Living With Lottie
By Warren Mark Singer
Much of my adolescence was spent living upstairs in Grandma's apartment in our two story, white shingled "citadel" on Clinton Place, Newark, New Jersey. Grandma was a woman whose life was dedicated to her family. Much that she did for others emanated from her kitchen, it was her joie de vivre. My experiences were a journey through life few others could boast. As I commit "pen to paper," I present a vignette of cheeky events that capture what life was like living with Grandma Lottie.
In the beginning Over the years Grandma Lottie would tell me stories of her childhood in Russia; stories about the farm and the countryside where she lived as a young child with her siblings. She would regale me with colorful stories of childhood jaunts and about "Crazy Lizzie," most likely an adolescent girl who was "disturbed." Grandma said she kept her distance from Lizzie or else she might be bitten by the "crazy" girl, an impression Lizzie frequently left with others who teased her. I remember my grandmother referring to some women in our neighborhood as "Crazy Lizzies." However, I surmised that their bark was worse than their bite. I guess my warmhearted grandmother couldn't be expected to like everyone.
I think of the harrowing tale she told about her father, Shimon. When she was a toddler he dug a deep pit in the family's barn. He had heard about an incipient pogrom (an organized riot against the Jewish community) planned for his shtetl (village). That evening he gathered the family and had them hide in the pit, warning them to keep silent. He covered his frightened family with hay, concealing them in an attempt to protect them from the marauding anti-Semites. There they laid hidden while the murdering hoard roamed the farm in search of Jews. My grandmother's eyes glazed over when she told me that her youngest sister, an infant, suffocated beneath the thick straw.
Shimon, realizing his family had no future in Russia, exhausted his meager savings and sent three of his children to live in safety across the sea. Jacob, the eldest, sent for my grandmother who was about twelve years old then, to live in America. Another sister, Ida, ended up in Argentina. Years later, Shimon immigrated to the United States too, but for only a short time. Disappointed and disillusioned with American life, he returned to his Russian shtetl to live his life as a devout Jew. He had discovered that America was not a land where "streets were lined with gold."
And then she told me about his tragic death, my first introduction to that age-old cancer called anti-Semitism. "It was Shabbos (Sabbath)," she began. "My father was coming out of the shul (synagogue) after evening prayer.
As he walked down the steps a "Bolshevik," a member of a Russian political party (Grandma used it as a pejorative), grabbed him by his long gray beard and "slit his throat." He died horribly on the steps of his shul; a sickening image I have yet to forget these many years.
Fishing Trip When I was about six or seven my grandmother asked me if I would like to go fishing. Who wouldn't want to go on a field trip with your grandma? As it turned out, her conception of a fishing trip differed greatly from my understanding. She took me to a smelly fish store on Hawthorne Avenue.
As I gazed wide-eyed through the misty front window, I was amazed at the sight of so many long silver-skinned fish darting about in a large tank of murky water. Unsuspecting, I went into the store with my grandmother. A grizzly looking man who wore a blood-mottled apron asked which fish Grandma wanted. She pointed, he lowered a net attached to a long pole into the tank, and up came a thrashing fish. In a blink of an eye he flung it onto a wooden table and clobbered its head with one deadly blow from a huge mallet. I ran from the store with my heart pounding, and feeling nauseous. Feh! (an expression of disgust) Wonder of wonders, to this day I rarely eat fish.
Cuisine Caper I have wonderful memories of my grandmother's kitchen. A symphony of aromas wafting from it remain with me to this day. My grandmother never learned to read or write, yet she kept track of countless recipes, a treasure trove of scrumptious entrees, soups, breads, and desserts. I picture Grandma on one knee rhythmically cranking on the food grinder which was clamped to the seat of a chair, blending onions, hard boiled eggs and chicken livers. I waited impatiently for her to plunk a dollop of freshly made gehockteh leber (chopped chicken liver) on a crisp lettuce leaf. I get weak at the knees savoring the image.
