Believing in Life (and grandma)

If you’re lucky enough to have a grandma, she probably comes with grandma-isms (or nana-isms). In my case, they’re baba-isms – phrases my grandmother uses over and over. For instance, every time my Russian-speaking grandmother meets someone English speaking and I happen to be standing there, she points to me and proudly says: “She is my granddaughter number one.” You could be her surgeon or her butcher.

Sometimes you get extra bonus lucky and your very own personalized baba-ism. Reserved only for you – from baba’s mouth to your ears only. Mine was, “You … you, I don’t worry about.”

It wasn’t until baba was diagnosed with colon cancer that I realized exactly what she meant. It was at this same time that I realized that I never worried about baba either.

As one of the strongest women I’ve ever known, baba has had a life spanning three continents and hardships worthy of Oscar-winning performances. Baba came ready to deliver a “when I was your age” story that was sure to trump all others. But her delivery was never overly dramatic – just dictating the minutes of her life to a stenographer.

An orphan at seven in the former Soviet Union, she lived through a famine, a World War, and the teenage death of her only sister. But baba is a fighter and maintains the mantra that it will all work out.

Baba is a great business woman of another generation with a keen eye for cards and cash. When everyone else was making $175 rubles a month in the factory, baba took a second job washing drapes in her bathtub. Pulling in a solid $350 rubles a month, baba always made it work out and then some.

So no, I never worried about baba.

Baba was the first one in our family to immigrate to America and the reason I live in New York City (eternal gratitude for that one!) She’s a famous cake maker, my baba. And when I say fame, I mean of the Brighton Beach variety. Step into the famous International bakery and ask for the Kievsky cake. Then tell them you're Maya's granddaughter. Stand back!

And from Brooklyn to Bakersfield, baba knows somebody everywhere. Way beyond the Hudson River, baba has friends everywhere. Los Angeles, Cuba, Calgary, Springfield. Wherever I’m going anywhere, she has a friend there. Or knows someone moving there. Or has a friend with a daughter who lives there. And they all come with a descriptive story.

Baba hears everyone’s stories. You can imagine what happens when someone who knows everyone gets a hold of everyone’s stories. Lets just say if you ever want to spread a good rumor, baba is old school viral marketing.

Seven years ago baba had brain surgery for an aneurysm that she had knowingly walked around with for the last decade. When the pressure of the aneurism caused her to go blind, she acquiesced to brain surgery. It was 5 months before granddaughter number one was going to get married and she wasn't going to not be able to see here granddaughter as a bride. This surgery, considered moderately complicated 10 years before, had now earned a difficulty rating of highly complicated. But baba wasn’t worried. She had faith that she would be fine.

It was also at this time that I noticed she starting thanking God a lot. Three weeks after the surgery, on her first day home from the hospital, baba kicked the home health nurse out of her house. Apparently she didn’t know the right way to make tea.

Baba is a walking Mapquest. Wherever you’re driving, she knows how to get there. Lest you cast doubt on her navigational acumen, she’s right there route number dropping. “Are you taking 80 or 64 … because I like 80. It’s so much greener.”

PS: baba doesn’t drive; she’s only the ever-present front seat driver. She gets nauseous in the back seat so when baba gets in the car, it’s has to be in the front seat. Taxis are no exception.

So life hasn’t always been easy for baba. But it has been life served up with an exclamation point –with all the #@$$#%$^%& between it. Her life has been up and down and gritty and hard and full of tears and full of joy and full of love. It’s a life full of stories and strength and survival and faith and family. She lives this life, the star of an extraordinary epic that is only hers. It’s a life that has made my baba who she is … and has consequently made me the granddaughter she never worries about.

A cake baker, a story keeper, a driving compass. No, I never worried about my baba.

When my grandmother was diagnosed with colon cancer last month, we all exhibited some textbook reaction. My mother, completely in denial, cursed the doctor that sent her for the colonoscopy in the first place. My uncle shifted into medical action mode – commanding the entire operation. I stood one generation removed; powerless in decision making and sitting in an uncomfortable back seat.

Then I reacted in a way that was foreign to my reaction repertoire. I was overcome with a sense of faith. Not necessarily in the religious sense, but in the higher force sense. I have faith in life. Because at 78, baba still has plenty of living to do, stories to retell, great grandchildren to meet and baba-isms to bestow.

To put it bluntly – I think this Russian Baba can kick cancer’s ass.

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