Thursday, June 16, 2011

My Most Wanted List

Just a little while ago a Facebook friend posed a question out there in cyberspace, she asked her friends if the time space continuum were no issue, where would you most like to go?  Some people answered with historical times and places but most answered they would go back to certain times in their childhood.  For me, being a history geek ,it is true there are several times in history I would hve liked to witness and I can certainly come up with many interesting people I would like to host at a dinner party.  But I must say that if I really could go anywhere, it would be back to a specific time in my childhood.  It's ironic isn't it.  Most of us, including me had difficulties in childhood and many more of us spend our entire adult lives trying to move past our childhoods, but so many of us would go back if we can.  Maybe we are all just masochists.  

I love questions like this, so thank you Crazy Baby Mama for asking.  And since I am dragging a small under currrent of mixed emotions around due to thoughts about Maya's future, delving deep into my own nostalgia and writing about it seems both therapeutic and a good distraction.

Where I would go is back to my grandparents house, circa mid-1970's, somewhere in my 8th or 9th year of life.  I had my share of heartaches even then, I was not a girl who made friends easily but life was still pretty carefree.  I spent a lot of time with my grandparents (my dad's parents) who as I have probably mentioned we called Meme and Pepe (pronounce Meh Meh and Peh Peh).  I was the youngest of 3 children and the youngest of all 7 grandchildren in my family and there were only 2 girls, so to say that I was the baby of the family was putting it mildly.  Meme and Pepe loved all their grandchildren but they were crazy about their granddaughters, especially Meme.  We did a lot of things with her. We spent many-a-Saturday shopping in downtown Pittsburgh with her.  Those were the days before Super stores, Walmarts or Targets,  when a downtown department store was a total dream come true for two young girls.  Meme most often took us to Kaufmann's and Gimbels which in those days were beautiful department stores.  It sounds crazy to refer to it like this, but it was like being on the set of Mad Men, beautifully and smartly dressed women browsing and looking at beautiful clothing, jewelry, furniture (although we never went to the furniture department since we had our own furniture store).  We would go from floor to floor and look at beautiful, delicate things and Meme always bought us beautiful, girly presents on those shopping trips, blouses with smocking, soft nightgowns, change purses or scarf, hat and mitten sets and we would always eat lunch in the store's restaurant.  It felt so wonderful to be among all those ladies who lunched as they sat, gossiped, drank coffee and smoked.

There is no other way to describe Meme other than being a lady but in the truest sense of the word.  She never wore pants, she was always impeccably dressed in beautiful suits with matching shoes and bags.  She was elegant and understated.  She did not have the beauty of Grace Kelly but she did have her elegance.  She wore Elizabeth Arden makeup and nailpolish and she always did her makeup the same and wore pretty much always the same  light pink nail polish.  Her jewelry was classic and understated and she was never overdone.  She wore Chanel No. 5 perfume every day of her life.  I keep a bottle around and when I am feeling sad or low I spray a few sprits of it into the air and then just let the scent wash over me.  It is Meme.  Meme never got angry with anyone (well, except Pepe) and she hardly ever raised her voice and she never said a bad word to anyone.

I just loved being with her.  Besides shopping trips Meme used to also go to our family's furniture business once a week.  She used to keep one of the sales ladies company in the morning and in the afternoon, after lunch she would get together with a group of ladies to play bridge.   Our main store was located in a small town in the Monongahela Valley of Western Pennsylvania about 30 miles from Pittsburgh called Fredericktown.  For a while we owned, in addition to our regular furniture stores an Ethan Allen store and that is where Meme spent most of her time and my cousin Alison and I frequently went with her there.  All 7 of us grandchildren spent a lot of time in the furniture business.  As children, we played there .  A furniture store is one of hte best places in the world to play.  My cousin Alison and I spent hours in the Ethan Allen store, besides the beautiful furniture which was arranged in rooms with wallpapered walls with actual pictures hanging from them, each room came with full accessories.  Tables were set with beautiful dishes, beds were made with beautiful spreads and throw pillows.  Alison and I would spend hours "picking out" our houses.  We would pick out a living room, dining room and two bedrooms each and then go over to each other's houses.  I always loved the table which was set with soup bowls  that were shaped like artichokes.  In the afternoons we mostly went over to the main store which was arranged more like a warehouses.  The furniture was divided by type but not arranged, It was so much fun to move from sofa to sofa without being allowed to touch the floor or to create makeshift obstacle courses and weave ourselves through the bedrooms sets.  Or we would play hide and seek in the mattress showroom.  Although there were customers around, they never seemed to mind seeing these kids run around playing hide and go seek or trying to crawl between two dining room china cabinets.  At least no one said anything to us.  When we were older all 7 of us worked in the store.   Well the boys worked, going out on delivery runs, bringing the deliveries from the warehouse to the loading dock in the main store and learning how to install wall to wall carpeting,  Alison and I mostly sat around, answered the occasional telephone, checked off the sales in the inventory system (which was a huge card catalog).  At lunch time Pepe gave us money to eat at one of the restaurants in town, in the afternoon we would talk to the sales and office people and at the end of the day Pepe paid us.  It was great growing up in an environment like that.  Fredericktown was a small town and our family was well known.  Walking down the street, everyone knew us and was so nice to us.  It was almost a real life version of Bedford Falls from It's a Wonderful Life.  To this day when I walk into any furniture store and smell the smells of new upholstry, carpet glue combined with cardboard boxes I always get a little wistful.

