OyChicago articles

The Rumors of Her Death

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Libby and Bubba, crawling like pros

When the men were gone and she could no longer think of the word for the thing she used to light cigarettes, my grandmother, Barbara Russakoff—Bubba to those who loved her most—gave up, wrote a note, and overdosed on anti-depressants and applesauce. And it didn't work.

That was seven years ago. I was sitting in a gray cubicle in Boston pretending to work when I got the call from my mom. I don't remember the five-hour drive to Bubba’s home in Skowhegan, Maine. It was strange to be in her house without her. For the first time I could remember, the large, round schoolhouse clock on the wall opposite the table was silent. When I was a kid, its tick was the constant soundtrack of summer. A few days earlier, Bubba had told my mom that it was just wound too tight and not to bother about fixing it.

We drank too much, playing cards and telling old stories. Bubba was, as far as I’m concerned, the best grandmother a kid could have. She was beautiful and wild, she smoked—as my mom explained—using each cigarette like punctuation. She played bridge and golfed, she had affairs with married men and painted her toenails coral, she made me chicken salad with sliced cucumbers, taught me to play poker and drove all over the state (speeding, with me perched on the armrest) to find the Blueberry Muffin doll I was desperate to have. She smelled like Salem Ultra Lite 100s and Jean Nate. She loved men who were unapologetic cads and told me to keep a list of people I would bite if I ever got rabies. She thought I was the best kid ever—aside from my mom. I loved her unconditionally.

And there we were in that kitchen without her. Rooting around for a bottle opener, my mom found an old grocery receipt. Bub liked to listen to the radio and write down quotes that appealed to her. In her arthritic scrawl were Mark Twain’s words, "The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated."  It was followed by a reminder to herself: "Get cigarettes."

I would have been happy if that had been the official suicide note—those were apt, hilarious instructions. Then, on her desk, I found a yellow Post-It just big enough to hold her words: "Libby, don’t mourn. Be happy that I can do what I want! I love you." If Bubba had actually died, that note would have been the best thing.

When I went to see Bubba in the hospital the morning after her attempt, I thought about the year my friend’s grandmother died; I was four. When my parents and I visited Maine that summer, I was worried and I asked Bubba what would happen if she died. "Oh, I’ll still be your grandmother. I will just be your dead grandmother," she said easily. At the time, I was satisfied.

Bubba had been misdiagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years before her suicide attempt. Her seemingly lifelong depression became increasingly more severe. Every time I called, I wondered if it might be the last time we would speak. She’d always been vocal about her plans to kill herself when she decided the time was right. But 20 years of contradictions between her words and her actions left me simultaneously expecting her suicide and feeling sure it would never happen.

In the hospital she was in pain and very confused because the large dose of drugs had caused hallucinations. In and out of restraints, she rubbed her heels raw trying to kick her way out of the bed. Bubba couldn’t move her arms much, so did the verbal equivalent of grabbing my mom by the sleeve when she mustered all her concentration to hatch a plan. "Call a cab." When my mom explained that she couldn’t, Bubba archly said, "If you wouldn’t be too cold, we could go sit outside on the curb and wait for the cab." Bubba is accustomed to getting her way and couldn’t imagine why my mom wasn’t following orders.

We’re not a religious family and often find in literature what I imagine others must find in prayer. Before I left her house that weekend, I came across a passage by E. B. White that Bubba had torn out of a magazine years before and stuck on her fridge: "Hope is the thing that is left to us in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness." I cried. My mom rolled up her sleeves with a sigh and sadly walked over to the old clock and took it off the wall. "Well, let's get it fixed," she said, hoping as I did that maybe Bubba and the clock would find their ways back to the little brown kitchen.

They didn’t. The years that followed were a mix of ups and downs, mostly downs, in various assisted living and nursing facilities. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which sometimes came in handy for my mom when the staff called her about Bub’s bad behavior—sleeping around, calling people bitches, the usual nursing home stuff. Blaming the Alzheimer’s was much easier for us than trying to explain that Bubba would have said and done these things quite happily before she was sick—and even more happily if she knew she was pissing people off.


Bubba in her glam days

There was the time I brought my dog to visit, and Bub suddenly looked like a woman with an idea (or “idear” as pronounced in her thick Maine accent). She did always love a conspiracy. "Lib, could you train that dog to bite a nurse?" I got it right away: the rabies list. "It won't work. The dog’s had her shots." We sat and laughed until we cried.