I loved all Grandma's pastries, especially Hamentashen (prune Danish), along with a required glass of milk. Grandma would frugally dole out this mouth-watering treat as an enticement for me to "be a good boy." She would try to hide her pastry treasures in pots covered with towels in special nooks throughout the house, concealing them from the roaming hands of her impish grandson. I would eventually ferret out her secret stash.
In time, like a Bloodhound, I'd sniff out the mother-load and feast in delight. It was well worth Grandma's wrath. I found it amazing that she knew exactly how much of an ingredient was necessary. She would say when asked, "it only takes a bissel (small amount) of this and a bissel of that, I just shiyt arayne (put it in)." To the untrained ear, one might wonder what on earth this woman said she put into her recipe!
Now This Is A Good Show! Grandma and I would often watch TV together. Frequently, she would nod off as we watched the program de jure. I remember her often awakening during a commercial and remarking, "this is a very good show."
"I Remember Mama," was a popular TV show of the 1950's and we watched it regularly. It told heartwarming stories about the Larsons, a fictional Norwegian family. Grandma loved watching it with me and for some reason kept awake throughout the entire show.
Speaking of TV, my family was the first on our block to get a television (1948). It delivered hours of diversion that, regrettably, eventually competed with my schoolwork. If memory serves me, our first TV was a 10 inch black and white Dumont.
One year in the midst of a hurricane, our chimney-anchored TV antenna was sheared from its mast and blown onto a nearby abandoned lot. I was frantic, no TV! To the rescue, my intrepid grandmother challenged the howling wind and sheets of rain to retrieve our fallen TV antenna. I watched in awe from our living room window as she wrestled with the rig, inching it back into our fenced yard. Miraculously, the antenna was reinstalled, the TV, fully operational, in time for the very next episode of "I Remember Mama."
Mama loschen (mother tongue) My grandmother spoke Yiddish and English. I received a daily dose of both; one being interspersed with the other (Yinglish). To my amazement, I discovered that my grandmother understood Polish. I was working for the Hazel Bishop Cosmetic Company after I graduated from high school; there, some of my colleagues taught me some words and phrases in Polish. When I told my grandmother that I was learning Polish, she said she understood it too. To my astonishment she was able to translate every Polish word I fired at her.
A bizarre incident occurred between us and a neighbor. I was enraged by a crusty old man whose house was behind ours. He decided to reach into our yard and saw off several branches of a large privet bush that bounded our two properties. Interestingly, the branches did not encroach his property. Unable to resolve the matter, we called the police, who made the cantankerous geezer apologize and clean up the mess. Afterwards, I asked my grandmother how this man could have such nerve to reach into our yard and saw up our shrub. Without missing a beat, she replied, "he's a dupeh" (Polish for "tush").
I have long had an interest in languages. Perhaps it was sparked by my experience living in a home where another language was used. Over the years I've acquired a storehouse of Spanish, Korean, and Gujarati. Having spent much time during my youth in the Central Ward of Newark with a "rougher" element of "associates," my bilinguality actually extends only to English and an occasional outburst of profanity.
Oops, my bad! When speaking "Yinglish" she gave little thought to the possibility that a Yiddish word might be confused with an English word of similar pronunciation and be totally unrelated in meaning. As told to me by my mother, here's one gem of a prized family story that illustrates a typical Lottie malapropism. Grandma's teenage son, my dear Uncle Morty, was convalescing from an infected leg caused by an ingrown hair. One of Morty's pals stopped by the family's apartment to see if he wanted to go out and play ball. Grandma answered the door and informed the young man, to his astonishment, that "Morty could not go out to play because he had a bad infection on his leg from a 'hor'." (The word for "hair" is pronounced "hor" in Yiddish).
The Germs Are Coming! The Germs Are Coming! My grandmother brought new meaning to the word antiseptic. She used heavy doses of malodorous chemical cleansers throughout our apartment. Unbeknownst to me, she once mistakenly used my washcloth to wipe out the bathroom sink with a harsh cleanser. She left it to dry in its usual place on the side of the tub. The following morning I made my ritual stroll to the bathroom, I lathered my face with soap, gathered up the washcloth, and began my facial cleansing. "Yikes (expletive substituted)," my scorching face glowed in our bathroom cabinet mirror.
