Babulya, my earliest memories are of waking up in the tiny apartment in Kyiv to the smell of your cooking. As soon as my eyes would open I would run in to the kitchen to see you peeling potatoes, or frying onions. I remember how swiftly you peeled, with one hand. You would greet me like a long awaited guest – I felt so cherished and enveloped by your love. Those weekend morning breakfasts were a highlight of my childhood.
I know that life in Kyiv in a tiny little apartment with three generations under one roof could not have been easy. But to me it was paradise – even under the hardest circumstances, you knew how to make a home. I remember how immaculate you kept the apartment, and how beautifully decorated. I remember late night dinner parties with tables stacked full of your many specialty dishes. You would preside over them wearing the latest fashions, lipstick, always a matching brooch. No one would be able to tell that you had spent the day cooking in a hot kitchen. Even when you had nothing, you always knew how to live life like a queen and to make everyone feel welcome in your court. And you made it look easy.
I remember the first time I saw you cry. It was shocking. Suddenly I began catching you crying at random times in the day – I didn’t know that it was because we were about to be separated from you. I can’t imagine the inner strength it must have taken to watch us leave with our suitcases on that train platform, not knowing if you would see us again. America must have seemed as foreign as Mars. Your tear streaked face haunted me for the two years we were apart. They were the toughest of my childhood. In my second grade class in Skokie we wrote letters to President Reagan. I don’t know what other kids wrote about, but I wrote a long, persuasive letter in my basic English, begging him to please help my grandparents come to America and be with me. A few weeks later I received the reply I was anxiously awaiting -- in the envelope was a generic letter thanking me for writing and a booklet about the White House. I was livid. Whoever this President Reagan was, I did not like him anymore.
You guys finally arrived on May 26, 1991. To this day not one May 26 has gone uncelebrated for me. Even when you didn’t remember your Coming-to-America-versary I would remind you. To me it was the biggest holiday.
As I grew, you taught me by leading that the way to hold a butterfly is with an open palm – a lesson that I hope I will be able to implement with my children as they grow. When I was in my 20s I decided to follow my dream of making Aliyah to Israel. I can imagine how much you must have not wanted me to go. A second separation across an ocean, and this time not out of necessity for building a better future, but just to follow a passion. I was terrified of telling you my plans. Although we spoke every day, I kept avoiding it. When I finally confessed, to my huge surprise, not only did you not try to talk me out of it, but you supported me – giving me the documents I needed to get Aliyah status. I can’t imagine the inner strength that must have taken, but you were wise and let me make my own decision to follow my dreams, no matter what they were. Even if you didn’t agree with them, you didn’t show it. You were there cheering me on.
When I met Patricio and I told you we were getting married so fast after arriving in Israel you were thrilled. I’m sure you must have been anxious, who was this random South American we never heard of? But you embraced and loved him like a son from the first time I handed him the phone. Like me, he called you “Babulya.”
Patricio and Babulya
You and Dedulya were my role models for what a true loving partnership looks like. 80 years you knew each other, 70 years of marriage. We should all be so lucky.
My grandparents in their 20s
Through it all you treated each other like the most precious gift. You cherished every moment together and taught me to do the same. You would call Dedushka, your sunshine. “On tokoy horoshiy” you would tell me. I hope that when Patricio and I are in our 90s we will still look at each other the way you and Dedulya always did.
My grandparents at our wedding in Jerusalem
70 years of marriage
When I came back to Chicago with my new family in tow, you and Dedushka were at the airport waiting for us. I remember how Alma, who was only 2 months old, began to smile at you immediately. And so your bond was sealed. Even though my kids would not grow up to speak Russian (my fault, I know, you always reminded me), you never lacked a common language. Suri and Alma felt your love no matter the distance or the language barrier. They adored you. And just as you supported me always, you supported them. You celebrated every one of their accomplishments as if it was the Noble Prize. You were so proud of them. And they were so proud of you too – “Mayya is the best cook in the world,” Alma would tell everyone.
Alma and her beloved great grandmother
Although we live across the country, you knew my children’s schedule better than I did. I would call you in the afternoon and you would know exactly which activity I was driving who to on that day and you would remind me of any schedule changes – “don’t forget, Alma has an extra rehearsal this week and it’s at that other location and don’t forget to bring a jacket, it will be evening”.
