I Like A Piece of Fish

On the cusp of Mother's Day, Janna Levin shares an ode to her complicated Grandma Eve.

The author's mother and aunt

Courtesy of Janna Levin

My sisters and I were insulated from the Old World. We spoke unaccented English, unfettered by religious dogma. We were forward thinking, unburdened by the weight of tradition. But there was Grandma Eve, wrought out of nature’s toughest minerals, a foreign substance from a brutal and primitive lost world. Eve was an enigma in some ways, an anathema in others, often unintentionally hilarious. For my newborn daughter and her toddler brother, I wanted a record of my impression of their complicated great-grandmother, knowing memory is fugitive, knowing that her incomprehensibility would deepen with the generations. I wrote this story a few years before Eve died in 2012. She was 101 when she passed—still lived alone, still wore heeled mules, still full of vinegar. A 21st century centenarian. Just a few months ago, my own mother passed, shocking I suppose because I wrongly presumed longevity would be her genetic inheritance.

This will be my first Mother’s Day without my own, and while I mock faux holidays with indignation, May 12th this year will doubtless induce contemplation. As the date looms, I was prompted to find this story and, with some hesitance, to share it here. All immigrant families are mystified by the other generations. Maybe you will find something relatable, even if not in the specifics.


My 95 year-old grandmother can end almost any conversation with the words, “I like a piece of fish.” When she phones, she ends with “a piece of fish,” but she always begins with, “Did I wake you?” It could be 3:30pm on a Monday. The phone rings and I hear, “Did I wake you?” She never stays on the phone long. I’ve started to take note of the time—six minutes usually—and I know she’s about to hang up when she says, “I don’t like to cook for myself. You can’t make a big deal when it’s just you.” This last bit is a warning. “I’ll defrost a little soup or defrost some chicken. I like a piece of fish.”

When her great grandchildren were born, we switched from calling her “grandma” to calling her “Bubbie” or sometimes “Grandma Eve” for specificity. She has been deposed as the sole grandmother, but she is the only Bubbie. In Bubbie’s apartment, defrosting is a magic process. Foods simply exist in her freezer. Before my sister Leslie and I drag our luggage through the door on our last visit together to her Chicago condo, she runs back into the kitchen to retrieve a frosty looking plastic sandwich bag.

“Look, I found kugel!”

She still runs around. She literally runs. The phone rings and she runs full throttle through the swinging saloon-style doors to the kitchen, she runs across the linoleum, she can’t stop evenly so kind of bumpers into the little phone stand and knocks the dumbbell of a receiver off the landline’s substantial black base. She usually does this running in open-back, high-heeled slippers. If my mother were there she’d shout, “Ma, don’t run!” Bubbie always shouts back in Yiddish. Often while running.

Suddenly, Bubbie remembers the freezer, a self-standing, daunting and deep, rectangular icebox. She hurtles back toward the kitchen, lest the bounty should disappear. Standing on tiptoes to rifle through the icy contents, hinged at the waist, she disappears except for her legs.

“I found kanadlach! You want?… Poppyseed cookies!”

She runs back to us, eyes arched wide with wonder before tossing one of the zip-lock bags into the ancient microwave. She shrugs, “Ach, I must have made these when your cousins were here. I don’t like to cook for myself. You can’t make a big deal when it’s just you. I’ll defrost a little soup or defrost some chicken. I like a piece of fish.”

When Bubbie was 86 she called to announce she had quit smoking. “Did I wake you? I quit smoking,” she said with disappointment, her voice pure gravel, scarred from a lifetime of thin, brown, Mores cigarettes. “Ach, what are you gonna do?” Decades ago she had surgery on her vocal cords to remove the nodes, but her voice still resonates in a permanently smoky cavity. I have this image of her pumping her own gas with a brown cigarette hanging out of her mouth, clamped between teeth and moist with a sheen of pearly lipstick. It’s an absolute fact that she always pumps her own gas, but the cigarette dangling above the fuel tank is probably an embellishment. “I have to go. I’m delivering Meals-On-Wheels to old people. We defrost some chicken, maybe a little soup. Me, I like a piece of fish.” I have to ask, in disbelief, “How old are they?”

