For the Love of Bubbie Fay
We were on a family vacation in Aspen in 1994 when Cousin Amanda first told me about her belief in God. She threatened never to speak to me again if I told anyone, pinching the skin on my upper arm as a warning, perhaps, of how much her silence would hurt.
Assuming she was joking, I laughed.
“We’d better unpack,” I said. Our grandmother, Bubbie Fay, host of all family vacations, was expecting us in the lobby for a group picture before dinner.
Amanda put her suitcase on one of the queen-size beds. “I’m serious, Natalie.”
“So you believe in God. Mazel tov, I guess.”
“Shh.” She nodded towards the wall separating us from the boys’ room where our cousin Mitch and my brother Justin would’ve been watching porn previews on pay-per-view if Mitch’s passion for all things Orthodox hadn’t preceded Amanda’s spiritual revelation by two years.
I walked to the bathroom and put my make-up case by the sink, grateful for the four-day vacation from sharing a bathroom with Justin, college dropout and user of other people’s toothbrushes.
“Bubbie will love this God thing,” I yelled from the bathroom. “I bet she puts you at the top of the list for the good stuff.” Bubbie Fay, only seventy-four years old and in perfect health, constantly wondered aloud who should get what when she died. “You’ll get the diamonds instead of the costume. But you were probably getting all that anyway. I won’t even get the stuff she bought on the beaches in Mexico.”
“You don’t know that,” Amanda said, denying, as usual, the long-held family truth that Bubbie Fay liked her best of all the grandchildren and certainly more than her daughters-in-law, our mothers.
I hadn’t yet told Amanda how Bubbie Fay had decided in the airport that she “especially” wanted me to inherit her collection of ceramic salt and pepper shakers one day since I “couldn’t make use of much else.” My mother told me not to take it personally, that Bubbie told her and Aunt Beth almost every time she saw them that their clothes were too tight and they’d inherit all her roomy ensembles.
“It’s a little more complicated,” Amanda said, when I came back into the main room. “The God issue. This is different than Mitch. We’re talking the Son of God here.”
“You heard me.”
“You mean like Jesus?”
She put her finger on her lips and nodded towards the boys’ room again before continuing to unpack her suitcase. I did the same, taking extra time to put my thick ski socks in a drawer.
“So you’re Christian now?” I asked. “That’s what you’re telling me?”
“I can’t snap my fingers and be done with it. I need to convert at some point. Make it official. I want to tell Bubbie and everyone else myself so don’t—”
“Maybe you’ll change your mind before she has to know anyway.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means a lot could change.” It means you never finish anything, I thought. Art classes, piano lessons, ballet, babysitting jobs—everything Amanda ever claimed to need, want, and love dissolved within months. Most of Amanda’s friendships lasted less than a year. I was the most stable person in her life and that was only because our mothers spoke on the phone three times a day.
Amanda brushed her long, dark hair, tugging at the snarls on the ends. She pushed the shorter layers towards her face, a style I couldn’t believe she’d wear in the presence of Bubbie Fay who hated seeing hair in anyone’s eyes. At Bubbie Fay’s suggestion, I’d grown out my bangs in seventh grade when every other person with any style and popularity had a solid mass of hair-sprayed poof sitting on their foreheads. Such was the level of my underappreciated dedication to the cause of Bubbie Fay’s love. For the family picture in the lobby, I was wearing a thick headband to keep any fly-a-away hairs from inciting Bubbie’s wrath.
“Stop looking at me like that,” Amanda said. “Jesus is nothing to be ashamed of. So I believe in something. What does the rest of this family believe in?”
It was Cousin Mitch all over again, but with Jesus instead of Hashem. I wondered when she’d start crossing herself. Or did only Catholics do that? Maybe she was going Lutheran? Baptist? Or she could try the rock-and-roll route and find a hot religious leader named Pastor Luke with a guitar and long hair.
“Is this about Kelsey’s Bat Mitzvah?” I asked on the way to the elevator.
Amanda’s younger sister, Kelsey, miracle of reproductive science, blessed the family with her presence five years after Amanda was born. Every time Aunt Beth and Uncle Rich paid more attention to Kelsey, Amanda had some kind of episode that put her back in the center of the family’s orbit. I found Amanda’s sudden belief in Jesus suspiciously close to when Aunt Beth would start obsessing about the plans for Kelsey’s Bat Mitzvah and told her as much.
The elevator brought us to the lobby. “One semester of AP Psych and you’re a fucking expert,” Amanda said.
“I don’t think a good Christian would take that tone. Or swear.”
She glared at me.
“I’m just saying.”
“What does that mean anyway—just saying? It’s the dumbest expression in the world.”
I told her Jesus was making her crabby, which was when she banned me from ever again discussing him or Him, I guess, with her.
* * *
Eight months later, with our senior years of high school behind us, Amanda and I went to different schools for the first time. I’d chosen to attend the University of Illinois where I lived in a private dorm filled with students from our high school and other Chicago suburbs. Amanda got into Tufts, a fact Bubbie Fay celebrated with a bumper sticker on her car and a shopping spree at J. Crew for Amanda’s East Coast wardrobe. Bubbie Fay gave me a gift card to Bed, Bath & Beyond and told me not to “binge drink” every weekend like she’d seen on the news.