And the time I called and we had this phone conversation, me in Chicago, and her in home number three in Portland, Maine:
Me: Hiya Bub, how’s it going over there?
Bub: I’m wearing a robe and there’s a man in my bed.
Me: I hope you know him.
Bub: (Giggling) Yes, that’s my boyfriend, Forrest. Your mom won’t let me talk to her about my sex life.
Me: Well, I’m glad you have one again. That usually perks you up. Forrest sounds nice.
Bub: He’s fine but he’s no Eddie or Carl.
Me: Hmm, maybe you’ll end up liking him more than you think you will.
Bub: No, I’ll never care for him much, but he does take his Viagra and the sex…
Me (interrupting—who wouldn’t?): Uh, that’s fantastic. Just great. So, tell me about Forrest, what did he do before he landed in the nursing home?
Bub: Oh! He screwed around!! I have to go, I’m proud on you!

She always said, “I’m proud on you” rather than proud of you—my friend Bevin once pointed out that this more aggressive form of praise was actually the highest, far as she could tell.

There was the time she told my mom she had a new suicide plan: her boyfriend Ed (married) would borrow his brother’s gun and shoot her. My mom, upon hearing this, couldn’t help it and started laughing. Bub got mad and went into one of her rants about how she can do whatever she wants and Jack Kevorkian is a saint among men and Mother Theresa is a fucking bitch. Never mind that she herself is a non-religious Jew and saints had been of very little interest to her in the past. Then she snarled, “Well, why won’t it work?” And my mom said, “Bub, Ed has Parkinson’s disease! He’ll never hit what he’s aiming at!” In the old days, the two of them would have laughed at the absurdity of it all. But Bubba just got very sad that once again, she had no way out.

Those were the semi-funny times when she had a rotating team of what she could call boyfriends—two of whom had one leg each, one who was legally blind and many with wives—and was always after my mom to buy a double bed for her room in the home. Back then we saw a glimmer of the old Bubba, even though she kept telling us she knew she was losing her mind.

The less good days involved her crawling into my lap and crying, pleading for me to smother her with a pillow. She explained that if I loved her, I could kill her and that I was a smart girl and would not get caught—and that if I did, the sentence probably wouldn’t be that long. Or her trying to get my mom to promise that when she died she would not cry and that she would leave her ashes at the cremation place for the garbage men. She didn’t care that I would be known in jail as “that girl who killed her grandmother” or that my mom would be that awful woman who abandoned her mother’s remains. If there had been a way for us to wish her dead, we would have because that’s how much we loved her.

The last time I saw her, about two years ago, she wasn’t sure who I was. I sat on her bed, she gripped my hand like there was something I could do. It felt like this was going to last forever, like it already had.

When my dad called last summer to tell me that Bubba died—from a heart attack uncharacteristically fast and drama-free—I crumpled to the floor, sobbing, miserable and relieved. It was, at the time, a shocking emotional mix. Looking back, I imagine lots of people feel similarly when they lose someone so loved but so very ready to go.

My mom wrote a beautiful obituary about Bubba’s competitive bridge skills, her humor, her strong belief in civil liberty and justice, her elegant cooking and how much she loved us all. There wasn’t a funeral to attend but there was an outpouring of support.

My friend Sam credited Bubba for my irreverence. Our friend Eileen wrote to my mom, “I'm sure that she felt that the best of her was in you and Libby.” My mom’s cousin said Bubba taught her that apple pie is a viable breakfast option. Diane, the woman who helped my mom navigate nursing home politics and became a terrific friend to her and Bub, wrote, “She was such a hot shit!” Bevin remembered knowing her when we were little and thinking that, with her teased-up hair and her stylish bright blue Reebok high-tops, she was far too glamorous to be a grandmother.

My fiancé Erik and I went to Maine to see my parents a couple of weeks after Bub died. My mom and I had planned to scatter her ashes behind one of the granite outcroppings in my parents’ yard. We'd had to give up our first choice of scattering them in the ocean because legally you can't release ashes until you're a few miles offshore. We may be from Maine but we are not marine people, so we chose the rocks at home.

