By Simon Barget
My grandmother liked to break up the monotony of a normal dull moment with a chastening call-to-arms for a ‘nice kippah tie’, an exhortation that suddenly brought animation to her erstwhile dour frame, in something I remember to be a faintly West Midlands accent, though she hailed from North Manchester and had lived in London for a good thirty-five years.
My grandmother liked to clean in each moment, and in the moments where there was no more cleaning to be done, she would clean up from the cleaning that she had just spent three hours doing, always managing to find something, something to focus on, to hunker down to, a flurry of dust to clear, some trifle to make good on, any faint to get things back in the right place.
My grandmother used to say: ‘Hack ‘em nischt offem chaynek’ to her obedient husband whenever he threatened to play one of his tricks on her grandchildren, all of which were harmless and never more than requesting that we pull his finger and then actually farting if he happened to have enough gas in him or doing the one where you pretend your thumb has been severed and you make it reappear in amazement from a place just behind the relevant grandchild’s ear.
My grandmother would graduate to: ‘Hack mir nischt offem chaynek, MOSS’ if he didn’t obey or if he ever got in the way of her seeing off the end of the Pesach baking at 1 in the morning, if he happened to wander in hopefully into the breach of the kitchen offering affection and kisses when her hands were dirty and her arms dirty and her brow beady and her apron still on and the last thing she wanted was to be touched by a bored or potentially horny man when she was concentrating and had plenty more work to see to, a man who had just been forblongering in front of the TV for hours watching the snooker.
My grandmother was a keen user of the phrase ‘the balance of’ meaning, ‘the rest of’, only ever employed in food contexts, i.e. chicken soup, prune chicken, and meaning more precisely: the small amount that remained after the hordes had demolished the bulk of it, the amount now only being sufficient for at a push one person.
My grandmother liked to know what was happening in the snooker but could only take time once everything had been done which meant that by the time it had been completed, it was already 11:30 and David Vine was urbanely closing out the transmission and so she barely managed a few glimpses before going off to bed.
My grandmother told me that ‘chaynek’ meant tea-urn in Yiddish/Russian, or something of that ilk, that was when I asked her, and I remember being fascinated by only that word in the colourful phrase; I’m still fond of the hard ‘ch’ at the beginning and the even harder ‘Ke’ at the end, so satisfying and plosive and reassuringly non-namby-pamby.
My grandmother liked to turn a blind eye to our forays into the sweetie cabinet, stealing middling chunks of Dairy Milk or Whole Nut or Raisin and Nut, yet she would still be moderately and warmly chastening and tell us that she could see exactly what we were doing with her ‘beady eye’ or the eyes that she had in the back of her head.
My grandmother used to know a few songs whose refrains she sang repeatedly over and over ad infinitum, until once in a blue moon she’d sing a whole verse or more of one I had NEVER heard before in such a perfect blooming voice that my ears perked up so that I couldn’t really understand why she kept her incomparable singing voice so uncelebrated, how it could only make an appearance on such infrequent occasions, and why she wasn’t a starlet or Doris Day or one of those women I had seen in black and white films that I could only vaguely relate to as a six-year old boy.
My grandmother once took sides in an argument between me and my older sister and though I can’t remember the exact words she delivered, she did say something to the tune of: You’re just a wicked boy, the ‘just’ being the most galling bit of the declaration, spat out with such fierceness and malice and intent that I will never forget the anger she must have carried inside her to have taken some of it out on me personally, to have been triggered by a teenager (me) probably only nineteen at the time and whose elders and betters you would have hoped should have copped the struggles their grandchildren were labouring under and would not have mixed in to them their own.
My grandmother could sit for hour upon hour in the burning hot sun doused in grimy Bergasol, her floral bikini top pulled down from the top bit of it, i.e. a bit squeezed together, her skin so puckered and dark and etched into that you were scared it would drop off, her faintly Dennis-Taylor-like reading glasses barely still holding up on her face, her feet resting on the foot of the recliner, her knees pointing up to the Marbella sky, her whole body prostrate, drawing in desired heavenly glare.
