The Little Bubba, my husband’s maternal grandmother, was no more than 4’8” tall and she weighed about 85 pounds. Her diminutive size belied her strong and feisty personality. She was smart and tough, descended from a prominent rabbinical family She was a force to be reckoned with.
She gave us the pukh for an engagement gift.
We became engaged in 1959, when I was 19 years old. We received the typical gifts from friends and family, lots of beautifully wrapped bags and boxes from places named Fortunoff’s and Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Bamberger’s.
And then there was the pukh, a Yiddish and Hebrew word that means goose down, the warm, luxurious material that’s beneath the feathers and hidden under the wings of Polish geese. That gift was wrapped in an old newspaper, and it was delivered by the Little Bubba herself.
There is some debate about where the best goose down comes from. Some say Iceland and some say Hungary, but many treasure the down from Poland. Me? I have no opinion at all. I just have memories of dealing with the unexpected gift whose function in my upcoming new life as a wife was not immediately apparent. Obviously the new dishes and silver flatware were important. The crystal bowls a bit less so, but I could figure them out when I had candy to disburse. All sorts of Judaica was to be treasured, and guests often comment to this day on the engraved sterling silver kiddush cup, a gift from the Big Bubba.
But the goose down? Less clearly useful to that Newark teenager that I was!
It’s important to go back almost a century, to 1925, to set the stage for the pukh’s arrival in this country, this USA of ours. How did it get here? Never have I seen a Polish goose flaunting its down, strutting around New York or New Jersey.
The answer goes back to the Little Bubba, who arrived in New York with her four children, all daughters, in 1925. Her husband, Lazer, Americanized to Louis, had left Poland before her, as was typical. He was the pacesetter who arrived at Ellis Island in 1924, shortly after the birth of the youngest child, who became Aunt Elsie many years later.
The Little Bubba, named Chana at her birth in 1890, was known as Anna in America. She and her daughters endured a train trip to the German port of Hamburg, more than 500 miles from their shtetl home near Bialystok, Poland. This was an exhausting journey, pre-paid to the steamship line, which also included lodging in Hamburg. There they waited in a center provided by the Hamburg Jewish community, along with many other Jewish emigrants, until the boat was ready to board and their compulsory physical exams were successfully completed. The trip to Hamburg had to be a deterrent to some, especially those with young children, and packing for such an expedition, a one-way trip to the unknown, was overwhelming. Yet the Little Bubba continued on, and in every step of the arduous trip, the pukh was included, a valuable imperative, a necessary accompaniment, a treasure to be hidden from prying eyes.
Finally, the ship was ready for the crossing. It’s hard to catalog the mix of emotions that the Little Bubba must have felt — fear, optimism, and the knowledge that this trip would have no return passage, all mixed in with the challenging logistics of surviving. Many passengers did not survive it.
This was no pleasure cruise. Travel in steerage was unrelenting misery, the family confined to the dank, overcrowded, disease-filled, rat-infested underbelly of the ship. This nightmare could last anywhere from 40 to 70 days, depending on the weather. I cannot possibly imagine packing for such a journey! Providing for the children’s needs and deciding what to bring and what to leave behind were agonizing choices. I think of this always when I think of the pukh. Why was it prioritized? Who was it for? Was it important enough to bring when preparing for a life-altering experience? Did it displace items that could have been more important? Sleeping on the primitive, overcrowded straw-filled mattresses in steerage, knowing that a cache of luxurious goose down was close by, must have been an ironic paradox to the Little Bubba.
The pukh was destined to be engagement gifts for grandchildren. How could she possibly know how many grandchildren there would be, since her own children were still so young, and of course unmarried? I only know that we were, some 35 years later, proudly gifted with a supply of the precious pukh. And, in the end, we didn’t use it!
When the gift arrived, neither my future husband nor I, nor my American parents, had any clue as to what to do with it, until my husband’s parents took charge. We learned that it was a treasure to be treated with the utmost respect. We were to have it made into a comforter, a pure down quilt, known as a duvet, which would then be covered with a quilt cover. The duvet could never be washed, so it was always to be covered.
My in-laws accompanied us to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, to an old building on Grand Street, with an ancient shop located up a rickety flight of trembling and fragile wooden stairs. The shop’s walls and floors and ceilings were all covered in the precious pukh. The pukh filled the very air we breathed. But we were not there to merely drop off the pukh and have the comforter shipped to us on completion. No, that was not the way! The shop was to make it into a quilt in front of our very eyes, so that there would be, could be, no substitutions possible. We could not let the precious pukh be stolen from us, knowing how much angst it had caused to get it to this time and place. Who would conceivably merely abandon it, remembering the years that had passed and the suffering associated with its transport?
The room we were in was home to a machine, like a reverse vacuum cleaner. Once we had picked out the fabric, a red silky material, the pukh was blown into it and emerged a quilt, or a comforter or a duvet, whichever term you prefer. Add some stitching and there you were, almost ready to go. Of course, you needed to immediately purchase quilt covers before you could go home and sleep with it.
Therein lay the problem!
We finally were married a few months later, and I discovered I was not one to leave a bed unmade. Making the beds was a job for Mom when I was growing up. Now it was squarely in my corner — and the corners were the problem. As a student and then a working woman, it offended me to come home late in the day to an unmade bed. Some of us are more obsessive compulsive than others. I suppose I exceed them all. The issue with the pukh comforter was that blasted quilt cover. I never succeeded in getting the quilt into it properly. The slippery material of the comforter was really and truly slippery! When I placed it on the bed, it looked sloppy, unless I labored intensely to get the corners loaded into the quilt cover. I often immersed my head into the cover’s enormous cavity, trying to reach the ends so that they were firmly in place. Otherwise the bed looked unkempt, and I had no tolerance for that. It was too much pain for too little gain.
It was my own inadequacy that did me in in the end. I had no available time to make the bed as I wanted to. I gave up. The pukh could go back to Poland for all I cared.
So modern times caught up with me. I bought a cotton comforter, replaced through the years with several others made of polyester. They needed no quilt covers and were easily laundered in my washer. I reserved the fancy, covered, pukh-laden one for visits from the Little Bubba. She eventually went to her grave never knowing the truth. And we eventually disposed of the historic Polish down from under the feathers that had crossed the earth, only to meet rejection, in a Newark trash can.
Yes. I do feel guilt. To this very day, all these many years later!
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!