As I write these stories and talk to Grandma, I think a lot about the mysteries of memory. Why does she remember certain things which seem very random, yet forget other events which seem memorable or very recent? What makes me recall particular stories, and why do they sometimes pop into my head for no reason? As I spend more time with Bryce and Lily, I wonder what, if any, of these early memories they will recall in twenty or more years. If the answer is none, then does it really matter if I spend my time with them planning fun-filled outings, or instead, pop them in front of the television and watch the news or the shopping network?
This latest bunch of random thoughts was precipitated by the discovery of a photo of me with Baba, my Russian grandma ,when I was about two or three. You must admit that I was damn cute!
The first thing about me that I noticed were the curls on my head. My hair was not naturally curly, so the question that I ask myself now is whether my cute little ringlets were the result of curlers or a perm. My guess is the latter, because I do not believe I could have sat still long enough through the stinky process of a home perm. (Even though I was definitely the perfect child)
Then look at those bangs. I am sure you have seen the result of Grandma’s bang-cutting expertise in many photos of my two sisters and me many times.. Aren’t you glad that I never did that to any of you?
Then there is Baba. Like me, she looks so serious. When this photo was snapped, she had not been back in this country more than a year, having arrived in January 1957. I was not quite nineteen months old when I first met her.
I have vague flashes of memory visiting her at her home on Boonton Avenue where she lived with my twin aunts, Helen and Nancy. After she came to the United States and for the rest of her life, she was bounced from house to house. She lived in Boonton for a while, and then after my aunts got married and left Boonton, she lived in Somerville with Aunt Helen, and Trenton with Aunt Nancy.
Her move into our house was quite sudden and unexpected. I guess Aunt Nancy’s husband, Uncle John, had enough of living with his mother-in-law, so one day, they pulled up at our house in his flashy green Cadillac, and Uncle John literally dumped Baba at the curb in front of our house . There was no warning and a lot of panicked planning on Grandma and Grandpa’s part to figure out where to put her in a house with five kids and three bedrooms. Grandma cried a lot.
Grandpa then had an unexpected project, which was converting our dining room into a bedroom for Uncle Mart and Uncle Dave. The two openings into that room were originally arched entries, which Grandpa had to reshape to fit two doors.
That was the end of Grandma being able to host her fat club, which was a group of ladies who got together at each other’s houses to chat and eat dessert.
Now the two boys were sleeping adjacent to the kitchen and living room, and we had to squeeze an extra person around the kitchen table. It was not a good time for our family..
It was a very hard transition for both Grandma and Baba. Without warning, these two women, who could not speak to each other, were abruptly stuck with each other. Grandma was not happy having her mother-in-law who could speak only Russian sharing her days with her, and for Baba, she was literally thrown out of her daughter’s house. After all those years of living apart from her children, now she was discarded like a worn old shoe.
The only way we could talk to her was when Grandpa acted as a translator. So we would sit at the dinner table, and Baba would listen to the babble of the seven of us but would have no idea what we were saying. Grandma would continually be reminding Grandpa to tell her what we were discussing.
One day, Grandma went upstairs to change the sheets. After she removed the dirty sheets, she was interrupted by a telephone call. When she left, Baba saw the sheets lying on the floor or the bed, so she decided to help Grandma by putting them on the bed. Needless to say, Grandma was not pleased when she returned to discover that the bed was made with dirty sheets, and she could not explain to Baba why she was removing them. It is funny now, but it must have been frustrating for both of them.
I don’t know what she did all day. My uncle Pete bought Baba a short wave radio, which enabled her to listen to Russian stations, but I am not sure how much it worked.
She enjoyed certain shows such as I Love Lucy, which got a lot of its laughs with visual comedy. Aunt Ar told me recently that Baba hated Cher. I’m not sure why.
She had some Russian friends who lived near Mt. Carmel Church on Birch Street. I have no idea how she met them, but since Boonton is such a small town, I imagine they found each other or Grandpa dug them up for her.
Baba made the best bread, so she decided to teach Grandma how to bake it. As Bryce would say, “It was a disaster.” As someone who lived many years sharing her living space with another family and then sleeping at railroad stations during the war, her sanitation standards were at a different level than Grandma’s. She didn’t wash her hands enough, and if she had a runny nose, then, oh well, she used her sleeve or back of her hand and then continued kneading the dough. She measured nothing, and because of the language barrier, she could only demonstrate, but not explain. It was not good, and as a result, there is no family bread recipe.
She eventually moved one more time, which was to Aunt Helen’s Florida Gulf Coast house where she died in 1978. I often wonder if she would have been happier if she remained in Russia where she had family and friends. She had such a sad life.