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August 19, 2009 at 11:35 AM

Grandma’s apron: and no, you don’t have to forward this!

I’ve got friends who send e-mail messages meant to evoke warm fuzzy feelings — and a flurry of forwarding “to 10 people you love” or “six women who are beautiful inside” or “friends who mean the most to you.” Usually, I scan the first paragraph, take in a photo or two and push delete. Sometimes I don’t even open them. But when a friend sent one along whose subject line — “aprons” — caught my eye, I read it from start to finish. You can read it in its entirety (way) down below, though I’m not going to suggest you forward it to anyone. And go figure. That schmaltzy missive did exactly what it was intended to do: it got me thinking about my favorite grandmother, my mom’s mom, “Bubba Lil” (no relation to this guy, or this one). Here’s why:

Bubba Lil’s apron — stains and all.

When I was clearing out my kitchen in preparation for its imminent demise and rounding up yard-sale items in the process, I found my grandmother’s apron in the back of a bottom drawer. I sold several aprons at the sale, but you can rest assured that familiar smock wasn’t among them.

Unlike the grandmothers depicted in the “Grandma’s Apron” e-mail (which has been making the rounds in one version or another on the interweb for years), mine did not use hers to gather eggs from a chicken coop, wipe the sweat from her brow after bending over a wood stove, or carry vegetables from the garden.

But I certainly recall her wearing it when she stood sweating in August in the tiny galley kitchen in her rent-subsidized apartment in Philadelphia, where her favorite vegetable was Manischewitz borscht-in-a-jar and where she instilled in me a love of coffee at an early age — by putting a few tablespoons from her instant Sanka into my glass of milk.

She called it “coffee milk,” and I remember drinking it while we watched Joan Rivers on Merv Griffin or sang along with old movies. I can still hear her singing, “By the light, of the silvery moon, I want to spoon, to my honey I’ll croon. . .” as well as her other favorite, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine!” She had a great voice — something she failed to pass along to my mother who can’t sing a note (though, bless her, she passed along Bubba’s apron when she was cleaning out her kitchen not too long ago).

My grandmother, who at 18 married a man she adored, wasn’t much of a cook. She didn’t use her apron to gather fallen tree-fruit to make pies — as the e-mail grandmas did, but she regularly sectioned a grapefruit and served it as an “appetizer” before dinner. By the time I remember her best, she didn’t have to cook because she lived with my Aunt Joan — who knew her way around the kitchen and was generous with instruction (“Nancy, stir the Ragu, and take that bottle of salad dressing out of the fridge and toss the salad!).

Like me, Bubba was crazy for Chinese food and lox and fatty corned beef. Unlike me, she had a sweet tooth and a taste for baked goods and was partial to kamish bread and Entenmann’s danish.

Bubba Lil’s “kamish brot” recipe, in her own handwriting. It’s like Nonni’s biscotti recipe, only Jewish.

Widowed before she was my age, my grandmother made ends meet, briefly, by working in a neighborhood bakeshop. One of five children of Russian immigrants, she had worked as a child in her father’s minuscule hardware store. Word has it my great-grandfather Nathan was a real taskmaster, and not the nicest guy in the world to work for, or live with. Which didn’t stop me from honoring him by naming my son Nathaniel — though as you know, we call him Nate. “That’s so Jewish!” says my ultra-Catholic mother-in-law, who is the only one who calls our son by his given name and (like the great-grandmother he never met) has a taste for Entenmann’s danish (“Look for ones with the extra icing!” she told me when I went to the store for her last time I was in Chicago).

My mother-in-law was born right around the time Bubba Lil was. And she, too, has a collection of aprons — including more than a few of those frilly ones that wrap around your waist, no doubt worn over a lovely dress during the Camelot era, when she often presided at dinner parties cooking for a crowd (and my father-in-law). Given her propensity for saving things, I’m certain there will eventually be a few pretty aprons to remember her by — and to later pass on to Nate.

Bubba Lil died in 1991, and though nearly 20 years have gone by, when I pull out her apron I can still see her it it. She will always be remembered as the petite bubbie (4’10” in her stocking feet) who stood before a full-length mirror with her eldest grandchild (the one she called “my first million bucks”) back when I was in fifth grade, noting, “You’re almost as tall as I am!”

On her it was a smock. On me, it’s practically a T-shirt. But look! There are pockets for gathering tree-fruit for my pies!

She was the grandmother whose house I’d run to when my own mother drove me to tears. And the one whose modest wedding band (thanks, Aunt Joan!) pairs perfectly with the elegant diamond my mother-in-law generously handed over when Mac told her he planned to marry me.

On the day she was buried, I stood over her grave site after the rabbi (who never knew her) said his piece, and sang the song she used to sing when I was little — a pretty riff on an old nursery rhyme that went (the way she sung it, anyway):

There was an old woman tossed up in a basket, seventeen times as high as the moon. And where she was going, I could not but ask it, for in her hand she carried a broom. Old woman, old woman, old woman, said I, O whither, O whither, O whither thou fly? To sweep the cobwebs off the sky! Shall I go with you? Aye, by-and-by.

Afterward, as folks made their way back to their cars, my sisters and our cousins and I stood graveside, wound up a teensy music box that played “You Are My Sunshine,” and sung along — before burying it with her.

Anyway, here’s that e-mail ode to “Grandma’s Apron.” Does it make you want to recall fond stories of your grandmother? As you can see, it certainly had that effect on me.

The principle use of Grandma’s apron was to protect the dress underneath, but along with that, it served as a holder for removing hot pans from the oven; It was wonderful for drying children’s tears, and on occasion was even used for cleaning out dirty ears.

From the chicken-coop the apron was used for carrying eggs, fussy chicks, and sometimes half-hatched eggs to be finished in the warming oven. When company came those aprons were ideal hiding places for shy kids; and when the weather was cold, grandma wrapped it around her arms.

Those big old aprons wiped many a perspiring brow, bent over the hot wood stove. Chips and kindling wood were brought into the kitchen in that apron. From the garden, it carried all sorts of vegetables. After the peas had been shelled it carried out the hulls. In the fall the apron was used to bring in apples that had fallen from the trees.

When unexpected company drove up the road, it was surprising how much furniture that old apron could dust in a matter of seconds. When dinner was ready, Grandma walked out onto the porch, waved her apron, and the men knew it was time to come in from the fields to dinner.

It will be a long time before someone invents something that will replace that “old-time apron” that served so many purposes.

Comments | More in | Topics: Family tales


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