Baba and Savta

Anna and ElaineMother’s Day is a hard day for me. I really miss my mom. My husband is nice; he usually buys me a new cookbook or another book I might like on Mother’s Day. One year he bought me a nice metal watering can that I cherish. And my father brought me some flowers on Friday and wished me Happy Mother’s Day.

But it’s not the same as being able to call your mother and talk to her. Just for a bit.

On the right is my maternal grandmother z”l, whom we called Baba. That’s Russian for grandmother. The slim woman next to her is my mother, Elaine, z”l, may her memory be a blessing. When my mother became a grandmother, almost twenty years ago (eeks! is my niece going to be that old?), my sister-in-law thought she would want to be known as Baba. No, she said, there was only one Baba. So my mother became Savta.

My mother was born in Leningrad, Russia in 1924. When she came to this country (USA) in 1929, she had never tasted a banana. It tasted like a funny potato, she said. Her father, whom I never met because he died when my mother was 14, was already here in the U.S. He was born in Lithuania, came to America as a teenager, and went to Russia as a salesman for some American company–was it Ford? I’m not sure. There he met my grandmother, my Baba, whom he married. At some point they were separated; he came back to America and supposedly pulled strings in the State Department to get his wife and daughter to join him in New York.

When my mother was in kindergarten (same age as my daughter!) in New York City, she knew no English. So her father pinned a note to her shirt. When she needed to go to the bathroom, she was supposed to point to the note. It’s hard to imagine my mother not knowing English, as she later became a technical writer, corrected English grammar errors, and wrote an essay about mothers and daughters in Jane Austen.

There are a lot of stories about my Baba that I would like to share in future posts. My father once said she had experiences by the age of 25 that most do not have in a lifetime. She lived through the Russian Revolution and what was known as the “starvation period”, when people would have to walk many miles in the bitter cold just to get a frozen potato to eat. My Baba told me that the rabbis said it was OK to eat non-kosher food; you ate what you needed to stay alive. If you looked in the back of her mouth, you could see the shiny gold that replaced the teeth she lost during this period. Gold was easier to come by than food.

Enjoy your Mother’s Day, and as always, thanks for reading.

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7 thoughts on “Baba and Savta

  • Baila, yes, and I bonded with my grandmother, too. I am fortunate that I had a good relationship with my mother. Some women are not so lucky, and Mother’s Day presents a different struggle.

  • my son has a baba, as well as a pra-baba (great-grandmother in russian)

    “she knew no English”

    my grandparents also came not knowing a word of english and yet they too managed to learn it fluently. it’s amazing what you can achieve with an education when you don’t dumb it down.

    i think i once asked you how she got in after 1924 (i think it was you). now i know. it was much simpler (if still very beauracratic) to bring a child/wife. my grandmother’s brother was stranded in europe because he had no eligible relatives in america to request a visa for him.

  • >what you can achieve with an education
    Jews are amazing achievers (over-achievers?). My mother didn’t pay for a penny of her education, but she went as far as a getting a masters in physics from Smith College. Hunter (where my mother went), City College, Brooklyn College all produced brilliant students. Was it the schools or the motivated immigrant students (I think it was the latter).

    Yes, I wrote briefly about my mother coming here under Russian Jokes, and you asked how she got in.

  • I empathize, Leora. Mother’s Day is not the same. We can’t even call our mothers to wish them Happy Mother’s Day, or even make a fuss for them or take them out to lunch or dinner, or even make dinner for them.

    I fuss in my own way for her, through her photos placed upon special memorabilia and doilies that she liked, through one of her teapots surrounded by a rose, other items of family importance, and through lighting a yahrzeit candle for her the night before Mother’s Day.

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