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Bubbe vs. Bubbe

My boyfriend’s proper English grandmother was nothing like the fast-walking, loud-talking grandmother I’d grown up with—or was she?

Judy Batalion
January 05, 2016
Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Meat is displayed for sale on a butcher's stall in Smithfield Market in London, England. Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Meat is displayed for sale on a butcher's stall in Smithfield Market in London, England. Oli Scarff/Getty Images

“Would you like to meet my grandmother?” Jon asked above the loud chatter of the North London gastro-pub.

I put down my forkful of fish and chips tartare and stared at him with excitement. “Your grandmother?”

I’d been seeing Jon for two months, but I hadn’t even met his parents yet.

“My grandmother’s 93,” Jon said.

“Wow,” I exclaimed, breathless, as if he’d just revealed a secret fortune or robust abs. He had a living grandmother. This turned me on.

Everyone has their favorite Abuela or Nonna, but I had my own particular Bubbe history. When I was growing up in Montreal, my mother was a hoarder who suffered from depression, and my father worked long hours to support us. I was raised by my maternal Jewish grandmother, Zelda, an immigrant from Poland who—with her head-wraps and hunched back—looked like an extra from Fiddler on the Roof. After school, while my classmates were whisked off to tennis lessons or teen mani-pedis, Bubbe Zelda schlepped me to dozens of fruit stores where she haggled for produce with vengeance. “You charge 62 cents for apple!” she screamed at the grocer. “You are Gestapo.” She was a survivor who did not repress. I buried my face in my scarf but as soon as we exited the store took her hand, proud that she spoke her mind. We were the fastest walkers on the sidewalk.

Each night, in her sweltering TV room, Zelda lovingly served me a seven-course meal—of fried spinach and brisket, for all seven courses. She carried my report cards with her everywhere, outrageously proud. She was my maternal glue, the backdrop against which I formed my identity and confidence. She grounded me. She died when I was 20, leaving me feeling adrift, foundationless.

“My grandmother lives alone,” Jon continued, “she does her own shopping, she cooks, I visit her all the time.” I became giddy, reminded of my Zelda and the potential for unconditional acceptance, total understanding. I’d been living in England for seven years, struggling to decode the nuances of British behavior. Like most ex-pats, I longed for belonging. I craved familiarity. That’s what had led me to start dating fellow Jews like Jon in the first place. Our social differences—I was a 30-year-old Canadian art curator with thick plastic glasses, while he was a 36-year-old, suit-wearing, conservative British lawyer whose idea of a hot date was a pun competition—had me doubting future potential. But if he was close to his grandmother …

“I want to meet her!” I demanded as Jon paid the bill. He grinned. Maybe we were more alike than I’d imagined.

I was invited for lunch the following week. I joyfully pictured the familiar scene that would at last be resurrected from my memory: a quiet suburban condo, the moist hugs of flabby arms, and a cholesterol onslaught. I didn’t eat for 72 hours in preparation.

On the day of the visit, however, Jon uttered something strange: “Granny Gwendolyn lives in Lincoln’s Inn.”

Lincoln’s Inn was where the inns of courts were, the legal crème de la crème (Anglais), where the barristers wore white wigs and lived in 18th-century classical ivory buildings. Harry Potter was shot here. That’s where his Bubbe lived?

Granny Gwendolyn greeted us at the door of her condo (built in 1693). She was classic queen mother, wearing a beige two-piece skirt suit with gold buttons. She smelled like citrus. “Come in,” she said. “Luncheon is almost ready.” Luncheon? Zelda, smelling of chicken stock, would have cackled.

Jon kissed Gwendolyn’s rouged cheek and eagerly gave me a tour of the flat, bringing me first to the family coat of arms. (“Designed by my uncle, Sir Alfred,” he said.) The apartment was stocked with watercolors of English landscapes. I flickered with hope when Jon mentioned photos, but instead of the small, crinkled images of socialist-Zionist youth meetings that my Zelda had clutched through Siberian work-camps, he presented a clean, framed shot of his Gwendolyn—skiing. Nearby was a family medal; her brother had skied for England.

It was freezing—there was no heat—yet I felt dizzy, out of breath. I had thought I was coming to an overheated, overcooked, overbearing grandmother’s house. Zelda’s house. Instead, I sat down at my Wedgwood place setting trying to remember which fork to use. Even here, I did not know how to behave, feeling un-English and uncouth.

Gwendolyn sat at the head of the table and turned to talk to me. “As tu faim?” She asked. In French. “Jon m’a dit que tu parles francais. C’est vrai?”

