Updated: Nov 20
I grew up with a Yiddish grandmother, Bubie.
We lived on the same floor in an apartment building in the Bronx. One that had a 'fall-out' shelter in the basement, a super named Mike, and fire escapes where Ceil, a big loud, laughing neighbor who lived on the second floor was always watching down at everyone from her window. Through all the years even after we moved, I remember looking up, seeing only the upper half of Ceil behind the grid iron railing.
6E. 6C. Opposite ends of a long dark-green tiled hallway. Safe enough for my three-year old self to run alone back and forth. When I smelled the fresh coffee crumb cake out of Bubie's stove I could run to get a piece during a commercial and be back to in time for more I Love Lucy after a Maxwell House or See the USA in Your Chevrolet TV commerical. My mother would leave the door to 6C open just a little bit for me to push back in.
We moved to Queens when I was just about 5.
I can see, feel, smell and hear Friday night in my Bubie's kitchen.
One thing Bubie did which I never understood was something she never missed. I hadn't thought of asking what she was doing because it just seemed to be a bubie-thing like stirring soup and making 'holly' which only became Challah to me many years later.
She had two shabbos (sabbath) candles in holders on a large lace doily unfolded in the center of the square Formica table. She wiped her hands in a terrycloth fringed dishtowel. I remember faded yellow and red, maybe stained, images of chickens or ducks or forks and spoons.
I still feel her soft-firm hands on my shoulders bringing me closer to her, stopping me below her chin which seemed so high above my head. She whispered 'shhhh." Then humming inside her closed mouth, she lit one candle at a time. Sometimes, she put my hand on top of hers to bring the flame to one of the candles.
After the second candle, she held the match to the front of her circled lips, sometimes mine, to blow out the flame. Then circling her arms around the room, she gathered the smoke from the extinguished match, the air, from everywhere in the room- wrapping it all into her eyes covered by the terrycloth schmatta*.
She was still. I stared, silently. Then she moved her hands away. Opened her eyes. Put the towel on the table and kissed my 'keppie."
Bubie never said anything in these moments that I must have watched hundreds and hundreds of times until she was in a place where she could not do it anymore. Perhaps, I had lived too far away to see if she did with the help of someone else. But, by that time, they were different candlesticks. Somebody in the family has Bubie's candlesticks on a shelf. I'm not quite sure who.
Bubie once told me she never missed lighting the Shabbos candles. It was very important. Still, I didn't ask why.
Recently, I realized she was lighting those candles, wrapping in the air, mumbling to a place inside of her, in those few Friday might moments during the pandemic of 1918. I had no reason to think of that until now.
These days I run 2-3 miles every morning. This has been my 'pandemic routine. I'm not training for anything. I run the same loop every morning.
Early on, I found myself suddenly stopping halfway into the run at "the point" as if someone behind me was coming up to pass
My dog, woof!, who barks at a falling leaf, didn't show any sense of anything. I looked behind me.
Early in the mornings it's important to be mindful. Four-legged residents of this park may be lingering from their 'nocturnal' day. A branch above could be weakening. There was no one, no sound of unusual. In our magical spot on the northern California coast, that alive sound could very well be at the top of tree, in a bush, or prancing across the field out of sight.
The cautious moment passed. I turned to pick up the run but stopped again. The kind of halt from feeling a pebble in between the sole of my foot and the insert. Or an untied lace. Or one earphone slipped out. Or I dropped my phone. Or woof's! leash was tangled around his leg.
I checked everything. Nothing. Except, I hadn't put my headphones back in from the stop a few feet behind me and the morning news was playing in my pocket. The battery on my watch had died blacking out it's face, stopping time, pace and heart-rate.
When I stood up the running path was not directly ahead of me. My posture must had shifted in the sudden stoop-down-to-check-the-interruption pause. Now, I was facing, a quarter turn to the right. At the horizon. At the hundreds of gulls soaring here and there. Cormorants stretching their wings. A cloud ballet.
I opened out my my arms and in slow motion as if being moved by the air I circled in the panorama of the horizon. Gathering the birds. The spouts from whales. The loons diving into the ocean surface. The waves crashing into the rocks. The bopping heads of sea lions. The masses of kelp. The shore-line. Two people in the distance walking on the sand. The sounds. The breeze. The slight tug of woof! against my thigh.
I pulled it all into my eyes, covering my face with the palms of my hands, I tilted my head down. Breathed in and out. Smelled the aroma of home. Feeling a humming of words in my body.
A moment. Two. Three.
I rolled my head up. Bent my neck back. Looked up. Smiled. Said, "let's go" to woof! who had his snout through the space between the slats of the wooden fence looking out at the waves. We shifted the quarter turn back to the trail. And were on our way.
For the rest of the run, I imagined what my Yiddish grandmother was feeling every Friday night for almost a century.
While there is no dishtowel, no candles and no Bubie, this has become my daily ritual. That moment of capture that fills my day with love, positive outlook and gratitude.
Today, my Bubie, who died at 99 or 100 depending who you ask, would have been 128 years old. She arrived in Ellis Island from the Soviet Union/Warsaw in 1909. Through all her own journeys, she never missed her ritual.
She didn't speak English. Yet, Somehow she taught me the most important things in life, especially, never forgetting to take out a moment to rest, to love, to be grateful and to smell the aroma of of what is around me.
And Bubie's moment, that one morning on an 'interrupted run' was the beginning of my 'running thoughts' writings.
Recently. I 'looked up.'Bubie's ritual.' https://www.chabad.org/.../Why-Do-Women-Wave-Their-Hands...