Wednesday, November 3, 2010
A life worth celebrating
She would make sure to check the various standings in the sports section on a regular basis, note how my favorite teams were doing. She'd try to be aware if a big game was going to be on TV so she could at least tune in for a moment and see the score. She didn't know a cleanup hitter from a cleanup crew, but she never let on lest I be embarrassed by my grandmother's lack of sports knowledge.
Truth is, the woman we all knew as Bubbee (a Yiddish word for grandmother) had a lot more connection to sports than most of her contemporaries. Start with the fact she grew up on Gerard Avenue in the Bronx, one block from Yankee Stadium, and watched games from the roof of her building. This was during the 1920s and '30s, when guys named Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri and Bill Dickey not only played in the Bronx but were regulars around the neighborhood, including at my great-grandfather's lunch counter.
Bubbee probably didn't have a lot of time for sports growing up, though, not with greater responsibilities at hand. She graduated high school at 16, a real math whiz who surely could have gone to college and become anything she wanted but instead did like plenty of girls her age and immediately went to work to help support her family.
Family meant everything to Bubbee, and not just the immediate group of siblings and children and grandchildren. No, she cherished being part of a large, extended family that included all sorts of aunts and uncles and cousins and others. I'm closer today with some of my third cousins than many people are with their own brothers or sisters, and that's all because of the importance Bubbee placed on family.
Unfortunately, many of those phone calls came early in the morning. Bubbee, you see, was as early a riser as ever there was. Even though I was living three time zones east of her for the last decade, I guarantee you I never once got out of bed earlier than her. She'd be wide awake at 4 a.m., making a cup of coffee and wanting to call her grandson, then realizing I was probably still asleep.
After an hour or so, she just couldn't wait any longer. So inevitably my phone would ring right around 8:01 a.m. (5:01 a.m. her time) and rouse me out of my slumber following a late night covering a ballgame. She didn't need to say who it was. I would know from the voice (not to mention the fact no one else I knew would call at that hour). The conversation usually went something like this...
Bubbee: "Did I wake you?"
Me: "Well, actually..."
She'd then hang up the phone and probably sit there in her kitchen, upset at herself for making that mistake. I, of course, would immediately call her back, leading to this conversation...
Me: "Why did you hang up on me?"
Bubbee: "I didn't want to wake you."
Me: "But once I picked up the phone, I was already awake. I can't go back to sleep now."
Bubbee: "OK, so what's new?"
I'd then proceed to tell her about whatever it was I'd been writing about for the paper, about whatever big sporting event I was getting ready to cover. She never really completely understood what I did for a living, especially when it came to anything I was writing not in newsprint but online. This is a woman, you have to understand, who never drove an automobile in her life, let alone turned on a computer. She knew there was something called "The Internet" but had no idea what it was or how to get there. She referred to email as "The E," still not entirely sure how it worked.
Despite her old-fashioned ways, Bubbee still was plenty young at heart. She'd attempt to throw or catch a football. She'd let my brother and I drag her up to the top of a snowy hill, stick her on an inner tube and then watch as she tried to sled down to the bottom. And every year on her birthday, even into her 90s, she would go out to our driveway with a basketball and shoot until one finally went through the hoop.
Sometime in the last couple of years, the annual birthday free throw didn't take place. The onset of Parkinson's disease, combined with hip replacement surgery, made the task too difficult. That was probably the first indication I had that her days were beginning to be numbered.
Over the last two years, Bubbee slowly deteriorated, moving into a nursing home, confined to a wheelchair, her mind slipping away from us. Every once in a while, though, she could still be sharp as a tack. She could recall details about watching those Yankee games from the roof of her building, about her excitement upon first learning she had become a grandmother, about the latest accomplishment of one of her tatelehs.
And she never lost her sense of humor. Unable to make the cross-country trip for my wedding two years ago, she made a video for my wife and I that concluded with her saying: "I'm sorry I can't come to the wedding, but I promise to be there for the bris."
She died yesterday afternoon, peacefully in her sleep, at the age of 95. She didn't last long enough to meet her great-grandchildren, though I certainly hope to one day regale my kids with stories about their amazing Alta-Bubbee (great-grandmother).
I'm heading back home to Arizona today to be with family, so there probably won't be any updates to this site for several days. There will, however, be plenty of memories to share and a life to celebrate, not mourn. Though Bubbee often cried, hers were always tears of joy, not sorrow.
There may also be a ceremonial free throw in the driveway, one small tribute to a one-of-a-kind Bubbee who devoted her life to the family she loved so much, and in the process touched all of us far more than she ever realized.
Posted by Mark Zuckerman at 8:00 AM