Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Clock-Watching on a Saturday Afternoon in Brooklyn, circa 1955

My mother the other afternoon told Hedgehog a familiar story, while I listened in interest (not for the first or even tenth time) to a tale of Old Brooklyn, one without plot or denouement, but peopled by characters...

Every Saturday when she was young, my mother would visit her Grandma Katie in the old apartment on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn.

Grandma Eva and mom would set off in the morning, in rain or wind or sunshine, and ride the subway to Great-Grandma's apartment building. Each and every Saturday bore a tedious similarity to the Saturday before and the Saturday to come, with few exceptions: on the way, they might stop at a deli for some luncheon meats and pickles to bring along. And on one memorable occasion, my grandmother bought my mother a gigantic stuffed pink seal at the old Abraham & Strauss down on Fulton Street. My mom lugged this thing to Ocean Parkway and back that day, and after its adventure it settled into a long lifetime, two generations of children loving it to gray, homely, fur-less oblivion...

But, as my mother tells it, these weekly jaunts were, by and large, an exercise in abject boredom.

There was a momentary flurry of excitement upon their arrival, as mom would run to check out the table; my Great-Grandma Katie was a talented baker, and invariably had laid out a spectacular display: rugelach, tortes and jelly rolls, babkas and cakes of all variety to tempt the family. However, accompanying this treat was the time-honored Jewish Catch-22, the passive-aggressive food-pushing/fat-commenting dichotomy which drove so many many generations of Jewish girls to the brink of despair. The innocent-looking sweets were in fact a cruel trap, of which one was aware but fell into nonetheless each and every time. My mother was allowed and expected to take a single piece of something. Were she to reach for more, as naturally any child confronted with a bounty of sweets would do, she would suffer a strident critique of her little female form, present and potential. But reach she did, how could she not? And stuffed before the commentary began...

--"Bubbe!" Hedgehog interrupts this, suddenly inflamed. "that's not fair! Why couldn't you have the second piece of cake?"

--"Hedgehog," says Bubbe sadly. "They were very punitive back then."

--"If you put out all that cake, you'd let me have the second piece though."

--"Yes, Hedgehog, I would."

After the Gauntlet of Sweets was thrown by Great-Grandma Katie and retrieved by mom, the challenge accepted and the consequence suffered, the shame swallowed along with the babka...the afternoon settled into dull torpor.

While Grandma Eva and her mother chatted and crocheted the hours away, my mother sought ways to prevent herself from slipping into a boredom coma. Every week, she says, she ventured into her grandma's bedroom and pulled a book from the shelf--always the same book--a biography of Ignaz Semmelweis, who discovered that by washing one's hands, one could prevent puerperal fever. Week after week, she lay on her grandma's meticulously crocheted counterpane and read of Ignaz Semmelweis and his great accomplishments.

--"Bubbe!" here Hedgehog interrupts again. "Why didn't you bring your own books and crayons?!"

--"Hedgehog," says Bubbe. "I never thought of it."

When she was done reading, she wandered from room to room, staring at the familiar worn trinkets and tzochkes, the antimacassars and china lamps, the few books and the Judaica, the view out the sparklingly clean windows of the wide Parkway, the benches, and the Saturday strollers. And of course, glancing at the clock every moment or two.

--"Bubbe!" says Hedgehog. "Why couldn't you just play a game by yourself for an hour or two?"

--"Hedgehog," says Bubbe, shaking her head. "I just didn't have the inner resources that you do."

--"Oh." says Hedgehog.

The visit would often end up, when the weather was clement, on the benches outside the apartment building. Ocean Parkway, enormously wide then and now, has a famously iconic median, lined with trees and benches, where babushkas, bubbes, and bubbelehs have clustered since time immemorial to idle away a Saturday afternoon.

My grandma and great-grandma would continue their conversation out in the sunshine, while mom sat on the wrought-iron fence behind the bench, staring into space, waiting and watching for her dad, my Grandpa Max, to pick them up in the car and drive them home again.

--"Bubbe!" Hedgehog pounds her fists in frustration. "why didn't you bring your roller-skates?"

--"Hedgehog, that's a good idea. I wish I'd known you back then."

--"That was a terrible visit, Bubbe!"

--"Yes, Hedgehog," my mom says laughing. "It was."

