Learn From the Best

My mother’s mother was a bitter divorcee before that particular phrase was coined. For years I thought the name of the grandfather I never knew, was Bastard. Her name, was Mary Margaret Reagan, which is about as Irish-Catholic as you can get. She went by Mae. My brothers and I called her Mae-Maze. As she aged and began to shrink from her already slight 5’ frame we took to calling her Little Mae-Maze. She spent over 25 years operating a machine at The Philadelphia Naval Yard. I never knew much about her job save for the fact that she resented it and counted the minutes until her retirement. Every weekday she walked the few short city-blocks from her second-floor apartment, in which she never cooked and rarely cleaned. I didn’t enjoy time spent there. It smelled. Like her. Cheap whiskey, unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes and peppermint Chicklets.

She had a sister she loved. And a sister she hated, which I never understood. Because the sister she hated was deaf and blind and I always thought deserved extra love. She once gave the sister she loved $5,000 so that she and her husband could buy a bayside vacation home dangerously close to the aptly named beaches of Wildwood, New Jersey. I don’t know if it was out of indebtedness to my grandmother, but my mom’s aunt and uncle provided countless beach weekends for my brothers and me. When they first purchased the shore house, Mae-Maze was bestowed her own bedroom. But somewhere along the line she made the mistake of addressing her brother-in-law’s rough treatment of her beloved sister and was swiftly banned from joining any further New Jersey festivities. For the bulk of my teenage years, most Saturday summer nights were spent with my great-aunt and uncle’s network of hard-drinking friends. All of whom took their fair turn of hosting the weekly card tournament that lasted into the wee hours of the morning. My brothers and I, along with the other free-loading beach-weekend seeking great-nieces, nephews and grandchildren were tasked with serving the Entenmann’s raspberry-danish while making sure their high-ball glasses never emptied.  After spending the days exhausting ourselves perfecting our body-surfing skills in the Atlantic Ocean and the nights making personally sure the shot glasses were properly drained of their spirits by licking the bottoms, we kids would pass out. And in the morning, wake up in our pre-assigned pull-out sofa beds, having no recollection of how we got there.

Despite the years of a diet consisting of alcohol, cigarettes and chewing gum, Mae-Maze lived into her eighties. The last decade of her life, she refused to leave her dank apartment. Her course gray hair, as well as her brown-tinged fingernails continued to grow. As did the stack of yellowed newspapers in her bathtub and kitchen sink. She was found unconscious after her downstairs neighbor/landlord heard a thud. Machines kept her alive for the next 2 days. My mom thanked this neighbor profusely. She also proffered money for him to clear out the apartment as the task proved too monumental for us non-agoraphobic, non-hoarders to handle.

My father’s family was polar-opposite from my mom’s. Though they shared the same hard-scrabble pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps Philadelphia roots, by the time my dad reached his later teenage years, his parents had fled the city and became as starched white-collar as my mom’s family remained true-blue. The palpable peace and calm in my paternal grandparent’s suburban split-level home stood in stark contrast to the turmoil and chaos of my mother’s dissentious relatives. The dreaded time spent in Mae-Maze’s smoke-filled, claustrophobic apartment left me longing for the anticipated hours at my contentedly married grandparent’s home. The hand-holding, grace saying formal dining room dinners shared with my dad’s relatives were a welcome reprieve from the walking-on-egg-shell meals spent with my mom’s side of the family. In which there was always somebody not talking to somebody. Until they were a few high-balls in, when everybody talked to everybody. Using language that was not to be repeated to my Sunday School teaching paternal side of the family. The fluid Catholicism of my mom’s relatives only served to lure me to the stalwart Protestantism of my dad’s.

My dad’s mother and father were Bible-believin’-gospel-preachin’-Sunday-go-to-meetin’ kind of folk. Every Wednesday morning at 10:00, my grandmother could be found teaching a women’s Bible Study in her home. A welcoming place where the sun-filtered front door revolved with a parade of ministers, missionaries and visiting Southern Gospel singers. Or just plain anyone in need of a predictably Presbyterian Sunday roast beef and mashed potatoes dinner. Accompanied by a can of translucent fruit-cocktail wriggling inside brightly colored perfectly molded Jell-O. Sunday morning service was not to be missed, nor was Sunday evening hymn-sing. Wednesday nights were reserved for prayer meetings and pot-lucks.      

          I don’t know if it was because Jesus was a Jew, but my God-fearing grandmother embraced all things Judaic. She loved the people and she loved their culture. But what she mostly loved, was their language. She took great pride in her accomplished fluency of Yiddish and her uncanny ability to slip it into everyday vernacular. I knew that she was Bubbe and that I was a shiksa. I knew that schmaltz literally meant chicken fat but could also be used to describe her overly-sensitive identical twin sisters with their matching 6’ husbands that trailed their matching miniature poodles. One swift-sided glance from Bubbe was all it took to let me know when I was being a noodge. I dutifully clutched my hands to my chest and muttered Oy Vey anytime unfortunate news was delivered. I had the distinct honor of being the only student in my glaringly gentile school able to explain to my fellow classmates what Laverne and Shirley were referring to when they sang, schlemiel, shlimazl. And I knew which family members Bubbe secretly thought of as meshuggina. But the best thing I knew, was that she was my Bubbe and I was her bubbule. We did, however, manage to hold to their nouveau middle-class values and simply referred to my insurance-selling grandfather by the very paternal forebear; Pop-pop.

          Bubbe was a gifted seamstress and would painstakingly hand-sew my Barbie-doll clothes. Pop-pop, who never missed an opportunity in which to indulge this woman with whom he was absolutely besotted, once gifted Bubbe with a mink coat. She cut a portion of it for me. I was the only girl on my block whose Barbie’s wore fur. As a young teenager, while crossing a busy street in her Kensington neighborhood, Bubbe was hit by a bus. The emergency room doctor mistakenly casted the wrong shattered hip, leaving her with an unreliable gate, necessitating the use of crutches for the rest of her life. Until time, plus illness forced her degradation to a wheelchair. But Bubbe, being Bubbe, covered her crutches in leopard print fabric. When I asked her why, she said, oh my little bubbule, if people are going to stare at you, you might as well give them something to stare at. Now that’s what I call, chutzpah. My Pop-pop saw to it than an in-ground pool was installed in their backyard, as swimming was the only form of exercise my Bubbe could do. Now that’s what I call, love.

          The night Bubbe met Jesus face-to-face, Pop-pop was having Sunday dinner at our house. The tangled corded rotary phone shrieked in the middle of the meal. My mom answered, quickly handed the receiver to my grandfather and silently mouthed that it was the hospital. Unfortunately, along with the bum hips, Bubbe also had a bum ticker. The ultimate of ironies, since she actually had the greatest heart of anyone I knew. Throughout my Bubbe’s life, she had spent way too much of her rapidly diminishing time listening to doctors from the vantage point of a hospital bed. As my Pop-pop silently hung-up the phone after his barely audible conversation in which he mostly just nodded, he leaned his not-yet-fully gray head of hair against the kitchen wall and while wiping tears from his eyes with his ever-present hankie solemnly said, Thank-you, Jesus. It was the most courageous act of faith my 14-year-old eyes had ever witnessed.

I am grateful for all the examples in my life, good and bad. Because sometimes it’s just as important to learn what not to do. But choose wisely whose example you follow. Because the example you follow is eventually the example you become.