Bring Back My Bunny to Me
In September, 1980, on a day of one hundred degree heat and Santa Ana winds, a fire raced up one side of Laurel Canyon, crested the ridge and blazed down the other. I was driving up Fairfax, smelled smoke, and by the time I neared Sunset Blvd., saw flames high in the hills of Hollywood, right where my house stood. The fireman let me through and my panic subsided a bit when I saw our house still standing, my husband upon the roof with the hose; but they’d said to prepare to evacuate immediately. The flames were across the street.
My most cherished possessions at the time were two: my books – the research library for my work as a costume and set designer that filled a wall in my studio, mostly out of print volumes, indispensable but far too difficult to transport quickly to my car. And a beloved piece of art, too large and heavy for me to lift off the wall. It didn’t occur to me to pack clothing. So I grabbed some important documents, jewelry, a few photos, and glanced around the house. On a chair in the bedroom sat an old stuffed toy from my early childhood that I’d discovered a couple of years earlier in my parent’s garage when they’d cleared out to move. There was something charming, I’d thought, about its faded fur – no longer mint green – and worn down face, but I wasn’t aware of much of an attachment. Yet, when I thought my house was about to burn down, it was that rabbit I grabbed and threw in the car.
About to turn thirty, wrapped up in my career and where it was heading next, I wasn’t paying much attention to the past. Although the bunny had an emotional tug, I certainly didn’t make the connection between choosing the rabbit and the events of the summer trip to the Soviet Union from which we’d recently returned. Nor to Bella, my grandmother.
My husband and I had vacationed in Leningrad, visiting with his son and daughter in law, who worked for the consulate there. It was the cold war and we’d been followed everywhere by KGB spooks, had to be careful about our conversations in their flat. But even the oppressiveness of the Soviet regime, the streets draped with propaganda banners, and the squares filled with ugly statues of Lenin could not destroy the romance of the city for me. Walking past the pastel baroque and neoclassical buildings on the banks of the Neva, I imagined myself following the footsteps of the desolate Onegin, his cape blowing in the wind, and hummed the arias from the opera, my favorite. I had always been a Russophile, steeped in stories, sounds and food by my father’s mother when I was tiny. When I grew I’d searched out Russian books, films and music, learned to sing Russian songs phonetically. In High School in the sixties, my best friend and I had been the only youngsters in matinees filled with old émigrés, sobbing our way through the great (Ballad of a Soldier) and not so great (Young Pioneer orphan finds her mother after the war) of Soviet Cinema.
In Leningrad, after days spent in the Hermitage and sight seeing, we stepped off the tourist track for the collective farmer’s market where babushkas hawked piles of plums, melons, cucumbers and cabbages, found glowing golden heaps of frilly mushrooms that we brought home to sauté for dinner. That night I startled awake from a nightmare so intense I had no idea where I was. In the darkness, my eyes found a stripe of moonlight that rippled over the diamond shaped inlays of the parquet floor to rest on some suitcases, and I remembered I was in the Soviet Union in an unfamiliar high ceilinged room, a consulate with eavesdropping wires in the walls. As I sat up in bed I had no memory of the events or the scene of the dream, only the feeling of overwhelming loss, the certainty that the center and safety of my world was irrevocably gone – a child who has lost her mother. I heaved with sobs, uncontrollable, unstoppable, while my husband, now awake as well, looked bewildered. I had never before experienced such feelings of grief; it seemed as if the parquet floor had splintered, cracked open down to the center of the earth and my heart had fallen into the black chasm. The feeling clung to me as I wailed, unshakable, and I finally understood that I was grieving for her, my grandma Bella, long gone, but today returned to me through the music of the language, the mounds of mushrooms that smelled of the damp earth and birch forests of her stories My beloved Bella. Returned to me, then lost again, forever.
My mother’s love was a complex cocktail – a brew of adoration and anxiety, love and fear. The person whose job it was to make me feel safe, to lend me her nervous system in those first months of life before an infant develops her own, was in need of borrowing one herself. Bella, however, was completely present and calm. She was the safe port from the whitecaps of my mother’s worried sea. And, as I was the only baby in the family at the time, she was all mine for those critical first three years until my father was drafted in the Korean war and we had to leave Los Angeles. My grandmother’s graceful attunement – how our relationship formed my brain – is the only explanation for the neural pathways that I drew upon to be the steady, calm mother my son so desperately needed during the many medical crises he endured.
