As a child, I always loved sports. I ranked running, jumping, and playing ball among my chief delights. We had a thick green hedge that skirted our front porch. Often, my mother would yelp in surprise when I came leaping over the bushes, instead of descending the three steps from the porch to the ground in a more civilized manner.
It was not uncommon for tennis balls to clog up the gutters when my throws went awry in a game of roof ball. I never actually broke a window when playing catch against the side of the house, but I suspect I came fairly close many times. My family good-naturedly tolerated my enthusiasm, but it was really my grandparents who were my biggest fans.
A word about my grandparents, a mild, gentle pair who left their native Poland after the Holocaust, to turn up on the shores of America, confused and battered by their wartime experiences. In truth, Bubba and Zeida never really adjusted to life in the United States, often wistfully recalling their hometown of Wengrov and its simple pleasures.
They lived in a small brick house several blocks away from us, and they formed an integral part of my childhood. It would be hard to imagine a more doting set of grandparents, whose lives revolved around indulging and pampering their three granddaughters.
If Zeida happened to see a luscious pastry in the bakery window, you can be sure it would find its way into our house. Plump cherries, tart blueberries so dark they seemed purple, succulent navel oranges bursting with juice-these were some of the treats Bubba purchased for us regularly. Her black eyes would crinkle with pleasure as she lovingly urged us to help ourselves, and nothing delighted her more than seeing our obvious relish in devouring these costly out of season fruits.
In Bubba and Zeida’s eyes we could do no wrong, which was pretty handy for a bunch of fun-loving kids. Their affection and pride in their granddaughters was a soft blanket of unconditional love that cushioned and warmed us.
It happened the year I was about ten or eleven years old. The winter Olympics were being aired on local television. Bubba jabbed a finger at the small screen, with its flickering black and white images. Tall, sinewy bodies, glistening with sweat, lined up at the starting mark. The crack of a pistol, and they corkscrewed into the air, legs pumping furiously. How fast they flew! I was mesmerized, bewitched.
“You run just as fast,” she pronounced, in her Yiddish accent. “I see you running, jumping all the time.”
This was said with absolutely no trace of skepticism or doubt.
“Oh, Bubba,” I laughed, amused and not a little incredulous of her unwavering loyalty to my abilities.
“Yes, yes, you do,” she persisted. I decided to take a different tack.
“Look how they’re dressed,” I pointed out. “How could I run in those shorts and sleeveless shirts? It’s not modest.”
She waved away my pious argument with a forceful sweep of her hand.
“So what, you’ll wear a skirt and long sleeves, no one will mind.”
I endured a fair amount of teasing and good-humored chaffing from my sisters when my grandmother enlisted their aid in convincing me that I could indeed compete in the next Olympics. Her biased loyalty matched her unbounded infatuation, a situation that I found acutely uncomfortable at times.
Life continued, with all of its quirky twists and turns. Twenty-five years passed and I found myself in Jerusalem with my husband and family. My middle son and daughter were named for Bubba and Zeida, who passed away less than a year apart from each other. They never knew their great-grandparents, yet their childhood has been peopled with stories of the loving couple that made my growing up years so sweet.
It is a balmy summer evening. I lean over my balcony, watching the children’s lively games below. I spot my daughter, Miriam, in a spirited machanayim game. She catches the ball easily and sends it soaring over the heads of the other girls. I feel a stab of vicarious pleasure as the girls cheer her successful throw. Yup, I congratulate myself smugly, a chip off the old block. I find myself caught up in the excitement of the girls’ game, delighting in every triumph, wordlessly groaning when the ball tags someone.
Watching my daughter, I am propelled back in time to earlier that day when ten-year-old Miriam asked if she could make a chocolate cake. All by herself. I imagined sticky mixing bowls, puddles of cracked eggs on the kitchen floor and flour dusting every surface. I said no, feeling guilty but justified.
“A ten year old is just not responsible enough to bake unsupervised,” I tried to assure myself, but in reality convinced no one.
In the end, I gave in to Miriam’s tearful entreaties, secretly dreading the mess I would encounter after her baking session. To my delighted surprise, the kitchen was immaculate, with the tempting aroma of fresh cake the only sign of her activity. Her proud smile as she presented me with a generous slice of chocolate cake made my heart soar.
“She needed you to believe in her,” a voice tells me. “The same way you learned to grow and be independent.”
I feel my grandmother’s presence on the mirpesset with me, fondly encouraging.
“Look, Bubba,” I say to her eagerly, gesturing at the youngsters in the street. “There’s Miriam, she’s the one wearing the striped lavender dress. I named her after you.”
“I’m proud of you. You did well today,” she smiles approvingly at me. “See how grown-up you made Miriam feel, trusting her.”
I feel as if I’ve just received a gold medal.
I am comforted, as Bubba’s silent applause thunders in my ears.