Last week as I was lighting a Yarzheit candle for my grandmother, a curious thought wafted.
No human being ever addressed my bubbe by her given name – Bella. No. To the world, she was "Fertel" (her married surname). That's it. I can still see her playing cards in a cap "mit" a visor, hearing her friends of 25 years say in their heavy Yiddish accents, "So nu, Fertel, you opening?"
How peculiar, I thought. But then, grandma "Fertel" wasn't a "milk 'n cookies" bubbe. A gefilte fish "mit roe," bubbe, maybe. For example, in the 1960's, the "femly," including grandma Fertel and us little kids, schlepped half way across the world, destined for Europe and Israel. In Paris, she decided to cross the street near the Arc de Triomphe, a feat that would've made Evel Kneivel consider a career in accounting. "Fertel," however, rose to her full five feet, three inches, stuck out her hand in the "STOP" position and marched! Little French people in little French cars went careening to make her a crosswalk as we, in our Ugly American paisley shorts, remained stranded and stupefied on the curb, until sighing, she marched back to "cross" us.
Italy wasn't much different. Her review of the Roman Coliseum? "Tsebrokhn (broken)!"
"But" ... added "Fertel" to her neighbors, proudly flaunting the photos, "I saw Sid Caesar's house!"
"Mama, it's Julius, not Sid," corrected my mother gingerly.
With one "Nisht geferlich"(think: "No big deal") look from "Fertel," a Jewish comic "replaced" an ancient Roman dictator.
With one "
" from "Fertel," a Jewish comic "replaced" an ancient Roman dictator.
In fact, so many were her "witticisms," so meshugge were her observations, so huge was her presence despite her small, square stature, that we started collecting "Fertel-isms."
Fertel-ism #1: From the day she, my grandfather, and my mother, a toddler, arrived on our shores, she lived in a tiny apartment in the Ridgewood section of New York that straddled Queens and Brooklyn. After my beloved zayde died relatively young, Grandma Fertel sought the one, singular, unrelenting goal that eluded her: to move in with us. Now, before you conclusion-leap, we certainly would've made the room – despite the added bulk of four straight-jackets. Plus, she stayed over every single week. But, we knew that "Fertel" survived on her schemes, as anything and everything was "Fertel soil." (Forgive me.) We were right. She lived a very long time, despite an enlarged heart, and the fact that her landlord, no doubt marked her for a hit, given rent control.
When my mother was in intensive care after a major heart attack, only grandma Fertel somehow got through on the phone. Her mission? To report that "Harry Truman died." Only moderately sympathetic, my mother replied, "That's too bad," to which "Fertel" clucked, "So nowwww ... Bess Truman will move in ‘mit' her daughter, Margaret!" My mother was up and out in three days.
"Fertel" did some of her best work in hospitals. When I was 21, a college graduate and still not married, she sat Shiva for me. It seems I had everything – including a blood clot – but no husband. While waiting for the clot to dissolve at NYU Medical Center, she called.
"Listen. You're just lying d'ere. Nu ... ? You couldn't meet a doctor?"
"Well, Gram, actually, I did. An ophthalmologist."
Silence. Then, "From eyes? Pui! Vat kind doctor is dat? No! From hearts, from brains – dat's a doctor!"
The woman, till her dying day, couldn't figure out where the bubbles went when she "saved" her glasses of seltzer in the fridge, but "ophthalmologist" she knew.
Fertel-ism #2: She said, "Dat's it! I'm driving!" – at 75. My father was assigned to teach her. "Fertel," however, had one irrepressible quirk that wasn't in the manual. She took her hands off the steering wheel to "wave" to all her neighbors while shouting, "Dat's right. Mrs. Gittleman! It's me! In da car!" But sadly, her "nisht geferlichs" finally reduced her son-in-law, a WWII hero, to blubbering, quaking – and quitting.
Fertel-ism #3: One of the strongest (and strangest) memories I have of grandma Fertel was her "setchel" (satchel). People thought the immense bag with the brass lock was just an old lady's purse. We knew better. No mere pocketbook, her immense "setchel" would be considered "cargo" on the QE2. But more, it was "Fertel's" Magic Bag of Tricks, containing a micro universe that hung from her arm like a third appendage. "Mit" a poof! food leaped from that "setchel" – and refilled itself. Cheesecake, chicken, Borscht, noodle pudding, kishke, oranges were all neatly wrapped in a hanky – soaked in My Sin perfume.
To this day, I can't eat "a piece cake" without a cologne chaser.
Fertel-ism #4: "Fertel" could do many things (like conjure a meal for 30 in five minutes, with only a "glass seltzer," a chicken leg, and half a challah). But air traffic controller wasn't one of them. She had a peculiar relationship with directions. She didn't follow any. No. Whether recipes or travel, "Fertel" operated on the FP-- the "Feel Principle." So never once, did a dish come out the same way twice. Should you make the mistake of asking for a recipe, she'd "nisht geferlich" you, adding "mit" a flourish, we "vouldn't farshtaist" (understand). Should you positively force her, she'd sigh and say, "a bissel dis, a bissel dat ... den feel." Martha Stewart she wasn't.
On our usual "femly" drive on Sunday, after brunch from the local "appetizing store," and post-brunch from "Fertel's" setchel, we'd head out to "wisit" a relative – of hers. The conversation:
My father: "Where are we going?" "Fertel": "Long Island." My father: "Where on Long Island?" "Fertel": "Could be ... the Grend Concourse." My father: "That's in the Bronx." "Fertel": "No. Long Island." My father (sighing): "OK. Long Island. What's the address?" "Fertel": "Near the stetue." My father: "What statue?!" "Fertel": "The big von. Then, go two, three blocks, and toin." My father: "Right or left." "Fertel": "You'll feel."
Dad "felt" lefts, rights, U-turns like a GPS gone meshugge. Then, eventually, from the back, a geshrai. "STOP! Ve're here!!"
And we were. Never failed.
During my childhood, grandma Fertel, with her trademark white shirt, brown skirt, and "setchel," was a fearsome presence to us. And yes, "Fertel" with her demands and quirks sounded selfish at times. But it was only when she was long gone, and I myself was an adult, that I was able to look beyond at "Fertel" and this is what I saw:
a woman who bribed border guards to flee with my grandfather, from conscription;
a woman who got officials drunk, so they could get to America before the Nazis took over;
a woman who left her birth family behind – forever;
a woman who had to learn four languages to start over – and over again;
a woman who faced risk and the unknown with a "setchel" that could feed a family, a strong arm to stave off danger, and a "nisht geferlich" to deal with uncertainty.
And now I could finally understand or better yet... "farshtaist."