I wonder if she drives the Meals-On-Wheels truck or just travels in the back with the tinfoil covered trays, talking to the other volunteers, gruffly laughing the way she does, making angry declarations about the world. But I don’t have a chance to pose the improbable queries before she is off the phone. There are lots of questions I have for her. I need to ask, How did you escape Russia in a covered wagon? Why were you quarantined in Liverpool? How long were you on the boat before your brother died? I keep meaning to sit her down to get a careful account. I only know these few facts because I did ask her once, “Why did you leave Yumpala?” “It was the Russian revolution!,” she shouted.

She has been deposed as the sole grandmother, but she is the only Bubbie.

My sister and I sit at the glass table in the kitchen with the ornate white-painted metal legs. I’ve known that table my whole life. We eat kugel and kanadlach and poppyseed cookies. Bubbie sits at an angle, toes straining to stretch her feet to the ground, resting her elbows on her knees and stabbing her powerful if tiny finger for emphasis while she lets us know her opinions on politics. “I’m a dumb old lady but I still know some things.” Sometimes bits of masticated food fly out of her mouth while she talks.

Bubbie hasn’t spoken to my mother for nearly two years. I try to discuss the rift with her on the phone sometimes but she gets so angry it sounds potentially fatal. “I’m an old lady! You can’t upset me like this! It’s not good for me!” I think she’s started smoking again. It sounds like she’s exhaling more than just breath into the receiver. I picture her literally smoldering with fury. When I get the chance, I’ll check the drawers for cigarettes or lighters.

My mom tells me, “She never liked us. And we must have been so cute.” They were cute. I’ve seen pictures of my mom and her identical twin sister when they were girls. Their hair descended in shiny spirals as they held hands in the faded photos of their matching outfits. They argue about who is who in the oldest pictures. They are mirror image twins down to their personalities. But it’s hard to pick out these details in the pale images.

“I found lox!” My sister claims to have been in the other room when Bubbie found the lox in the freezer. We talk in the kitchen while she defrosts the lump of fish in the microwave. She stops a couple of times to massage the pink flesh between her hard fingers with thick nails arched high like calluses before throwing the aggregate—still wrapped in plastic and frozen in the center—back under high for 60 more seconds.

I watch Bubbie and my sister pick at the lox while I consume the poppyseed cookies. They are everyone’s favorite cookie. Hard but not crumbly or dry. There must be 50 cookies in the clear plastic bag. I eat them cold. Not all of them, but a lot. They are never quite frozen, even when retrieved from the ice box.

I don’t ever remember seeing her actually bake any cookies. They could always be found in her house but I never thought about how they got there. My father said he used to see her bake all the time when he was first dating mom and for decades after. He once saw her pulling tins of hot cookies out of the oven with bare hands. “Ma, let me help you,” my dad approached, hands outstretched.

“DON’T TOUCH IT RICHARD!” Bubbie shrieked, “IT’S HOT!”

“How are you holding it?!” my father hollered, horrified, the burning metal tray in Eve’s one hand as she warded him off with the other.


After she laid the hot tray down on the counter, my father inspected her fingers for severe burns. They were slightly red but thick as leather gloves. Essentially undamaged. “Ma what are these marks on your forearms?”

“Ach, sometimes I burn myself,” she shrugged. She rested the next set of hot trays on her arms as she slammed the oven door.

Her arms aren’t burnt or red now. “I don’t bake much since everyone’s moved away,” she explains. “Hmmm,” my sister and I hum in sympathy.

Leslie plays with a small jewelry box on the kitchen counter like a teenager. “Take it,” Bubbie insists. “It will remind you of me.”

“Bubbie, why is this going to remind me of you? I’ve never seen it before.”

“Take it!”

“Bubbie, I’m not going to take your jewelry box,” my sister laughs and rolls her eyes.

“Take it!” Bubbie and I yell together. I know there’s no point resisting. Sooner or later, Leslie’s going to take the unfamiliar jewelry box to be reminded of her. Leslie throws her arm over Eve’s shoulders. Eve pushes her tongue out slightly and winks.

“Here,” she grabs my arm and we all go into her bedroom where she dumps jewelry out of another little box. “Janna, you take this. It will remind you of me.”

