The doorbell rang, and Gus excitedly ran to the door to greet the person on the other side of what often felt to me like a prison and was most certainly his. Soaking wet, Gus was 5 pounds and resembled more of a native NYC rat than that of a Yorkshire terrier. The exertion it took him to jump off my lap, run across the slippery bamboo floors of my downtown Manhattan 500 square foot studio apartment and give a few warning barks exhausted him.
With almost as much enthusiasm, I hurried to the door to welcome my “Chubby ‘Ol Grandma” on her regular quarterly visit to the Big Apple. When I was a little girl, my grandmother would sing a song about a “chubby old groundhog.” I was convinced, however, that she was singing about a “chubby ‘ol grandma.” So, the name stuck, and ever since, to me and to the rest of the family, she has been “chubby ‘ol grandma.”
I opened the door, and there stood my grandma, pocket-sized, as any grandmother should rightly be. Standing tall at 4’10”, her oversized suitcase was nearly as big as she was. She leaned over (not down, of course, as she stands not much taller than I do sitting down) and wrapped her short little arms around me for a classic chubby ‘ol grandma hug. “I missed you, baby,” she said and then put her arthritic hands to my face and gave me a big kiss on the cheek. “I missed you too!”
“It’s 5 o’clock somewhere. Isn’t it? I’m exhausted. What do you have to drink?” Her long trip from Charlotte, NC to NYC warranted cocktail hour, her favorite time of the day. But, as usual, I was ill equipped to appropriately serve her. Being the proud Irish woman she is, she has had a life-long love affair with Jameson’s and the occasional Bombay Gin. But, being the good little Jewish girl I had become, I could only offer her a nice kosher wine.
“Kosher wine, huh? Is that Maneschevitz?” she asked. “I might’ve converted, Grandma, but I still have taste buds!” She poured herself a glass of Barkan chardonnay and tilted the glass ever so delicately to her painted red lips…her knobby pinky pointing upward, like any classy old lady would. Surprised, she stated, “Mmm. This is good!”
As she sipped on her first glass of decent kosher wine, I attempted to explain to her the laws of kashrut and prepare her for cooking in my rather complicated kitchen. “Don’t worry, Kam. I promise I won’t make any pork for you,” she said in hopes of placating me. Oh, if only it were that easy. I began my Kosher 101 lesson with which animals are kosher and how they must have cloven hooves and chew their cud. Then, onto which birds and fish are okay to eat, but that was just the beginning. I continued with the prohibition of eating and cooking meat and milk together, which mandated separate pots and pans and separate plates and silverware. I completed the lesson with Kosher symbols – OU, Star K and so on. Forget about explaining the sciatic nerve…I had sufficiently overwhelmed her. Bewildered, she exclaimed, “Man, I thought the Catholics had rules!”
In an attempt to explain my crazy food rules, I gave her the Ramban’s explanation for why the Jewish people keep kosher. I knew telling her “because God said so,” just wasn’t going to suffice. So, I described how meat represents death and milk represents life and how we, as the Jewish people, are always conscious never to mix the two. She liked such a symbolic gesture, but after pondering the concept for a few moments, she responded, “well, look. It’s not like you’re going to hell if you eat a ham and cheese sandwich.” Ah, that Jesus and his ideas of an eternal fiery hell nixed any chance of me winning that argument!
So, after many attempts of making my grandmother the next goyisha kosher chef, we agreed on one thing – I love you, Grandma, but stay out of my kitchen! Now, when she visits, she has her own cups and bowls, which she has named her “gentile cups” and “gentile bowls,” and, together, we enjoy cocktail hour with a nice stiff martini or a good glass of kosher wine, while, I’m sure, she ponders the ultimate question – why couldn’t my granddaughter have just converted Reform?
I was my grandma’s first grandchild, and from the day I was born, we were inseparable. Alongside my young and single mother, she raised me like a second mom, fed me when I was hungry, gave me shelter when we were without, cared for me when I was sick and introduced me to the things I love most in life. Most of all, my grandmother taught me to be the person I am today.