Oui,” I said out loud, but was thinking: I speak Yiddish. Mother tongue. Turned out, unlike Zelda who’d barely finished 6th grade, Gwendolyn had gone to finishing school. In Switzerland.

Then Jon, who’d been helping in the kitchen the whole time, dashing in to set the table and check the oven even as he showed me around, brought out the “luncheon.” Yorkshire pudding. Asparagus tips. And the pièce de résistance: Gwendolyn’s signature rare roast beef. A hump swimming in a massive hematology experiment. Jon’s mouth was watering as he helped his grandmother maneuver the giant carving knife. He must have seen my expression of shock because he explained: “Granny Gwen uses the blood as gravy.”

I could barely look at it, let alone eat it. My eyes scanned the room for a condiment to save me. All I could see was mint sauce. Mint? Zelda had never even heard of mint, I wanted to scream. Who was I dating? I could never imagine myself being part of this family.

I held back tears. I knew it—we were too dissimilar, even more different than I’d thought. I took a few bites and forced myself to swallow.

After dessert—candied ginger—Gwen wanted to show us Smithfield’s meat market, where she bought her beef. Jon assisted her with her coat while she kicked the tires. “Good enough.”

“Granny used to ride a motorcycle,” Jon explained. Of course she did.

The market was filled with snouts and ears, hoofs, and necks. Jon took my hand, but his felt dry, like a stranger’s. I wandered through this nauseating lab of dismembered mammals and felt drastically alone and out of place, even worse than usual because I had anticipated connection and instead found sausage. You are so foreign, the cow brains taunted me.

Gwen turned my way. “Can you believe the cost of these tongues?” She tsk-ed.

I shook my head gently, hoping the movement wouldn’t open my floodgates.

“These ribs are much too dear.” She picked up her pace. “Boy!” she called out to the nearest Cockney vendor. “You are asking 20 pounds for that cut?”

He didn’t have a chance to answer.

“I’m no fool,” Gwen hissed to us. “I remember when rump cost two shillings.” She began a tirade about the rising price of loins, flapping her gloved hands, waving her cane and pocketbook with vigor, her Burberry handkerchief coming undone. “I bought my meat from his grandfather, and he’d never have overcharged me for these joints.”

The vendor lowered his eyes. I cringed, embarrassed at Gwen’s unexpected fuss.

And then it dawned on me: This was my Zelda at the fruit stores, molesting each pear while screaming abuses at the South Asian workers! The combat, the pride in foraging for food for a family was the same. Gwen may have been a winter athlete with a sophisticated palate, but she had Bubbe guts, kishkehs. (Which were also available for sale at the stall next to me.) I watched her butcher those young butchers like a warrior, my own innards swelling with a melange of nostalgia and hope. “Go, Granny,” Jon whispered. I squeezed his palm—maybe we weren’t so different. Yorkshire pudding was after all, really just Yorkshire kugel.

When we dropped Gwen off later that afternoon, I tried to help her out of the car, but she pushed me away. “I’m not an invalid!” Of course, my grandmother would have done the same thing. I took it as a hug. Then she said: “If you’re going to carry my next great-grandchild, you’d better eat more meat.” I took that as: You’re in.

Finally, as she was about to enter her building, she leaned into me and whispered: “My Jonty is a very sensitive boy. I’m glad he found someone gentle.” She patted my wrist.

Jonty—Jonty?!—took Gwen upstairs and then came back down to chivalrously help me into the front seat of the car. Now that I wasn’t so caught up in my insecurities, in what I lacked, I noted what I had: a reliable, sensitive boyfriend who had spent the day being endlessly generous, caring, and thoughtful—to his grandmother, and to me. I had been craving Gwen’s love, but it was really Jon’s love for Gwen that made me feel closer to him. I knew what transpired that day was all a sign from my Zelda, telling me that she gave me her blessing. Our grandmothers had approved this match.

When Granny Gwendolyn arrived at our wedding reception a year later, she wore a canary yellow suit and hat, fashionable British regalia that matched the gilded Victorian hall. “Congratulations, Judy,” she said, her eyes sparkling, her thin hand grabbing hold of my fingers. Mazel tov, my Judeleh, I imagined Zelda’s voice over the sounds of the chattering crowd munching on sushi and ceviche hors d’oeuvres. But you call this food?


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Judy Batalion is the New York Times bestselling author of The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos, which won a National Jewish Book Award, as well as White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between.

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