At another time Grandma decided to use Comet, another detergent, to clean out the bath tub. Evidently, she hadn't thoroughly rinsed out the tub. Unsuspecting, I filled it with water and added my usual pinch of Ivory Snow powder (I loved the bubbles), and began bathing. In a short time I was forced to make a dripping, hasty retreat. The detergent had irritated sensitive regions on my body unaccustomed to the likes of Comet!
Continuing with this saga of germicide: I had been sick with an upper respiratory infection. Grandma decided that it would be a good idea to put some CN, a powerful disinfectant, in a shissel (basin) of water. She meant to put it under my bed to disinfect the room. She did this when I was fast asleep, but neglected to completely slide the shissel under the bed. The next morning I detected a funky odor in the room. I didn't give it too much thought. I shifted my position and lowered my feet from the bed with one foot stepping into the cold, wet, toxic brew. It gave new meaning to what is understood as a "wake up call."
The Iceman Cometh After my grandfather died in 1948, other than her sons and grandsons, there were a few men of "prominence" who crossed my grandmother's path. Up until I was about 7 years old, a man not much taller than I, but of gargantuan strength, delivered a glacial-sized block of ice to our upstairs icebox;
Grandma's nephew, Julie, our milkman, kept our house well stocked with bottles of fresh milk; the Portuguese egg-man delivered eggs, both brown and white, fresh from his chicken farm; the seltzer-man regularly delivered a case of pressurized bottles of seltzer, each having an attached nozzle and trigger. With it, I was primed for a soaking seltzer water fight with my friends, much to my Grandmother's anguish.
Then there were the fruit and vegetable peddlers who loudly hawked their produce while riding in rickety horse-driven wagons. "Peaches, I got juicy peaches!"
The Nebbish (looser) Last among Grandma's male acquaintances, was her so-called gentleman friend (whose name I can't remember). As the story goes he proposed marriage to my grandmother. He was ahead of his time; he asked her for what amounted to be a kackamayme (absurd) prenuptial agreement. He wanted it stipulated in writing that if my grandmother predeceased him, her children would not have him evicted from her house. He was all set to put pen to paper and memorialize the arrangement. He asked Grandma to get him a sheet of paper. She quietly got up from her favorite kitchen chair and told him to follow her. She led him to the bathroom where she pointed to a roll of toilet paper, and said "you want paper, there it is."
Without fanfare she sent him on his way saying with unbridled sarcasm, "shaynem dank dir im pupik," (thanks for nothing; literally, thanks for the belly button). From that time on my grandmother informed many people, "I don't need the men!"
Mrs. O'Leary's Cow Did It! When I was about eleven years old I started a major fire in a wooded lot near our home while "experimenting" with matches. Dried grass burst into flame and quickly spread toward the back wall of a nearby garage. It seemed inextinguishable despite the gallant effort made by my mother and grandmother dousing the creeping flames with water from our backyard faucet. Firemen eventually extinguished the blaze, preventing the neighbor's garage (stocked with paint and turpentine) from burning.
Needless to say, I knew I was doomed! My parents and grandmother never physically struck me during my childhood. In retrospect I wish they had, at least this time; it would have been more painless than the tortuous tongue-lashing I received for days on end. My excuses fell on deaf ears; nothing I conjured up saved me from the onslaught.
I think what bothered me most was hearing Grandma tell everyone how her grandson Varren nearly put the whole neighborhood on fire. She told relatives, neighbors, shopkeepers, her "clients," and even the butcher the ganseh megillah (literally, the biblical narrative of Esther who saved the Jews of Persia from extermination). If only she had given me a potch en tuchus (spanking) instead, I would have been grateful indeed.
Caution, Slippery When Dry... I would be remiss if I didn't mention another "bed" incident. Grandma had a hardwood floor in the front room. I often slept there. She kept the floor clean and well polished. One day before I came home from school, she placed a new throw rug near the entry to the room. Unaware of the peril that lay before me, I stepped on the rug, it slipped beneath me, I crashed to the floor and the "magic carpet" propelled me across the room and under the large bed. Grandma heard the crash (and my pained shriek) and hastened to the bedroom. Dazed, I was rattled by her unsympathetic response, "Varren, don't play under the bed."
