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Grandma Bella's Pickle Cure
by Shirley Coles
Everyone has two grandmothers. I was fortunate enough to have known both of mine. Grandma Rachel, my maternal grandmother, was very close to me. Mother and I lived with her for years after my father died when I was ten. His mother was Grandma Bella, the one I used to call my New York grandmother. It was always a great treat for me to visit her and be able to stay for a few days.
On one occasion, however, my visit was prompted by a monstrous case of poison ivy.
Grandma Bella seemed very tall to me then, but I now know it was because I was so short. She had iron gray hair, which she worn in a bun. I never saw it down, so it may have been very long. Her short-sleeved dresses were usually floral prints and her black sensible shoes looked like twins to those Grandma Rachel wore. She had a habit of patting me on the top of my head, then looking very innocent when I turned around. Grandma Bella was fun; she was silly, and she was nice, and I loved her.
During the summer of my eleventh year, I followed a ball into some bushes and came away with poison ivy. I had a talent for getting anything like colds, measles and now this affliction to the nth degree. Within hours, my face and hands were swollen and angry; the more I scratched, the more it spread. You would have to know my mother to understand her reaction. In addition to the calamine lotion, I was lectured, scolded, and told I might never be allowed out of the house again. She wrung her hands and threatened to tie mine if I was seen scratching. Within three days, she was a nervous wreck; her precious daughter was imperfect. Grandma Rachel finally intervened and suggested I visit Grandma Bella till the crisis was past.
"Don't feel bad, Tsureleh, your Mama just makes a big tsimus from everything. You go, you will come back fine. And your Mama will be okay, too."
An uncle accompanied me to the Bronx and the smiling welcome of Grandma Bella. "Oy Vay," she said, "who is this red and white person in my house?"
I cried out my tears into her dress while she patted my head.
"Shah, shah, I will make it all better." She put me to bed with the promise that in the morning she would make magic and the poison ivy would begin to go away.
The next day, she took me into the bathroom, drew a warm bath for me and added what she called "a little this and a lotta that." While I soaked happily, she set the table for our breakfast. "You're cooked," she announced, and gently patted me dry. I wanted to scratch so badly, but she told me to wait till after breakfast. The toasted bagels with lox and cream cheese were my favorites. She heated some milk for me and added a few tablespoons of her coffee. "It will be our secret," she said. When I asked her about the magic, she smiled and put her finger to her lips. I would have to wait not only for scratching, but for the mystery to be solved.
It was a crisp fall day and Grandma Bella selected my clothes for a walk. I was beside myself with itching. The bottle of calamine lotion was at the ready, but Grandma Bella had promised me her special cure.
We went down the stairs, into the streets of the Bronx¾an exciting and busy place to be. She held tightly to my hand, past vendors of all kinds and people rushing about. Suddenly, something smelled too delicious for words and we found ourselves outside of Mr. Tonkin's Delicatessen. Grandma had brought me here before to buy luscious things to eat when I visited. My mouth watered with memories of Mr. Tonkin's lox, corned beef, pastrami, rye bread, and bagels made like nowhere else on earth. In the barrels beside the counter, were the wonderful kosher dill pickles¾my favorite!
I looked up at her, wondering what would come next that had to do with my poison ivy. Again she put her finger to her lips with that little secret smile behind it.
While she shopped for the evening meal, I remained near the pickle barrel, inhaling the scent of dill and wanting so badly to bite into one of those green beauties. Finally, Grandma Bella asked Mr. Tonkin to wrap up seven of them! I asked if I could please have one to eat on the way back, but Grandma said, "I have to say special magic words over them, and then you will eat one every day. When you have finished seven magic pickles, the poison ivy will be gone."
That afternoon, squirming and trying to scratch without being seen, I watched as Grandma Bella placed the pickles in a big, blue and white bowl on the kitchen table. She took a pretty crocheted doily from her dresser and draped it over her head. Closing her eyes, she began to chant softly, waving her hands over the bowl. I held my breath, not daring to interrupt the magic spell because from time to time she opened one eye and peeked at me. Finally, with a word that sounded very much like "amen." She sat down with me, took a pickle from the pile and said "Eat, Tsureleh, eat and you will begin to get better." I took a big bite and, while the incredibly delicious pickle juice filled my mouth, I could swear nothing itched. Seven days and seven pickles later, the poison ivy was gone.
Now, as I write as an adult, I know that some of those special baths, the calamine lotion and time also had magic to heal. But childhood is for magic and Grandmas and pickles.
from the November 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine