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When There’s Room in the Heart    

When Bubby and Zeidy move In: 3 women share their childhood memories

The Gift She Left Me


rowing up, Bubba was my second mother. She lived in my childhood home as far back as I remember, having moved in when I was a few months old, and staying for over 30 years. Bubba was a queenly but homey matriarch, a European-bred, old-world, daughter of a choshuve Galicianer family. She possessed a combination of regal graciousness threaded with so much compassion and down-to-earth wisdom, and living in such close proximity, I saw and absorbed it.

When people around me say things that are just wrong, I hear Bubba’s voice in my head: “It doesn’t matter who is right; you don’t have to be right, you just have to be kind.” Bubba always said that shalom was more important than being right and she’d just let things go. Today, my thought process follows hers — keeping the peace matters more than being right.

Bubba was also a woman with rock-solid strength, and that strength is embedded in another mindset I imbibed from her: She focused on the positive and accepted whatever challenges Hashem sent, never wallowing in self-pity. She felt bad for other people’s tzaros and cared deeply for them, but when it came to her own family, she wouldn’t allow herself to get dragged down and she taught us the same.

Bubba was an almanah; my Zeida passed away before I was born. When she lost her husband, she called her children together to reiterate this message: “We are not nebachs.” Later in life, when she lost her daughter and eventually a son as well, I saw tears roll down her face, but she still stood up straight and accepted her losses. She would not allow herself to slide into self-pity, and she held us to that standard as well. She refused to cut herself or any of us slack. And still today, her attitudes and expectations echo in my mind and don’t allow me to wallow in whatever may go wrong.

When Bubba found herself alone, after all her children married, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky advised her not to stay alone in her home. My parents had an apartment under their house, and as soon as their tenant left, Bubba moved in. She insisted on paying rent, though, and every month, she would write a check to my father for a symbolic $300.

My sister and I, the youngest kids of our family, felt like we had a third parent. We hung out in Bubba’s apartment a lot. When we were small, we’d play with the dolls and toys, or color around her kitchen table and wheedle Bubba to draw things for us. “Bubba, you’re such an artist! Can you draw me a flower? And a house. And a tree and a lake…”

As schoolgirls, we’d come home from school and first go to Bubba’s before making our way upstairs. My mother worked, and if she wasn’t home by five, Bubba would very naturally make us supper. To her credit, my mother never butted heads with Bubba. I had three adults in my life, yet they were never competitive. Whenever my father made a grocery run, he’d ask Bubba what she needed, and if Bubba was going out, she did the same for my parents.

I told Bubba everything. I don’t remember ever thinking that she wouldn’t understand my childhood dilemmas, even though this was America of the 1980s and 1990s and she was raised in prewar Western Europe. Although Bubba was utterly ladylike, she could relate to children on any level. I told her about my friends and my problems, and she’d listen attentively.

At times I even tried complaining to Bubba about my parents, but she’d never say a word against them. Her response was always a solid, old-fashioned, “You have to listen to your parents.” Later I’d realize she might even have agreed with me sometimes, but in Bubba’s world, there was no possibility of validating a complaint against parents.

Every Shabbos, Bubba came upstairs to join us for the meals. The one thing she took issue with was the plastic tablecloth. We’d take off the dishes and prepare to throw it out after the meal.

“Why are you throwing this out?” she’d ask. “You can wipe it and it’s still good.”

“Bubba, that’s what it’s made for!” we’d protest.

But Bubba would shake her head, and we had to wipe the plastic down and reuse it to make Bubba happy.

As long as Bubba was well, she used to cook the fish for the family. Toward the end of each week, my sister and I had to go down to her kitchen to cut up the fruit salad (winter) or fruit soup (summer), which Bubba prepared for dessert. It was a job we found tedious, but there was never a question of skipping it.

I give my parents a lot of credit. Taking a parent into your home is an honor, albeit not an easy job. But if you are going to do it, do it properly. My parents never let on that there was anything hard about having Bubba in our home. They did it wholeheartedly. To this day, my father has nothing bad to say about his mother-in-law, no complaints. I think we fed off my parents’ attitude, and it never occurred to us that having Bubba live with us was unusual or a tirchah.

When my parents traveled, I stayed with Bubba, and I wasn’t happy about it. “It’s not fair!” I’d complain. “I never get to have sleepovers with friends, because I always stay with Bubba.”

So my mother arranged for me to go to a friend the next time she was away. I hated it! I missed the comfort and privacy of Bubba’s, and I never did that again.