I also spent a lot of time at Meme's house, we all did but I think I even spent more time there than my brothers and cousins.  Every Sunday growing up we ate dinner at Meme and Pepe's house.  My brothers, cousins and I would go to Sunday School at the synagogue which was only about a ten minute walk from Meme's house, we would go to Meme's eat lunch and spend the afternoon there and then our parents would come for dinner.  That was every Sunday.  Besides that though I spent a lot of other time at their house.  Many Saturday nights I slept there.  It started when my dad got season tickets to the Pittsburgh Penguins  and often I didn't go because I didn't like the noise, and even at a young age, I was not into watching sports.  So often, they dropped me at Meme's and went to the games and after a while it became my little routine.  Often Meme and Pepe would take me out for an early dinner on Saturday (mostly we went to the Red Bull Inn which was your classic dark, red velvet steakhouse), we would have dinner and then we would go to the local mall, where Meme would grocery shop and Pepe would walk the length of the mall for exercise while Meme always took me to Baskin Robbins for ice cream or to the little kiosk for an icee or a soft pretzel.  The mall, as well as the town we lived in was fairly small so we often ran into people we knew from the synagogue or from school and in the 70's going to Washington Mall (which boasted a JC Penneys as it's hook) was a big social event for an 8 year old kid.  We would go home around 7 so Meme and Pepe could watch the national news and then we would watch Saturday Night tv together.  Saturday Nights were the best and I watched All in the Family with them more times than I can remember.  At 9.00 Meme made me get in bed but we watched tv in her room and she always let me stay up until the 11.00 news came on.  She would snuggle in bed with me and we would watch The Carol Burnett show and giggle.  Meme enjoyed it but she always said what she enjoyed most about it was how it made me laugh.  I can still feel what it felt like to be in her bed, her sheets always cool and clean and smelling like the fragrant soap she put in her drawers and linen closets to keep them smelling good.   My drawers have soaps in them as well.  I have one of Meme's bath towels in a ziploc bag with one of her bars of soap and when I feel sad or lonely I open it up and take just the briefest whiff of it just to feel a bit closer to her.  I don't do it very often as I am afraid if I open the bag too much the smell will go away.  The smell of her sheets combined with the faintest hint of Chanel No. 5 still in the air from the day and the smell of lemon pledge which was always wafting through the air.

Meme and particularly Pepe were not good sleepers, Pepe was often up in the middle of the night and sometimes Meme got up with him.  If I woke too I would often find them in the kitchen sipping tea and by sipping I mean slurping, and they were louder than a surgical suction machine.  I used to love to watch them drink tea.  They always filled their cups to almost overflowing and then would slurp the first few sips with the cup on the table.  They drank their tea the Russian way, probably the way their parents did.  They drank it with sugar, but never put the sugar in the tea.  They took a cube and broke it in half in their fingers and then would put the small cube in their mouth and take two or three slurps of tea.  I am not a tea drinker and only ask for tea if I am sick, but when I am sick, guess what, I drink my tea the same way.  Anyway they would slurp (and I would always tell them their slurping was what woke me up) and Pepe would eat his breakfast.  He would always say that it was easier for him to sleep if he ate breakfast in the night.  They would then give me a small bowl of cereal and we would sit, saying almost nothing, just the sounds of spoons scraping bowls, sugar cubes cracking and slurping.  When we were done, we would wordlessly get up from the table, kiss each other and go back to bed.  Meme always stayed behind to clean up the dishes and come to bed a few minutes after.  In the mornings Meme would run me a bath or shower and then she would let me get dressed and play with her makeup and try on her jewelry.  I loved the way her Elizabeth Arden loose powder felt on my face.  Then Pepe would take me to Sunday school and then in the afternoon I would return with my cousins where we played, teased one another mercilessly and ran Meme ragged.  My mom and aunt would always scold us and tell us to not make Meme run around so much for us and to clean up after ourselves.  Meme never complained though and she would often tell her daughter and daughter in law that it was fine, she loved us being there and being happy.

Of course as a child I loved every minute I spent with them.  But also like a child of course I didn't realize how special they were.  I thought everyone's grandparents were like this.  As an adult though I understand just how truly extraordinary they were, especially when I think of all they survived in their own lives, the loss of their own families during the Holocaust, their own experience during the war and they came out of it, scarred but with their souls intact.

I have always been sorry that I never really had gotten my life together as an adult before they were gone.  Although Meme lived a long time after Pepe died she had alzheimers and never knew me after I finally got my act together.  They were always there for me and understood me in a way that I didn't understand myself when I was struggling through my youth and young adulthood.   I know they would have absolutely adored Maya, she, like the rest of their great-grandchildren would have been the center of their lives and they would have given her all the love and adoration they gave me and then some.  They would have encouraged her and believed in her and believed in me as a mother.  I miss them terribly and sometimes when I stir in the middle of the night before I fully swim up from sleep I  think I can hear the sound of spoons scraping against bowls, sugar cracking and slurping in some far off universe.  Then I fully wake up, realize where and when I am and try to fall back asleep hoping for that wordless kitchen scene, the smell of Chanel No. 5 mixed with Meme's fancy soaps and Lemon Pledge to come to me in a dream so I can be close to them again at least in my subconscious.

If I could go anywhere, it would be there, with them, basking in the warmth of their love once again.

1 comment:

  1. wow, what a vivid and moving post -- you have such a poignant way of describing every detail. i feel like i was actually there!