Gifts will be exchanged this Mother’s Day, but no gift more holy than a story, gifts from the old to the young. The stories are told in the dark, or over coffee, or while doing the dishes, standing in the kitchen. Some of the best stories are from grandmothers, stories about God and Yiddishkeit, no less true for being less than sophisticated.Gootie wasn’t sophisticated or classically pretty, recalls her grandson, Max Apple, in his new book, “I Love Gootie: My Grandmother’s Story.” She had a longish nose, a few hairs on her chin, loose flesh under her arms and a bum leg from falling off a freight train during World War I. But, as Apple told us over the phone last week, her name was
Shayne Gootke, beautiful and good, and she was that; her shtetl-in-memory was his Troy and she was his Helen.He grew up in her house in Grand Rapids, Mich. Over there was Serei, Lithuania, where, says Apple, there was God and Jews “since the beginning, since before there were Jews,” a world destroyed. Here, America “and Jews who said there was no God,” where “it was always the Fourth of July or someone’s birthday.”Of course, they had different frames of reference. Gootie heard of an upcoming party for teenagers and warned her grandson, “Don’t go. They tell you it’s a party. Then all of a sudden they bring out a picture of Lenin and you’ll be marching down the street in a parade until the police run after you. From here there’s no place to run to. You’re already in America.”He admitted he didn’t go anywhere, much. “I just drive around,” he told Gootie.“You don’t stop?”“I stop for red lights.”“You don’t talk to people? You don’t go into someone’s house and drink ginger ale and say hello to their parents?”She was interested in affairs of the heart, which is, says Apple, the most interesting stuff in the world. That’s where creative writing comes from, and Apple has written some of the best, including “Roommates,” the story of his relationship with Gootie’s husband Rocky (Yerachmiel), and “The Oranging of America,” a fantasy about the origins of the orange-roofed Howard Johnson’s that once were the rest stop of choice along America’s highways. For a while he lived in New York, still teaches in Rice University in Houston, Texas, and now lives in San Francisco.Gootie didn’t tell Apple stories from novels, but from the Tzena U’Rena, the Yiddish women’s book of prayer and Torah legends.The boy asked, what happens when you die? “Don’t worry,” she told the child. “When I die I’ll be comfortable. God puts you in a place like the Pantlind Hotel downtown — on a good mattress with a featherbed and a pillow. You rest while you wait for Moshiach. You keep in touch with what’s going on in this world, too. You know everything, but you can’t tell anyone. That’s the real problem with being dead.”Apple remembers her resting “against the pillow she had carried from Lithuania. Across her body lay down and feathers that had been gifts from her grandmother. And that old woman had them from her mother and she from her mother. Geese that might have flown over Napoleon still did their job.” Feathers treasured like family stories.“The stories about God were not so different from the stories about people,” writes Apple. “In a certain way, God was in all the stories; he allowed them to happen. The way he showed Moses everything, he showed the rest of us a sliver, a fingernail of reality.”When television came, Gootie took a shine to “I Love Lucy,” whom Apple insisted was a gentile and Gootie swore was a Jew. Gootie insisted, “She has a Jewish face and Jewish ways. … They don’t sleep in the same bed,” because in spite of everything Lucy did to conceal her origins, she had not forgotten the laws of family purity, which requires husband and wife to sleep apart until “Lucy” went to mikveh.And Lucy’s real name, said Gootie, was probably Rootie, and this was a perfect time to warn her grandson about intermarriage. Gootie had nothing against Ricky Ricardo — he dressed well, was polite — but he wasn’t Jewish, now was he?“What did [Lucy] know,” Gootie conjectured. “She was probably not the kind of girl that listened to a mother. She went away to school; she saw him every day; he gave her presents; she wasn’t smart enough to see what he wanted. One day he took her out into the fields. When she cried out for help he said, ‘Rootie, I love you.’ In America, everybody says ‘I love you,’ then they think it’s all right to do anything they want. After that, Rootie couldn’t look her mother in the face.”You thought “I Love Lucy” was a comedy? “What was there to laugh at?” writes Apple. “Rootie’s parents were not laughing.”And what of Rootie’s ancestors? “Life didn’t stop with the living,” Gootie taught. “Your ancestors could trust you not to kill or steal or worship idols; if you did those sort of things, even the dead could not help you out.”“Our relatives,” Apple remembers learning, “were all over the place in heaven, trying to intercede with fate on our behalf. They advised God to take it easy on punishment; they recited our good deeds. The great ones, Moses and Abraham and the Prophet Elijah, were like kings and presidents on earth, busy plotting the big moves for eternity. But our family, Gootie’s mother and father in particular, never tired of reminding God about us. … Yes, they were dead, but they were still parents.”In the end, Gootie departed for the busy Other World. Apple writes, “She left my sisters her women’s prayer books, but I received my share of the God they tell about…“She left me her sense of loss and the will to live beyond it. And she left me her recipe for stories. You start with a good person and you see what happens next. You listen and you watch. By the end it all adds up to something.”As Gootie might say, with a pillow like that, you can sleep anywhere.