Starting from when my sister and I were six or seven, we took turns sleeping in Bubba’s apartment to keep her company. Later my cousins joined this rotation. She’d put out two negel vasser cups, and we shared cute rituals, like wishing each other good night in rhyme. It started with “Good night,” which was answered with “Sleep tight” and so on, in rhyme, with each of us trying to get the last word in. Bubba wasn’t above giggling and giving sharp retorts. Rosh Hashanah time, I used to pilfer honey cookies from her freezer; she must have known there were plenty missing, but she never said a word about it.

On Shabbos and Yom Tov, aunts and uncles and cousins piled into Bubba’s apartment. Our relatives were humorous and fun, and I enjoyed getting to know everyone (and even picked up some Yiddish!). Bubba’s siblings visited too, fascinating old-time Europeans with three-piece suits or stiff blonde sheitels, who had so much in common with her attitudes and worldview.

Although Bubba was firm and strong and frum, she was genuinely nonjudgmental. When people behaved rudely or impatiently or were less than polite and thoughtful, she’d easily excuse their behavior.  “Don’t worry, they’ll learn,” or “maybe they had a hard day.” We’d roll our eyes uncharitably, but Bubba tried to teach us there was always a reason to be dan l’chaf zechus.

We grandchildren learned from her how to behave. Since we lived with Bubba, she’d sometimes tell us off, at teachable moments, but she didn’t nag. She’d say things once, then let us figure things out, without further lecturing.

The birds, the trees, the fall leaves were all part of Bubba’s life. “Let’s go for a walk,” she would say, and we’d go hand in hand. We’d run up the hill near our house and roll down to Bubba who was waiting, smiling, loving our red cheeks, enjoying the beautiful outdoors. She showed us how to press and dry fallen leaves and flowers, and gave us dollar prizes when we gathered fallen apples. My appreciation of nature is a gift she left me.

As Bubba got older, she began to suffer from Parkinson’s. My mother became very involved in her medical care, while my aunts delivered hot meals to Bubba daily. I learned Bubba’s medication routine and would prepare her pills every night. Still, while we pitched in, the primary responsibility was my mother’s.

In Bubba’s later years my mother could barely travel, even for family simchahs, because she needed to supervise Bubba’s care and aides, but it seemed only natural. Bubba was one of us, part of our family. When she needed a lot of care, everyone pitched in. She had taken care of all of us for so many years, and now it was our turn to give back.

Bubba left me a gift — her legacy of strength and emunah. I lived with her for so long that when faced with different situations, I knew what she’d do. True, I don’t always live up to her example, but the way I think, and the way I’ve gotten through things in my life, are directly affected by Bubba.


Limited-Time Offer

I was in fourth grade when my grandparents moved into an apartment connected to our house. When we heard Zeidy and Babby were coming to live with us, I remember feeling we had won the lottery. My parents were surely aware that this would be time-consuming, but they projected a happy, excited attitude, and we kids just imagined it would be fun. Until then, our grandparents had lived on the opposite coast of the US, and we’d seen them only on Yamim Tovim and visits. We were excited that now they would be part of our daily lives.

My grandfather passed away four years after they moved in, but my grandmother was still living with my parents when I married and left the house. All this time, I watched my parents take care of them every single day, sometimes every hour. My mother did whatever had to be done with respect and composure. She was cognizant that no parent lives forever. My father was very supportive at every juncture. “This is a mitzvah that has an expiration date, chap arein,” he would say. My mother also managed to convey to us that reward in the Next World notwithstanding, the satisfying feeling of bringing happiness to aging parents is very special.

Living in our home, Zeidy and Babby came to know us and love us. I felt that we had the opportunity to become closer to them than the other grandchildren. When my sister got engaged, my grandparents were so excited and emotional, talking about “our Rifky,” the kallah.

My Zeidy was a hardworking, well-respected man who had survived the Holocaust. The forced labor permanently affected his lungs, and only a part of one lung was functioning when he and Babby arrived to live with us. He had no number, but carried his scars on his lungs for a lifetime.

He was aging in other ways too, but Zeidy pushed himself to function and retain his independence. He was a real storyteller, and we were the lucky audience for his tales of prewar life and some of his war experiences. Things came to life for us with his stories, and we felt so connected to our past. We felt as if we could walk the streets of Grossvardein together with Zeidy and his siblings.