Alternative Medicine ala Lottie When it came to my grandmother, I never knew what to expect next. A buddy of mine and I walked in on her during one of her so-called medical treatments, using a special home remedy. She was busy attending to her arthritic knees. On this occasion, as we entered the kitchen, she sat with both her feet resting in a large basin. Her legs and knees were encased in milky colored wax. This scene was reminiscent of something you might see at the museum of Madame Tussaud. My friend made a hasty retreat from what turned out to be his last visit. When I conjure up images of Grandma sitting with waxen legs, it's not a pretty picture.
Full of Sound and Fury My grandmother and mother were of one mind when it came to my chemistry lab. They were certain that I was always concocting "trouble" in our musty, white stone walled basement. My lab was housed in a room converted from an old coal bin.
One evening, without warning, while I "worked" in my lab, a tremendous boom shattered the silence. I stood frozen as a burst of stone shrapnel hurled past me. Portions of the chimney had exploded. The furnace had malfunctioned causing the havoc.
Miraculously, although quite shaken, I was unscathed by the barrage. I heard Grandma shout, "Varren, oy gevalt!" (expression of shock) I staggered into our kitchen, dazed by the calamity, and noticed how the walls were blackened. I remember uttering, "I didn't do anything;" a refrain often heard before. As I peered into the bathroom mirror, I saw a blackened face peering from the glass. "The horror, the horror!"
So Who Died and Made Me Mr. Fixit? Grandma depended on me to help with the "chores." Not too gladly, I complied. I cut the grass, painted the steps and porches, performed simple household repairs, and shoveled the cusrsed snow!
I particularly hated shoveling snow from the alley that led to our backyard. The alley was about three feet wide by fifty feet long, sandwiched between our house and an adjacent plumbing supply building. I had to carry the snow on my shovel, and then deposit it onto the street, creating what soon became a mountain of sooty snow. My reward, a much welcomed mug of hot chocolate.
I was also in charge of the backyard garden. Grandma would periodically lend her horticultural expertise to my garden enterprise. Occasionally, she would hurl a brown bag filled with coffee grounds from our upstairs back porch window. "It's good for the soil," she explained. What distressed me more was when she placed a pile of manure in the middle of the yard. How embarrassed I was when I witnessed her with shovel in hand, scooping up a generous deposit left by peddlers' horses.
A neighbor complained to my grandmother that once again I had climbed up onto her garage. (I had climbed up on every garage in the neighborhood, as well as most of the trees in nearby wooded lots. At an early age I aspired to higher endeavors.) Grandma, hearing the neighbor's complaint, admonished me, "Jewish boys don't climb trees and garages."
Months later she sent me up our 30 foot clothes line pole anchored in our backyard to fix a jammed rope pulley. I proudly became lord of the clothes line. This Jewish boy couldn't jump, but he sure could climb!
Our upstairs clothes line ran from the top of the pole to the back of our house. A portion of the line was above a magnificent lilac tree whose blossoms issued a heavenly scent. One spring day Grandma brought in the laundry and placed my folded underwear in my dresser drawer. As I was dressing, I pulled up a fresh sun dried pair of underpants. Suddenly, I felt as if I had been speared from behind. Tears cascading down my cheeks, I hastily removed my pants and discovered that an angry hornet had been trapped in my underpants. Damn that lilac tree! (I soon became the butt of a joke.)
Family "Feud" For a short period of time my parents and grandmother shared the same apartment.
There was no love lost between Dad and Grandma. They moved about like ships passing in the night avoiding "confrontation." I clearly remember two incidents where my grandmother unintentionally exacerbated my dad's dislike for her. I was about sixteen, it was a bitter cold day, Grandma decided to move my dad's shoes away from their position of prominence near the warm radiator, and replaced them with my wet shoes. Not realizing the switch, he went to work wearing my shoes and I his. Needless to say, my dad was convinced the switch was done intentionally.
