Mendel Letters 23 — Radiator Chicken

Me on the left and my brother in the center at our cousin’s Bar Mitzvah. Looks like a happy moment.

Dear Mendel,

After Mommy died, my brother and I were lucky to have the “Big Bubbie.” We lived on 170th and Jesup Avenue in the Bronx. She lived in an apartment on Grant Avenue and 169th Street. When we were too sick to go to school, the “Big Bubbie” would come and stay with us and on Saturdays and Jewish holidays we went to her house for lunch. We called her the “Big Bubbie,” she must have been about 5’2” and stocky. Your mother was the “Little Bubbie,” 4’8”, maybe 4’10” at the most, and very tiny.

The “Big Bubbie” was actually my mother’s step-mother, the third wife of Mommy’s Papa and they were all cousins. When his first wife died, the family in Byelorussia sent a cousin to take care of him and his young daughter in New York. When the second wife died, they sent another cousin to take care of him and his four young children. The third cousin was my Bubbie.

It was a fifteen minute walk from our place to Bubbie’s, and when we got a little older we could go by bicycle. Bubbie lived in a first floor apartment, which was fun because we climbed in and out of the window. I visited the area recently and it looks much the same. Both sides of the street are lined with six story tenements dating to before World War I. There are no gaps on either side of the block so it resembles the floor of a dark canyon.

Bubbie kept a kosher home and followed Orthodox Jewish customs. Because she couldn’t do any “work,” including turning on the stove during Shabbus or on any holy day, she would boil a chicken to death the day before and leave it on the radiator over night to stay warm. Radiator chicken was hard, dry, tasteless, and stringy and you could only shallow it drenched in mustard or horseradish, but that was lunch.

I always got my little vengeance. After “lunch” I would turn on the television. She would shudder and say turn it off, it’s Shabbus, “What will the neighbor’s think?” I would shrug and say, “Bubbie, I made a mistake, but I can’t turn it off, it’s Shabbus.”

After my grandfather died, Bubbie lived alone and my brother and I were probably the only people to visit her. Maybe because she was lonely, she started to get a little strange and would talk to my grandfather and God. You said it was okay, but when God and the Zayde started to answer her you made arrangements for her to move into a local old age home.

Your son

Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.