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