Wednesday, June 08, 2005

MEMOIR: Grandma called me "Mutton"

My maternal grandmother, with whom I lived as a boy, traveled halfway around the world from the province of Minsk in what is now Belarus to the U.S. in 1903, settling first in East Harlem and then the Bronx. Until her death nearly 60 years later, she never ventured outside the two boroughs except for periodic trips to Brooklyn to visit the cemetery in which her husband and a young daughter are buried.

The exact year of her birth was unknown to her family. There was always an odd reluctance for the older members of my family to disclose their age to the younger generation. I do not know whether this was a matter of superstition or a form of family etiquette. Even if Grandma had been willing to reveal her birthdate, however, the fact would have been obscured by a recording phenomenon that has always tended to jumble chronology.

To my grandmother, family events were invariably linked to history. They occurred, for example, on "the second night of Passover the year in which Czar Alexander II was assassinated" or on "Yom Kippur eve the year in which the [Russian] war with Turkey began." Such disclosures required difficult translations from both the Russian Gregorian and the Hebrew lunar calendars, but these invariably failed to produce satisfactory historical fact.

Grandma was a short, sturdily built woman with fair features and only a smattering of gray in her brown hair. A stranger might have imagined that the hair was dyed. Grandma, of course, was not even aware that there were establishments known as beauty parlors. Her wide face, high cheekbones, blue eyes, upturned nose, and the babushka that frequently covered her head gave her a distinctly Slavic cast.

It was obvious that sometime in the past there had been an unwelcome Slavic genetic incursion into Grandma's bloodlines. The raping of Jewish girls by Cossack soldiers garrisoned near the ghetto villages of western Russia was not uncommon.

But when I once foolishly raised the possibility that one of her female ancestors had suffered such a dreadful fate, Grandma reacted angrily and slapped my face. She was devoutly religious and took her Jewishness very seriously. The thought that anything but the pure blood lines of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob flowed through her veins was unthinkable.

I shared a bedroom with Grandma until I was about 12. She tolerated the pictures of my athletic heroes on the wall. In return, I obediently recited my morning and evening prayers with her every day. Grandma never learned to speak English. I stopped speaking to her in Yiddish only after it became apparent that she at least understood English.

My mother worked during much of my childhood. So Grandma was frequently entrusted with my care. When I was not in school, I was invariably outside playing stickball, touch football and the other street games that New York kids played during the Depression years. Our kitchen window faced the street on which we played, enabling Grandma to monitor my activities, calling out to me when she saw that vehicular traffic was too heavy or announcing that it was time to eat.

I was named after her beloved father, Moshe Aharon Tsivin. In bestowing English names on me at birth, my parents transformed Moshe Aharon into Morton Arthur. Grandma took no notice of my English name and called me "Moishareleh," combining my two Hebrew names and using the more affectionate diminutive form. And that's what she would bellow out the window when she wanted my attention. I was always embarrassed to hear her Yiddish-accented voice calling me, particularly when my friends would mimic her.

I tried to discourage her from using my Jewish name. But she was reluctant to use the few words of English that she knew. Finally, however, she decided to please me by using my English name to communicate. Unhappily, the best she could do handling the name Morton was to come up with "Mutton."

To my friends, "Mutton" was even more hilarious than "Moishareleh," and the taunting became more troubling. In desperation I urged Grandma to return to her former usage. The Jewish name was now more tolerable than "Mutton."

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