One fine spring day in 1980-something, Waldbaum's moved the borscht. To most of the store's customers it was a fairly undramatic occurrence, but not to my Grandma Lilly.
We scanned the packed shelves, formerly brilliant with magenta, green, and gold bottles of borscht, schav (sorrel soup) and gefilte fish. Now the offerings looked wan and subdued, bags of rice and sacks of beans, mammoth jars of recaito and sofrito. Small boxes of flan mix and nata de coco replaced economy boxes of matzoh meal and Tam Tam crackers. Grandma didn't say anything. She just leaned on the shopping cart that supported her like a walker and stared.
Grandma had just turned 85. I was 17, and like every high school senior, I wanted a car. So my mother and I struck a deal. I could drive the Duster, Grandma's dirt-brown, 1973 sedan (a car so old and beat-up I could do no harm) provided I schlep her out to the Walbaum's past Avenue Z every Thursday. Aside from going to the doctor and walking slowly around the block arm in arm with the caretaker who came daily, Waldbaum's was Grandma's only venture out of the house. My mother said it was the highlight of her week. I couldn't tell.
The shopping trips went something like this: I'd ring the bell of Grandma's Gravesend row house two or three times, then sit on the stoop and wait, wondering if she was going to come out or if the Alzheimer's had taken its final toll. I'd let my mind spin, picturing her funeral and the long, long drive to the cemetery...would I take the Duster to Queens? No, I'd be in the limo with my parents and sister.
Eventually, the screen door would slam and she'd stand there, in front of the house she'd lived in for 65 years, buttoning her plaid wool coat up to the top, even in May. Then we'd Duster it to Waldbaum's, Grandma directing at every turn.
"Amy," she'd say, calling me by my younger sister's name. (Amy was the favorite), "Amy, take a right on Avenue U, don't take V, the lights are dangerous."
I'd make the detour though I doubt she'd have noticed had I not.
Inside Waldbaum's, Grandma had a knack for taking up the whole aisle so no one could pass, and she didn't give a fig for anybody, including senior citizens more sprightly than she, stuck behind her. She walked purposefully, perusing every shelf and reading the circular out loud, handing me coupons for things she didn't buy. Her shopping list never varied: cottage cheese, sour cream, gefilte fish, Campbell's Vegetarian Vegetable soup, iceberg lettuce, applesauce, milk, butter, orange juice, canned tuna if it was on sale, soft seeded rye or challah bread, and Mother's borscht. It had to be Mother's. Manischewitz was too sweet. But it wasn't a problem because Waldbaum's stocked at least four different kinds, always in the same familiar spot.
Until that fine spring day, that is.
"Grandma?" I tried to guide her cart to the side so the family behind us could get to the sofrito. She wouldn't budge.
"Grandma, someone needs to get something."
The sofrito seemed to have had a Medusa-like effect; she was frozen. The lady behind us whispered something in Spanish to her kid, who gingerly stuck a skinny arm in between my statue Grandma and the shelf to grab a jar. They turned away quickly.
"Grandma? Are you ok? Stay here."
I zigzagged through the store, checking every shelf until I found it. Mother's brand, thank god, a few lone bottles squeezed in between the spiced apple rings and cans of peas. No schav. No gefilte fish.
Back in the formerly Jewish-borscht-now-goyim-Goya section, Grandma held firm, blocking the beans.
"They moved the borscht to aisle two." I showed her the jar.
"I don't want it." She put it on the shelf next to the sofrito.
"You'll want it later," I put it back in the cart.
"No," she said but didn't try to take it out, which surprised me. While the Alzheimer's had obliterated much of her character, it had crystallized her stubbornness. The absence of a battle of the borscht felt immeasurably sad. It was as if that tenuous membrane keeping the last specks of her identity attached to her brain had finally ruptured. The neighborhood had changed and so had Waldbaum's. Grandma, however, was stuck.
She let me lead her to the checkout. Invariably, she'd say, loud enough for the cashier to hear, "Watch the girl so she doesn't overcharge us." It always made me cringe (even though sometimes they would). But today was worse. The cashier was a man. "Crazy lady," he muttered, and proceeded to charge us full price for the on-sale tuna. I didn't say a word.
That was Grandma's last trip to Waldbaum's. The next month, my mother installed her in a nursing home around the corner from our house. I got to keep the Duster until it died about a year later. Grandma didn't even make it that long.
Recently, my sister and her husband moved into the garden apartment of my brownstone, and we inherited my parents' old car to share. It's a dark green Subaru with no dents and working heat and windows, about as un-Duster-like as you can get. But it would still take me to Waldbaum's. I needed to shop for a dinner party, and even though Avenue Z is a 25 minute drive from my house in Prospect Heights, I was feeling nostalgic. I convinced Amy to come along, and on the way I told her about Grandma and the borscht, a story she never really knew. Family legend has it that Grandma lost it in Waldbaum's, but no one ever mentions borscht. It gave us both a craving: Borscht and sour cream and plenty of chopped fresh dill for lunch.
But once again, there was no borscht in sight. We walked past the Hispanic foods section, now spread out on both sides of the aisle and rounding the corner. It included Mexican ingredients as well Puerto Rican and Dominican, and we delightedly picked up cactus paddles and dried chipotle chiles, masa harina and bags of Mexican oregano along with green plantains, achiote, short-grained rice and fresh culantro.
Our carts nearly full, we headed to the canned vegetable aisle, but the borscht wasn't there. We walked the length of the store, reading signs until we found the one that said "candles, religious items, ethnic food." Could it be? A restored aisle of shabbos candles, borscht and schav, influenced by the Russian Jews living in nearby Brighton Beach? We looked over and Jesus smiled at us from tall devotional votives. The ethnic food included black syrup, cans of ackee, and other Caribbean chow. But farther down that row, we found it, jars and jars and jars of borscht in several brands, nestled in with the cherry juice, dried mushrooms and blini mix. Indeed, the Russians were making their mark. There was even schav; we took some of that, too.
As we checked out, I amused myself by imagining recipes for the cross-cultural hodge-podge of items rolling by the scanner. Borscht with fried plantains and crema, maybe, or chicken with recaito and dried mushrooms. I was too busy to keep an eye on the cashier, but memories of grandma made me check the receipt in the car. Even with the scanner, the girl had managed to overcharge us. Some things never change.