Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Best Gift

A couple of nights ago Maya spent the night at her grandparents' house.  When she came back last night both she and my inlaws were all a-flutter with stories about what they did and how fun it was and both my MIL and FIL were talking about what a wonderful child Maya is.

One of the best gifts my parents ever gave me was living in close proximity to my grandparents.  For the majority of my childhood my grandparents were a mere few minutes away and in my teen years 25 minutes.  

We were a small but close family.  We didn't have a big extended family and we only saw them a couple of times a year so largely it was just us.  

Us being my parents, my aunt and uncle, my 2 brothers and four cousins.  

We spent a lot of time together, besides being in school together (as my brothers were with my older cousins), we all spent time in and out of our furniture business, working there, going there with my grandmother and on Sundays we were always together at my grandparents' house.  We went to Sunday school and often afterward walked straight to Meme and Pepe's house, about 5 minutes away, and Meme made us lunch, of course none of us ate the same things but Meme didn't care, she loved having all of us squeeze around her 4 person kitchen table, making so much noise that a plane could have landed in the dining room and I am not sure we would notice.  There Meme shouted over us, hearing our orders for sandwiches,  and of course there was chocolate milk, 7 glasses filled to the brim with whole milk, 3 tablespoons of Nestle's Quick and the perfect stir.  

And of course when we were all done with our lunch, we headed to Meme's laundry room, what she called the utility room and opened the candy cupboard where there was enough M&M's Nestle's Crunch, and Life Savers to feed a small nation for a couple of years.  

In the afternoon we sprawled into the living room, the boys always outnumbering me and my cousin Alison, the only girls in the family, so they dominated the television, first cartoons, then Three Stooges, then sports, all the while Pepe snoozed in his chair in the living room, with a handkerchief over his eyes.  On Saturday nights Pepe, a master bridge player, played bridge until the wee hours of Sunday morning and spent Sundays catching up on his sleep with us basically burning down the house around him.  I never understood how he could sleep through our noise but he did.  

Eventually, Al and I, sick of the boys, took our leave of the living room and went into Meme's bedroom where we watched movies, played with Meme's jewelry, did our nails and just talked.  In summer we would sit outside on Meme's big back porch with Meme, she would make us lemonade or we would drink Pepsi and talk with her, while she rocked back and forth on her glider and called us her meideles (a Yiddish term of affection, literally, little girls).  She often told us stories about when she was a girl, talking about her mother, her sisters, her piano teacher whom she was really close to.  It made Meme really happy that Alison took up Piano lessons and sometimes when we dared enter the living room, Meme and Alison would play the piano.  I didn't play but I always danced and Meme would always stop playing and clap along to Al's clunky tune and my clunky dancing.  Meme's eyes would sparkle with laughter like she was watching Tchaikovsky and Anna Pavlova perform Swan Lake.

At some point Pepe would wake up, he would say hello to each of us in turn and then go to the kitchen to eat his lunch, usually consisting of something like herring or sardines, cottage cheese and fruit.  Meme often gave us ice cream while we sat there with him, Neopolitan, perfect rows of strawberry, vanilla and chocolate scooped into her little red ice cream dishes.  Sometimes if she was a little slow with it, Pepe would tell her Masha, put out die ice creem.  And when he finished his lunch he would drink his tea. 

Now that I am older and have learned a little something about the world, I understand that he drank his tea the Russian way, the way he learned as a child.  As a kid it was just Pepe's way and the funniest thing ever.  He would fill his cup up to the brim, steep his teabag, when he finished, Meme would quickly take it and put it in the strainer.  He opened the sugar bowl and took out a sugar cube, he would take one and break it in half in his hands, popping the sugar cube in his mouth, and putting his face down to the tea cup and slurping about half the tea in one go, then after a few moments he would pop the other half of the sugar in his mouth and drink the rest.  I never failed to bust out laughing hearing this little man of about 5'2" whose voice didn't go above a whisper slurp his tea.  And every time Pepe would say to me, vy you laugh, Dana, I am just drinking my tea?  

