Hello My Darling

Rachael McGann

© Copyright 2018 by Rachael McGann


Photo of Bubbie's 91st birthday party.

Mamashana. As long as you look good, that’s all that matters.”

The literal translation is “pretty mother”, but it’s generally used as a term of endearment for girls in one’s family. One’s Jewish family, I should note (although, come on…you knew that.)

Since childhood, I was convinced it was a nickname reserved just for me. I never heard my grandmother, “Bubbie”, call anyone else mamashana, and after all I was her first - and favorite - grandchild. “Come here my mamashana” she would coo as I would crawl over to her on the couch, curl up in a ball, and lay my head on her on her lap. She would rake her long manicured nails across my scalp and pull them slowly through my hair, telling me stories of the wonderful jazz musicians she had seen that week, or the amazing meals she ate. Often one of her gold costume rings would get caught in my hair as she played with the strands but it never hurt. My head on her lap is the safest place in the world- pain doesn’t exist there.

Mamashana certainly isn’t the only term of endearment in bubbies Yiddish arsenal. She never wears a hat, but she will don her “babushka” or “schmatta” when it rains. If my brother and I were acting up, we were “meshugenahs” or “Vilde chaya’s” (monsters or wild animals). Most likely that would be accompanied by Bubbie “Kvetching” about us to whomever her would listen. If she was somewhere she didn’t want to be, somewhere that bored her, she was in “Pachuch”. Pachuch isn’t a real Yiddish word – she completely made it up- but it’s part of our entire family’s vocabulary. Pachuch is her favorite term for my parents’ house in Colchester, CT, a small town of around 15,000 residents.

I don’t know how you people live here in Pachuch. What do you do all day? Watch wild turkeys run around the yard? Throw acorns at the squirrels?”

She only comes to Colchester once a year in December for my parents annual Chrismukkah party. The next morning, she goes through her daily phone list to report out on the events of the night before. Those on the receiving end are always enigmas to me- most likely a mix of friends, family, and random people from the beauty salon. The conversation is always the same.

Hello my darling! Yes, the party was BEAU-ti-ful. Best party yet. You really should have been here, maybe next year darling. I know, I know. Oh, the food! Oh! Well, there was blintzes, and Suzie made her kugel, and there was lasagna, and Marilyn brought her meatballs, and I made my famous trifle, of course, and…let’s see what else….and I looked beautiful of course…everybody wants to talk to me, and by the end of the night I say ‘Enough already! I’m 90 years old! I’m tired!’ Ha-ha, yes my darling, well, everybody loves me, what can I say? And now, you know, I’m stuck in Pachuch until they decide to take me back to Newport, you know. Now how are you, my dear…”

The remote control is a “shmitchichick”. She doesn’t just use the word to refer to the remote control, but any object that assisted in operating something else. The garage door opener, a key less entry lock, the doorbell…. all shmitchichick’s. This was yet another bullcrap Yiddish word that she made up, but it might as well be in Webster’s Yiddish dictionary as far as I am concerned. We played charades with the family one evening – she was on the opposite team and, lo and behold, I was trying to get her to guess “remote control.”

She immediately knew what the word was, and shouted “shmitchichick!” I could see in her eyes she had the slight recognition that that was not in fact the actual term for the object. I replied “No. What’s the real word?” She could only repeat “shmitchichick!”

Ok. But what’s the REAL word?”

Shmitchichick!!” and she erupted into a fit of hysterical laughter, gasping for air as she spit out “I don’t know the frigging word. The WORD. IS. SCMITCHICHICK!” The laughter was infectious; tears couldn’t resist the pull for air and we grabbed our stomachs to offer some relief. She had no idea what the actual name of that object was, only the word that she had invented and then convinced herself was the name of the object. And that became her reality. After a lifetime of making up your own rules, there’s a blur between perceived reality and that you create. And I always admire her for living in the blur.

Bubbie loves to laugh. She always says “If you can only make me laugh, I love you.” In every story she tells, everything is always “Gorgeous!” “Beautiful” and “The best ever!” She waves her magic wand and any ego within a 50-yard radius is immediately inflated.

Darling, look at you! Gorgeous. Simply gorgeous. Let me see you, come here. Oh, my goodness, Susan, get in here and take a look at your daughter? How can one person be so gorgeous? I can’t even look at you, you’re too stunning. It hurts my eyes.” It’s over the top, so dramatic…. but so addictive. I love Bubbies praise. It makes me feel good. I have always felt beautiful around her, even during the many awkward years when I had frizzy hair, braces, an extra 15 pounds, and bad skin. Bubbie makes me feel like the most beautiful, smartest, most interesting, amazing girl in the world. But the thing is, she truly believes that I am.

Bubbie also lies constantly. At its core, her intentions behind the lies are pure. She only wants to be nice to people. She wants everything in life to be gorgeous and beautiful. And in her reality, everything is…until it isn’t. I have borne witness to countless examples of over the top compliments just to have her turn around to me, once the person was out of earshot, to completely contradict her praise.

I have two girlfriends from college – Meagan and Tiffany – and Bubbie can’t stand them. Their crime? They aren’t pretty enough. Meagan, apparently, doesn’t smile enough. Tiffany has a butt that’s “distractingly big.” Meagan has a face “only a mother could love”.

And that Tiffany! I don’t understand. How can she eat so much? Just put the chicken down already! Rachael, get over there and go smack it out of her hand!” It’s terrible, what she says. I certainly don’t engage or support it. I usually gasp and say “BUBBIE!” half laughing at the absurdity of what she’s saying, and half at the balls that she has to say it. What’s on her mind is what’s on everyone’s mind, if we all allowed superficial thoughts to permeate through and paint our judgement of people. Most of us operate under the assumptions of social graces and expected niceties, and some of us have become enlightened enough to accept everyone for how they are, and not pass any preconceived judgements. Bubbie just doesn’t give a fuck. It’s equal parts awful and refreshing.

