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Original Essays

The Mystical Surprise of Fiction

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
  1. Miriam the Medium

    Miriam the Medium

    Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
    "In addition to delivering touching wisdom about mothers and daughters, Shapiro also offers a sharp portrait of fastidious, appearance-obsessed Great Neck, N.Y." Publishers Weekly
Writing a novel is a little like being a psychic medium — which, in truth, is what I am. Characters, like spirits, speak to me and channel messages through me. When I started Miriam The Medium, Miriam Kaminsky, a medium like myself, was the cornerstone of the book, the focus, but as I wrote, I began writing more and more about her beloved Russian grandmother, her bubbe, and the more I wrote, the more I realized I was writing — no, channeling — my own Russian grandmother, my bubbe, Sarah Shapiro.

My grandmother was a tiny woman with pale blue eyes and long, white hair braided and coiled on her head like a crown, and she always wore a marcasite broach at the neckline of her dark dresses, and small silver-framed eyeglasses, and she puffed lavender powder on her neck. While my clients phone me to ask questions about their relationships — romantic and familial, their finances, their past and their future, or to contact their dead relatives, my bubbe almost exclusively specialized in matters of health and saw people in person in her parlor. By looking into a woman's eyes, Bubbie could tell her if she was pregnant, even if only for a day or two, and she was never wrong about the sex of an unborn child. She could also tell if a woman was infertile by passing her hands over the woman's pelvis. The cure Bubbie recommended was to eat roasted chicken pupik.

Once, when a woman wrinkled her nose at the thought of eating the gizzard, my bubbe told her, "Eat the pupik with grivenes [small, crisp pieces of poultry skin fried in chicken fat] and you'll lick your fingers."

In Russia, my bubbe midwived quite a few babies, but in this country where women preferred "twilight sleep," she waited until the babies were born to become useful. If a baby was knock-kneed, pigeon-toed, or splay-footed, she would oil her small hands and massage the baby everyday until its limbs were straight. If its head was lopsided, she'd massage that, too. (Her head massages are the reason I look well in short hair.) She could repair a baby's hernia by pressing the muscles back in place and taping them down for a few weeks until they healed. Before antibiotics, Bubbie nursed my cousin through spinal meningitis by tenting steaming towels over him, applying ginger compresses to his forehead, and praying night and day. She was just as useful to adults. She'd study the whorls on a person's fingertips to determine if he was prone to heart or kidney ailments or even dementia. Ten years ago, an article in the New York Times that I wish I'd saved, substantiated that indeed health problems could be foreseen in the fingertips. She told a man who she'd diagnosed with heart trouble, "Drink lots of fresh water and eat string bean salad." He lived many more years.

Even if a person looked fine and had just passed a physical exam with flying colors, my bubbe knew if he was going to die. She'd wait until the person was out of earshot, shake her head, and mutter under her breath, "It is his time." Within a few days, we'd be at a funeral.

In her kitchen, she made potions and salves and plasters to heal people. Whenever my sisters and I had the croup, Bubbie had us drink a tablespoon of goose grease stirred into hot milk. It not only brought up the congestion, but breakfast, lunch, and dinner, too. If one of us got food caught in our throats, she made us raise our hands high over our heads and say, "faigelah, faigelah, faigelah," Yiddish for "bird, bird, bird." It worked as well as the Heimlich maneuver. To cure pink eye, she made drops from the urine of a prepubertal grandchild — usually mine. The drops cleared up eye trouble so quickly that years later, my mother swore that Murine must really be urine, but they put an "M" in front of it or no one would buy it.

I, too, can often see people's health problems. My mind becomes like an x-ray and I notice dark spots where there's trouble or sometimes I'll see symbols. A broken washing machine means kidney problems. A dripping faucet for incontinence. A faucet that doesn't drip for sinus congestion. But unlike my bubbe, I'd never prescribe cures. We live in such a litigious age. My bubbie thought, "sue" was a call to a pig or maybe a woman's nickname. Besides, I wouldn't have the confidence to do it. With modern technology, illness seems more complex and specialized than ever.

The other day, while I was on the phone with a client, in my mind I saw a cork in her spaghetti-like intestines.

"I'm afraid you have an intestinal blockage," I told her.

"Oh!" she said, "I haven't been feeling well at all. What should I do?"

Just then, I smelled lavender and knew my bubbe was in the room. I stayed very quiet, and in a moment, I saw her face.

"Tell her to drink senna tea and give herself a warm enema. Warm, not hot," Bubbie instructed. "Go to a doctor," I told my client.

Bubbie grimaced. "A dokter un a kvores-man zeinen shutfin," she said, Yiddish for "Doctors and grave-diggers are partners."

I knew Bubbie must be right about her cure, but fear took over and I repeated, "Go to a doctor," and my Bubbie disappeared in a huff.

My bubbe's courage and faith in herself and her own powers drew people to her. Everyone loved her. They brought her potted Chinese ferns, doilies, rugelach, scrimshaw, and once, a mandolin. When she died, such a crowd showed up to her funeral that the doors of the shul had to be left open. People who couldn't get in waited outside in the rain until the whole service was over. And when the pallbearers carried her plain pine coffin outside, people kissed their fingertips and touched the coffin with the same reverence that they kissed the Torah on High Holy days.

I was nearly finished with my novel when I realized part of the reason why I was writing wasn't just to explain my own calling, but to honor my bubbe, to call forth her spirit, not just for myself, but for the reader, too, so that she lives again on the page, and everyone can sit across from her at her enamel-topped kitchen table, watch her sip tea from a fluted glass, the steam fogging the lenses of her glasses, and hear her say, "So, neshomeleh, sweet soul, how's by you?" spacer

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