In the morning, after coffee, my dad, Erik and I went out to the yard and my mom got the ashes. She poked her head out of the house and said, “Guys, I started thinking about something I'd somehow never thought about before—the wind.” In addition to not being mariners, we are clumsy people. We decided that scattering could end badly. As glib as we can be sometimes, no one wanted to hear, “Hey, you have a piece of Bubba on your arm.”

My dad said that he had a hydrangea ready to plant and suggested planting it on top of the ashes, so Erik dug the hole, my dad did the pouring and that was that. We spent the rest of the strange day at the beach and played some cards. Then, before dinner, my dad walked into the kitchen and said, “Well, I just watered good old Bubba.” We cracked up, realizing that in a sense, we’d given her a funeral and that it was one she would have been okay with.

When Erik and I went out East last summer, I checked on the plant, found myself saying, “bye, Bub” and then went to the beach. We played cards at the kitchen table, we laughed and told the old stories because we miss her. And, now that she is really gone, I got the clock out of my parents’ basement and brought it home.

Memories of Ashkelon

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Amid terror attacks from Gaza, an Oy! reader recalls simpler times in Ashkelon 


Erica, in Israel

During the fall of 1999, I made an effort to see every sunset on the beach in Ashkelon until the air and water finally began to make my teeth chatter. Our beach trips were a highlight of my days volunteering in Ashkelon, but they weren't all postcard perfect experiences. Some of my companions got toppled by the large surfable waves or stung by the numerous jellyfish that swarmed the Mediterranean waters. Once, I tried to explain in my broken Hebrew to the lifeguard about my friend's jellyfish sting, but not knowing the word medusot at the time, I was stuck saying dag (fish) and making a zzzz sound.

Today, the people of Ashkelon are living underground. Schools and malls have been closed. The Chanukah celebration was moved to a bunker.  My interest in reading Israel-related news always peaks when the country is under attack, but an extra level of sadness settles in when the target is one of the places I lived and know so well.

I wonder what has happened to the immigrant absorption center I lived in as a volunteer on Project Otzma, whose residents at the time were from Ethiopia, Iran, Yemen, Russia, and Bosnia--many leaving terrible situations in their homelands. Now Hamas wants to tell them "Welcome to Israel, you're not safe here either."


An Israeli family takes shelter in an reinforced room as sirens sound in the sea town of Ashkelon, December 29.
Photo Credit: Brian Hendler

I always knew that Gaza was just a short drive from town. Many international workers stayed at the Holiday Inn in Ashkelon, escaping their hard days around the pool. But really, Ashkelon never felt like a border town. It was a full scale city where people complained more about the humidity than any potential dangers from our neighbors to the south—the north of Israel always felt to be more of the potential war zone. Kiryat Shmona and the northern kibbutzim faced the threat of ketyusha rockets from Lebanon. Even in Karmiel, a town slightly farther south, I had the surreal experience of watching a TV warning for the residents of the towns just to north of me to go down to bomb shelters as ketyushas rained.

Ashkelon, I hope that one day soon you can return to a state where it feels safe to go outside. Where children can play in the immigrant absorption center courtyard. Where you can learn, work and live freely as Israelis. Where you can watch the sunset on the beach and your greatest fear will be jellyfish.

Learn more and read local reactions to the situation in Gaza.

Eat, Live, Write

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Chicago Magazine’s Jeff Ruby has an awesome job. 


Jeff Ruby

As a kid growing up in Wichita, Kansas, Jeff Ruby thought Chi-Chi’s was the height of culinary excellence. And a little over a decade ago, he had a job interview with  Chicago Magazine’s  dining editor Penny Pollack that went a little something like this:

Pollack: Do you know anything about food?
Ruby: No, not really, I had Taco Bell on the way over here.

Pollack: Do you know anything about Chicago?
Ruby: Well, I just got here last week, so, you know, I don’t claim to know anything about Chicago either.

He doesn’t exactly possess the typical Jewish obsession with food, nor is he the most likely candidate to write what are arguably the most trusted dining reviews in Chicago.

And yet, for the last 11 years, Ruby has worked his way up the totem pole from fact-checking restaurant hours and addresses and being hazed with assignments to review Rainforest Café and Hard Rock Café – “the amphibian and guitar beat” – to his current position as Senior Editor for the magazine, not only writing about food and dining, but also penning a monthly column called The Closer about, well, whatever he wants. And that includes testing whether Ferris Bueller really could have fit all of his legendary Day Off antics into a single school day.