For four years, my grandfather sat at the head of the table every Shabbos, presiding over the seudah like an honored king. First, he would be lifted up the steps from their apartment, in a chair, which was the one job he would not allow his son-in-law to do; it had to be a grandson or neighbor. Then he made Kiddush and led the seudah, leading the songs in his own nusach, his own tunes. And my father deferred to his father-in-law as if it were the most natural thing in the world — for four years straight, we never heard his zemiros. Often, my aunts and cousins joined us for the seudos too; we were at the center of the family action, and we loved it.


general, my grandparents were easygoing and not meddlesome — they didn’t tell us off or get involved in the ins and outs of our lives, though they liked to be updated on what was going on. They recognized and encouraged our talents, sometimes paying for art lessons or other extras.

My mother was constantly caring for her parents, and this is aside from taking care of a double-digit number of children! It was as natural as a family welcomes in a new arrival. We knew that if Mommy was not around, she was with Zeidy and Babby downstairs. My grandparents didn’t go anywhere, so there was never a day off; even on the days she married off a son or daughter, my mother went up and down the stairs at Zeidy and Babby’s beck and call. She made sure they had breakfast, they ate lunch, they felt okay, that the aide had arrived, that Zeidy got to shul, and just schmoozed with them.

We probably had some extra responsibilities in the house, as my mother was so busy, but I can honestly say we didn’t resent it. We weren’t neglected, although I guess my mother wasn’t so on top of all the younger kids’ schoolwork. There was one time when my little sister came home and the door was locked, because my mother was delayed at an appointment with my grandparents, but it only happened once.

Luckily, my mother worked only part-time in a family business, so she was able to juggle caring for her parents with her work responsibilities.

Day after day, Shabbos after Shabbos, we escorted my grandfather to shul, and walked my grandmother up and down the stairs. (Zeidy used to pay my brother two dollars every time he walked him to shul, but he warned him not to tell my parents.)

We rarely took family trips. We tried it once, and when my mother called my grandfather to check in, she could tell he seemed unhappy to have been left alone for a whole day. My mother felt guilty the rest of the trip.

On one memorable Chol Hamoed, we convinced my mother to go out with us for about three hours. She had just agreed to find someone to come take over when someone came running up the stairs saying, “Zeidy fell!” That was that, for the next few months.

My mother’s siblings pitched in; one of my aunts took care of Zeidy and Babby’s medical appointments, and my mother’s brother was in charge of their financial matters. He was also my mother’s sounding board and listening ear, and would come over if she really needed a break. Another sister traveled in by bus every single Sunday to be with them and take over for the day.  But the responsibility was my mother’s. For the last four years of my grandfather’s life, my mother didn’t fly overseas, although she had kids living in Eretz Yisrael. She just couldn’t travel.

The last few months of my grandfather’s life were difficult, as he faced different medical crises and was in and out of rehab. There would be scares, with Hatzalah EMTs running into the apartment, oxygen that needed monitoring and refilling, and other stuff most 12-year-olds don’t deal with. My school was right near our home, and every time I heard a siren during those months, I’d get permission to leave class, go outside, and see if the ambulance had stopped outside our house. Ultimately, both my grandparents died in our house.

After my grandfather was niftar, while Babby was still well, my mother was less busy. Babby had her interests and hobbies and wasn’t so fragile. She did come up to eat supper with us every night, though, sitting at a place of honor at one end of the table, and often stayed for much of the evening, enjoying the company. She’d come to all our performances, and sit in the front row, enjoying immensely.

My grandmother was softer; she didn’t give us mussar and usually stayed upbeat. She was a survivor of Auschwitz, although she had no number on her arm, having arrived on the Hungarian transport in the last year of the war.

Babby did all our alterations for as long as she could, and later her aides took over. She loved pretty clothing; whenever we returned from shopping, we’d go downstairs for Babby’s opinion. She had studied design before the war, and had her opinions — “Where is the collar?” she’d disapprove when we showed off our crew neck purchases — but we didn’t take her too seriously if we knew something was in style. “Why are you putting black dresses on the young people?” she’d also wonder.

It wasn’t always easy; I can clearly remember the frustration I felt on vacation days, when we wanted to go shopping but had to wait for my mother to come up from my grandparents, where she’d schmooze for half an hour. It was definitely a test in patience.

In the early years, there was no aide, and even years later, when my parents brought one in, we still saw my parents doing everything. Toward the end of my grandmother’s life, when she’d become agitated at night, the aides would call my mother down to calm her.

When I hear people say it’s too much for them to have their grandparents staying over Shabbos, I cringe. It reflects a sentiment so different from what I saw at home. Personally, I and (I believe all my siblings) would happily follow our parents’ example and do the utmost to make them comfortable in our homes.


Open Home

We had three bedrooms in our Stamford Hill home. One was my parents’ room, one my older sister’s, and the third was for my brother, her twin, and me. When I was eight years old, my grandmother came to live with us. She was given my sister’s room, and my sister, already post-seminary and working, moved in with me.

