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Grandma Bella's Pickle Cure

Grandma Bella's Pickle Cure

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Everyone has two grandmothers. I was fortunate enough to have known both of mine. Grandma Rachel, my maternal grandmother, was very close to me. Mother and I lived with her for years after my father died when I was ten. His mother was Grandma Bella, the one I used to call my New York grandmother. It was always a great treat for me to visit her and be able to stay for a few days.

On one occasion, however, my visit was prompted by a monstrous case of poison ivy.

I was lectured, scolded and told I might never be allowed out of the house again Grandma Bella seemed very tall to me then, but I now know it was because I was so short. She had iron gray hair, which she worn in a bun. I never saw it down, so it may have been very long. Her short-sleeved dresses were usually floral prints and her black sensible shoes looked like twins to those Grandma Rachel wore. She had a habit of patting me on the top of my head, then looking very innocent when I turned around. Grandma Bella was fun; she was silly, she was nice and I loved her.

During the summer of my eleventh year, I followed a ball into some bushes and came away with poison ivy. I had a talent for getting anything like colds, measles and now this affliction to the nth degree. Within hours, my face and hands were swollen and angry; the more I scratched, the more it spread. You would have to know my mother to understand her reaction. In addition to the calamine lotion, I was lectured, scolded, and told I might never be allowed out of the house again. She wrung her hands and threatened to tie mine if I was seen scratching. Within three days, she was a nervous wreck; her precious daughter was imperfect. Grandma Rachel finally intervened and suggested I visit Grandma Bella till the crisis passed.

"Don't feel bad, Tsureleh, your Mama just makes a big tsimus from everything. You go, you will come back fine. And your Mama will be okay, too."

An uncle accompanied me to the Bronx and the smiling welcome of Grandma Bella. "Oy Vay," she said, "who is this red and white person in my house?"

I cried out my tears into her dress while she patted my head.

"Shah, shah, I will make it all better." She put me to bed with the promise that in the morning she would make magic and the poison ivy would begin to go away.

When I asked her about the magic, she smiled and put her finger to her lips The next day, she took me into the bathroom, drew a warm bath for me and added what she called "a little this and a lotta that." While I soaked happily, she set the table for our breakfast. "You're cooked," she announced, and gently patted me dry. I wanted to scratch so badly, but she told me to wait till after breakfast. The toasted bagels with lox and cream cheese were my favorites. She heated some milk for me and added a few tablespoons of her coffee. "It will be our secret," she said. When I asked her about the magic, she smiled and put her finger to her lips. I would have to wait not only for scratching, but for the mystery to be solved.

It was a crisp fall day and Grandma Bella selected my clothes for a walk. I was beside myself with itching. The bottle of calamine lotion was at the ready, but Grandma Bella had promised me her special cure.

We went down the stairs, into the streets of the Bronx,an exciting and busy place to be. She held tightly to my hand, past vendors of all kinds and people rushing about. Suddenly, something smelled too delicious for words and we found ourselves outside of Mr. Tonkin's Delicatessen. Grandma had brought me here before to buy luscious things to eat when I visited. My mouth watered with memories of Mr. Tonkin's lox, corned beef, pastrami, rye bread, and bagels made like nowhere else on earth. In the barrels beside the counter, were the wonderful kosher dill pickles - my favorite!

I looked up at her, wondering what would come next that had to do with my poison ivy. Again she put her finger to her lips with that little secret smile behind it.

While she shopped for the evening meal, I remained near the pickle barrel, inhaling the scent of dill and wanting so badly to bite into one of those green beauties. Finally, Grandma Bella asked Mr. Tonkin to wrap up seven of them! I asked if I could please have one to eat on the way back, but Grandma said, "I have to say special magic words over them, and then you will eat one every day. When you have finished seven magic pickles, the poison ivy will be gone."