Every week, I counted down the days to the weekend, because the weekend was when I could go to my grandma’s. The weekend was guaranteed to be fun-filled and light-hearted, which was the antithesis of my home life. Shopping marathons at TJMax and Southpark Mall. TV marathons of Law & Order or some not-as-puritanical-as-my-mother-would-like PG13 movies. Coffee and tea parties with blueberry muffins. Miniature glasses of champagne. Arts and crafts. Musicals, ballets and fairs. Swimming, diving and sun bathing. Ukrainian Easter eggs. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” Jimmy Buffet and a Cheeseburger in Paradise. San Francisco, NYC, the Florida Keys, and Ireland. No matter where we were or what we were doing, we had a blast.
My grandmother taught me to be anything I wanted to be in life. She insisted I could be just like Jack McCoy if I worked hard enough. She took me around the world, introduced me to different cultures, foods, and later in life, the finer alcoholic pleasantries. She encouraged me to see and experience the world and not to let anything, not even a wheelchair, stop me. She trained me to stand up for myself, to never settle in life and to never, ever, no matter what, marry a man who fishes and hunts.
In return, I gave her undoubtedly invaluable lessons on how to be a grandmother. After all, she was just a beginner. I taught her that baths consisting of a single inch of water, or as I coined them “flat baths,” were unpleasant and unacceptable to little girls. I educated her on the importance of serving meat, “more meat,” at every meal. “Every time you go away, you take a piece of meat with you.” That is how the lyrics go, isn’t it? And, finally, at the age of three, after my grandmother gave me a nice, harsh spanking for taking a stroll alone on their dock, I sternly looked at her with my chubby, displeased face and fuzzy, white blonde hair and informed her that “Grandmas don’t spank! They hug!”
I soundly heeded my grandmother’s advice and dedicated my childhood to my studies, to playing a musical instrument and to learning a foreign language. I was determined to be the next Jack McCoy. In pursuit of my dreams, my grandmother, despite her own delicate and aging body, moved me from the little town of Mooresville, NC to college and later law school in Atlanta, GA. She came to visit me, sent care packages and cared for me during a brutal time in law school, when I was hospitalized for two months and under the knife five separate times. After law school, she moved me to NYC and three years later, packed me up to move around the world to Israel. And, just four months ago, she boarded a 12-hour flight to Israel to be with me and hold my hand while I went under the knife once again – this time for brain surgery.
My decisions in life to move farther and farther away from home, whether in distance or in religion, have been difficult, painful even, for my grandmother. Her baby girl left the nest and flew further than any of her others. We don’t get to have tea parties with blueberry muffins very often anymore, and cheeseburgers in paradise are out of the question.
As much as she would love to spank me for these decisions, she, instead, hugs me, for that is what a good and loving grandmother she is. She still makes Ukrainian Easter eggs for me. Only now, she makes them with Judaica artwork. She still visits me and sends me care packages. Only now it’s to Israel and with food that (most of the time) has a kosher symbol. We still go on shopping sprees. Except now, we go on Sundays instead of Saturdays, and she’s the one who needs breaks to sit and rest instead of me. And, now instead of advising me to find a “nice white boy,” she simply requests that I find a “nice Jewish boy.”
It is admittedly hard to be away from my chubby ‘ol grandma. I miss our weekend adventures and daily cocktail hours. But, if it weren’t for her and everything she taught me, I would never have had the bravery and strength to move around the world, find my own truth and work toward my daily peace and happiness.
The book of Ruth refers to Ruth, the Biblical convert, as Ruth, the Moabite, even after she became Jewish and dedicated her life to the Jewish people. The Rambam explains that she is still called the Moabite, rather than the Jewess, because her background and her ancestry made her the special person that she was. So, too, while I may have changed my name, moved to Israel and keep crazy rules about food, you, Grandma, have made me the special person that I am. I will always be Ariella, the Zumbach…Ariella, the one who will always choose a little Bailey’s and Jameson’s in her coffee over cream…Ariella, lover of Margaritaville…Ariella, Gramma’s baby girl.
I love you, Grandma. Happy birthday! While you have always given yourself “another 10 years,” I wish for you many more happy and healthy years, of which I find a nice Jewish boy to marry, so you can dance the Irish jig at my orthodox Jewish wedding! L’chayim!
P.S. Stay out of my kitchen. 🙂