Lighting candles with Grandmom

Recently I have been thinking about the impact that one generation makes on another. Someone once quipped that grandparents and grandchildren get along well because they have a common enemy. In my case, my grandparents had a large influence because of their unqualified love for me. I wrote this several years ago as a tribute to my maternal grandmother, Rose Tizer. It takes place in 1949.

My name is Rona. I am 4 years old. I live in Philadelphia. I have green eyes and rosy cheeks and dark brown hair. When my mother washed it this morning, she twisted it, piece by piece, and told me to hold it so that when it dried, I had curls like Shirley Temple. I feel pretty and I feel special because tonight, when my parents are home, I will stay here with my grandmom and grandpop and I know they will spoil me.

I think about what it will be like to stay here tonight. When it’s time to go to sleep, I will walk up the stairs that are at the back of the living room. When I get to the top of the steps, I will turn left and walk through Uncle Albert’s room to the spare room where I sleep. In the room there is a big bed with a bedspread on it. I love the bedspread. It has raised parts that are fluffy when I touch them and they make a design. I think about letting my fingers glide along the fluffy parts and following them all over the bedspread. I can do it even in the dark. But it doesn’t really get dark because in order to get to the bathroom, my grandparents and Uncle Albert have to walk through the spare room and so as not to wake me, they leave the light on in the bathroom. Being here is exciting and the light being on makes me want to stay up.

There is another reason that it is not easy to sleep here. Behind the row of stores in which my grandparents live, there is a brewery. The whole neighborhood smells of beer all the time. When we drive down Second Street I always get excited just smelling the beer and knowing that soon we will be at Grandmom and Grandpop’s. Because the train transports the cases of bottles of beer, there are railroad tracks right outside the window and all night long when the train sits on the tracks, the warning bells ring.

It is a cold winter day. It is a Friday and my grandmother is getting ready for shabbos. I can smell the chicken and I know that there will be soup. She puts very thin noodles in the soup and she calls them “luckshen” but I know they are just noodles. I like fishing around in the soup for the noodles and, to tell the truth, they are the only reason I eat the soup at all. Well, really, there is one other reason. I don’t know why, but whenever I finish everything on my plate or in my bowl, my grandmother gets very very happy. It’s like by just eating, I do something that she’s very proud of.

Now I see her sitting at the table in the kitchen. The table is still not set and it is getting to be late afternoon. She is sitting with a big stack of money in her hands and she is laying it out in piles, counting strangely. I try to count like her sometimes: one-tzik, two-tzik, three-tzik, but everyone starts laughing and I realize I don’t have it right yet, so I listen harder the next time, but she just counts too fast.

Soon the men who work in grandpop’s store come in. One by one, she gives them the piles of money, counting them again as she hands them to the workers. Then she puts the tablecloth on the table and sets it for dinner. Now comes the magical time.

Grandmom goes over to the stove. On the flat part next to the burners she sets up two big candlesticks and two little ones. She puts a scarf over her head and says, “Come, Rona; it’s time to bench licht.” I go to her and she covers her eyes and says something that I cannot hear, but I know it is a prayer. I too cover my eyes and all I can think of is how special it is to be Grandmom’s girl and to light these candles with her. It’s something I can always count on. The kitchen feels warm, and full of candlelight and Grandmom’s love, and the cold, darkening sky is not so cold or dark anymore.

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  1. Nelly Alcala de Fielding says

    Do we all have smells that conjure up our Savta? Mine, believe it or not, is kerosene. My mamma’s mamma lives on an island next to Vieques, the Puerto Rican island that makes the news every couple of years because of the presence of the US Navy. Anyway, she had land when she first married, but it was lost during the depression, so when I met her she lived in a small wooden government house. She had a wringer washer, and since the island is rather dry the water is rationed, so it’s gone by 5:00 PM. Everybody had latrines instead of toilets, and there were huge oil drums under the eaves to collect drinking, cooking and hairwashing water. These were covered with netting against voracious tropical mosquitos.

    By the time I met my “abuelita” she had progressed from a wood burning stove to a kerosene one. She was quite ahead of most of rest of the populace! And when I smell that particular fuel, I see my abuelita. Oh, I might as well add that she had red hair–her father had been an Irish immigrant merchant marine, so everybody called my grandmother and her siblings “gringos.” She knew a little English, and when she called the chickens, she always (to this day) said, “Kitty, kitty, kitty.”

    And naturally you want to know thew origin of this peculiarity. Sorry, nobody alive knows.