Jewish affinity for “calisthenics.” She set a delicious table—but just because she employed an excellent cook.

However, I can’t deny I’m now a matriarch—the oldest woman in my family. No one else seems to care but I feel some responsibility—to what? Representing the ancestors? Transmitting values? When Grainne was tiny I held her in my arms and danced to Laura Nero, singing along: ”Little girl of all the daughters you were born a woman not a slave.” Something I sincerely hope is true.

When my daughter Isabel was pregnant—and frighteningly in labor with pre-eclampsia—I didn’t really love that unborn child. She was threatening this child I held most dear, my daughter. Once Grainne was born of course I took to her immediately but in a slightly impersonal way—I like babies and she was a cute one. It took longer for me to start to get to know her—really for us to start to get to know each other.

I find it annoying that people gush about grand-motherhood, giving me credit for something I didn’t actually “do.” I’m uneasy in societally determined feminine roles. I do feel unconditional love for G., in part because I’m really not responsible for her. What I decide to give her can be personal, optional.

And I do enjoy reading “Yiddish for Babies” with her. She can find her pupik. I’ve always thought babies were particularly drawn to bellybuttons because of an atavistic memory of the womb and mom’s sources of nourishment.

“Bubbe is FUN,” says my daughter. That is a mission statement I can get behind.

Bubbe Report with Nude

The baby, G., said her first word. UP. She’s said it several times, unprompted, while doing her funny one armed reach for…indeed, up.
I do like being a maternal grandmother. I feel like an instant authority on the ancestors. Who flushed the dirt out of the baby’s eye, quickly and without fuss? Me. Who is raising her right? Well, actually her parents, but I have my supporting role.
At thirteen months, she does remind me of her mother, my daughter Isabel. My mom used to call Iz the “on-time baby–referencing the On Time Ferry off Martha’s Vineyard (it just ran back and forth to the island of Chappy without a schedule. Hence, always on time.) Iz’s first words were “bye” and “kitty.” She’s always been big on saying adios and just going off when she needs to. As a child she loved the wind, and was a bit like it–coming and going. With G. I thought maybe “dog” would be it. I was not so secretly hoping for “mama” as maternal homage everywhere. But when she babbles and chats, everything is “dadada,” so I guess her father will have a label pretty soon.
When G. was born, I was in the room. Actually, not quite. I told my husband Rich, after several hours of labor–let’s just step out in the hall for a second. I was getting overwhelmed. Suddenly, it was silent. I got worried, stepped back in, and there was a baby, yowling away! I stood by Isabel and gushed, very inappropriately, “A girl, that’s so great for THE PROJECT.” Iz said something like “oh please just shut up.” “WHAT PROJECT?” the attending nurse demanded, looking at me as if I was a vivisectionist. “Oh, you know, the project…” I murmured, as if it was a commonplace.
The “project”of course is Maternal Mitochondria, the ongoing collaboration between me and Isabel.


Here is our latest. It’s a section from the deconstructed book that is part of the sculptural “Tiamat.” This is six altered photographs, now set into two paper screens. (I wasn’t expecting this, but the screens were left over from Tiny House construction.)

Turns out
you also
want something

Bubbe Report–Someone is Tearing Out My Hair

Strands of white litter odd corners. And that is because I am a bad indulgent grandmother. Grainne likes to pull my hair and play with my earrings. I’m afraid I’ve encouraged her by acting fake frightened, shrieking “help help!” and otherwise encouraging her to think this is a game.
She does hear “no” from me, particularly around her deep love for wires and outlets.”No,” I say, “not for babies.” She looks sad, but doesn’t cry. And she stops, if temporarily.
I have to indulge her. After all, in Zen Buddhism we speak of “grandmother’s mind” as the kindest most warm-hearted approach to anything. As to “no”–well, what are parents for?
When Isabel, G.’s mom, was little I didn’t meet her every need instantly. I was responsive, but often she had to wait and fuss. This was probably a useful life skill but that wasn’t my motivation. Sometimes I was just occupied–dinner was about to burn or someone was offering me work on the phone.
But now I’m a grandmother. I feel G. should have some hours a week where she gets everything she wants. Recently she patted me very approvingly after I’d run about figuring out her desires. I don’t believe this “spoils” a baby but I don’t want to create ridiculous expectations. So I encourage her to “help”–put her arm in the sleeve, put things back in the box. She’s 11 months old, so that barely works. But it feels collaborative.
Soon she’ll be able to talk, and if she asks to go for ice cream, the answer will be yes. The world teaches us no more than enough.

