It’s been just a year since my husband Maurice’s mother Fanya – Bubbie – passed away. Bubbie was Fan for her four boys, Maurice, Avrum, Sol and Sam, the ultimate Em Habanim (sons’ mother). My sisters and I gave her name an affectionate old-fashioned Sephardi twist and called her Freha. I never referred to her as my mother in law, alert to off-color jokes the term never fails to conjure up in people’s minds, but always as Maurice’s mother. She was a beautiful woman, the poster girl for self-reliance, stylishness, discretion, hard work and wisdom. She turned every hardship into a great opportunity, and passed this trait on to all her children. Since my husband, the oldest of her four sons, was the first to get married, I also became the first de facto daughter in her male-dominated house, and later in our own. There is nothing we didn’t share: Cooking, schmoozing, baking (hey where’s the clip of that heavily accented interview she had with Bob Lape about her award-winning carrot cake on Channel 7, circa 1980? We are hunting it down), sewing, going places, traveling, walking, rummykub (she played with a kind of vengeance, as if this was high-stakes poker in a casino), monopoly, bingo, mini golf (once when she hit a hole in one she looked flabbergasted and protested, that doesn’t count, it was an accident, it was an accident!), classic movies, opera. She must have watched South Pacific and Carmen a dozen times, and cried as she crooned along every song all over again. In time she even came to forgive me for not sharing her love for Barbra Streisand and soap operas, a deep aversion I could not confess to until my title as wife was firmly established (who knows what might go through the head of pop culture fans?) I owe her the little Yiddish I know: Levana has shpilkes in tuchis, Levana has guldina hant, and a few more terms I often came across.
Bubbie trusted me and deferred to me so completely that I went by myself to buy fabric to make her the gown she wore at our wedding, and escorted her to all her doctors’ major appointments and surgeries. I’m sorry to say I had to stop going to shop for clothes with her, because she would gasp at me whatever rag I tried on and say, “Oy, oy, Levana, you look gorgeous! This is some dress!”, leaving me to wonder when I reached my house with my silly purchases what I was smoking at shopping time.
She was apprised of every milestone in the lives of our regular customers at Levana Restaurant where she worked (her “retirement” took place very late in her life, and lasted a month or two at most, after which she came running back to work), and even of the actors’ in All My Children, which had their studio down our block and dropped by almost daily for her danishes. I remember her giving a commiserating hug to some soap actress when she had her screen miscarriage, with another when she had her ugly screen divorce, and railing at yet another for his odious screen blackmail (“oh I hate that guy!”, she would cringe). At her doctor’s office she would ask how his superstar sister Beverly Sills – née Silverman – was doing, and always insisted on serving our famous neighbor and customer Jan Pierce herself. How did she manage to communicate with my mother, Flory, her twice-Mechutenet (my sister Rackel married Maurice’s brother Avrum), without a common language to unite them? Their encounters were always at once touching and comical, as kisses, hugs and sweeping gestures made up for every missing word.
The devotion between her and her younger sister Zoia, with whom she was reunited after almost twenty years when she and her family imigrated from Russia, the wordless expression of their mutual love was quasi-mystical. Her love for all her children and grandchildren bordered on worship. She was friend and confidante to all of us, and my nephew Ari aptly called her his Ir Miklat (city of refuge). Upon the birth of every baby she added a baby-boy or baby-girl gold charm to her necklace with each name engraved on it (she included my sister Lea’s babies, as Lea had been her roommate until she got married, and they had a veritable mother-daughter relationship). “Look! I look like Mr T!” she would chuckle, jiggling the trinkets, when the necklace grew along with the family. Once when she played Monopoly “against” her youngest son Sam, she noticed he skipped his turn and asked him why. He said he didn’t have the money now to buy the house, he’d wait for the next round. Not missing a beat, she replied vehemently “Sammy, nonono, buy the house NOW! I’ll give you the money!” She was groomed to the point of fastidiousness, but thought nothing of sticking an impeccably manicured hand deep in our babies’ diapers, scanning what she retrieved as if it were chocolate sauce, and exclaiming excitedly “Yes! He made!” or opening her skirt invitingly to a sick child and whispering to him “here here shepsele! Brech, brech!”
All of us, all sizes and all ages, piled in Bubbie’s small apartment regularly for her lasagna, her fried flounder (which she pronounced flan-dray), her stuffed cabbage, her borscht, her latkas (which she made year-round, at the drop of a hat), her cinnamon babka, her challah, her carrot cake, her cheesecake and other unforgettable goodies taken from her short but dazzling repertoire (she gamely anointed me cookie queen, and I’m pleased to say the royal distinction endures to this day). Once our son Yakov, then just seven or eight, chose to write about her for his homework. “Everyone comes to my bubbie, and she cooks for all of them, she is like Avraham Avinu”. We would tease her about her Russian friends with the Seussian names that rhymed with her own: Sima, Anya, Yetta, Guenia, Manya. We caught up on all the television and newspaper gossip. She got a kick out of reading about James Brown heading for jail yet again: “Great news: the hardest working man in show business can rest now!”
I’m only sorry that our youngest children didn’t know her before she started declining, and couldn’t get the full measure of her formidable presence. They missed a good time! Rest in peace, Bubbie Fanya. Your have made immense contributions in all our lives, and taught all around you to live their lives usefully, without ever moping or passing the buck! And thank you for the very last lucid thing you did in your life: Introducing our Bella to Meir, your then-colleague at Levana Restaurant, now one of our children!