What are you talking? It’s the truth”

Bubbie lives in Newport, RI, and every year when I was growing up we would spend the summer at Bubbies house. Until I got into my adolescent bratty years when I would sooner die than spend a summer with my family, I loved my Newport summers. We would spend our days building sandcastles, climbing the big rocks at the far end of the beach, hunting for crabs, collecting sea glass, and in general building the most beautiful childhood memories that became a piece of the foundation of who I am. One of the places we would spend the most time was at the Hyatt Regency pool. Not because they allowed non-guests to use their facilities (they didn’t) but because Bubbie liked it there. This was not just any ordinary hotel pool- this was a pristine salt water pool built into a peninsula overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, with the Newport bridge in the background. There was a little Jimmy Buffet style tiki bar called Pineapple’s by the Bay that served a variety of frozen drinks and buckets of steamers, amongst other shore town snacks. The staff wore hideous bright Hawaiian polo shirts with over starched navy shorts that fell at an awkward length, an inch below their knees. Later in life, I would work at Pineapple’s the summer before my senior year of college and spend the season drinking for free, making a ton of money in tips, and sleeping with the manager.

But at age 11, times were much more innocent. Bubbie would bundle my brother and I up and take us to the pool every day. We would order food and virgin cocktails. Bubbie would have a glass of chardonnay. Chicken fingers were regularly on the agenda.

I’ll pay cash, darling,” she would say to the waiter. “No need to charge it to the room.” He would always smile with a “Yes ma’am,” and she would always respond with a “Honey--call me Esther!”  The world around her supported the blur.”

BUBBIE, we don’t have a room here!” I would hiss at her when the waiter walked away for the umpteenth time after she had summoned them over for “another napkin, darling” or “some water sweetheart” or “One more of these delicious drinks, my darling”

Growing up with Bubbie was equal parts believing I could do anything and living in a fantasy world where I could do no wrong.

I am lucky enough to still have Bubbie in my life, alive and more than well, at the age of 91. She is the only grandmother I have ever known. My parents did not want children initially. True hippies at heart, all they wanted was to travel the country and love each other. Work and play and take care of each other. They also had the instinct to know that they would be unable to take any disciplinary action on a child – which eventually rang true as they were surely unable to discipline their vilde chaya of a daughter. They were married for 7 years and lived a beautiful child and care free life, until both their fathers died suddenly of cancer…within four months of each other. Too much, too soon. Both deaths rocked the respective family to the core. Bubbie could not deal with the sudden loss of her husband Stanley, as to be expected. To Stanley, Bubbie was Blondie. And that Blondie…she walked on water. Blondie could do no wrong. Blondie was the most beautiful woman in the world. Blondie could summon the sunshine with her laughter. He once took an ad out in the paper to wish her a happy 50th birthday, and outlining fifty reasons he loved her. There were the obvious characteristics: her beauty, her grace, her heart, her spirit. Then there were ones only the two of them shared. The dance move you do where your arm and head are in opposite directions. How you cut the crust off my sandwiches because I don’t like it…. even though I’m a grown man and really should learn to appreciate crust by now. The way you look at me. The way you fix my hair even though I pretend to hate it.

Blondie was inconsolable. Hysterical. “My Stanley”. The only way for her to move forward was to deny and ignore. She knew he was no longer with us, in the physical sense, but dealing with the emotions was impossible for her. To this day, 37 years later, everything in still in Stanley’s name. When I collect her mail, Stanley usually has the most pieces.

My parents decided to do what any free loving bohemian beauties would do in that situation: they bonded their love together to bring more life, light, and love into the world. And that life was me.

My paternal grandmother died when I was 8 years old. She had Huntington’s Disease - a fatal genetic disorder that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. It deteriorates a person’s physical and mental abilities during their prime years, currently no cure exists. It’s like a lethal cocktail of Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s, and Alzheimer’s. It attacks the mind, body, and spirit all at once. It’s terrible. When my grandmother started exhibiting symptoms in the 1980’s, no one knew what was wrong with her. She would shake and drop things and forget people’s names and everyone thought she was an alcoholic. It was only in her later years of life that it was understood that it was a disease. There wasn’t much knowledge or research at that time, and she was put in a nursing home to die comfortably. Twenty years later, my family would sit together in a beige room with bare walls at UConn health center and learn my dad had also inherited the gene, and I would choose to avoid that reality for the next ten years.

When we would go visit my other grandmother in the nursing home, I was scared of her. I only had known Bubbie, and so who was this lady, who was also my grandmother, but she couldn’t remember my dad’s name and didn’t seem to acknowledge my existence? My dad would always have to introduce himself and his family every time we visited, and the wetness that formed on his face during those visits were too much for me to bear witness. Her son was in front of her, how could she not recognize that? And me- couldn’t she see how beautiful, gorgeous, and wonderful I was? I would usually pout in the nursing home waiting room and watch whatever was on TV until my parents had finished their visit, then immediately beg them to go out to dinner. Or just go back to Bubbies, where I was always in charge. Where I could do no wrong. Where no one would ever ignore me, or question me.

Where everything was BEAU-ti-ful, and everyone loved me.

Rachael is a recovering corporate media executive and current writer and wellness advocate.  She attended the 2017 Yale Writer's conference and is currently working on her memoir (Bubbie plays an integral role!)

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