> Family > Heart of Matter

Yiddish Curses, Missing Thumbs, and Life Lessons

June 30, 2020 | by Shaina Bernstein

To some she was a crochety old lady. To me, she was my beloved Aunt Bea.

We are the only non-relatives at the funeral, yet the last ones out of the cemetery. We make an unlikely group, ranging from the Hispanic caretaker in her low-cut mini dress to my Orthodox father in his suit and hat.

Yet love transcends all barriers: it is love for Aunt Bea that brings us to the cemetery on this particular afternoon, and it is love for Aunt Bea that keeps us there, talking and sharing memories, crying and laughing, even after the relatives leave. After getting to know Aunt Bea, who could help but love her, faults and all?

I met her when I was in high school, as part of the “Adopt-A-Bubby” chessed (kindness) program. For the first visit, I address her as Mrs. Bell; by the second week we dispense with all formality and she becomes my Aunt Bea. Lonely and childless, she thrives on visits and searches eagerly for ways to give to me. She would buy me treats which I could rarely eat due to kashrut reasons. She would try to teach me Yiddish, which I could never use because the words she remembered were mostly Yiddish curses. But I smile and thank her, and dutifully write down the Yiddish she tells me, as per her instructions, and I give the candy to the guard on my way out of the building. The human need to give is overpowering, and for the first time, I experience firsthand how taking can be the highest form of giving.

Our weekly visits always follow the same pattern: After waiting to be buzzed in to the building (Aunt Bea never hears the bell, so I am at the guard’s mercy), I walk into her apartment and ask her, “How are you, Aunt Bea?”

Invariably, she responds, “Ich bin a bissel tzu drait; ich hob a fardraite kop. (I am a little mixed-up; I have a confused head.)”

I hold her hand and she rubs her fingers along the back of my palm.

“Did the guard let you in? I told him whenever he sees my girls he should let them in. But you know…” she leans in confidentially, “he’s non-compus mentis. That’s Latin. It means he’s a little…" and she twirls her finger next to her head.

We settle in and Aunt Bea moves close.

“Did I ever tell you how I lost my thumb?”

Aunt Bea at our home on Purim

Yes, she has. Many times. But that is not really her question. What she is really asking is, “Do you want to hear my stories? Are you interested?”

And I am. Though our lives are on radically different paths, experiences and wisdom can transcend religious differences and age. And I want to hear Aunt Bea’s stories.

So I sit with her as she tells me of her experiences growing up in Newark in the 1920s; of her travels as an adult; of her family, now mostly gone.

“Never go to bed in a fight,” she tells me, when speaking of marriage. Other times she tells me, “You have such a beautiful family. You are lucky to have so many sisters. Stay close with them.”

She talks and talks and I just listen, trying to make up for her days of loneliness with our one-hour visit. Sometimes, I bring friends along, and we become “her girls”.

In Aunt Bea’s eyes, I can do no wrong. Nothing, that is, except not visit her.

“If you ever stop coming to see me,”- she wags her finger threateningly - “I’m gonna come back and haunt you!” Then she laughs… but she means it.

When I say I need to go, she clutches my hand: “I don’t want to let you go; I wish your mother would let me keep you. You don’t know how much you girls do for me.”

“I love you, Aunt Bea,” I say, and give her wrinkled cheek a kiss.

Ich liba dich. (I love you.) You know that, right?”

I just nod.

“Don’t you ever forget it.”

She blows me kisses as I walk out the door, then turns to watch me from the window.

To others, she is a crotchety old lady, full of bitterness and complaints. She admits that she’s tired of being nice and enjoys being grumpy and critical of her doctors, aides, and other who try to help her.

But to me, she is a loving, adoring woman, full of memories and wisdom. She admits that she’s tired of being alone and enjoys dispensing presents and advice to her “girls”, friends, and others who visit her.

She’s my Aunt Bea. And I miss her.

She told us that we shouldn’t cry when she goes. She is ready to die and she will be in a better place. I cried when she said it and I cry now. We knew the end was imminent and I readied myself emotionally, but it is hard to be truly prepared for death.

Yet as we leave the cemetery, I feel a certain peace settle over me. Aunt Bea was right: she is in a better place, and I know she is much happier there than I ever knew her to be here. She is no longer alone. She is with her parents, who have been gone for decades; with her sisters, whom she talked about constantly; with her grandmother, who taught her so much; with her husband, whom she missed terribly; and, finally, with her Father, her King, her Creator.

And for that, how can I cry?

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