And while Pepe ate his lunch, we would file into the kitchen, 2 or 3 at a time and sit with him and he would ask us about school or we would ask him questions and he would tell us things he knew.  I am always amazed that Pepe talked to us like adults, he always listened to what we had to say and we hung on his every word.  

Pepe had a real dry humor about him and he could make us explode in laughter with his zingers.  One legendary Pepe story went like this.  He was at the store and he handed the delivery orders for the day over to the delivery guys, and one particular guy, a real mouthpiece, started complaining.   One of the deliveries was a sofa of which the only one in stock was in the very back of the warehouse, which meant a lot other pieces of furniture would have to be moved out in order to get this sofa and get it onto the truck.  He started with "uh, Mr. Gross, I don't think we are gonna to be able to get that sofa, it is in the back of the warehouse and will take half the day to move everything out of the way to get it onto the truck and we'll fall behind and not get all the deliveries done today." Pepe paused for a moment, turned to this guy and said, they are putting men on the moon, I tink you can get a sofa from de varehouse.  

My brother and I still tell that story and many other of Pepe's classics and they never fail,  even today,  to make us roar with laughter.  

Still, we loved talking to Pepe and as each one of us grandchildren in turn got older, our relationship with Pepe strengthened.  As the youngest in the family I watched my brothers and cousins go off to college, meaning they weren't there every Sunday, but when they did come home, they always came to Meme and Pepe's house on Sunday and there they would sit, while Meme fussed over them and while they would sit and talk to Pepe about school, about what they were studying and about the future.

And it wasn't just Pepe that we adored, it was Meme and her sweet nurturing way with us, she did everything for us so happily.  The joy on her face when she was running around making lunch for us or sitting and watching us eat and laughing with us was evident to me, even as a child.  We were everything to her.  She relished every single second spent with each of us.  As I got older I learned more about what Meme and Pepe went through during the war and how Meme was the only person in her family to survive the Second World War (Meme's parents, grandmother, 6 brothers and sisters, their spouses and children were all killed).  My mother used to admonish me and tell me to help Meme more with lunch and dinner and when they would come over in the afternoons she would tell Meme to sit down and relax, but Meme wouldn't hear of it.  She didn't talk about it much but I think having us there and doing for us made joy pump through her veins, after having experienced such an immeasurable loss as Meme did, she was grateful for every single second with her grandchildren and the mess and chaos were just a very happy by-product.

Later in the afternoons Meme would start to make dinner and the menu was usually the same thing, Delmonico Steaks, homemade French fries, fresh green beans and salad.  Meme was not an all around fantastic cook, but she had her things that she made better than anyone.  This meal was the pinnacle of her culinary abilities, how in the hell she was able to turn out 12 steaks using her broiler in the oven all hot, all at the same time, all well done but still juicy, I will never ever know.  Her salad was the best salad ever.  Not fancy ,she never used anything but iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, radishes but it was her vinaigrette which sealed the deal.  A very simple vinaigrette of oil, red wine vinegar and salt.  She would put it in the salad bowl first, stir it and put the salad on top and not toss it until the very second that she served it in her individual glass salad bowls.  It was cold, crispy and fresh and perfect every time.

Our parents would come around 4 and we would eat dinner in the dining room.  After dinner came dessert,  Mocha Tort cake from Silberbergs Bakery in Pittsburgh.  The most luscious yellow layer cake with mocha icing and chocolate sprinkles.  Our family practically sat shiva in the 80's when Silberbergs closed its doors and to this day I never have tasted a more delicious cake (although the Burnt Almond Torte at Prantl's does run a close second, they even ship them in the US, order one, you'll never be the same).

I spent a lot of other time with Meme and Pepe growing up.  I often slept there as a young child on Saturday nights while my parents went out or my dad took my brothers to see the Penguins play at the Civic Arena.  My parents would drop me in the morning and Pepe would drive us (and often my cousin Alison would join us) into downtown Pittsburgh on the way to his bridge club.  He would drop us at Kaufmann's or Joseph Horne's (the two big department stores of the day) and we would go into their more than 20 floors and shop and usually Meme would buy us a new outfit or hats, gloves and scarves, shoes or whatever fancied her or us.  We would always eat lunch at Kaufmann's and I'll admit it was fun seeing Meme, this kind, mild mannered, demure Yiddish woman eat a hamburger and fries.  She cut her burger in half and ate it like a tea sandwich, taking little bites out of it.  To this day I still cut my burgers in half.