When we would come to visit you would set a table as if it was for royalty. You would spend weeks preparing for our visits, gathering all my favorite Russian delicacies and making our favorites of your recipes. You would watch carefully, making sure we tasted everything. If ever Patricio’s plate was not full enough you would ask, “What, you don’t love?” There was no way I could ever leave Chicago without gaining 5 pounds. I loved these visits so much. We never ran out of things to talk about. And the girls, even when they were young, could stay in your apartment all day. You and Dedushka had a box of toys that you would constantly re-stock with new colored pencils, barbies and trinkets. Even though at home the girls might be fussy, or whiny, or demanding of my attention, at your house it was like a spell would come over them and they would play for hours.
One such winter visit the girls must have been about 4 and 8 and they admired the fuzzy hat you had on. You proudly told them that you had knit it yourself. We stayed at your home late that evening, and the next morning when we showed up again, you had knit the exact same hat for each of them. You must have stayed up all night. They were thrilled and kept wearing those hats even in the warm Texas climate. You never stopped amazing us.
Mayya, Alma and Suri with hats Mayya made for them
You were so proud of your family, of all of us – of Papa, and how skillfully he navigated and build this American life, and all his business and artistic accomplishments. Of Galya and what an incredible, loving partner she is and the beautiful home she built for them and the way they care for each other. She was so proud of Danielle, and all her educational accomplishments, telling anyone who would listen. When it became clear that things were serious with this boy named Blake, grandma would ask me a million questions about him – “but is he a good person? Will he take care of her?” she would ask me. I assured her that he was and he would. When Anna met Matt she couldn’t wait to meet him and was so thrilled that her wish came true last month. I believe it gave her a lot of peace to know we were all settled.
I love you, Babulya
I called you every day all my life. In recent years it became twice a day. You could tell what was happening with me by my voice. I could never hide anything from you. If I had a head ache you knew it. If I was having a bad day, you were the person who could talk me down from an emotional ledge. You would remind me not to get carried away, that nothing was worth “wasting my nerves.” And if something good happened I couldn’t wait to share it with you and hear how happy it would make you.
Babulya, I will always remember all you taught me. You would often complain that I would listen to you and then go and do whatever I pleased. But that’s a lesson I learned from you too – to always follow my instinct and never take no for an answer. But though you may have teased me about not listening, I usually really did follow your advice. Everything you taught me sank in. Whether it be to always wear lipstick “A woman should always look her best”, to not stress about things that are not worth it, to making sure to build a community of friends wherever we live and to host dinner parties often, to not spoil my children (I’m still working on that one).
My grandparents and I on the last day I spent with Mayya
You were the strongest person I ever met. Once you got your sights set on a goal, there was no stopping you. Whether it be finding a way to get canned food from Moscow after Chernobyl to finding a way to get the very apartment you wanted on the 27th floor of a Chicago high rise. But nothing illustrated your iron will and incredible strength like the last few years. You were a medical mystery and a marvel. You lived through sheer will. In 2020, when Dedushka was very sick and in a nursing home for months, you insisted that he be released and brought home. “Ya evo vilichu” you told me, and you did. You could barely walk yourself, no one knew how you did it, but you did. And he did the same for you. “We are like two halves of one person” you would often tell me.
When someone leaves our world, people often lament that they didn’t get to say good bye – that they didn’t know when they spoke with their loved one that it would be the last time. But I feel the opposite. I feel like I said good bye to you over and over. When I would come visit from Israel, or from Houston, or from Los Angeles, I would be terrified every time I hugged you good bye that it was the last time. I lived my life in constant preparation for this moment – but how do you prepare for losing “your person”? On your last evening grandpa put the phone up to your ear. I told you how good everything was – about my latest work updates, about Alma’s grades, about Suri joining the synagogue choir. Grandpa said you were smiling. I hope it gave you peace. I’m so grateful that I got so much time with you, that we got to say all the things, that I got to tell you how much you meant to me and how much you taught me. And now I will hear your voice always. When I stress out you will tell me it’s not worth it. When I am irritable with my family you will tell me to cut it out. When I indulge my children too much you will tell me not to cross that line. You will always be with me, my Babulya, and I will keep living my life in a way that I know would make you proud. I love you.
A few years ago I interviewed my grandparents about the secret to a happy marriage. Here is the video: