Saturday, June 15, 2013

My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner

This is an at times humorous memoir by the Israeli novelist, Meir Shalev.  While he tells the story of his childhood, and some tales about his parents and aunts and uncles, the focus is on his eccentric Russian grandmother, Tonia.  She immigrated to Palestine prior to the creation of the State of Israel where, as a young girl, she married the husband of her deceased half sister, becoming a terrible mother to his young sons and bearing four children of her own, including the author's mother.  She never has a great marriage and her husband periodically takes off only to have her chase after him and drag him home.  But her biggest enemy is dirt - she spends her life cleaning, pulls her daughters out of school on a regular basis so they can help her clean, never lets anyone in the front door, makes her children and grandchildren, and their house guests "shower" at a trough in the cow shed and even encourages them to pee outside by a tree so they don't dirty the bathroom.  And keeping out the dust in a primitive farming community is a life long challenge.  The vacuum cleaner of the title, is sent to Tonia by her husband's brother, the "double traitor" who chose to immigrate to Los Angeles and became a successful businessman - forsaking both Zionism and Socialism.  When his brother sends back all the US dollars he sends in an effort to help, the American brother plots the ultimate revenge and sends a modern GE vacuum cleaner which he figures his sister-in-law will not be able to resist.  And at first she doesn't - using her "sveeperr"to suck up every speck of dust.  But then she obsesses over where the dirt goes and when she has her brother disassemble the machine she sees all the dirt inside and panics.  She cannot worry about keeping the innards of this machine clean, and cannot be convinced that it's meant to be dirty, so she packs it up in its original box, covers it with a sheet and locks it in an unused bathroom.  The author himself only sees it once in the middle of the night when he brings home an American girl he's met by chance whose father owns a GE dealership in LA.  Tonia barges into their room (in one of the funnier scenes) and asks whether the father can provide a seal that her brother warned her would one day wear out (this is 40 years after the machine was initially taken apart and she received the warning).  Instead the girl tries to buy the machine for her father's show room but Tonia won't part with it and back into the bathroom it goes.

At times the story was a bit boring but at other times it was fun to peek into the life of such an unusual woman and to see the impact she had on subsequent generations.  It also made clear where Shalev got his inspiration for certain characters in The Blue Mountain.

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