There were so many things that we just did not talk about in my family. I knew almost nothing about my mother’s family, and even less about my father’s. If I would have asked either of my parents why that was so, I think they would have been surprised at the question. Perhaps it’s the way they had been raised too. But I never did ask.
One of the few stories Mama did tell me, was the one about her mother, after whom I was named, being a very religious woman. “She had a very old refrigerator,” Mama told me, “and I used to go over every year before Pesach and help her clean it. Remember, this was after I was married myself and had my own house to clean too. So one year,” she said, squinting her eyes into the past, “I’m big and pregnant, but I go over anyway, and start to scrub. ‘Mama’ I ask her, ‘when are you going to get Papa to buy you a new refrigerator? I’m rubbing and rubbing and I can’t tell the difference between the dirt and the rust.’
“So you know what she says to me?” My mother shook her head. “My mama says, ‘Rub, mein kint, rub. It’s good for you to work hard for Pesach.’ ”
That was it. ‘The story’. Still, it was a pivotal one. I did not take from it the point perhaps that my mother meant to make, but the part about the old refrigerator always struck me. Like many refugees of their generation, they hated to throw things out. The fact that they used dilapidated appliances to their death, turned out later to become a tragic literal truth.
I do not believe much in the ability of photos to provide us with information about someone we know virtually nothing about. But that’s not true for Bubba Esther. The two photos I have of her speak worlds.
The first photo, taken years before I was born, is of my older brother’s bar-mitzvah. Everyone in the family is standing around a beautiful, candle-lit cake. Grandparents, parents, sisters, cousins and uncle. The only one not posing for the camera is Bubba Esther. She is crying. It is her grandson’s bar-mitzvah, and you can see how much that means to her; that it means everything to her.
The second picture is at my oldest sister’s wedding a few years later. Bubba and Zaidy are walking down the aisle together. He has a stoic look on his face, and she…! For all the impressions I had about my Zaidy being boss, it is Bubba who is holding him up! She has taken his arm, and she is literally beaming at being alive at her grand-daughter’s wedding.
Though she died two and a half years before I was born, there is something familiar about her. It is something I have seen in my sisters, or perhaps, something I recognize in myself. Every now and then, I feel that love of life, that passionate desire to be in the moment.
Do we truly pass down the unsaid as well? Sometimes I think about how little I have told my own children about their grandparents. Or about my life, the things that I love doing, the things I think about. Usually, I am too busy being a mother. Other times I just don’t know how to begin to share.
Perhaps, this was one reason why my mother was not the one who told me about how Bubba Esther died. It was an older cousin who thought that by eleven I was surely old enough to know, and she told me the story.
That year, during the Yom Kippur davening (prayers), I finally figured out why my mother cried.
Every Yom Kippur, we prayed next to one another, and every year when we came to the ‘Unetana Tokef’ prayer, and the Chazan began to sing the part about how people are judged, silent tears would roll down my mother’s face. I never thought to ask her why. It was such a private moment for her. But that year, when we came to …’who by water, and who by fire…’, understanding sunk from my brain to my heart like a burning stone. Oh, I thought, oh no.
The story had been short; my elucidation into the incident quick. My cousin had been brief, and I had been too horrified at the time to ask more. For a long time, whenever Bubba’s children had come into their parents’ house, they’d complained about the smell of gas. Somehow, as with the refrigerator, buying a new oven was put off. My grandmother, my beautiful, quiet, life-loving grandmother was the only one in the house when it exploded, and she couldn’t get out of the burning house in time.
It had happened right after the birth of my older brother, and my mother was still in the hospital at the time. They decided not to tell her right away, and by the time they did, it was all over…the funeral, the shiva.
That year, standing beside her during the prayers, I understood she had never gotten over it, and could not have been the one to tell me. Now, as an adult, I understand something else too. Every year, she let her tears tell me, instead.
Even today, on Yom Kippur, when the Chazan comes to the part about how people are judged, I remember my mother, and tears sting my eyes. I cannot say exactly why. Perhaps after all those years of sitting beside her as she released her pain, I cannot help but do the same for my own sorrows.
And …just maybe, it is something else too. Maybe I cry at the wonder of the things we pass down unknowingly. Just because of who we are; without having to say a word.
Esther Rubenstein has been a freelance writer for different religious publications for fifteen years. She also co-founded the woman’s writing group of Sefat, and teaches in the national writing convention. Sefat, where she has lived for almost thirty years, has always been here true source of inspiration, and presently she misses it dearly.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.