The Ballad of Bubbie and Yashie
We park the car in their garage, which always smelled of tar and gas, and I run toward the elevator up to their room. When the elevator opens to their hallway, I sprint down to the end, all giddy and showered, dressed up for Friday night. I could immediately smell chicken and Bubbie’s perfume.
The door opens and Bubbie gives me a big hug and a wet kiss on my cheek that I wipe off in feigned disgust. I make my way into the living room to see Yashie on the couch, reading the newspaper and drinking Scotch. I give him a big hug, taking in a whiff of his Old Spice cologne. My father greets Yashie with a friendly “How ya doing, Arthur?” while my mom, sister and aunt help Bubbie in the kitchen. I chomp on some hors d'oeuvres.
After we light the Shabbat candles, Yashie takes out his prayer book and mumbles the blessing over wine — his eyes sharp with concentration and his Brooklyn accent thicker than ever. Then, I do the honor of blessing my mother’s savory challah, sensing my family’s anxiety as I cut the bread with my young, stubby hands. We feast and converse about our weekly highs and lows until our eyes grow sleepy and our stomachs bloat.
Bubbie and Yashie were the names I called my maternal grandparents. The Yiddish term for “grandmother” is spelled “Bubbe,” but the fact that my family spelled it with an “I” somehow made it more special. As for Yashie, the term was made up by my sister, who couldn’t pronounce “zayde” — the traditional Yiddish term for grandfather — as a kid, so Yashie stuck.
Growing up, Bubbie and Yashie were an integral part of my life. In the late 1990s, they moved from the retirement paradise of Florida to a comfortable apartment in Los Angeles, situated a few blocks from my elementary and middle school. Almost every week on Friday night, my family and I would gather for Shabbat dinner at their place. It was undoubtedly the best part of my week, not only because I got to see Bubbie and Yashie, but because their home was always a place for joy and comfort.
During the eighth grade, I frequently walked to their apartment after school. Bubbie would give me milk and cookies (either Dunkers or Oreos), ask about my day and let me do my homework in peace. I’d pop into their bedroom to say hello to Yashie, who would be sitting in his plush, white reclining chair. For what it was worth, their presence in my life made me feel safe, known and loved.
Bubbie and Yashie instilled invaluable lessons during my childhood that would serve me later in life. Yashie taught me how to play chess, to cover my mouth when I burped and to pick up my food with the fork facing up. Bubbie made sure I washed my face every night before I went to bed and every morning when I woke up, so I could maintain my “shayna punim.”
Bubbie and Yashie shared a magnetic warmth they carried everywhere they went — at birthday parties, bar mitzvah ceremonies and other family functions. But while they radiated liveliness, their eventual path toward death would lead to a period of pain for my family.
The summer before my freshman year of high school, I started to notice a change in Bubbie. Her skin became unusually pale, she was a tad skinnier and she had a caretaker. My mother informed me that the liver cancer she survived a few years earlier, came back.
That fall, I felt alienated by Bubbie as the cancer had swallowed the life out of her. She became emaciated and jaundiced, confined to the guest bedroom of my aunt’s house where she stayed during the final months of her life. For her final Hanukkah, she smoked medical marijuana to ease the pain. It was the first time in ages I saw a glimmer of the old Bubbie, laughing with delight in her pink bathrobe.
But even then, I couldn’t enjoy moments like that because I knew it would be short-lived. After a particularly difficult evening in February 2012 — the evening I said my final goodbye to Bubbie — I experienced my first panic attack.
It was in my bedroom that was re-done as a graduation present. Taking in the newness of my room and my farewell to Bubbie only minutes before, I felt overwhelming fright wash over me and I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. I felt like the world was caving in on me. Everything was changing too quickly. That night, I waited in restless agony until my father came into my room at two in the morning. Through baited breath and tears, my mother informed me of Bubbie’s passing on the phone.
For most of my childhood, Yashie suffered from a series of physical ailments — first to a cane, then a walker and finally a wheelchair. As he became immobile, his loquacious personality gradually disappeared, rendering him monosyllabic and catatonic. After Bubbie’s death, Yashie’s health continued to decline, forcing my mother and aunt to put him in several senior living facilities.
Like Bubbie, I felt alienated by Yashie during the final months of his life. I was reluctant to visit him at the senior living homes. Instead of staying with Yashie during our weekly visits, I opted to take long walks around the neighborhood to cool off. I couldn’t bear to see my mother and aunt weeping as Yashie sat motionless in his wheelchair, closing his eyes and opening them every other minute.
On his 90th birthday, I mustered up the courage to say goodbye — holding his soft, purple-stained hands and telling him I loved him and that I was sorry I wasn’t there for him when I needed to be. And for the first time in a while, I saw his mouth move to speak. The words were hard to hear and the sound was obscured by the oxygen mask glued to Yashie’s face.
A week later, he passed away, my family standing over him as he exhaled his last breath. I remember a strange mix of relief and disbelief wash over me, knowing that I spent the past year mourning Bubbie and now had to spend another year mourning Yashie — their collective presence was officially gone.
There were a lot of things I wish I knew about Bubbie and Yashie. I wish I asked about what their lives were like growing up in New York and what their favorite movies and songs were. I wish they saw me graduate high school and go on to study at the University of Michigan.
But then again I knew a lot about them. Yashie fought as a private in World War II and later took classes at Brooklyn College before working many jobs. His biggest venture was opening up his own business in New York, where he manufactured women's clothing for stores like JC Penney. Most people called him by his middle name, Seymour, growing up.
Bubbie didn’t have a middle name. She grew up in the Bronx, went to Alfred University and transferred to New York University. Afterward, she became an audiologist for preschoolers with hearing loss and later became a para-professional social worker. Both of their parents were Eastern European immigrants. Together, they were perfect, beautiful, fashionable and charitable. They were my role models.
Sometimes, Bubbie and Yashie appear in my dreams. I’m not sure if it’s just my unconscious mind fabricating images and memories, but I’d like to think that they’re visiting me from beyond. I still try to imagine Bubbie’s infectious cackle and her delicious cooking. I yearn to hear Yashie’s jokes and catchphrases and how they made my family laugh hysterically. But most of all, I wish I could go back to that apartment and relive Shabbat dinner with Bubbie and Yashie, together again.