My grandmother and I went to China the summer I was 23. During that trip, one of our tour guides stopped to talk with me. “I had heard in America young people don’t respect their elders,” he said, “but you take such good care of your grandmother. It must not be the way I heard. Or she must have taken great care of you when you were a child.”
I just smiled and thought to myself, Oh, not even close.
I met my grandmother when I was 22. The first time I saw her was in the baggage claim area of the Miami airport. She was this tiny little termagant, with dyed red hair verging on pink. The first thing she said to me was, “You don’t smoke, do you? Your parents still smoke.” The latter statement really ought to have been a question, since she couldn’t possibly know. She hadn’t spoken to my father since before I was born.
Immediately after that, without giving me a chance to respond, she pointed at my chest and said, “You got those from me.”
She was not the kind of grandmother who baked cookies, or, if she did, you really didn’t want them. She’s the only person I’ve ever known who can make chicken soup from scratch and have it taste like it came from a can. There was a story my father likes to tell about her cooking–my uncle apparently asked for a tuna salad for dinner at some point in his early teens. She dumped out a can of sardines, mashed them with mayonnaise, and plopped that down in front of him saying, “There’s your tuna salad.” And then Uncle Stan ran away from home.
I’m sure it was more complicated than that. I do know that my uncle leaving was a big deal for my father. He left for yeshiva (intense religious school, for those unfamiliar with Jewish culture). His intent was to become a rabbi. Which he never did. Ultimately, he became a screenwriter (a successful one, too). But that’s a different story.
As my father tells it, Uncle Stan left for yeshiva because it was the one place Grandma couldn’t reach him. The yeshiva he went to was so strict, they would never let her enter dressed as she was (either sleeveless or short sleeved dresses). She, of course, wouldn’t budge on her clothing choices for anyone.
If you’re beginning to get the sense she wasn’t an easy person… you’d be right.
There are other stories I’ve been told about her. My grandfather married her, according to my father and my uncle, because she was pregnant with Uncle Stan. According to her, she and Harry eloped because her mother didn’t approve of him. They married in secret and kept it hidden for three months, at which point Fang (which is what my dad and uncle call their grandmother) found the copy of the wedding certificate and kicked her out. She went to live with Harry’s family, and oh! they were so wonderful to her! They were the ones who taught her how to cook and how to keep house. Unfortunately, she lost the wedding certificate and the court where it was registered burnt down. So… Guess who I believe?
According to her, she and Harry had a marvelous relationship. He adored her and it had been love from first sight. She came home from her first date with him and said, “I’m going to marry him.” Fang apparently said something along the lines of “That shusterszun!?” (That shoemaker’s son?!) Fang was not a fan of the idea, clearly.
Uncle Stan apparently bore the brunt of his father’s resentment. There’s a story about how Uncle Stan, when he was 3 or 4, dropped an oatmeal cookie on the floor. Maybe he threw it. The details are fuzzy. Harry took of his belt and made Grandma leave the room and forever after she would say she never knew what happened after that. This is a story my father tells with a grim look on his face right before saying that he was the lucky one. His mother protected him from Harry, but no one protected Stan.
There are so many stories, like the one in which she and Harry snuck out of the house because they didn’t want to tell my father they were going out and deal with him being distressed (as only small children can be) and my father saw them leaving and ran sobbing after their car as they drove away, believing they’d abandoned him.
Then there’s the story of her catching Harry cheating on her and using that to force him into adopting a daughter. They adopted Kathy, who was somewhere between 5 and 7 at the time, I think. My father and Uncle Stan were both away in college at the time, and their parents didn’t tell them about the adoption. Instead they came home during the holidays and discovered they had a new sister.
It was only because of Kathy–because of Kathy’s death, specifically–that I met my grandmother. My father and uncle had both stopped talking with their parents decades prior, but they still talked with Kathy. Sometimes lent her money to get out of a tight spot. Other times got held at gunpoint by her ex-boyfriend trying to track her down. She died of a drug overdose during my senior year of college. Dad and Uncle Stan wanted to to do something to acknowledge her death, but they didn’t want contact with their mother. So they sent the most extravagant flower arrangement they could find for her funeral. My grandmother wrote back saying that if either of her grandchildren wanted to know her, she wanted to know them.
I had always wanted a grandmother. Desperately. So I wrote back.
(There’s more to say, but later.)