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Matriarch

By Avram Mlotek

Section: Arts

November 16, 2007

My Avram! she says loudly into the phone, her voice is full of energy and smiles. This is my Bubbys classic greeting to me- once shes realized its I who has called. Tell me how you are!

There is a simple yet profound joy in her words, a genuine excitement and happiness at hearing the voice of one of her grandchildren- and its the same sincerity every time. Tell me everything!

Im doing well, Bubby. And I start to tell her about my classes, my jobs, my friends, my girlfriend. Interested in everything, she asks more and more questions.

Her name is Khane, its also Honey, and according to the bank its Eleanor but to me shes always been Bubby. Eighty-five years old and still writes a weekly article for the Yiddish newspaper on Yiddish poets. Eighty-five years old and is the music archivist for YIVO, the Yiddish Research Institute, located in lower Manhattan. Eighty-five years the mother, grandmother, musician, scholar and artist.

Together with my grandfather she compiled six anthologies of Yiddish folk songs, Holocaust songs and holiday songs, with transliteration, English translation and background information on the songwriters. But what does my grandmother say to the recently published anthology of recovered Yiddish songs (that she researched and edited) and is being nominated for this years National Jewish Book Award?

Dont write about me. Write about Zeyde. Hes the one whos had the journey. Hes from Poland. His life is interesting. That is my Bubby.

She used to be a heavy smoker for at least thirty years. Devouring, who knows, a pack a day, every other day. For decades, it was like this. One day after my grandfather, her beloved, suffered a heart attack the doctor said to her flatly, your husband will have to move out of the house if you dont stop smoking. She quit that moment, that instant. The day before and that day itself symbolized hundreds of consumed cigarettes and then- just like that- gone. No longer part of the picture, just not an issue. She hasnt smoked for twenty years. That is my Bubby.

When I talk to her about school, she wants to make sure Im meeting the universitys requirements. When we play Boggle she always wins but makes sure I come away with a little something.

Cat! she reads off my list of words, Thats wonderful, Avram!

Bubby, I say as I point to her pad of paper. I read her word, ingenuity, and say, come on. She smiles because she knows. Her breadth of knowledge is simply uncanny, still able to name all of Shakespeares plays and recite classic poems she learned in elementary school.

When she has coffee, its always with Sweet and Low. And when she plays piano, its beyond effortless.

I dont play anymore, she says to me.

You do so, I say, behind a video camera, trying to push her to the keys.

Not like I used to, she insists. But she gives in because she still likes to play and tries to make me think its because Ive convinced her. She sits at the piano bench and opens the cover and lets the keys glow. She doesnt look at those keys, and just like that- the music comes to life. Still, not looking at those keys- but in fact, staring- far away. Following the song. Longingly, she looks, with this understanding of the music that is written all over her face, as if the sheet music is someplace far in front of her and if she squints shell find the notes. She always finds them.

She takes a cab service to and from work and is probably worried that she might slip and fall, on the way out of her apartment, to the elevator, outside the building, onto the pavement, into the car, into the office. But if that fear is there, it remains invisible. No cane, no walker, but low heels and a purse. And it seems that there is no fazing this wonder woman.

How she comes home to her apartment and eats alone, how many awards she receives and how they slowly transform into just another piece in the living room and apartment, how many young artists and researchers from all over the globe come to visit her at her office and she turns not a one away dissatisfied- all leave with what they came for, if not more.

How she sends emails from her optimum online account and the one at the office. How she instant messages me and ends every message with Love Bubby.

How she adjusted to sleeping in one bed after all those years. My grandparents room always had two twin beds pushed together- as far as I remember- and it took some time after his passing to take away his bed. His closer to the door, hers closer to the window. And I remember seeing his bed there, wondering what it was still doing. One day I remember coming to her home and noticing its absence for the very first time. I didnt ask her about it;

she didnt talk about it. Even though, I know it must have been someone from my family or my cousins who was responsible for organizing its move.

Her apartment is neat, always kept clean, simple and warm. There are pictures of her needlework, her grandchildren and family in every corner, shelf, fridge and picture frame that can be found in her Bronx apartment.

She sits at the kitchen table, filling out a crossword, maybe finishing a coffee. Or perhaps shes in bed, watching a documentary on the history channel, or watching a classic movie, maybe Rebecca. She might even be by the piano, playing to herself. I wonder if she does. Maybe shes eating grapes in the living room, looking through a project from work. And then the phone rings.

Hi Bubby, its Av.

My Avram! she sings. Her voice fills me and I think I know where that constant excitement on the phone comes from: For a woman who loves so much and so many, she is genuinely moved that others go out of their way and let her know that the love is theirs too and is actively returned.

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