My Grandmothers

To the best of my knowledge, Ukraine means “borderlands.” That’s why the article “the” sometimes precedes it. My whole life I’ve been obsessed with borders and boundaries—the Hudson River between my provincial suburb in New Jersey and the glittering canyons of Manhattan. Not to mention the border between my now home state of New Mexico and Mexico—a place of so much suffering, aspiration, violence, and hope.

The border inside me, though, is the border between the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian one. My paternal grandmother Esther, probably aged 12, is smuggled across this border in a cart piled with sausages. She gets on a boat for America alone, gets her menstrual period, then figures she is bleeding to death until a motherly fellow passenger explains. That is all I know of her story, except for a salient detail. Esther has said she will kill herself—drown herself in the millpond—unless she gets sent to America.

I have many suspicions abut this story. Was something bad happening to her? Is it even “true?” The cart comes to me from a family reunion, menstruation from her daughter-in-law who was my mother. The millpond comes from my father. She was a rather ordinary grandmother, less interested than some. She had a bosom like a mantelpiece and a love of clothing more lavish and colorful than strictly fashionable. I inherited both these things.

My grandmother Sadie—in Hebrew her name was the lovely Tsivya, which means gazelle—came to America with her family. The worst story of the lot is as follows. There is a pogrom. The child next to her is trampled to death. The family leaves. This is never discussed. My mother, her daughter, told me, but my mother was a storyteller who knew how to fabricate So am I. Is it possible I just made this up? From a movie scene or book? However, both Sadie and my mother were extraordinarily anxious people. They feared almost everything. If you were two minutes late, they were planning the funeral. So I’ll take it as true. If it had happened in today’s world there would be endless therapy and grief groups. Then, the coping mechanism was silence.

I’ve inherited all of this. The fear. The ability to act quickly and decisively. Perhaps also the belief that terrible events are my fault.

Sadie became a seamstress. She was blacklisted for union organizing. She was a more classic grandmother. She made our dolls beautiful hats and crocheted them tiny purses. Her eyesight was so poor that she was close to blind. I learned to thread her needle.

Neither of my grandmothers ever gave me advice of any kind. Sadie was strong on endearments, and would scratch our backs by the hour if we insisted. My paternal grandmother, as she approached dementia, would wake us in the middle of the night and offer us salami. She just kept trying to feed us more.

I know, deep in my bones, that whoever they were, my grandmothers wanted me to stay alive. Sadie overtly cared about having babies and education. As old ladies, neither of them seem particularly focused on men. They were supportive of their husbands, perhaps feared them, partially avoided them. It was very old country—-no kind of role model even for my mother’s generation.

I loved Sadie and I feel she loved me. Esther was more of an active model, doing her calisthenics, getting a massage, swimming in the ocean. She had a Slavic love of fresh air and exercise. When I went to massage school I often thought of her.

But more than love, I can still feel them rooting for my survival. And if I look at how I feel about my own granddaughter, that primal feeling may also be the strongest.

My grandfathers present more ambiguity. I’m thinking about writing about them next!

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: Sleepless at the Sleepover

It is bedtime, at my house. Ms. G. aged 2 years and 2 months is sleeping over because her parents have requested a night off. We always have fun, but now the struggle begins.

“My dad is coming,” she says. She’s getting very good at stringing words together. She looks out the window. “Dad,” she says, but perhaps with more hope than certainty. Still, it is heartbreaking. Even I, who know he is out to dinner with G’s mom, am thinking—where the heck is he?

We’ve played and eaten and bathed and danced along with Big Bird and read. Now at dusk, grandpa Rich announces he is going for a walk. “Go for walk!” she suggests to me. But I’m now the evil witch, and I insist on bed. A bit of sobbing, a bit of thrashing, collecting Bitty Binkie the Blankie and Tygger and the two favorite baby dolls, and soon snoring. I lie down next to her—I’ve promised. And besides, I’m exhausted.

In the middle of the night we wake up, stagger to the bathroom, and then a bit more sobbing, “Read! Book book book!” “Ok,” I say. “I’ll read Little Bear. Shut your eyes.” Of course I can’t read in the dark, but I’ve got Little Bear memorized. More snoring. But now I’m wide awake.
I’m old, I’m tired, I feel bad that not every minute is perfect. What is she learning? That you have to compromise with others? That sometimes our chosen person isn’t there? That her grandmother is slavishly devoted but still can’t indulge every whim?

By morning, all seems forgiven. Breakfast, and by 7:30 am main man dad is back. “Your dad is here!” I say. But she bolts into my lap, buries her face in me, holds tight. Only when he opens the door does she rush towards him, wreathed in rewarding smiles.

And off they go. What is unfamiliar to me in her—her sunny good nature, a love of heavy machinery—comes from him, my son-in-law. She is familiar to both of us, but in different ways. Last night as she kicked my back in her sleep and edged me off the bed she reminded me a lot of her mother as a babe.

Does she remind me of myself at two? Well, that I can’t remember.
“Grandpop walk,” she tells her dad as she reports. That is what she retains. A missed adventure, something intriguing, something she is sure to get.

