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Zi Gezundt

When Bubby said “Zi gezundt,” she didn’t just mean farewell or goodbye. It was her way of transferring legacy. Of connecting the past with the present. Her memories traveled through her words and entered my being. My Bubby, Bessie Grape, was a survivor. But not the kind you think. Not from a camp. She was a survivor of another place and time. I could write my Bubby’s story without even asking her a word of it. She would say two words to those she met, and we’d hear them each time we left the party or get-together: “Zi Gezundt.” Although she shared her words with me, she never shared her voice. She hadn’t had one as far as I knew. She never had the chance to discover it or find it or whatever it is we overprivileged young women get to do. We had the chance to contemplate and deliberate and search. It was important to our parents. They would say to me, “What do you want be, Shayndel, when you grow up?” “What? How do I know?” I would respond. “Well,” they would say, “take some time, study, travel, think, you know, dream… imagine.” “Imagine,” they said to me. Sometimes I am struck by the contrast between the message my parents gave me and the conversations I imagine my Bubby had with her own parents. What had Bubby’s parents said to her? “You will go, Blima. You must. Now go and pack your things. One bag. That is all you can take.” “But, Mama, why me? Why me and not Shayndele or Sarah?” “Because, Moshe asked for you. That is why,” said her father. “He asked for you to join him in America. There, he will marry you.” “But… America? So far away? Too far away. How will I go alone on such a long trip?” Blima held tightly to her sisters’ hands. They were always together, the three of them. Sisters. For generations, the small shtetl had been Blima’s home and the home of her family. Sisters… “Wait. My sisters. Can’t they come, too? Mama, Papa, please,” Blima pleaded. “We can only afford to send you, Blimale. Moshe wants to marry you. He will give you a nice life there in America. In New York. You have cousins there and your father’s brother. Your Uncle Shaul lives there. You’ll have family there.” Her mother — my great-grandmother Sima — approached her slowly and held her in her arms. She was a big woman, round and soft, I imagine. Like my Bubby. My Bubby was so soft and warm. She could hold me for hours when I was a little girl. I nestled in her embrace through car rides, train rides, and taxi cab rides. I imagine that her mother was just as warm. But her determination, her inner knowledge that she desperately needed to get her daughter to America, made her strong and unyielding. That night, with her sisters quietly watching her every move, Blima packed a small case. Then they crawled into their bed, the one they had shared since they moved from the cradle. Arm in arm they slept, lulled to sleep by the whisper of voices, the hum of prayer, the memories of yesterday. The next day Blima was taken to the port by her father. He took out some money, a package of food, and pressed them into her hands. Her cheeks were red from the frost of the winter day, from the wind that whipped off the sea. He kissed her with the knowledge of a last goodbye. His lips touched her forehead. Like a blessing to his daughter. “Zi gezundt,” he said. “Zi gezundt, Papa.” I knew Bubby well, I thought. She was so loving, happy to be a grandmother. As a toddler, I barely left her side. Her pockets were always filled with candy. She was soft and round and warm. But there was a whole life in her that I couldn’t imagine. Her sister Sarah made it to America a few years later, before the war broke out. Sarah was a righteous woman, always giving and doing for others. She would have been a wonderful mother, a wonderful wife, but she never married. On her wedding day, wearing a borrowed wedding gown, and with her hair already curled in an elaborate twist on the nape of her neck, a veil already pinned in place, the news filtered through. He had left town. Sarah never married. “Zi gezundt,” Bubby told her. Bubby invited Sarah to live with her and her husband and her three children. It would be company, Bubby told her. Moshe was never home, anyway; days could pass with him barely seeing her or the children — Yechezkiel, Velvel, and Chana Rachel, named for the sister who had perished in the war. Bubby tried not to remember home too often. It isn’t good to be sad, Blima, Sarah would say. When you are raising children, you must be joyful and happy for them. Years passed. Sarah became ill and needed to be moved into a home on the Lower East Side. One day, Blima came to say goodbye to Sarah. Just as her father had known years before, she knew it was time. Her lips touched her sister’s forehead. Like a blessing to her sister. “Zi gezundt,” she said. Bubby moved in with us. I helped her out of bed in the morning. I studied her as she took her first steps through the house. We would sit in her room and look out at the moon at night. She loved the way it lit up the sky. We spoke few words, yet we were enveloped in a silence that was filled with our shared experiences. I could tell when she was scared. I could imagine that she must have been angry that her life had taken her here. No husband. No home of her own. No voice of her own. I could write her words, I knew what she was thinking. But her voice, the voice that lay deep within her soul — no, I could not tell you about her voice. As far as I knew, she didn’t have one. I was 16 when she died. Gone were her red lips stained with the lipstick that lasted on my cheeks for days. Gone was her deep laughter at a joke she could barely understand but wanted to, so desperately she wished to feel as if she belonged. My Bubby was not glamorous, she was not educated. She was never witty. She was just a part of my life. I struggled with her death. I didn’t have enough information. I didn’t have enough details about her journey. I desperately needed more. I wanted to know her yearnings, her longings, her sacrifices. It has been more than 20 years since she passed away. I can still taste the tears of her sorrow, I can still feel the smudge of her lipstick on my cheek, I can close my eyes and return to the warmth of her soft, round embrace. But I cannot tell you if she had a voice. I can only imagine that if she had one, it would have been similar to my own. I close my eyes and I try to feel her presence, as I send her a blessing. “Zi gezundt, my Bubby.”

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