So, yes, I might have been jealous of Amanda’s power over Bubbie Fay. But I wasn’t some evil, crazed cousin. If at any point in our first few months apart Amanda had somehow let me know she’d received a tattoo of a crucifix in the middle of her back, I might have helped her prepare the family by telling my mother the news “in confidence.” My mom, of course, would have leaked it to Aunt Beth, who would have gently given the information to Uncle Rich, who would have somehow prepared Bubbie Fay.
But Amanda didn’t tell me. So I didn’t tell my mom, and the trusted chain of family triangling never began. And that was why, during the cocktail hour of Kelsey’s Bat Mitzvah, at the Ritz, no less, my mom stood next to me by the risotto bar, chastising me for not telling her about the tattoo.
“I didn’t know,” I said.
“It’s disgusting,” my mom said. “Always passive-aggressive, that one.”
“Mom, I’m not sure there’s anything passive about a tattoo. Of a cross. At your sister’s Bat Mitzvah.” I instantly regretted my words. I’d never sided with my mom against Amanda before. I’d never sided with anyone against Amanda.
My mom motioned for me to follow her to the Thai table where the line was shorter than the other food stations. “I’m sick for Beth. Just sick.” I watched her spoon extra peanut sauce on a chicken skewer, her sympathy for Aunt Beth’s humiliation not derailing her goal to try every appetizer before the cocktail hour ended.
“Dad’s hogging the crab cakes,” Justin said, having appeared on the other side of our mother. “And he’s double dipping in the sauce.”
“He can take care of himself,” Mom said, meaning they were fighting again. I didn’t know how Justin could stand it. One weekend at home and I was desperate to get back to smelly Champaign, Illinois.
“Did you guys see Amanda’s tattoo?” Justin said. “Aunt Beth and Uncle Rich must be—”
I shushed him.
“What?” he said. “You don’t think Amanda wants people talking about it? It’s in the middle of her back. She could have worn a sweater or something.”
I pointed out that she’d at least worn one at the synagogue.
“I guess she gets a big fucking award for restraint then,” Justin said. He slipped his free hand in the inside pocket of his tuxedo jacket and handed us castle-shaped table cards. “We’re at the Pocahontas table by the way.”
“Was Pocahontas technically a princess?” I asked.
Justin shrugged then nudged my arm. “Show time,” he said.
The doors of the ballroom opened to a sixteen-piece band playing “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast. The ceiling, draped in pink chiffon, matched the pink tablecloths, flowers, and balloons around the room.
“They went really literal with the theme,” Justin shouted over the music.
“I’ll bet Kelsey put the cool kids at Belle and Ariel and the losers at Snow White.”
Justin agreed. Our mother, suddenly behind us, told us to knock it off.
We found the table with the giant Pocahontas centerpiece, choosing seats facing the dance floor so we wouldn’t have to sit sideways in our chairs during Aunt Beth’s speech when she’d inevitably spend most of her allotted time talking about how she’d promised herself she wouldn’t cry.
Cousin Mitch and his parents—my dad’s sister, Judith, and her husband Stuart—took their seats at our table as the bandleader stood at the microphone.
“And now for the first time as a Jewish adult, let’s put our hands together for Princess Kelsey!”
“They didn’t,” I said.
My mom hit my leg.
Kelsey’s two hundred guests stood and clapped as the band played “A Whole New World” from Aladdin. Kelsey walked towards the dance floor in a Princess Jasmine-inspired frock that Aunt Beth had custom-made for the occasion. Kelsey’s bare midriff induced whispers around the room as Uncle Rich twirled her several times.
“Where’s the flying carpet?” my father asked. Cousin Mitch frowned. Aunt Judith closed her eyes and sighed. Whether she was horrified by the over-the-top party, her half-naked niece or her son’s blatant and seemingly permanent disappointment in the family was anyone’s guess.
Uncle Rich asked Bubbie Fay, Kelsey’s only living grandparent, to join him at the microphone and bless the challah that some poor baker had been assigned to shape into a glass slipper.
“I have something to share with all of you,” Bubbie began. From the sound of her voice, she had no intention of leading us in a prayer over anything. “First I’d like to call up my granddaughter, Amanda.”
Say something about the tattoo, I silently begged. Amanda appeared next to Bubbie, looking surprised, but not concerned. Bubbie Fay had clearly seen the tattoo by then. How could Amanda still reign most beloved?
Stop it, stop it, stop it. I hated my disloyalty, my all-consuming neediness for Bubbie’s Fay’s love, or her approval, or something other than her disdain.
Bubbie Fay cleared her throat into the microphone. I winced. She breathed heavily for what seemed like two full minutes before glancing at Kelsey.
“We are gaining a Jewish adult today,” she began. Of course the pink drapery, enormous princesses, and Kelsey’s name in hot pink lights behind the band seemed to suggest anything other than an adult, and I waited for Bubbie to say exactly that, but she only lifted an eyebrow as her passive objection.