Bubbe Report: A Grandmother By Any Other Name…

Well, I finally have my grandmother name! And it is…grandma. G., almost two years old, finally stopped called me MOM??? and said “Grandma.”

She’s been calling Rich PopPop Rico for some time. (Rico is his commune name, used in the family, too).

It is all tea parties all the time here. The real tea party, which goes like this:
1. smelling and approving the herbal tea bag
2. water in cup–hot!
3. dunking the bag (say dunk dunk dunk)
4. pouring cream from little pitcher
5. two teaspoons sugar
6. stir stir stir (say stir stir stir)
7. a sip, a sigh of happiness
8. check that I am also drinking mine
9. drink cup

Then the imaginary ones, using the little tin set with the hedgehogs on it. Then drinking bath water with measuring cups. And then the most mysterious–a set composed of small breakable objects that were mine but now co-opted…a Chinese tea pot, a bunch of cat-shaped chopstick holders, an Anasazi replica cup and spoon…These things live together but not always in harmony (the cats get stuck in the teapot) and not in a fixed way.

The question of “what do we eat?” remains an ongoing discussion. I added my favorite amethyst crystals to a rock collection, turned my back, and G. was hiding in a corner, looking guilty, and licking them with a hypnotized expression as if they were Turkish Delight from the White Witch in Narnia.

I’d like to eat them, too. But traded them for a spice drop which G. then fed to a legless plastic flamingo.

So that is what is happening at my house.

Bubbe Report

How do babies do it? Do they read ahead in the child development book? Anyway, 21 month old G. is acting a lot like…a 21-month old. I still call her “the baby” but figure at the two year mark she is officially a child (or a toddler).

Language is starting to kick in. I joke that she is my slowest ESL student ever, but she is making great strides.”UP, mom.” “NO NO NO.” “Moon. “Salt.” “Pepper.”

Every time she notices Tiny Dog, the sweet chihuahua who has been G.’s companion since birth, G. tells me confidingly: “dog.” I thought that would be her first word but it was “up”–an important word for a short person.

We still communicate more on the level of sound than complete thoughts.”Caw caw” she says, seeing the crow out the window. I have managed to teach–by example–my silly useless game of fake sleeping, complete with fake snoring. She lies down, closes her eyes, and pretends to snore. Maybe this isn’t a universally useful activity–but I’ve always enjoyed it.

Everything is in groups. I have toes. She has toes. A cookie, broken onto bits, is referred to as Dada, Mama, and baby. Pretty much all objects are arranged this way.

What is she thinking? I’ll never know–and her brain is changing so fast she won’t remember. When she feeds the crayon a grape I sort of get it, but not totally.

Still, the crayon seems satisfied.

Abuela Report: The Angel of Forgetting by Miriam Sagan

I missed the baby when I was gone the past two weeks. I dreamed she could talk, and was explaining the difference between Donald Trump and Donald Duck. (The first makes us sad, the second happy). What a S-M-A-R-T baby, I spelled, not wanting to overpraise her. “Oh, it’s nothing,” a mean woman said in the dream. “All babies can do that.”
I got a chuckle when I woke up. The baby’s mother, Isabel, is worried the baby thinks her name is “the baby” and we need to use her given name, Grainne, more. When I read her “Good Dog Carl” in the board version she gets very excited to hear the words “dog” and “baby” together. She babbles a lot on English right now, but doesn’t really put syllables to objects.
When Iz and her friend Reuben finally learned to talk I interviewed them.
“Where were you before you were born?” I asked.
“It was dark,” Reuben said.
“I came out and it snowed on my head,” Iz reported.
Accurate enough, but hardly the esoteric info I was hoping for.
Jewish mystics believe the soul knows all of Torah. But in the womb the angel of forgetting puts a finger between the nose and the upper lip. (You can note that runnel on your own face).
And we have to learn again.

Abuela Report from Miriam Sagan

My grand-daughter G. turns six months tomorrow. She was so little when she was born. She’s still little, but she takes up tons of mental space. She slept at my house for the first time last night. I was up in the night–was she breathing, was it too cold, too hot? She slept like a baby for eleven hours and when she saw me in the morning bestowed a radiant smile.
We’re still in the house her mother grew up in. The shadows of street lights, rustling of branches on the roof, scampering of skunks, raccoons, and rabbits in the back…these are the same.
I feed her mashed sweet potato on my finger, not for any practical reason but rather out of large politeness. We’re eating at the table. She should too. She gums it with interest if not mad enthusiasm. My sister is visiting, and I tell her how I remember her insisting on corn on the cob and lobster when she was a little over a year and we were at the beach.
What is a human being? I’ll never know the answer, but I am reminded that being a person happens in conjunction with other people, with culture. My hippie ways–around sleep and bathing, clothes and food–still dictate my baby raising. And more profoundly, I’m singing from “Guys and Dolls” and speaking a little Yiddish. I’m more Bubbe than Abuela historically, but I’ve adopted the ways of my three and a half decades in Santa Fe.
This is all about spinning a story. G. is second generation New Mexican on one side and at least third on the other. I’m her hippie Jewish grandmother from New Jersey living on the city’s west side, with the lamp with the red shade she particularly likes to stare at. The sun came up as always over the east facing kitchen sink, dappled by apricot leaves.
“It’s the sun!” I told her. She likes light, the light of day in particular.