In the afternoon we would go with our purchases to the bus stop to take the bus that ran between Pittsburgh and Washington, PA.  Alison and I would sit together and Meme across the row from us, it was usually a pretty quiet journey, sometimes Meme closed her eyes but she was often in her own reverie until it was time to get off the bus which dropped us right at her house.  Back at their house we would relax, sometimes playing cards or watch tv until Pepe came home for dinner, we'd eat early (well early by today's standards, 5.00 was a regular dinner time when I was a kid) and then Meme and Pepe would get in the car to go to the Washington Mall to take their evening walk and go food shopping.

When we got back it was just in time to watch All in the Family.  Meme, Pepe and I would sit in the living room.  I used to love watching this with them.  Pepe wasn't much of a tv watcher but he loved All in the Family and he and Meme used to laugh their heads off watching it.  Of course I grew up watching All in the Family and still love it, but really, I loved it because they did.  After it was over Pepe would leave to go to his bridge club and play until 2 in the morning and Meme and I would retire to her bedroom and watch the rest of the Saturday night TV in bed.  I loved her crisp white sheets that she pressed in the mangle and her big flowered duvet cover that she pulled out from the closet every night and how it smelled like the many bars of  soap that she kept in her closet to keep everything smelling fresh and clean.  I loved seeing Meme in her fancy silk nightgowns that she bought at Saks Fifth Avenue that were pressed and perfect, with her matching pink slippers and robe.  I loved hearing her laugh at the Bob Newheart Show or at Carol Burnett and how after it was over she would tell me to turn over and go to sleep while she watched the late movie, always rubbing my back softly until I fell asleep.

The comfort of that familiarity, at least for me was like the perfect blanket, never too hot or too cold, keeping you warm and safe at a place where you know you were loved. 

Of course being a kid, I didn't realize how special it all was until it was gone.  But that is how it is with life.  And to be honest, perhaps if it was something that lasted forever, it wouldn't be so special.  

Maybe it is the fleeting nature of beauty which makes it so precious?  

When Leo and I talked of getting married and where we wanted to live our lives, I didn't hesitate in the decision to move to the Netherlands, even though it was a new country, with a new language, where other than Leo and his family I didn't know anyone.  Leo was pretty surprised at how easy it was for me to decide to live here, he thought I would have wanted to settle in Israel, where I had a great life and where Leo's brother and sister were or that I would want to go back to the US.  But it was an easy decision, I wanted any family we would have to have the possibility of having grandparents close by.  I knew my parents, divorced and blinded by their own pain, they would have loved her certainly, but I didn't really think I could create that special bond with them.  

Of course what I really want to give Maya is Meme and Pepe.

My inlaws are very different people than my grandparents were,  they have a different life, their own way about things and their own manner with Maya.    Despite all the differences though I can see that my daughter is just as close to Leo's parents as I was to Meme and Pepe.  She sees them a few times a week and I can see the same wanting in her to be with them, the same wanting as I had as a kid.  Maya loves being with them and they her.  She has the same light in her eyes and enthusiasm that I felt just being in Meme's living room.  She does things with them, small things but that are very special to her, they are uniquely hers and Oma's and Opa's.  Maybe she will be able to take comfort in replicating certain things in her adult life the way they were as a kid, like the way I always make my vinaigrette the same as Meme's or how I keep soap in my drawers and closet or how I rub Maya's back the same way Meme did mine before she falls asleep or how I tell her that she is such a beautiful sweet girl, the way Meme told me.

I hope that when she grows up, just like me, her time with her Oma and Opa and her cousins will be a source of comfort and security for her, it will serve as a touchstone for her, helping her through the tougher times, remind her of how much she was loved and how no matter how much time passes that love will stay with her, just as Meme and Pepe's stays with me.

1 comment:

  1. That was just lovely.
    All around, beautifully, lovely.

    Thank you for that little glimpse into your life.