I slid in the sawdust that sprinkled the floor of the St. Louis Fish Market on Lawrence Avenue in Albany Park. I waited patiently for my grandmother, Gussie Schlan, who we in our family affectionately called “Bubbie.” She stood staring at the rows of stacked fish that lay over beds of ice, lifeless, yet eyes bulging in their heads. Soon Bubbie would select the whitefish, carp and pike that met her scrupulous standards for the ingredients of the fabled gefilte fish that she prepared each Passover for our Seder dinner.
Obtaining my driver’s license that winter of 1961, I frequently chauffeured Bubbie around so she could do her errands. It was convenient as my parents and I lived across the street from her on Lunt Avenue in the West Rogers Park neighborhood. After Zadie David had passed away several years before, my sister Anne stayed with Bubbie for a few months. Bubbie then remained alone in the apartment on California Avenue which was above Bernie Joseph’s grocery store and Joe Stone’s barber shop. She did have occasional lady roommates over the years, but none of them lasted for very long.
Although the roommates that she had were all very nice ladies, the truth must be told that Bubbie had her own idiosyncrasies which made it difficult for an outsider to live with her. Her family could do no wrong, but Bubbie had the propensity find flaws in others. I remember her describing one roommate and her family in descriptive Yinglish as “a bunch of meshuggeners.” After listening to another roommate tell what I thought to be a poignant story, Bubbie whispered to me “I can’t stand her mishegoss.” These Yiddish words were referring to elements of craziness in both people and things.
Bubbie never learned to read, write and speak English properly. She arrived in the States as a young woman from her home in Lithuania in 1910, several years after Zadie had come here to find work first. It was Zadie, and eventually their children, my mother Ilene, my uncles, Julie and Jerry, who had to navigate English-speaking Chicago for her in making decisions, both major and minor. Later in her life Bubbie confessed to her granddaughter, my cousin Harriet, that her only regret in life was that she couldn’t learn English better, and perhaps she should have enrolled in an English class or two and maybe advance her education in other ways as well.
She was your consummate Jewish grandmother who lavished her grandchildren with love and affection. We kids looked forward to what we called a “Bubbie Gussie kiss,” a warm and wet smack on our cheeks that seemed to last a minute or so. She had a smile that seemed to make the room glow and a laugh that caught our attention and made us laugh as well.
Another distinguishing feature of Bubbie was the flair she had when she went out to what she called “a fancy occasion.” Putting on her lipstick, rouge and mascara, in the prelude to going out, was a major project. When Uncle Julie won a mink stole in a raffle, he gave it to Bubbie as a gift. She seemed to wear it quite often, expanding the definition of “a fancy occasion” to a walk in the park.
Bubbie took great pride in being an American. She didn’t have a written record of her birth, so the family celebrated her birthday on the 4th of July. She always voted in elections, usually with the generous assistance of our Democratic precinct captain. She had a fit when I grew my first beard, saying that it reminded her of the men who lived in the shtetl in a past world. I had to shave it off immediately.
I remember that taking Bubbie shopping was quite an experience. She seemed to have brought the shtetl market place mentality to the New World. Every marked price on an item seemed too high for her and she generally let the merchant know about it. When given a chance, she loved bargaining over an item.
Bubbie loved playing cards. Although she enjoyed playing kalooki, poker was her game of choice. She played mostly with her Yiddish speaking lady friends, although every now and then a man was let in the game. The stakes were penny ante with nickel raises, but the games were nevertheless highly intense. Bubbie always appeared completely focused on the game and could not be distracted until its conclusion.
When Uncle Julie and Uncle Jerry opened their business on the Southeast Side of Chicago, they settled their families in that area. Since ours was a tightly-knit family, and although they lived on the other side of the city, Bubbie expected, and received, a telephone call from both of them each day of the week. They always told her what they ate that day. Sunday was reserved as a day when the family would get together with her. She even took a holiday from card playing that day.
In addition to Anne and me, who were the children of Ilene and her husband, our father, Jack, Bubbie’s other grandchildren were Harriet and Lester, the children of Uncle Julie and Aunt Ethel, and Jill and Lee, the children of Uncle Jerry and Aunt Ro. Bubbie had an unique and loving relationship with each of us. When she passed away in 1975, we six cousins were sitting together around the table at the shiva exchanging Bubbie stories. We soon discovered that it seemed as if each of us felt favorite grandchild status from Bubbie. She had that gift to make us all feel loved in her very special way.