*Photo: "Bench to Infinity" by Buraianto, Flickr Creative Commons


Poetikat said...

That's funny. The tempt/tease/torture ritual is not exclusive to the Jewish community. My father, who was a Belfast Irish-Catholic, would proffer seconds of anything and everything from glasses of sherry to extra peas. If you declined, he would cajole and plead until you gave in just to shut him up! On the other hand, he was always the first to say, "You look like you might be putting on a bit of weight, K, you should start exercising." (I'm 5'4 and have never weighed more than 115 lbs.) Oy vey!


books,coffee,etc.... said...

Hi! Leah,
What a very interesting story that you related about 3 generations in your family your mother, her mother, and her mother. And most inportantly...Time and how sometimes...we are idle and let time pass away aimlessly.

Thanks, for sharing!
DeeDee ;-D

The Clever Pup said...

This is really well written. I can see it clear as a bell. Good one Leah,

and to Poetikat, who has a lot in common with me. We might both be 5'4" but I've got 40 lbs over you.

savannah said...

they all did it, sugar. *sigh* to this day, i want to slap miss daisy when i think of the anguish she inflicted on her granddaughters about their weight! trying to undo her comments cost us a fortune. my mother used to tell the girls they were beautiful inside and out and didn't need to worry about anything! hedgie is fortunate to have your mom in her life! xoxox

MJ said...

I'll have a rugelach.

And some hamentashen if there's any going.

Ronda Laveen said...

This story is good on so many levels besides making me hungry. But what I think I love the most is how Bubbe affirms and supports Hedgie. And how she wishes the could have been together in another life time. Kudos, kiddo.

Brian Miller said...

love the commentary, a glimpse into the thoughts and how hedgehog interacted with the story. beautifully told tale. happy thursday!

Marianna said...

I found this story interesting, educating and fun to read. Not to mention the pics, they are wonderful!

Thank you Leah
Happy TT

The Silver Fox said...

And who says modern children have no imaginations, especially compared with their older counterparts? Hedgehog is remarkable.

nick said...

It must have been desperately boring. I have to admit my occasional visits to my mum are pretty similar, she sees intellectual stimulation as something to be avoided at all costs. Children do ask such pertinent and unexpected questions, don't they?

Poetikat said...

Leah, I DID notice that "denouement" in the third line, and it IS quite the coincidence.


Baino said...

Fantastic story and a very innovative little girl you have there. I used to get dragged to my Nana's every Saturday too but it was fun. She had a room full of clothes and makeup and jewellery and dressups were mandatory. She and my mother would sit smoking and drinking tea while we ran amok! Good times. Tell you, I'm beginning to think the Jewish stereotype is true! I have a jewish friend who's mother insists I eat every time I go over there . .she on the other hand has to have the 'small' portion in case she gets fat. Hilarious.

merelyme said...

Hedgehog is amazing!

Whatever you are doing, keep doing it!

Megan said...

I saved this post for just before bed, because I knew it was going to be really good (and not just because of the title!) and I wanted a good bedtime story.

And it was. Perfect. Goodnight, Leah! Have a wonderful weekend!

(Oh, and on a mundane note - there is something wrong with your link over at the TT blog. You might want to try again.)

Anonymous said...

'Tis a fun story here, Leah. Hedgehog is not afraid to question. This is good. Princess is the same way. Both may be wise beyond their years, so to speak :)

Candie Bracci said...

Great story Leah!;)

Jimmy Bastard said...

Another delightful well written piece that feels as comfortable as a soft warm blanket on a cold winters night.

I could almost see the smile on your face as you tapped away on the keys.

Mrsupole said...

I truly enjoyed this story and the interaction that took place. There are five generations in this story. That is really great.

Your story made me think about whether or not my grandkids have fun when they come to visit. I hope so. I just had never thought about it. The two youngest I babysit, so I guess they have no choice. I think I will have to ask them. I did buy a Wii game system for them when they are here. I think your mom would of been happy to have one when she visited her Grandma. I know I would have enjoyed one. We never had anything to do when we visited our Grandpa and Grandma. But we did have each other, and so we played games with each other. Seven kids can always find trouble. And we sure did.

God bless.

Knitter in an Urban Zoo said...

You have captured a generational shift that I find fascinating. I love Hedgehog's earnest and determined way. You have raised her well.

Kris said...

I've heard this referenced in songs before.