I loved spending the night with Grandma and happily stayed for a few weeks while my parents left L.A. to find and move into a home near the Air Force base where my father was stationed. Many of my memories of her must date from that time. Bella’s prodigious bosom was an object of fascination as well as a comforting retreat. I loved to watch her dress first thing in the morning. I remember the thin slices of light slanting through the venetian blinds of the darkened bedroom, the brightness softening the edges of her form and highlighting the metal eyelets as she opened her bisque-pink corset for the morning ritual: the hefting of those enormous soft pillows, the long laces pulling and narrowing. Did Grandpa pull her laces closed? He must have, but he is absent from the memory. Bella and I would cook and go grocery shopping together, taking the red car trolley – long defunct. Being with her was all a joy, she even let me daringly walk along the top edge of a low, shiny white tile wall on the way home.
All her cooking was dependably delicious, but my favorites were sweet and sour cabbage borscht and special sour cream cookies she made just for me. There was always homemade jam, which she and Grandpa ate from a spoon with their afternoon tea, Russian style, rather than spreading it on toast. Also, rather than dissolving a lump of sugar in the teacup, they would hold it between their teeth and sip their tea through it.
Grandma Bella let me feed her guppies, little silver sequins shimmering in a big globe that rested on a wrought iron stand next to the davenport, a word I haven’t heard since. And she let me feed her soup that we had put on the stove not long before, understanding that a small child couldn’t wait an interminable hour or more until it was edible. I would feed my stuffed rabbit a bite and then give her a bite and she slurped it right up. Her acting was so convincing that for years – once I was old enough to realize it was an act – I believed that she had actually swallowed those hard yellow peas and dry chips of barley out of love for me.
Bella’s physical comedy and gifts of mimicry were renowned in the family; she’d kept her children amused with imitations of the neighbors gaits and walks (her own precursor to the Monte Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks). Grandma also had the gift of psychic intuition. She always knew when her favorite brother, A. J., was in trouble, no matter how far away he might be and would wake in the night in alarm. Her daughter, my aunt Frada had uncanny intuition as well. I realized I’d inherited that gene when I was fifteen and traveling overseas with my father. Waking from a dream that felt unlike any other, I was certain that my mother, back in California, was in trouble. Terribly upset, I insisted that we try to contact her immediately, which we were unable to do. In my dream, Mom had been injured by broken glass and we found out two days later, when we finally heard from her, that I had been correct.
It was Bella’s brother, A.J., with whom she had traveled to the United States from Russia in 1903. They worked and saved to bring over their siblings and eventually their parents. Unlike my grandma Anna, also from Russia, Bella did not grow up speaking Yiddish. Her English was not clogged with the gutturals of the classic Jewish mother accent. To me, her Russian tinted syllables seemed dipped in smooth dark chocolate. She was from Samara, on the eastern edge of the tzar-dom, where she watched the camel caravans heading toward China. Her father worked for the trans-Siberian Railroad as an accountant or bookkeeper. She knew only one other Jewish family, who fortunately had a daughter of her age. They lived at another station and the girls took turns visiting each other via the railroad. Bella Holtzman was the third of eleven children. She was eight years old when her parents took her out of school to help raise seven younger siblings. When the tzar rescinded permission for Jews to live beyond the pale, her father lost his job and she was sent to Cracow to learn millinery so that she could support her family and, later, work in America’s sweatshops to provide their steamer tickets. In spite of her lack of formal education, she was an auto didact and believed, as did Grandpa, that you were not an educated person if you hadn’t read all of Russian literature; they loved to discuss Dostoevesky and Turgenev, Checkhov and Tolstoy.
Of course she sewed beautifully, no patterns needed. She made all my nightgowns which I loved so that I continued to wear them even when they were thin with age and too short as I grew. I remember a summer nightie, yoked with ruffled cap sleeves, made of soft puckered seersucker scattered with tiny pastel ponies and fastened with buttons that were clear glass bowls. I loved sifting through her button box as she sewed and embroidered. Bella made the costume for my first Halloween, in 1952: a lace and satin princess dress. She also dressed my best doll in white lace and powder blue velveteen, rolling her black hair low at the nape of her neck in the style of the fin-de-siecle when Bella was a beautiful young girl.
I loved Bella’s stories about Baba Yaga and other Russian folk tales, but my favorite were her descriptions of her childhood. I could have listened endlessly to how she picked flowers, berries and made jam and searched for mushrooms in the forest. What could be more compelling for a nature deprived city child who loved to eat: beautiful countryside, food and a treasure hunt!
