One day in the early 1990’s there was an ad in the newspaper, under Furnished Apartments. “No rent for the right person”, it said. To me, newly arrived from Europe, in need of a home, it sounded like the answer to my prayers. And so it was – to an extent I could never have dreamed of. Within a few days I was accepted and installed as a companion to a certain elderly Rebbetzin – Bubbie, as I was told to call her. Thus began a transforming period of my life; living with Bubbie in what was almost a small commune of family and caregivers. It wasn’t always an easy existence, but it was one filled with meaning, interest and emotion; lots of laughter – and some tears. What I gained in the process was infinitely more than a home; I met a woman whom I could truly take as a role model.
Of course, I never had the privilege of knowing Bubbie in her days of strength. When I came to her, the decline had already begun. Even so, I would often catch a glimpse of what she had once been – an expressive look, an astute comment, a vivid sense of humor, would reveal her true personality. Even when overpowered by illness, she still carried herself with the dignity of a great lady. And she was not one to let herself be held back by a bit of old age – her indomitable spirit, restless energy and iron willpower kept her going long after we younger people had collapsed from fatigue.
When I first moved in with Bubbie I thought of it as a part-time job, a temporary arrangement, suitable for the time being – I would stay as long as I needed to. But gradually, as I got to know Bubbie, things began to change – or rather, I began to change. The very process of taking care of a person for a long time creates love and attachment; living closely together forges a bond. As my knick-knacks became intermingled with her furniture, Bubbie’s house became “our” home, and as her helplessness increased, so did my tenderness for her. What had started as a job turned into a life, and I began to think, “I shall stay as long as I am needed”.
Bubbie’s most remarkable trait may have been her extraordinary ability to evoke respect and affection in everyone who came into contact with her. As the years passed, I came to love her deeply. My youngest son, who lived with us periodically, and who became a care assistant in his own right, also became very devoted to her, and now says, whenever Bubbie’s name is mentioned, “She was so sweet – I miss her very, very much!”
So, there we were, settling down to our life together. In the day I would go to school or work, while a home attendant stayed with Bubbie; evenings and nights were my responsibility. The overall responsibility though, was assumed by her youngest son, our next door neighbor, who was in charge of the whole operation, and who would visit several times every day to make sure that everything was in order. I learned something very important from witnessing this act of kibud em, which was carried out with great love. I learned from the interaction between them, and from seeing him perform the most menial tasks for his mother with unfaltering respect, humility and dignity.
When Bubbie and I were together in the evenings we would often sit and chat, and she would tell me stories about her childhood and youth, about schooldays, work and shopping, about her beloved little sister, and about her adored and revered father, the great Rabbi. We would sit by her old dining room table and she would discuss whatever was at hand – the fleishige dishes in the “shuffe”, or the rose painting that a grateful woman artist had given her. Once she was watching while I was sewing trimmings onto a hat. Deeply interested, commenting on every detail, eyes positively shining, she suddenly asked, “Do you have a boy-friend?” “No, Bubbie, I don’t”, I replied. With great conviction she said to me, “This will get you some!” (But it took a while…)
Erev Shabbos was always special in our house – even beyond the normal degree of anticipation. Even though Bubbie was no longer bothered with clock or calendar, it was as if she felt in her bones that Shabbos was approaching. Licht bentchen was the great event of the week, and she worried constantly, lest she forget to light on time, and whether, once performed, it had really been properly done. When everything was finally to her satisfaction, we would sit in the living room and wait “for the men to come from shul”. That in itself was quite an event, and there would be much impatience until, eventually, the men – son and grandsons – would show up and bring her next door for Kiddush. Then her happiness would be complete! Licht bentchen was such an ingrained part of her personality, that even though illness had cruelly robbed her of so many perceptions, it could not touch her holiest mitzvah. I was told that one of the home attendants, a non-observant Jewish woman who had worked for Bubbie some time before I came, had been so impressed that she had begun to light Shabbos candles herself. She said, “If this is what lighting candles means to her, then I want that for myself too”.
As Bubbie’s horizons shrank, her concern with her immediate material surroundings expanded. Candlesticks and tablecloths in particular, were intensely cherished and valued symbols of her one-time glorious reign over a prestigious household. Therefore, when suddenly one day during our last year together, she said to me, “I’m leaving you my tablecloths”, this was probably the greatest honor that had ever befallen me. Those tablecloths are now among my most precious possessions. But, make no mistake; Bubbie’s reign was not entirely over – she still ruled like the queen mother. She had very pronounced opinions, and if she thought anyone of us behaved unsatisfactorily, she didn’t mind letting us know.
We grew very close over the years, Bubbie and I. She never knew my name, but I was one of the people she recognized; she once referred to me as an “old-timer”. The last time she spoke to me will always stand out in my memory. One evening, about six weeks before that final morning, I came into her room where she was lying in bed, seemingly asleep. Suddenly, without opening her eyes, she said, “Come here, darling!” I didn’t know whom she was seeing, but I went up to her and kissed her. She looked up at me, took my face between her hands, kissed me and said, “I love you”. She had told me so many times before, but somehow, this time, I was more than usually moved. “I love you very much” I answered. She nodded, laughing gently, “I know”, she said, “I know”. In that moment I had a strong impression that I was connecting, not with a clouded mind, but with a very clear neshamah. She closed her eyes again and said, “you can go now” and drifted off to sleep again. It was as if everything was settled between us, as if she had given me her blessing. What I felt she was saying to me was, “I know you did your best – you can go in peace”. I cried as I left her room, and even now, fifteen years later, I have tears in my eyes as I am writing this.
As I said, Bubbie was, and still is, my role model. Her courage, integrity and strength of character, her intelligence and humor, her devotion to good deeds, her uncompromising Yiddishkeit – all that she stood for, I should like, some day, to stand for also. Those four years that I lived with Bubbie, learning directly and indirectly from her and from her son, have changed me forever.
It was the greatest good fortune of my life when I found that ad.