My grandmother baked and made chopped liver and she did not only bake and make chopped liver, she made cartloads of it, possessing hundreds of pieces of Tupperware all bearing the scars of the last label she had to pull off to accommodate the new one, or the tower of labels one pasted on over the other, not to mention the twists and the plastic bags full of soup and the things packed into overflow freezers in garages and second bedrooms that all had a place and had to be labelled and seen to else all hell would break loose.
My grandmother was wont to dismiss any suggestion or exhortation towards social interaction with a gesture I can hardly even remember but executed with such a firmness that made clear that she had made her intentions on mixing with other people plainly clear already and that she shouldn’t have to endure the irritation of yet another social suggestion when she had plainly clarified them.
My grandmother favoured her eldest son, my own dear father, himself one of five, and she seemed to make no secret of it, and to hell with the others if they got wind of it, which they obviously did, since he was a treasure, an alchemist, capable of no wrong, a supreme hard-worker and by god did he hold the whole family together and put plenty of bread on the table.
My grandmother called us ‘’Bubs on occasion, her 16 or however-many-there-were multitudinous grandchildren, when it was in fact her name that was ‘Bubs’ or ‘Booba’, not ours, and so the Bubs thing became a neat device of reciprocation wherein only my grandfather felt left out since there was no question of him calling us Zayds, short for Zaida, because it didn’t sound nearly fetching enough.
My grandmother liked a walk on the front or to take a walk down the zigzag or she might have liked going to Compton Acres on occasion or tolerated lunch at Fortes on the Lansdowne or Westover Roads, but it never was clear what my grandmother actually liked to do, save cooking and cleaning, making industrial amounts of chopped liver and maybe talking people down if they got up her nose.
My grandmother liked hard work, meaning that she seemed to purify herself via her domestic choredom; every moment being a precursor to the next one in which work would need to be done, whether it be washing up, washing down, drying, just washing, anything in which you could get your head down and say you’d given it your all.
My grandmother’s nine siblings were merely grist to my memory mill, where the first game was to name them in order of birth, and the second to keep tabs on which ones had actually died, versus the ones merely estranged, living out some meagre widowed existence in a nameless nursing home off Bury Old Road in Manchester.
My grandmother had a brother called Emmanuel, or Mendel, and I remember him to be the kindest, most warm-hearted man who my grandfather constantly maligned -- I suppose in a mildly good-hearted way -- a man so pious that he walked in the blazing heat on one Shabbos afternoon from his apartment one side of Marbella to my grandparents on the other -- outright refusing to contravene the age-old sabbath laws, to get in a car or other mode of transport -- such walk spanning a distance according to google of a whopping 18.8 km, taking a suggested time of 3 hours 54 minutes for someone who probably isn’t as old as my Great Uncle was at the time which was around early seventies.
My grandmother had a younger sister called Leila who was even more precious and pointed than my own dearest grandma, exuding a sort of unpleasant Mrs Bouquet vibe, who my grandmother seemed to be envious of and was always speaking about and who later on got embroiled with in some more trenchant feud which I cannot remember the details of, short of saying that of course my grandmother was absolutely in the right and that her sister displayed the characteristics of a vicious spoilt uncaring swine.
My grandmother rarely hugged us or kissed us, in fact I don’t remember her ever doing this, though I’m sure she must have done when we were much younger, and/or she probably would have wanted to when we were a little older but for the pressure her exacting work-ethic exerted, to be constantly busy so that hugging and displays of affection couldn’t really have fitted in and would have felt like severely breaking up the rhythm.
My grandmother just liked tea, and she had tea at lunch, at tea probably at supper and well into the evening, she liked to make tea and she liked to drink it, dark and reliably, and it seemed to be the one outlet, the one thing that soothed her, that she could relax to, and whenever I have tea on occasion, she’s for sure at the back of my mind and that was the kernel for me for even beginning this piece in the first place, so you have tea to thank, a noiyss Kippah Tae.