Bubbie Fay continued. “But we’re also losing a member. Our dear Amanda has searched inside her heart and discovered another path.”
All of us seated underneath Pocahontas’s long legs leaned towards the dance floor. I was not the only member of the family who’d been on the receiving end of Bubbie Fay’s criticisms. Aunt Judith, Uncle Stuart, and Cousin Mitch, my parents, and Justin—all of us knew the potential knives Bubbie Fay could offer at that moment. While everyone else at the table seemed poised to jump out of their seats and stop Bubbie from publicly embarrassing Amanda and ruining Kelsey’s night, I secretly looked forward to welcoming Amanda to our side. I closed my eyes and shook my head as if I could erase the sick idea. What was wrong with me? What kind of person rooted against her family?
Finally, I suppose, in case someone had missed the tattoo on Amanda’s back, Bubbie Fay put her mouth directly on the microphone and said, “Amanda has become a Christian.”
I heard murmurs around the room. Cousin Mitch closed his eyes. Justin took the opportunity to mumble that a college dropout didn’t look so bad now. Uncle Rich rushed towards the band and whispered something in the leader’s ear. Then before Bubbie Fay could say anything else, the sixteen members of Chicago Motown Fever erupted in “Hava Nagila.”
Amanda swept me into the circles of friends and family dancing hand-in-hand, pulling me into the smallest group in the center comprising our mothers, Aunt Judith, Kelsey, and Bubbie Fay.
“What did you say to her?” I asked Amanda. Bubbie Fay would never hear us over the music.
“To Bubbie Fay?”
“Yes!” I felt impatient now. Any other family member would have suffered a standard Bubbie Fay public lashing of the worst kind. Amanda had some kind of power over our grandmother I could not understand. I was jealous, but more than anything I was mystified. I loved Amanda. I did. I understood why Bubbie loved her, too. But was Amanda really that much more special than the rest of us? Wasn’t there room for anyone else? For me?
“I called her last week from Boston and broke the news,” Amanda said. “She didn’t like it at first.”
“I did what I always do with her. I said something along the lines of, I understand that you don’t approve, and I respect your opinion. I’m converting anyway.”
I stopped moving my feet and Amanda had to yank my arm to keep Aunt Judith from crashing into me on the other side. “That’s it?” I asked. That was the magical spell? The key to Bubbie’s affections?
“I don’t care what she thinks, and she knows it. I’ve been saying so since I was ten.”
I stared at Amanda then at Bubbie Fay on the other side of the circle. I experimented with the words in my mind. I don’t care what you think. I respect your opinion, but I’m majoring in Anthropology anyway. I’d never utter them—I knew it. They were too far from the truth and Bubbie Fay would know it, too. Her power over the family was how much we did care about her opinion, how much we feared we deserved her worst critiques. We were unworthy and we should inherit ceramic salt and pepper shakers. We would have looked ridiculous with those poofy bangs and gained fifteen pounds if we weren’t careful.
* * *
Bubbie Fay died of a stroke during my last year of college. She never met the man I eventually married, Danny, whom she would have deemed too short and too Republican. Nevertheless, after the ceremony for which we needed a plain gold ring, I wore the diamond wedding band she’d inexplicably left me in the latest version of her carefully detailed and ever changing will. Amanda, still Christian, inherited most of the “good stuff,” but our mothers, Aunt Judith, Kelsey, and Cousin Mitch’s wife all received beautiful pieces—none of them from a beach in Mexico.
Danny and I named our daughter after Bubbie Fay, using only the first letter ‘F’ as is the tradition among non-Orthodox, Ashkenazi Jews. We considered Francesca. Not Jewish enough, Bubbie would’ve said. Then we thought about Freyde, which means joy in Yiddish, but Bubbie would’ve found that much too Jewish. Danny preferred the name Emily and wanted to know why we were honoring a woman whom I’d always described as difficult at best and cruel the rest of the time.
“Because she loved me,” I said. She loved and respected Amanda, but the hint of love she had for me was enough for me now that Bubbie Fay was gone. She loved me enough to want me to show my best face to the world. She worried about what everyone else would think of me before anyone would get the chance to judge. She ran interference, I’d realized after watching her pretend to a room full of community members that she approved of Amanda’s decision to convert. Maybe if she approved, they would too. Maybe if she told us the best way to live, we’d gain the love of the world.
My husband, a guy with two grandmothers who found his every utterance brilliant and told him so, couldn’t possibly understand.
We decided on Faith. My dad, Uncle Rich, and Aunt Judith cried when we announced our daughter’s name at a small ceremony at our synagogue. I knew then that I’d chosen perfectly, that somehow the redeemable parts of Bubbie Fay would live on in Faith, and with time, we’d all learn to laugh about the rest.
Nina Badzin is a contributing writer at Brain, Child Magazine, and a freelance writer with several essays in The Jewish Daily Forward, Kveller.com, and elsewhere. Her fiction has appeared in The Drum Literary Magazine, Literary Mama, Midwestern Gothic, Monkeybicycle, The Pedestal Magazine, The Potomac: a Journal of Poetry and Prose, and other literary magazines. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and four children.