As long as I was thinking about my Nona, the greatest grandmother on the planet, well I can’t really think of her, or describe her without talking about the singular most memorable of her habits, at least among my friends, and for this she was a legend. I can with 100% confidence that say that I had the only grandma in Stockton who would pass her afternoons sitting in her comfy chair, looking out the back window at the lake we lived on, hose in her hand, mouth piece at one end, water pipe at the other.
Grannie smoked a hookah.
Once the Za’atar and gifts were distributed the next agenda item on Nona’s list after a long flight, time to “make shisha”.
For Nona, “making shisha” was as much about the ritual as it was about actually smoking. The entire process, start to finish took about an hour. People moved a slower pace back then, they had time for daily ritual, and in some parts of the world, still do.
The shisha ritual went something like this:
Ever afternoon Nona would stop whatever it was she was doing, most probably watching old movies on TV or maybe actually going to movies, which BTW called the cinema.
Anyways on some cue that I wasn’t privy too Nona would head into the kitchen where she’d find her “paraphernalia”, basically a tuna can lid and a pair of the most heavy duty, and intricately decorated tweezers you’ve ever seen. Actually these were bigger than tweezers, they were more like demi-tongs. They were made out of brass and had graceful matching curves from where the two sides were connected down to the “grabbing” end. The ends were enlarged and squared off with a hole through each side. These were not for plucking chin hairs; these were for handling hot coals.
And down from the bookshelf where it rested when she wasn’t using it, or when she wasn’t in town, Nona would pull down her giant water pipe. She kept a small one with her in her suitcase, I remember it having a green glass bottom and being about 18 inches high. But for real smoking she liked her big ones. The one we had for her was about 36 inches high. It was big enough that if she sat it on the floor next to her, she could reach over and adjust the tobacco or the coals without bending over too much.
A Shisha is the Egyptian name for a hookah. My Lebanese Aunts referred to it as a N’arghi’lle. My friends, well they mistakenly called it a bong. It wasn’t a bong. Didn’t have a “carb” as Spicoli would say in Fast Times years later.
Her sheshia was really a beautiful object, and quite functional. It had a clear glass bottle on the bottom, decorated with gold leaf paint in circular designs around the base. Very near eastern. In the bottle went the stem section. A large tube basically made out of polished brass and silver. The tube had and inner tube where the hose attached and went down into the water. The hose.. I’m not sure what it was made out of. It always reminded me of a snake, light brown with many thin segments, the end that went to the stem had a kind of embroidered cover with needlepoint in reds and blues, again in a very near eastern pattern that was geometric in nature, which avoided offending G-d by showing something He created. A common belief among Jews and Muslims.
The mouth piece was carved wood of some kind with a thin metal around at the top.
On top of the tube was a circular tray and on top of that, sticking up like a flower, the ceramic bowl.
The smoking process was like this-
- Go out the garage and get a couple briquettes out of Dad’s BBQ stash. We had BBQ about 5 times in the 18 years I lived at home. The bag was for Nona.
- Wrap the charcoal in a plastic wrap, put them on the floor and beat them with Mom’s rolling pin in they were crumbled. Same method used for pressing garlic BTW.
- Put the tuna can lid on the stove, right on the element, set the stove HIGH and drop some of charcoal crumbles on lid with.. the neato tongs.
- While that’s cooking, open the portfolio. Nona traveled with a portfolio looking thing that she used to carry around her tobacco. In her case whole leaves of dried “Persian” tobacco. They were carefully stored between sheets of wax paper.
- I seem to recall her washing the tobacco a bit to get it wet. Probably so it wouldn’t burn as fast. What did I know I was like 10.
- Fill the bowl of the sheshia with water, put the top on.. The top was the long tube that descended into to the water, up through a bottle stop and up to the bowl of the thing. Around the bowl was the circular tray. Below the bowl was the port for the hose.
- Go to the stove and get the now glowing red charcoal chunks and place them into the tray, put the tobacco ball on top and with the fancy tongs select a red hot chunk, drop it onto the tobacco, grab hose and mouth piece, lean back in her chair and….
The English, on encountering hookah’s in India referred to them as “hubbly-bubblies”. If you were sitting next to me I could make the sound, I imitate it pretty good to this day.
And that’s how Nona would pass the afternoon. Every afternoon. Smoking, looking out at the yard and the lake. In hindsight a pretty good existence. My friends would drop over and check out Sank’s hookah bong hitting grannie. And while I’d like to impress you with stories of her doing bong hits with “tobacco” I can’t cause it wasn’t. It also wasn’t cherry-vanilla- toffee flavored shit that the kids are now smoking with these things. It was just tobacco, quality tobacco which she got from the tobacconist at Eatons in Montreal.
The only day she didn’t “make her sheshia” was on Saturday as that was Shabbat.. No smoking on the Sabbath. On Saturday night however, after the sun went down and we made havdalah, the ceremony dividing the Sabbath from the rest of the week… well it took her like 3 nano seconds after the last blessing to grab a cig from my old man, put it to her lips, light it and in one humongous draw suck that thing all the way down to the filter. Apparently there was some ‘Jonesing” going on there. Nona needed a hit and taking 20 minutes to prep the pipe wasn’t going to cut it.
You know, my Dad’s father, also a big smoker and religious Jew also suffered withdrawals during Shabbat. And then he discovered that in America there’s a product for everything. It is possible to enjoy tobacco and not violate the Sabbath by lighting up.
Which is why he died with a can of Copenhagen in his shirt pocket. He loved this country.