Often, as she had done with the coffee grounds, Grandma flung a sandwich bag filled with assorted kitchen scraps out the window into the backyard. Once she forgot to "launch her veggie missile," and left it on the kitchen table. Early the next day, my father, thinking the bag was his lunch, took it with him to work. That evening he growled to my mother, "She's trying to poison me!"
I've Got You Covered... Grandma would wait up for me until I arrived safely from my nighttime journeys, especially when I was working late weekend hours at the Clinton Manor Caterers. "Don't bother waiting up for me," I once suggested. "I don't wait up for you," she countered. I drove home from work around 1:00 am. As I approached our house I spotted my grandma sitting by the upstairs front window, ever vigilant, waiting my safe return.
By the time I got into the apartment she was "fast asleep" in bed; then accused me of waking her when I came in. She got out of bed, went to the refrigerator, and returned with a chocolate pudding and a hard boiled egg presenting me a much appreciated nighttime nosh (snack). I hear her voice now, "Here's a nosh, tatelleh" (term of endearment, referring to a boy).
These night time noshes became a weekend ritual. It is no wonder that I now take a daily regimen of Lipitor!
Warren's Menagerie At different times in my youth I was the owner/caregiver of various "pets." Fortunately for the family, I kept one species at a time and later replaced it with another type of creature. Among them were: 3 ducklings, 8 rabbits, 1 turtle, 2 parakeets, 1 snake, and a chameleon. One day Grandma met me at the door shouting, "Your chaya (animal), the monster is loose!" She was referring to my chameleon.
Somehow it escaped its enclosure and she spotted it scurrying across the living room carpet. I searched in vain for hours, I never found it alive. Years later when our green straw-like carpet was being replaced, the mystery of the missing chameleon was solved. A remnant of a chameleon skeleton was uncovered from its green straw-like burial shroud.
Monday, the Rabbi Took Off Grandma Lottie supplemented her income by renting out a room in her house to many different boarders. Over the years a number of characters passed through our humble home. The most colorful was a rabbi, fresh out of the seminary. He was an amiable fellow who spent most of his time with his face buried in a book. Grandma told me he davened (prayed) aloud in his room.
Personally, I think he had an alter ego with whom he conversed. It surely didn't sound like davening. I freely admit it, on occasion, I had my ear to his door. (After all, I had to look out for my grandmother's welfare.) I did spend some time chatting with the rabbi.
He talked to me about being a "good Jew;" I couldn't sit still long enough for his words to have much impact. Grandma told him not to be upset if I didn't learn, "Varren has shpilkes." He told me it meant "ants in the pants." Hearing that, I made a quick run to the bathroom; Grandma didn't know what she was talking about, my underpants were ant-free!
I do think it was he who told me that prayer must go beyond a person's narrow self-interests.
Grandma was quite kind to him and provided an occasional free meal. She confided to me that he should spend a little less time reading and davening and more time straightening up his room. She said his furstunkeneh (stinky) room was iberkernish (in a messed-up condition) from all the chazzerai (crap) he stored in his closet and under the bed. I am shamefully sorry to report, I divulged this juicy tidbit to him one Sunday evening. In retrospect, I believe it did not resonate too well with him. When I came home from school the following Monday afternoon I discovered that he had moved out; lock, stock, and chazzerai.
To be honest, I don't remember whether our boarder the Rabbi or Rabbi Earl, whom I befriended at Camp Mohican, told me a timeless joke about a remarkable dog. In any case, I'll share it with you just the same; it's worth a chuckle.
A shul (synagogue) was packed. Worshipers are shmoozing (chatting) before services. Suddenly, people were shocked to see a man come into the shul with a dog. Such chutzpah! (nerve) an old man muttered. All through the evening services everyone was surprised at how well the dog behaved. The next morning, the man and his dog were back, davening (praying) together. This time, the dog was adorned with a little blue tallis (prayer shawl) and a yarmulke (skull cap). Everyone was amazed.
