It started off as a typical visit with my grandmother and some of her friends. I was in my grandma’s second bedroom, breastfeeding my jetlagged baby, and I could hear Grandma and her friends–all Jewish women in their 80s and 90s–chatting in the living room.
“Oy, my hips. I got to have another hip replacement,” one moaned.
“You think you got pain? Let me tell you about my situation,” another replied.
“My son’s got health problems like you wouldn’t believe,” someone said.
“My daughter-in-law comes over and doesn’t lift a finger. She loves my cooking, she says it’s the best she ever had, and my son lets her get away with anything.”
“What are you cooking tonight? All my grandchildren are coming over tomorrow and I thought I’d do a roast chicken.”
“I can’t roast anymore because my arthritis is so bad I can’t hold on to the pan.”
And so it went. The women talked loudly, interrupting, riffing on the same few topics–health, family, and food–somehow both listening to one another and not, wanting to exchange stories and to be heard. But mostly to be heard, it seemed to me. I was amazed they could hold the thread of the conversation, considering how much they talked over each other. I pondered why they spent time together, because the relationships seemed superficial, each lady intent on complaining and bragging more than her friends.
Then I came out with the baby and for a moment, the discussions stopped and all eyes were focused on her. The ladies cooed and they doted and they praised.
And then they begin talking again.
“Do you remember having a baby this little?” one wondered.
“Oh, how I love babies. I had five of them,” another said. “What a joy.”
“I’m kvelling! Aren’t you? Aren’t you verklempt?”
“What nachas this baby will bring you!”
They turned their attention to my baby specifically and to babies and parenting more generally. They asked each other questions and actually listened to the answers. They shared stories. It was as though a stereotypical kaffeeklatsch had suddenly morphed into a warmer, more caring, more interested, and more interesting gathering–all because of the presence of a baby.
Being with these women, as they talked about their experiences and gently asked about mine, reminded me of what’s best about Jewish culture. It’s not the food (although Grandma’s kugel and cookies are delightful); rather, it’s the focus on the family. It’s the love I could see in my Grandma’s face and in the faces of her friends as they spoke about their spouses, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and even their in-laws, as irritating as some of them might be.
Grandma’s friends called my wife and me “London hippies” because we attachment-parent, complete with baby-wearing, breastfeeding on demand, and co-sleeping. But they called us that affectionately, respecting (more or less) our choices, all while telling us how things had been during their time as young parents. I was told bits of family history that I hadn’t heard before and very personal stories were revealed, and I realized it was because I’d now been welcomed into a new category: a Jewish mother.
For a short period of time, the room was filled with Jewish women who just wanted to share the experience of being parents. Okay, they still talked over one another a bit, and there was definitely some bragging going on, but the moment was peaceful and sweet nonetheless.
Then one lady patted her permed, dyed hair and said she had to get back to her husband. His dementia was bad and he’d be upset if she was away too long. Well, another woman needed to shop and oy vey was it cold out and how was she going to drive in this weather? And so it went.
The ladies left and the living room abruptly became silent. But the affection was still there.
Grandma cuddled her great-grandchild and she answered a question from some moments before.
“Yes, I am definitely kvelling.” And she smiled and cooed.