"When you finish seven magic pickles, the poison ivy will be gone"That afternoon, squirming and trying to scratch without being seen, I watched as Grandma Bella placed the pickles in a big, blue and white bowl on the kitchen table. She took a pretty crocheted doily from her dresser and draped it over her head. Closing her eyes, she began to chant softly, waving her hands over the bowl. I held my breath, not daring to interrupt the magic spell because from time to time she opened one eye and peeked at me. Finally, with a word that sounded very much like "amen", she sat down with me, took a pickle from the pile and said "Eat, Tsureleh, eat and you will begin to get better." I took a big bite and, while the incredibly delicious pickle juice filled my mouth, I could swear nothing itched. Seven days and seven pickles later, the poison ivy was gone.

Now, as I write as an adult, I know that some of those special baths, the calamine lotion and time also helped me heal. But childhood is for magic and Grandmas and pickles.

Shirley Coles, formerly of Rhode Island, now resides in Flagstaff, Arizona with her two cats and her favorite pastimes: reading, writing essays and poetry, and volunteering as a tutor of ESL, Spanish, and Creative Writing. A graduate of URI with a masters degree in mental health counseling, she is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She has three married children and three granddaughters.
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tamara portland, oregon February 6, 2013

That is one of the sweetest stories I've heard in a long time. I loved reading it! Reply

devorah ormond beach , fl April 20, 2008

grandma and pickles oye!!!! that was BEAUTIFUL...when i was growing up, delicatessens and the like were the best... i adore a good pickle to this day... Reply

Sari Daytona Beach, fl April 9, 2008

Thanks I am in a tough place right now and I am a granma too. It helps to remember I can do a little for someone special. Not pickle magic but something. I am the grandma that little ones turn too also. It just makes me feel good. I think I will eat a pickle now. Reply

Anonymous utica, new york May 13, 2007

Grandma's Your story is delightful. I never had a grandmother but how lucky a youngster would be to have a grandmother who was so sensitive and so much fun.
I do my best to be a loving grandma and then it is wonderful for all of us! We're friends Reply

Rochel Lake Zurich, Illinois April 28, 2007

Pleasant memories Shirley:
What wonderful memories you brought back to me of my grandmother (may she rest in peace), she was one of the most inspiring people in my life, and now as a grandmother myself, I try to do what I can to model myself after her. My grandmother also used to put coffee in my milk. Everything that she did was magic, and I miss her so much as I sit here writing you. I can still feel her touch and see her smile. Some of my family has said that I remind them of my grandmother. That is the highest compliment anyone could give me. I could hear your grandmother calling you Tsureleh. We are very blessed to have had such wonderful grandmothers' in our lives and we must do all we can to keep the tradition alive for our grandchildren, so they to will pass it on their grandchildren. I think I'll go eat a pickle now. Blessings.
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Anonymous Mountain View, CA April 27, 2007

A story of two aunts Someone told me about his two aunts that he visited when he was young. The first aunt would ask if he wanted any food, and he felt he had to say "no". The second aunt did not ask, she just put nice foods on the table near him, and he would eat. These grandmothers in the story sound like they know about how to make a child happy, too. Reply

Anonymous Mountain View, CA April 27, 2007

Great lesson in how to treat a child Thank you for this wonderful story of what a difference good parenting makes. I wonder, if the grandmothers were so much better in the way they treated the little girl, how did the girl's mother go so far wrong, since she was the child of one of those grandmothers? Maybe the grandmothers mellowed and grew wiser with age. I also loved the nostalgic description of the sights, smells of visiting the old fashioned Jewish delicatessens. I remember going with a relative when I was younger, to buy food in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of New York. The bakeries made chocolate rolled bread, rolls that were so delicious. There were flat breads called pletzels, and bialys and bagels. There were many kinds of pickles in barrels on sidewalks for blocks. Thanks for the memories. Reply

Yitzchak Roth Lake Zurich, IL April 26, 2007

Great story Dear Shirley: As a grandparent who remembers the same fond tales and escapades with my grandmother I must commend you on your story. Not only does it bring back memories but serves as a roadmap to my behavior with my grandchildren. Blessings and thank you Reply

Gisele Brooklyn, NY April 22, 2007

My greatest memories of my grandma is the smell of her fresh baked challahs for shabbats. Also the great smell of her hungarian goulash, parrikash potaotes, and chicken soup. My grandma was a great hungarian cook, and do my best to recapture her cooking talents with my family, but it is not easy. Thanks for this special article bring my memories to the surface! Reply

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