The following week when the service began, the man and his dog were back again. This time, just as the chazzan (cantor) began the first prayer, the dog stood up on his hind legs and howled "BA-ROOOOOOOCH....!" (Blessed). After the service, everyone was dying to meet this man and his very remarkable dog. The rabbi came up to the man and said, "You have such an amazing dog; he should be going to a seminary." The man shook his head, threw up his hands and said, "Oh, you think so, you talk to him! He wants to be a doctor!
Roll CallHow often Grandma Lottie momentarily forgot my name when I upset her, which by the way, I had honed to a science. She would mistakenly call me "Seymour," "Moishele," and finally as the mist would clear from her mind, she'd bellow, "Varren, hak mir nit in kop!" (Don't bang on my head, don't give me a headache!).
Revenge of the Tooth Fairy When I wanted to speak privately on the telephone I would carry the kitchen phone into the adjoining room, my grandma's bedroom. She believed it was a waste of electricity to keep the lights on in the room while just talking on the phone. She paid the bill; I followed the rule.
One harrowing account, while I was speaking on the phone in the dark room, stands out in my mind. I was leaning on grandma's dresser; I mindlessly fiddled with thingamabobs on her dresser top. The door to the room suddenly opened, a hand reached in and flicked on the overhead light. It was my grandmother; she took me by surprise. She questioned, "Why are you playing with my tseyna?" (teeth). There I stood in disbelief, holding her false teeth.
CATastrophe Seymour, Grandma's youngest son, was living with us when he was attending college. One day he presented us with a furry surprise, much to my delight, a kitten. It was tiny and cuddly, and I was so thrilled. He said it will be a good companion for Grandma. It was milky white with a black patch above "his" right eye. He named him Petie, because it reminded him of a pooch on a TV show who also had a dark patch above his eye.
As it turned out, Petie was not a male; "his" anatomy proved otherwise. Grandma was Petie's caregiver, I was Petie's best friend; she tolerated my foibles. Grandma loved her cat and spoke Yiddish to her. Petie had several litters (most of them were collected by the Humane Society), and each time she would try to hide her brood in our attic. She would carry each new arrival, one at a time, between her teeth up the long, narrow staircase leading to the attic, and deposit it in a secluded niche.
When my sister Joyce was born, my mom became fearful that Petie might harm the baby. She pleaded with my grandmother to give Petie away. Broken-hearted, Grandma reluctantly complied. Admittedly, I cried for days, as I am sure she did too. For all these many years I have had an affinity for cats.
Some time ago my wife and I rescued a frisky, orange colored kitty who we named Tabby. This mischievous critter soon became a dear member of our family. Six years later he became deathly ill. We struggled with his illness for a year and a half. Sadly, the dire time arrived, and we had "to give sweet boy wings to fly."
Tabby has been gone for about six years. We finally filled the void with another rescued male cat. Chipper is now a one year old frolicking chum who has assumed reign of our home.
The Proposal After 42 years of marriage, I can now report that I did not officially propose marriage to my girl friend, Risa. It was my grandmother who first proposed (on my behalf). We had been dating for years, I guess it was a forgone conclusion that we would eventually "hook up." Risa and I were at my house when Grandma came walking into the room.
She showed us a ring box that housed her diamond wedding ring. Grandma was proud of her ring, and presented it to Risa with the pronouncement that "this is the ring Varren will be giving you, kine-ahora." (a phrase used to ward off the evil eye).
For all Shimeon and purposes, I was now engaged. I guess Grandma knew a good thing when she saw it. My wife and I will be celebrating our 43rd wedding anniversary this coming August. Grandmas know best.
In Closing Grandma Lottie, doyenne of the kitchen, keeper of the castle, a baleboosteh (top notch homemaker), lives on in my memory. I presented a fleeting glimpse of a colorful, generous woman who, besides keeping me well supplied with yummy nosherei (snacks), nurtured me along with my parents. I survived my grandmother's peccadilloes and I am a better man for them. If only she were here now, how she'd kvell (beam with pride) over all of her grandchildren's wonderful accomplishments.
Her legacy indeed lives on.
from the 2015 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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