“Bubbie, why is this going to remind me of you? I’ve never seen it before!”

“Take it!” Leslie shouts.

“How’s your mother?” Bubbie musters finally, leaning an elbow on the counter by the spilled jewelry. “All the decent jewelry is gone already,” she says. “What do I need to wear that stuff for? I’m not for a lot of stuff.”

“Mom’s good,” we both say. Neither of us is inclined to embellish. She’s great actually because she can’t stand the lot of you and the silence is a profound release. That’s how she put it: “The silence is a profound release!” We keep this part to ourselves.

“Good. That’s all you can want for your kids. That they’re healthy and happy. Even if they hate your guts, you wanna know they’re good.” She yells this last part, arching her eyebrows as high as they would go. “Do you know what I mean, honey?” she says rhetorically, softening.

In Bubbie’s apartment, defrosting is a magic process. Foods simply exist in her freezer.

After we leave Bubbie in the doorway of her apartment on the 14th floor, Leslie and I swap jewelry boxes in the elevator. We look them over and they remind us of her.

The next morning, Leslie is crippled by food poisoning, I assume from the defrosted lox Bubbie found in the freezer behind the kugel and the poppy seed cookies.

“She defrosted the lox?” my sister implores, pleading with me to deny it when the first signs of nausea creep up. “Why did you let me eat it? Oh God!”

The image of the orange and yellow flesh twirling beneath the plastic wrapping between Bubbie’s fingers is unforgettable. “Yeah, she defrosted the lox. I thought you knew. I was wondering why you were eating it.”

“Oh God!” Leslie laughs loudly then moans, racing to the toilet.

While I lay on the huge, pillow-strewn hotel bed, barely able to hear my sister vomit and defecate in the luxurious hotel bathroom, I call Bubbie to make sure she is feeling okay.

“Bubbie, it’s Janna. Did I wake you?”

“No, I wake up early. You don’t sleep as well when you get old. I have oxygen sometimes. The tubes go all down the hall so I can still watch in the TV room. It’s the local news. I watch all the current affairs shows. It’s important! Do you watch news?” She has a dramatic, rising intonation. The television is incredibly loud in the background. “Honey, you need to stay informed! You better vote for Obama, not that McLain. Wait. Let me get my hearing aid.”

“You mean McCain?”

“Ach, I can’t hear a damn thing,” she shouts when she comes back to the phone and then offers that gritty laugh. “Honey! When am I going to see you again?” We talk for six minutes, she sneaks in the part about liking a piece of fish, and then we hang up.

Determining that she is fine and not poisoned, I tell Leslie through the bathroom door. “Bubbie’s fine. She’s indestructible.” Finding this unbearably funny, Leslie howls painfully, a laugh-cry, the next wave of nausea part of the punch line.

When she can manage, she shouts through the door, “Bubbie ate most of the lox! I only had a small piece.” Leslie’s cackle is unhesitating. Poison lox is funny. She laughs deeply until she throws up again.

She stays in the bathroom for about an hour. Occasionally she whines apologetically, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, Les,” I whine back.

It’s nearly two years before I visit Bubbie again. She answers the door in her gold-braided, high-heeled sandals. She hasn’t changed noticeably since I last saw her in the doorway on the 14th floor of Winston Towers. It’s really the 13th floor but the elevator buttons claim that the 12th floor is succeeded immediately by the 14th.

We talk around the glass table with the ornate white-painted metal legs. She tells me, “I’m the only one of my contemporaries left. The others in the building are much younger. They’re like 80. I don’t tell them how old I am. Half of them can’t remember anyway. And I don’t want to make them feel bad. They all use walkers except for me. The doctor, he sees me, he blew over. He shouts, ‘You’re 97! Look at your hair!’ My hair, shit! My hair looks terrible. But he expects a walker, a nurse—not hair. He nearly blew over.” Her hair, remarkably, is salt and pepper, not white.

“Are you going to a lot of funerals?”

“What am I going to a funeral for? The coffee? Jesus Christ. Shit.”

“Yeah. The coffee. Maybe the food too.”

“I like some ribs, a bit of steak.”

I wait for it. I even try to lead her. “But what do you really like?”

“Ach, I’ll eat anything. Shit.” ♦

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