By then my brother slept in yeshivah during the week, and when he came home for Shabbos and Yom Tov, he’d sleep on a new couch in the living room, which opened into a comfortable bed. We joked that he had the master bedroom and he’d say, “Yeah, with chandeliers too!”

I adjusted easily to being woken early by my sister blowing her hair and getting ready for teaching, but I think it was harder for her than it was for me. I’d hear her on the phone saying, “There’s no space here anymore.” But she’d never ever say that to my parents, only to friends.

My parents’ mantra was “When there’s room in the heart, there’s room in the home,” and the house was always full, with my nieces and nephews coming over for Shabbosim. Oma was very frail, but soft-spoken, ever-smiling, and patient. She was very loving and knew how to make a joke out of everything. When we’d sing Friday night zemiros, she’d say, “I can’t sing along but I’ll drum on the table,” and that’s what she did. Later, after the meal, when my brother helped himself to cholent, he would offer Oma some, and she’d reply, “Only with a very big shep leffel [ladle].”

Noise wasn’t a problem for Oma. I remember my friends saying, “We can’t come to your house now because your grandmother is there,” but I let them know they could still come over.

We were a close-knit Hungarian family, and there were uncles, aunts, and cousins coming over to visit Oma the whole time. I found it exciting, but my older sister felt her home had been a little bit invaded. We had only one bathroom, and with all the traffic, it wasn’t up to her standards. She wouldn’t go in without a glove, cleaning spray, and paper towels. She would sometimes go and prepare her lessons in the library — this was a long time ago. If she needed an excuse to get out, sometimes she’d take me and drive to one of London’s leafy parks. I loved playing under a tree while she worked.

When Oma got older, she needed to use a magnifying glass to read. We’d get the Jewish Tribune and Reader’s Digest for her, and she’d ask me, “What’s interesting to you? Maybe you can read it to me?” She was so understanding that I was just a kid and she didn’t want to impose on me or bore me.

Since she could no longer read Tehillim, my brother recorded the entire Sefer Tehillim for her. Every Friday, when he came home, he’d do a little more, using a handheld silver-and-black tape recorder. Oma used the recording when we weren’t home, so she could say along with it.

For my parents, Oma came before anyone else in the world. My father had never allowed a video player into the house, but when Oma needed it for the long daytime hours when we were out, he bought one. He would buy tennis balls to fix under the feet of her walker. My mother would prepare dough so Oma could “bake,” and we’d go specially to buy the brand of cupcake holders she liked. Food was cooked according to Oma’s taste, so if she didn’t like the salad a certain way, it just wasn’t made that way.

I thought this was all normal and natural — this is just what you do for a parent. When we learned the halachos of kibbud av v’eim, I was surprised that there were halachos about it.

Chol Hamoed had to be low-key; my parents wouldn’t go too far, leaving Oma. One time we planned to take Oma with us to thebotanical gardens, but then some cousins called to say they were coming to visit. “Why do they have to come now?!” I moaned in disappointment. Soon enough, though, I realized I could join my married siblings and their kids on trips, which solved the problem for me.

One summer we went on a long-awaited family trip to Wales, after we hadn’t been away in years. This was in the pre-cell phone days, but whenever we saw a public phone on the highway, we stopped, so my mother could call Oma, who was staying at her sister’s house. She just needed to “see how she was doing.” There was such love and care in those calls.

Before Rosh Hashanah and Pesach, we’d feel my mother getting tense. The arrangement was that Oma would go to my aunt, but my mother didn’t want to be involved. Although Oma enjoyed it there, my mother didn’t want to tell her mother that she needed to pack and move out. She’d always get my aunt to do the reminding, and to come over and help with the packing.

Even touchier was when my father’s mother flew in from abroad for my sister’s chasunah and for Pesach. Who should stay in our home, the grandmother who lived there, or the grandmother who rarely came and was flying in? I remember the back-and-forth discussions, which seemed to have no easy solution. In the end, my aunt invited Oma to move in with her a week before the wedding so my mother could concentrate on preparations, and my other grandmother moved into our home!

The line “When there’s room in the heart there is room in the home” is what makes my brother with a small townhouse and large family able to have his parents and in-laws for Shabbos and Yom Tov. He had no problem sleeping on the couch, and now some of his kids sleep in the playroom when they need to, happily and proudly.

Now that my own mother is getting on in years, we all have her example to follow as we navigate this new stage. We know what we should do, because there is a voice that says, “Mommy would have done this for Oma,” or “Mommy would never have done that with Oma.”


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 888)

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