Explanation: Bubbemeises literally means “grandma-stories” but it’s used to mean “old wives’ tales, i.e. nonsense)
When my great grandmother arrived in Borough Park, Brooklyn in the early 1900s, just another immigrant from the old country, though one who, legend had it had thrown off her rabbinically-dictated hair-covering sheitel (wig) into the waters of the Atlantic, she was completely unprepared. Leaving Poland meant leaving everything behind. She didn’t have what I have: permeability, fluidity, contact with family, frequent visits and frequent flier miles. Nor did I leave behind what she left behind. She ran away. I ran to.
My greatgrandmother, of the hurling sheitel fame, whose name I do not know, arrived, like we all do, uninformed. She didn’t even know how to clean her floors. I’ve been led to believe that she was a bit of a lady of leisure back in her native Polska, and her floor cleaning skills were not up to par. So she asked one of her cousins in the cold water flat on Ludlow street on the Lower East side where she lived, what the process was. And the cousin, out of spite, or jealousy or pure malice, recommended that she fill her largest pail with soapy water, and pour it over the floor. The greatgranddaughter of my greatgrandmother’s then downstairs neighbors is probably right now telling the story of the addleminded oldcountry sheitel-less woman who deliberately flooded her family’s apartment, from the top down.
It seems so commonplace, so ordinary. How could you not know how to clean your floors? How could you be so throroughly protected and unaware as to not know something so simple? I think of this every time I wax my unsealed floors, doing the shuffle on my matching grey blankety cloths, to “sacar brillo” (make the floors shine). I also think of it when it’s time to de-sarro the hervidor. The hervidor is the electric teakettle we use to heat water. And sarro is the scale that forms on the exposed coil. To give an even prettier visual, sarro also means plaque. How do you de-sarro your hervidor? I use cut up lemons. But this I had to learn from strangers.
There are so many things we know how to do because we’ve observed them. They seem so commonplace. Turning on the gas-powered space heater, opening a can with a menacing-looking hook on a stick (pictured here), lighting a stove that has no pilot light, and even waxing the floors. Then you learn how, and it seems like you’ve always known. And with luck, you don’t end up with a story that a greatgrandaughter you’ll never meet will tell strangers far and wide.