Ruby is the first to admit that his job is a pretty sweet deal for a guy who tried to do as little traditional reporting and as much writing in his own voice as possible during his two years of journalism school at the University of Kansas: “I’m getting paid to sit in a corner office in a big city, overlooking the river, with a blank screen in front of me and people just waiting for me to fill it,” he says.

Not that his writing is a completely solo project; a lot of his ideas for The Closer come from his wife. Together with their one- and three-year-olds, the couple spends a good amount of time traveling back and forth from their home in Andersonville to Hyde Park, where his wife grew up and where they are both active in creating an engaging synagogue life for other young families at Rodfei Zedek. It has become pretty common practice that right around the Oak Street curve on Lake Shore Drive, Ruby will ask his wife if she has any ideas for the column, and by the time they get home 15 minutes later they’ve come up with a few.

“The problem is when my boss doesn’t think any of the ideas are funny. Then I have to back them up by saying that other people on staff liked them, so he doesn’t think I’m just some dumb kid shooting my mouth off – which I pretty much am,” Ruby says.


"The Lonely Critic," Ruby's bubble-gum pop ode to "the life"

There’s evidence to suggest that Ruby may be selling himself short, though. A few years ago, when rising star chef Grant Achatz first came to Chicago, he worked at Trio, a restaurant in Evantson. As a year-end bonus of sorts, Ruby got to take his wife to Trio and spend as much money as he wanted; Chicago Magazine would pick up the tab, no writing assignment required, no strings attached.

It was during this mind-blowing five-and-a-half-hour meal that Ruby learned he had finally made it as a writer. Sitting a few tables away, an older couple was quoting something Ruby had written in Chicago Magazine, but saying it as though it was their original thought.

Though his wife was incredulous that her husband wasn’t going to call them out on their source, Ruby opted to remain anonymous. “It was a real ego boost,” he recalls. “I was the youngest guy in the restaurant by far, and this snobby guy is over there quoting me. All I ever wanted to do was have people read my writing; it was a real moment of arrival for me.”

Not only did he want to bask in the glory of the moment a few years ago at Trio, but Ruby also believes that anonymity is paramount in his profession – even in this age of online social networking. With all of his friends on Facebook, he created a fake profile, and furiously polices friends’ photo albums to make sure he remains untagged in pictures.

So far, it has paid off. There is only one meal during which he knew the restaurant knew who he was, and he cringes as he remembers how awkward the experience was. “They were so nervous… this guy poured salad dressing in my wine or something, and he looked like he was about to shoot himself.”

Though he has learned a lot about food over the years – he has even written two books, about drinking and pizza – Ruby’s overall opinion of the topic hasn’t changed much. Sure, he has opinions about how his wife’s challah compares to his aunt’s (very favorably), and how one should eat a latke (neither applesauce nor sour cream; a latke is supposed to taste like a latke!), but in the end, it’s not his passion for the edible that inspires him in his daily work. It’s all about the writing.

While his own culinary background may be less than epicurean, Ruby is in good company among Jewish food writers – for example, Alan Richman from GQJeffrey Steingarten from VogueGael Greene, formerly of New York Magazine and Oy!’s own Stacey Ballis. With a nod to prevailing cultural stereotypes, Ruby jokes, “there’s that Jewish thing that we love to eat and argue,” and food writing is just that: eating and voicing an opinion about it.

It’s the arguing, or at least the chance to write an argument in his own voice, that Ruby really loves, even after all these years. “If I was writing about hockey, or anything else, I’d put the same oomph into it,” he says, “I almost feel guilty.”

Ah yes, the third essential trait of Judaism: guilt.

Alternate Realities

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The Living Jewishly stories in Oy! are always some of our favorites--but writing these true tales of Jewish life from all angles can be tricky business. You want to be fair to the people you write about, be sure your point of view is understood and make your story cohesive and interesting to read.

There have been some big stories over the last few years about major authors who have falsified memoirs--including James Frey and Margaret Seltzer to name a couple. This week, Angel At the Fence author, Herman Rosenblat, is making headlines for falsifying a story about meeting his wife while he was in a concentration camp and then finding her by chance years later.

What do you think about the Holocaust survivor's false claims?

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