My mother hated Bubby. I didn't understand why. It made the air in our house heavy, like we were all moving through fog.
Bubby came to live with us after Zayde (my grandfather) died, because she couldn't manage on her own. Zayde was the one who had taken care of all the interactions with the larger world. He went to work (as a tailor), paid the bills, talked to the American shopkeepers and neighbors. Bubby hid from all that, shuffling around in the small kitchen of their North Philadelphia apartment. She still dressed and acted like she was living in the shtetl, waiting for the Cossacks to return.
I was a little kid at the time Bubby came to stay, but still I could sense that something big was up between my mother and father over Bubby's arrival. It was the only time I can remember seeing my dad cowed. It was as if he couldn't look my mother in the eye. He brought his mother to live with us, but he was ashamed of her immigrant ways. And fearful of my mother's outsized reaction.
I could never figure out why Mom was always so upset. Bubby didn't take up much space; she was a tiny, wizened woman who rarely spoke. She spent most of her days sitting in an old wingback chair reading the Yiddish edition of the Jewish Forward. She never did learn to read or write English, though she was able to write her name—Sara. My brother Paul and I would often ask her to write her name for us, bringing her a pad and pencil, then marveling over her scrawly handwriting.
The atmosphere at home became more and more strained as the years went by. My mother was not a subtle woman, neither in affect or speech. She said what was on her mind and damn anyone who was in her way. Unfortunately, Bubby always seemed to be in the way. If we were all sitting in the living room watching "The Ed Sullivan Show," Mom might jump up right in the middle and shout, "I can't relax with her in the room," staring at poor Bubby. And she'd keep right on standing there, hands on her hips, glaring now at Dad, until Bubby rose up out of her chair and shuffled off to her bedroom, hidden behind the kitchen. After Bubby was gone, Mom sat back down and we went on watching Topo Gigio or the guys spinning plates on sticks, but I felt awful, like I wanted to cry but knew that would get me in big trouble. I bet Dad felt the same way.
Even though she seemed to be always sad, Bubby was the one I came to when things had gone badly for me at school or I had gotten into a fight with the Catholic school kids in the neighborhood. She'd help me wash up and make me a snack of toast and tea.
"You shouldn't worry," Bubby told me, "Someday you'll go to college, like your father." She made the word sound like coll-itch. I didn't ask her why going to coll-itch would make getting beat up any easier, but then she'd let me cry on her bony shoulder and she'd pat my head and smooth back my hair till I was done. Mom and Dad never touched me like that.
Bubby never pretended to be a modern American. How could she? She was an old-world Jew and she'd always kept kosher. I don't imagine it was something she had to think about. Mom, of course, did not keep a kosher house and made no secret of her annoyance at having to accommodate Bubby's dietary restrictions. "A bunch of superstitious nonsense," Mom announced every night at the dinner table as she slammed down Bubby's special plate. Bubby never answered back, just stared down at her food.
"Let my mother be," Dad said. You could tell he only wanted to eat his dinner and be gone, back to the peace of his downstairs doctor's office.
"You're not the one who has to cook for her," Mom snapped at him. When she talked about our grandmother Mom always made her into a pronoun, a "her" or a "she" or a "this one."
After we were done eating one night, Mom turned to Bubby and barked, "So? How'd you like your food?" We had eaten a stew full of potatoes and carrots and some sort of stringy meat.
"It was fine," Bubby said in her timid voice. "Very tasty."
"Tasty, huh?" Mom said, smirking. "Do you know what you ate?"
Bubby shook her head.
"Pig," Mom announced. "Nice, juicy pork meat."
A silence descended over the table, each of us stunned or stricken. Even I knew enough about kosher food, to know that pork was the ultimate treyf, an unclean food. I felt like I might throw up.
Dad pushed his plate away and stood up, throwing his napkin down on the table. "That was uncalled for, Isabelle." He strode out of the dining room and we heard his footsteps descending the stairs. I wondered why he didn't try to console his mother, pat her shoulder, anything.
"It goes to show you," Mom said, after he left, "that those old rules don't mean a thing. Nothing's changed, has it?" She looked at Bubby. "You're still alive, aren't you?"
Bubby stood up. "You're a mean woman," she said, her voice swelling and breaking, "And God will punish you for this." Then she walked off to her bedroom and shut the door behind her.
Mom turned to me and my sister and brother. The air felt charged. My sick stomach was changing to something oddly approaching elation. My mom had done a horrible thing. But, for once in our family's life, people were pushing back.
"Big deal," Mom said. I didn't know who she was speaking to. "I only wanted to show her what nonsense all that kosher stuff really is. We live in America, not Russia for God's sake." She sat back down and reached for her cigarettes.
"Can I be excused?" my little brother asked. Paul was more sensitive than I was and I figured he would soon be sobbing into his pillow.
"Me too," my older sister Linda said. "I've got homework."
I gathered up my courage, and waited until Linda and Paul were gone.
"You didn't have to do that," I said. "Bubby's right. You are really mean."
Then I got up and walked into Bubby's room to see if I could make her feel any better, and left my mother alone at the table.