When my daughter, Chava, was pregnant, it was an exciting and hopeful time. I had no doubts that she would be a wonderful mom. What I wasn’t sure about, was what kind of grandma I would be.
I thought about doting grandmothers who ask, “By the way, have I shown you the pictures of my brilliant, gorgeous grandchildren?” Was I ready to join the ranks of the silver-haired, mah jong playing, picture-toting club?
The smells and tastes that flowed from her tiny kitchen nourished more than our bodies
Truth is, my idealized image of a grandmother is my Bubby Faygel. She was a real Jewish mother – born in a small village, diminutive in height, but mighty in character. She was the matriarch of the family, a wonderful blend of sweet gentleness and strong opinions and morals that shaped our world. The smells and tastes that flowed from her tiny kitchen nourished more than our bodies, they nurtured our souls. With her loving murmur of “Gutte yingele, zissen maidele,” Yiddish for “Good boy or sweet girl”, she stroked our cheeks with her velvety wrinkled hands, and she made us desperately want to be good boys and sweet girls and never disappoint her.
Could I come close to the Bubbykeit, the grandmotherliness of Faygel? I do bake challah and make chicken soup every week. I put together a mean Passover seder every year, though I can’t imagine Faygel kvetching, panicking and throwing it together like me. I feel like an American, suburban plastic imitation next to her, kind of like the stylized fake outdoor exhibit in the sporting goods store at the mall that doesn’t quite satisfy like a walk in the woods.
As Chava’s pregnancy progressed, I still couldn’t wrap my mind around being a bona-fide grandma, bubby, savta – a mother of a mother. I figured it was similar to my pregnancy experiences, when I couldn’t really grasp that another child was going to be born until push – she was there – and of course, how had we ever lived without this precious, intrinsic part of our family!
Late one Thursday night a panicked phone call changed everything. In the middle of her 26th week, Chava was spotting, and sent to the hospital. Attempts to stall labor didn’t work. Ari’s anxious, “They’re rushing her into the OR to do an emergency C-section!” call, was followed after a short few minutes that seemed an eternity by “He came out before they could operate! He’s pink and his heartbeat is good and the doctors look happy!”
Our joy and relief was followed by the awakening of one maternal/grand-maternal urge. I wanted to get out there, a few thousand miles down the road, and hold that little baby right away!
On the long plane ride the next morning, a gentle tune went through my mind. A famous Israeli song, of which I had long misunderstood the words. I only realized the mistake a few months before, while reciting them in their original source in Psalms. All these years I had thought it said, “Uru Banim Lefanecha, Shalom al Yisrael,” – may you see your children in front of you, peace to (the people of) Israel. As a mom of a precious brood, I agreed. What greater challenge and blessing than to have, hold and strive to raise one’s offspring. A true blessing not just for oneself but for the whole Jewish people.
I still couldn’t wrap my mind around being a bona-fide grandma, bubby, savta – a mother of a mother
My mistake was that the actual words were “Uru Banim L’banecha, Shalom al Yisrael,” – may you see the children of your children, peace to (the people of) Israel. Like all words of Torah, there are levels of meaning. To a beleaguered people, enduring Katyushas, Kassams and vile terror, what wish could ring truer than “May you live out your days in peace and wholeness, you, your children, your children’s children.” Generations. Calm. Quietly rejoicing under the olive tree.
I look to my son Shalom’ke, my little big boy Israeli soldier man. He is filled with bravado and courage, quest for meaning and adventure, and a sincere desire to serve the Jewish nation. To my son: May you and all your comrades regale your children’s children with tales of your exploits, in peace. Under the olive tree. And as for Li’l Guy, our new little grandson who is, thank G‑d, growing steadily in his little roost in the NICU, it is indeed a whole new experience to behold banim l’banecha – children of children.
Wow. Kids do grow up. All those nights and fights and messes and too small shoes and tears and performances. But now my baby is a mama. It is incredible to be able to encourage and comfort her and share the knowledge I didn’t even realize I was accumulating. It’s in my bones now.
I guess that’s what Bubbying is all about, mothering the parents and the child, and just being a safety net of experience and caring. It doesn’t really matter if my hair isn’t silver or my Yiddish is pretty simple.
I told the NICU nurses I’d feel more like a real grandma if they’d let me put some chicken soup into Li’l Guy’s IV. They didn’t go for it. But I did find myself making an Aleph-Bet blanket to try to add some Jewish warmth to his physically warm incubator.
To me, this is the essence of Jewish parenting and grandparenting: Taking care of the physical and emotional needs, while saturating a Jewish touch that incubates and sprouts vibrant Jewish generation after generation, filled with enough light to transform the world into one of true and enduring peace.