Las Vegas and Me by Devon Miller-Duggan

Las Vegas & Me

I think of myself as a relative badass. For a 63-year-old white bourgeois church-going grandmother with artificial knees, and a bunch of conditions that need medicating, anyway.

This week damn-near did me in. This kind of thing tends to. For a (relative) badass, I’ll admit freely that I have pretty thin skin. I’m okay with that. We (Americans/humans) like to act sometimes as though we’re supposed to not be battered by what goes on—the “Keep Calm and Carry On” thing. It’s useful to remember that that poster (now endlessly played-with meme) was never actually used in Britain during WWII. I don’t know why, but I’d like to think that someone in the propaganda office noticed that it was bloody callous.

Here’s what I did. It’s not the more general sort of Really Wise and Useful list Miriam published earlier in the week. It’s mine:

I teach two Intro to Poetry Writing classes and one Advanced this semester. I spent half of each class reading them poems about 9/11, gun violence (I found out that the website of the Academy of American poets, which lets you search by theme has a listing for “gun violence), and grief. Then I had them write for the rest of the period, using the line from Donne “Rest of their bones and soul’s delivery” as the starter/prompt. I wrote with them. I don’t know whether those 4 pages will ever get shared—I haven’t been able to look at them yet. I didn’t ask my students to share what they wrote.
One student put her hand up and said she thought I should be reading poems about change instead of poems about grief. I will admit that I said I didn’t think there would be meaningful change until the 2nd Amendment is repealed, and that I thought we might want to give the dead and the grieving at least 24 hours of grief before we moved on. God only knows what she’ll write on my evaluation at the end of the semester (she’s already, 1/3 into the semester made it clear that I irritate her). Several emailed to thank me. Other professors canceled classes (the minority) or carried on without acknowledging what had happened (the overwhelming majority, which is fine—other courses don’t have the flexibility that mine have). One student came to class not knowing what had happened, so I ended up telling her. She offered me a hug after class (yeah, I know I’m not supposed to hug them, or them me, but human…). I took it. I hugged her back.

I made 8 purple crocheted infant hats for a project to cut back on shaken baby syndrome in Oklahoma and packed them up to send, along with the 4 I already had.

I wrote a poem. Not about Las Vegas, but about the violent world.

I worried about the First Responders in Las Vegas, who are, inevitably, also wounded.

I bought The Rough Guide to Austria and a new packable coat because the husband and I are meeting my thesis director there in January.

I spent time with my grandchildren. I bought some Christmas presents for them, and made plans for a couple of things I’ll make for their stockings.

I gave more $ to Episcopal Relief & Development. They have a very high rating on Charity Navigator and are on the ground in disaster areas pretty fast. Also, I’m an Episcopalian and I like the fact that we don’t use disaster relief as a chance to evangelize.

I declined to give any $ to the Red Cross when I picked up a prescription for my mother at Walgreens. The pharmacy assistant and I agreed that the Red Cross is not very efficient or effective.

I made a cross out of computer components. I make crosses out of all sorts of weird stuff—mostly discarded jewelry—and they’re sold at a variety of venues where the profits go to support things I believe in—the Arts or helping other humans.

I made sure that my students knew that this was not the worst mass shooting in American history. It was just the worst mass shooting of white people. This does not lessen the horror, or the ferocity of my beliefs about the 2nd Amendment, but truth and context are the very least we owe the students who pass through our classes.

I finished Ta Nehisi Coates’s brilliant article in the last issue Atlantic.

I cried through Lin Manuel Miranda’s new song about Puerto Rico, “Almost Like Prayer.” Then I watched it again.

I took really good chocolate to my department meeting and handed it out to my colleagues, then I crocheted a purple baby hat during the meeting, as is my wont. I worried for a moment about becoming the dept. granny and not being taken seriously, then decided that I’m too old to give a fat fart and that I will take chocolate to all department meetings from now on, because life in public universities is a little weird these days, even if Delaware isn’t anywhere near as mucked up as Wisconsin. And my chair is a peach whose strategic genius is being pushed to the limits these days.

I guess I prayed a lot, if you count yelling at God as praying.

I spent much of Saturday submitting poems to journals. I also let my 4-year-old grand-daughter help me change the batteries in a musical toy for the baby. Somehow, this was one of the best spots of the week.

For various reasons, I have a mildly irritating week coming up. I am solidly grumpy about this, especially since it will require that I behave well and represent my department and my brain well with a visiting big-gun. Who knows, he may turn out to be a lovely human, but at the moment, I’m just fretting about not making an ass of myself. #introvertproblems

I had several nightmares, but not about Las Vegas.

I got through the week. I’m still crying. I’ll get through next week, too. Because that’s what we do, isn’t it? I won’t keep calm. I will carry on. I will love the world in spite of its brokennesses.