My Paternal Bubbe Bessie
I had to stop what I was doing to copy this story as relayed by my mother about a live “carp” that I’d seen in bubbe’s bathtub as a child. Was I dreaming?
Grandma Bessie lived with my zayde in the South Bronx on Longfellow Avenue along with a fish as a frequent visitor. It was swimming in about two feet of water before it was killed and cooked. (I was spared the slaughter)
As my 97-year old mother affirmed, grandpa Charley, who worked in the New York Central freight yards as an inspector, was sometimes given a fish to take home. Maybe it was a little gratitude for a positive sign-off. Who knows?
In any case, a “live” carp would be wrapped in newspapers and lugged on the subway before it was deposited in the tub.
According to cousin Getzie, a frequent house guest, the fish escaped one morning and was plopping frantically around the dining room. Alarmed, she screamed, “Gevalt, there’s a robber in the house!” waking the whole family. In an instant, my grandpa, who had mitt-size hands, took charge and managed to corral the fish and return it safely to its porcelain tank.
As was custom, the catch was eventually eaten in gefilte fish style, served as an appetizer to a hearty Shabbes meal consisting of chicken soup with luction, feathered polkes (chicken legs), fatty flanken that would line and clog the arteries, fresh baked Challah bread with 100% grade A butter spread thickly over it; burnt carrots and peas, crusty potatoes, and for dessert, apple pie with a cratered crust. Boy was that ever good!
But unfortunately, my zayde passed away from a double stroke at 72 while he was on the roof of the tenement. To this day, I’ve often wondered if diet caused his early demise.
Another hair-raising story!
Apparently, bubbe Bessie’s father was visiting for several months and may have overstayed his welcome as evidenced by this account.
Apparently, he set up a still to make whiskey in the infamous bathroom that housed a carp.
And it was quite a nifty operation until he nearly got busted one day after a Federal inspector knocked on the door.
Apparently, a neighbor whiffed the spirits through a layer of sheet rock and turned in my great grandfather.
That was Grandpa Charley’s ticket to insanity. In no time, he shooed his son (my father) into the bathroom and ordered him to lock the door.
The fast-thinking maneuver worked because the inspector blew away with the wind, avoiding the locked bathroom.
The next day after the near miss, gramps took all the alcohol with related hardware and dumped it out the window.
Maybe this final part of the story was a tad embellished in the Yiddish spirit. (same for grandpa, a.k.a. “pineball” sticking his bald head through a super clean window, paying a heavy price in cuts and abrasions)
What else was new?
Perhaps grandpa bagged all the schnaps ‘n stuff and sent it all out on a freight train bound for Texas after it passed his inspection. (wink, wink)
I grew up hearing more of these stories in Sholom Aleichem style. As expected, Truth was stranger than fiction.
Here’s a photo that nicely compliments these family-woven accounts.
From Left to Right, grandpa Charley, bubbe Bessie, and great aunt Esther
RELATED FOOTNOTES and LINKS:
“Gefilte fish (/ɡəˈfɪltə fɪʃ/, from Yiddish: געפֿילטע פֿיש, german: gefüllter Fisch “stuffed fish”) is a Ashkenazi Jewish dish made from a poached mixture of ground deboned fish, such as carp, whitefish and/or pike, which is typically eaten as an appetizer.
“Although the dish historically consisted of a minced-fish forcemeat stuffed inside the fish skin, as its name implies, since the 19th century the skin has commonly been omitted and the seasoned fish is formed into patties similar to quenelles or fish balls. They are popular on Shabbat and Holidays such as Passover, although they may be consumed throughout the year.
“Traditionally, carp, pike, mullet, or whitefish were used to make gefilte fish, but more recently other fish with white flesh such as Nile Perch have been used, and there is a pink variation using salmon.”
Yiddish music preserved
My Family History and Genealogy