Managing Bubbie

by Russel Lazega

"Managing Bubbie is a delicate game. It's like working a puppet with a thousand strings. And sometimes – just sometimes – I, I wonder which of us is tugging them."

The time-tested tale of immigrants seeking a better life in America is given new life in Lazega's humorous memoir of his Bubbie, Lea. Lea's parents went to the American West in hopes of making their fortunes, yet quickly decided that they might have actually been better off staying in Poland. Lea, the youngest of three, was born not long after the family reintegrated into small town Polish society. However, fortunes did not improve for the family, and by the time Lea was 12 years old, her father and two siblings had scattered, leaving her alone with her mother, Esther. Still a child herself, she became a nanny to help her mother make ends meet. But Lea wasn't content to simply watch life pass her by, and so she struck out on her own to build a new life in Brussels. By 1940, when the Nazis invaded Belgium, Lea was married with two children.

Lazega does a remarkable job of conveying the way things were in the early 1900s, but it is the sudden rise of Nazi militarism that the author captures particularly adeptly. Lea and her family were like so many others in Europe during that time. They went about their daily lives, paying little mind to German rhetoric because it simply didn't seem important then. But unlike many who chose to stay and ride out the storm, Lea instantly recognized the danger to her family on that fateful day in 1940. She quite literally bullied her family out of Belgium and into France, where her quick wits saved them from being sent right back into Belgium again.

Time and time again, it is Lea's finely tuned survival instincts and fierce determination to protect her family that saves them from ruin. And, as Lea enjoyed repeatedly pointing out in her later years, if she managed to escape from Hitler, she should be able to do whatever she pleased. Unfortunately for Lea's descendants, doing whatever she pleased meant seeing an optometrist instead of a cardiologist for her heart trouble and getting thrown out of six different nursing homes within five months.

This family memoir is at once a heart-wrenching, desperate tale of survival and a hilarious recounting of a stubborn Grandma's antics. The bulk of the story covers Lea's fight to keep her family alive during WWII. These in-depth flashbacks are richly interspersed with fond memories the author has of his Bubbie during her later years.

In some places, Lazega uses phonetic spelling to replicate the effects of the speaker's accent. Phonetic spelling is particularly apparent with Bubbie's speech (i.e. Ya, I know vhere it is. You vant I should bring you back someting?) Readers may find the phonetic spelling a little jarring at first, but once accustomed to it, it breathes life into the realistic dialogue. At times, it even adds to the humor of the more recent flashbacks, such as when Bubbie mistakes the heavy accent of a car rental representative's "you" for "Jew" and nearly tries to instigate WWIII.

The story of Lea's life is remarkably engaging and is made richer with the addition of biographical details of the author and other family members. At times, it can be tempting to skip the more recent flashbacks to find out what happens next to the younger Lea and her family. Yet, the marriage of the 1940s with the 1980s produces profound insight about the virtues of courage, resolution, and commitment to family.

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