Nonna and Bubbeh
Nonna was Anthony’s Italian grandmother. As a traditional Italian family, they often parked Nonna out in front of their home next door to our apartment house in a cushioned wooden chair, like a houseplant set out to get some sun. Nonna was always dressed in black wearing sturdy shoes clamped to her feet giving the appearance of a gothic Daisy Duck. She rarely moved as if in a euphoric hypnotic state.
Many years ago, my Jewish grandma, Bubbeh, started to visit us regularly in Brooklyn. Mom would go down to the front of our apartment house so that she could chat with her friends and Bubbeh might be exposed to local sidewalk society. Although Bubbeh remained silent, she seemed to enjoy hearing the chatter.
While Mom went down to the basement to fetch chairs, Bubbeh stood in her dark blue dress, red kerchief and sensible shoes, motionless, peacefully staring into the distance. She always seemed content. Once, seeking to avert boredom, I watched from across the street.
Mom immediately dove into the local chitchat with her friends. Bubbeh appeared attached, but uninvolved. After a while Bubbeh slowly turned her head and spied Nonna sitting about 20 yards away. Then, Bubbeh turned her head back and resumed her gaze into the distance. As if Bubbeh’s glance had reverberated a shock wave, Nonna leisurely turned her head slowly and looked back. Then she resumed her own silent fixation into space. This interchange was repeated several times until Mom noticed the interaction. Mom picked up one folding chair and escorted Bubbeh over to Nonna. Mom talked and gestured a bit and then put down the chair next to Nonna. Bubbeh slowly sat down and the two were left alone. They sat together looking forward like nuns with the oath of silence. About an hour later I noticed that their sidewalk roost was empty.
Two weeks later, Bubbeh was brought to visit again and Mom took her downstairs to sit outside. This time, Bubbeh stood in front of her chair for a few moments and then slowly walked straight over to Nonna. Next to Nonna there was an empty cushioned chair waiting for a guest. Bubbeh silently accepted the invitation. I saw them sit together in their contented silent state. They could have been figures in a wax museum.
Some time passed as they took pleasure in each other’s proximity. Soon, Sheila, from down the street, wearing a tight pink sweater and a short grey skirt swayed past them confidently balanced on precariously high platform shoes. I heard Bubbeh gargle “Oy” and from Nonna, a soft “Oooh, Madonna.” As Sheila approached the two, she wobbled on the uneven sidewalk and twisted one shoe nearly off her foot as she squealed in a piccolo voice. For the first time in years, I saw Bubbeh smile broadly. Nonna saw it too and snorted her retort. Like a snowflake starting an avalanche, the both of them became immersed in laughter. I’d never seen Bubbeh, or for that matter, Nonna, giggle before.
Bubbeh grabbed Nonna’s hand and bobbed in her chair. Nonna raised the ante and threw her arms around Bubbeh while she cackled loudly. Bubbeh said something. Nonna nodded her head solidly in agreement and loudly whispered something back to Bubbeh. The retort tickled them both and now they were rolling in their chairs. After the moment passed, the two sat quietly, dearly holding hands. I was unaware at the time that in an instant, a friendship was cemented.
A while later Mom returned to the street and when Bubbeh saw her, she got up and said something to Nonna. Nonna swayed her head knowingly and rambled on a bit while Bubbeh smiled. Nonna took Bubbehs arm and then reluctantly let it slide away as Bubbeh left.
As I spied on the stoic pair, I witnessed something that I could have never imagined. Bubbeh, whose humor was never more than a closed-lipped smile got up from her chair and as she walked, burst with comedy. Without turning around, she wiggled her tush with a flair mocking Sheila. Nonna, whose grin never displayed teeth opened her mouth and screamed with an unrelenting hilarity. It was like the cork had been pried loose from a shaken musty bottle of champagne. Bubbeh didn’t give up. She sporadically stomped her heavy black trussed up sensible shoe in a wide stance to swing it further. When Bubbeh returned to Mom she was again the tranquil, dignified Bubbeh. Nonna was still bubbling over with a loud cackle. Without the slightest smile, Bubbeh turned back and looked at Nonna as if to see what was disrupting the neighborhood.
The next day, Anthony saw me in the street and said that the whole family had never seen Nonna so joyfully giddy. She spoke about her best friend — my Bubbeh — and couldn’t wait for them to get together again. Nonna knew Bubbeh was my grandmother and when I played near their house she waved her arms and enthusiastically yelled to me in Italian. In the past, she sometimes shrieked Italian bursts in anger when I played ball too close to their house. This time it was different – sweet and engaging. Anthony said she was asking when Bubbeh would visit again.
Bubbeh didn’t visit her pal Nonna again for several weeks. Mom mentioned that she asked about Nonna, in several telephone conversations. They never met again. Nonna died in her sleep a few weeks after they had cemented their friendship and become confidents. Near the end of the summer, Bubbeh once again sat silently in front of the apartment house with Mom, turning occasionally to the spot where Nonna had always sat. I think I saw her smile.
And, by the way, Nonna spoke only Italian. Bubbeh spoke only a Yiddish-Russian dialect. Neither spoke English.