Wednesday, November 30, 2011

My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir by Meir Shalev

When I was a boy, my paternal grandmother did not use the vacuum cleaner. Instead, my grandfather did the vacuuming. Meir Shalev's maternal grandmother in the Israeli village of Nahalal did not use a vacuum either. She got on her knees daily (or assigned the task to a daughter or grandchild) and scrubbed the tile floor until the water mopped up clear. She did this despite owning a vacuum. In fact, she had a top of the line GE canister vacuum, but it sat locked in an unused bathroom. Shalev tells the reconstructed story in his entertaining book My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir.

Other than not using the vacuum, Grandma Tonia was not much like my grandmother. Shalev's grandmother was obsessed with the cleanliness of her house to the point that she hardly let anyone in. Most cooking and eating were kept on the back porch. Small cloths were kept on doorknobs so there would be no dirty fingerprints. The nice furniture was stored in rooms that she kept locked. The modern bathroom was also kept locked, and family and visitors were directed to the shed out back. The bathroom served as a storeroom for nice things, and the vacuum that was sent by the uncle who abandoned socialism to become an American capitalist sat there wrapped to stay free of dust. The family, of course, longed to get into these rooms.

As you might guess, Grandma Tonia was a fierce woman of strong and often uncommon opinions who ruled the family. Shalev contends that she was the originator of the phrase "You talkin' to me?" Other familiar words included "Want me to take a chunk out of you?" and "She is no longer, and it was a terrible death." My grandmother never said anything like this.

I imagine My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner could be turned into a movie set against the early decades of Israeli independence with the nation building struggles in the backing up the domestic comedy. Until such a film is made, enjoy the book.

Shalev, Meir. My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir. Schocken Books, 2011. 212p. ISBN 9780805242874.

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