Safe on her lap, I snuggled into her soft bosom as she sang to me – Russian songs and popular songs of her youth, like “Lil Liza Jane”. One of her favorites was “My Bonnie lies Over the Ocean ” with the chorus of “Bring back my bonnie to me”. In Bella’s Russian accent, the words “bonnie” and “bunny” were indistinguishable. I was certain she was singing about my green stuffed bunny and was filled with such sorrow and heartache at the thought of my beloved so far, so unreachable all the way across the sea, that I could barely stand it. Many years later, when I had learned how to read and found the song in a book, I was astonished to discover it was about a girl, not a rabbit. But perhaps for a two year old the spirit of the song was more eloquently expressed through the loss of a stuffed animal rather than a sweetheart.
My sense of safety with Bella was so absolute that I even let her shampoo my hair, which I usually hated. With my mother, it was an ordeal that required coaxing and an elaborate ritual with a dry folded washcloth to prevent even a single stray rivulet from dripping into my eyes. Bella, however, sat me in her huge, claw-footed tub and poured water over my head and down my face. I even let her crack an egg on my head, the slimy gel running down my neck, before the final rinse. She said it would make my hair shiny. I can still hear the sound of that shell cracking, but am no longer so sure she actually broke it against my skull, as I believed as a child.
When we returned to Los Angeles, I was five. I remember waking in the morning in a strange house – my aunt’s – where we stayed while my parents found a new home for us. I had contracted an eye infection and I could not open my eyes. They were glued shut. It was terrifying. Where was my mother then? I don’t know. But I heard and felt Grandma Bella right there, lying in the bed next to me, holding me, soothing me and gently cleaning the crusts off of my eyelids with warm water and a cloth until I was able to open them, no longer fearful.
Grandma Bella had a stroke when she was eighty. She was able to walk, but unable to speak. It was painful to watch my family members address her as if she was an infant or an idiot, as if her lack of speech meant lack of cognition. I was eleven but I knew that her mind was intact. I was learning to sing folk songs on the guitar and I remember sitting on her bed singing “The Ash Grove” for her, holding her hand and feeling the frail squeeze that told me it pleased her. The idea of rehabilitation from a stroke, the plasticity of the brain, was not common knowledge then and she was bedridden. Soon Grandpa was unable to care for her and she died a year later in a bleak beige nursing home that smelled of overcooked cabbage and urine. Her roommate had severe dementia and was tied to the bed, yowling. I couldn’t bear to visit – it broke my heart and I was helpless. I knew that she suffered, surrounded by dementia and unable to speak up for herself. I felt agonies of guilt for years for not visiting her more often.
Since my mother died in 1989, my aunt Frada has been my nearest and dearest relative. Although we have lived far apart, we have always been kindred spirits. Ninety-four now, Frada’s mind and body are crumbling and I speak with her on the phone often. Her daughter is relieved to have me to help with emotional support while she is busy with the practical care, and my aunt often expresses her appreciation for our relationship. I dread losing her. A few days ago it dawned on me that although I wasn’t able to help Bella when she was dying, I was now helping her daughter. As if some kind of circle was complete: Grandma had cared for me so that I could care for her child when she was not there to do so.
Our house did not burn in the Laurel Canyon fire. A plane zoomed in and dumped cascades of water on the hillside, quenching the flames as they were about to leap across the street. I unpacked the car, put things away and knew I would never throw out my old toy. It’s been more than thirty years since then, since the trip to the Soviet Union, fifty since I lost my Grandmother. Once again I’ve rescued the old green rabbit from a box in the garage. My bonnie is back, in the bedroom on a chair that once was Bella’s.
The other night, my unconscious delivered a dream: I must squeeze through an impossibly narrow, dark, damp passage of rock which opens into a dim cave. In the center partly buried, beats a giant heart, deep maroon, with indigo veins worming down the slick sides. It reaches all the way to the rounded, crepuscular ceiling of the cavern far above me. I realize it is my heart, pumping away! Should I be worried that there is something wrong with my heart? I wonder what I am doing here. Then I see Bella She is in her rocker, crocheting, swaying gently back and forth, one of her soft lacy handmade shawls spread around her shoulders. And she is smiling broadly at me. Apparently, she is not just an inscription in the pathways of my brain. She is right here, right next to my heart, keeping an eye on things, taking care of me, as always.