Autumn…news from

I survived a three day period this October which marks the anniversaries of the death of two friends and of my first husband. Leaves fall. I move the herbs into the study and it warms up again. My grand-daughter is moving along in ways that can be described as very very close to crawling and pulls herself up to standing, mostly by using the nearest grown-up. Hickox Street has been widened as it turns into St. Francis, maybe in response to a terrible fatal accident last spring. I ate a glazed doughnut, and felt no regrets.
Then the car lights came on in the middle of the night. That really scared me!
Backstory–a recall, an adjustment to the brake lights, failure of that adjustment. Drained battery, engine light icons…trying to put it all together. Until at 2 am the driveway lit up red. I ran out and tried different things. Fortunately, but who knows why, the lights went off and I limped it to the dealer next day.
Now it is “fixed.” How many times have I tried to do the right thing, only to have it lead to something problematic and unexpected. Outside the laundromat a woman was crying in her green car. I told myself that if she was still crying when I came out I’d check on her. She wasn’t crying by then.
We realized the baby–like many of her relatives–has a bad case of FOMO–fear of missing out. She’ll fight sleep to stay where the action is. I personally don’t really have that any more. Autumn comes to me no matter what I do.

Why Is The Baby Crying?

When my daughter Isabel was an infant, someone asked me that. I remember thinking, heck, if I knew I’d write a book called “Why Your Baby Is Crying” and retire on the money. Babies cry, scream, and howl. Unexplained crying is called colic–and I know parents who regard their lovely grown offspring with a certain horror left over from those months when the baby never slept and cried ALL THE TIME. In Bali, during evening crying, people say, “the baby is talking” and there is some truth–and solace–in that.
My 4 1/2 month old grand-daughter Grainne is interesting to watch. A premie, she seems to still be in a rush. She flips herself over, squirms, almost crawls. This took a lot of work, and hours and hours of kicking. She coos and vocalizes, looks in my eyes as if she adores me, looks at the pattern on my blouse and the ceiling fan like her new best friends, smiles, giggles…and then, for no discernible reason, starts yowling, goes rigid as a board, is 100% misery. Usually feeding her puts her right to sleep at this point until she wakes up and starts all over. But sometimes she yowls for quite a bit.
She is a really good baby by her parent’s estimation because she sleeps through the night, eats heartily, and is incredibly cute. But good or not, she is a baby. I try to enter her mind. What if I screamed every time I felt faintly burpy, frustrated, or confused? I play this little game with myself.
I’m hungry, sort of.
What I really want is a cafe au lait and a muffin from Counterculture.
But I have to drive down Baca Street, and it’s hot out.
I feel faintly conflicted.
BUT if I was a baby, I figure I’d be shrieking by now.
However, I have a car, cash, and volition. So I go to Counterculture instead. The muffin is excellent. I finish it, but could use a little more. If I was a baby, I’d start shrieking…Now I realize it was too much coffee for my reflux…But since I’m not a baby I just live with it.
Let’s be honest–sometimes I do yell, and curse. At those I love but temporarily hate, at health insurance providers who are lying to me, etc. etc.
But it is good it is infrequent because I’m not as cute as a baby.

On Being a Grandmother by Devon Miller-Duggan

This Bliss

Truly, I am aware that I am not the first grandmother in history to be wildly in love with a grandchild. And truly, I believe that Oliver Gray Duggan Leamy is not the only funny, affectionate, painfully adorable toddler on the face of the planet, though he is among the genuinely beautiful, and I’m a sucker for a gorgeous baby. But, lordy, I am a fully-owned subsidiary, heart-hooked, and a goo-brained adherent of the Cult of Oliver. And profoundly fortunate in that my grandson is 20 minutes away, not across the blessed country.

So, since he’s so close, and both my husband and I rejoice in the fluidity of academic schedules (and the fact that we never have the same schedule, so alternate days), we are babysitting. Because Oliver’s parents’ workdays start at 7:00 a.m., this means we’re both getting up at 5:30 a couple of days a week. My daughter swears to me that it’s much easier if you do it all the time, but 57 years of being a night person has made that pretty much a non-starter. So the schedule wreaks real havoc with our lives. And we’re blissed out. Tired, but blissed out. Happily, he still takes morning naps, and we mostly manage to settle with the monitor next to us and get a bit more rest. And he’s an easy, easy, mellowed out, self-amusing munchkin.

It’s been an interesting thing, trying to write poems about him and his arrival that don’t gush or goo or go all sentimental. He’s a major event in life. While his mother was gestating him, I was swamped by the sense of lineal, bloodline connection from umbilical cord to umbilical cord back through the generations, and by the awareness that the egg from which he grew was in her body when she was in mine. It felt very profound. Hannah (Oliver’s mother) gave me one poem when she said, in month 8, that she felt like Godzilla lumbering around with The Belly. Oliver spent one whole morning carrying around a red sock and I’m still working on a poem about that. I wrote one about the blizzards the plagued us in the weeks before and just after his birth, and another one about the coincidence of his being born on the same date his great-grandfather died. But I was strictly taught to fear the sentimental, and it’s remarkably hard to keep the rainbows and bunnies out of the poems.