I want to keep her in my pocket forever.
Fold her gray curls up neatly, stitch the wiry strands into my seams.
Wash once a week, like she did at the beauty parlor. Have her come out fresh again.
I want to remember everything. All the times she called me bubbie. All the times we laughed through something awful. All the inappropriate things she said. All the cuss words, and knowing looks across the table, all the jokes, even through the pain. Her laugh, maniacal and seething. The way she’d fold one leg over the other from her recliner, play with the chain-link bracelets on her wrist, tap her foot, and make some comment about how Vanna just doesn’t thrill her. The crinkly skin, so much softer than any human’s skin should be. The sound of her voice when she pulled me in and said through teeth, “I love you.” Like it was a secret and a command all at once. Like I was being scolded for even daring an alternative: “Get over here. I love you.”
The way she’d look at me like I was a floozie if I wore shorts to dinner, raise a brow and say, “I just don’t think that’s appropriate for a dinner.” Then we’d head out the door to Applebee’s, and she’d grasp her neck, stifle her comments, and glare at me appalled, across the checker-clothed table, as I decided chicken tenders or taco salad, in my shorts.
All the tales of family members I’d never meet. The seltzer delivery service in Brooklyn in the ’40s. The laundromat they owned. The cute neighbor boy who went off to war when she was a kid, and came back when she was a woman, and then finally, finally, noticed her. Just down the street, there she was, still pining for him.
All the love, love, love for that boy, my grandfather, Harold, who I’d meet only through her memories — he was beautiful, profoundly beautiful, it seems. She called him the love of her life, even 40 years past his passing. I wonder what he was like in person, if he really was as grand as the stories left in his place, and if he and I would have been as close as she and I were. Or even closer.
I wonder what she would have been, if she could have been anything? It was different times. She worked at the seltzer shop, she gabbed on Brooklyn stoops with girlfriends, she ran the books at a lamp store, and ultimately re-married one of its salesmen (her second husband, the grandpa I grew up with, Norman). I can see still the soft in her face, when she opened the door of her Florida retirement home, shortly after his passing, “Hiya, babe,” and pulled me in for a hug. “I’m glad you’re here.”
All the times I called her while I was walking, up to Bernal Hill, around the Silver Lake Reservoir. With a coffee in my hand through a neighborhood, somewhere:
“You walking from the cafe?” she’d answer my calls. “How are you? Where are you? What’s shakin’ cookie?”
Towards the end it was a slurred, “Sorry bubbie, I can’t talk. I love you.” Irony that mouth cancer would do it — she lost the gift of gab, which was her greatest strength. Among all her great strengths.
She never smoked or drank. “I never had a drink in my life, except maybe a glass of champagne on my wedding night. But probably not even that!” I think sometimes she abstained, just so she could rub it in people’s faces. “I never had a taste for it. Nope, not for me.” The way she’d say, “Have a beer,” when I sat down to dinner, and “What, are you a drunk? Y’lush,” if I complied. Then that sarcastic smile.
The time she, my sister, my mother and I all huddled in my 2005 Toyota Camry for warmth, blasting the heater and finding solace from the small talk of my sister’s rehearsal dinner. Then she found my bra. “What is this, a D-cup?! You crazy, you’re lucky if you’re an A-minus. I’m an F!” And then she tried it on to prove a point.
I don’t even know how old she was, 93 or 94, which feels like a disservice, when you’ve earned those stripes. Harder to earn the higher they get. In all, she survived two husbands: Harold, the love of her life, and Norman, the companion of her life — her words.
She’d been a caretaker for both in their ends. Self-sacrifice was something in her nature; and in some ways, she seemed to like it. The burying of self for others. Maybe it was all the dividend complaining she earned in the process; she loved a good kvetch. She was great at nothing, if not complaints. She took the care to learn every server’s name within a minute of sitting down at a restaurant, just so she could scold them for bringing not enough onions on the side, and then, too many onions. They never seemed to mind, because she was adorable.
I remember when her best friend Flo died, and she didn’t tell anyone for months. She stored it, because she did that — she stored the real troubles.
Then we spoke, and she told me: her best friend had died — months ago. I’d always known, but I understood then that she and I had something special. We were the two July babies. I needed to call her more, as much as possible, as often as I could, just to say hi, I love you. I’m thinking of you. What’s cookin’? No, not in the oven. I’m not an imbecile, grandma. Of course not in the oven — we would never. Just what’s cookin’ in life?
Or, How’s it going? Who died now? Who’s left? What shenanigans today? How am I? Where am I? Oh, I’m just here, walking around the reservoir. I’m ok…ya… Just thinking of you.
The times she’d grab my face and say “You’re so ugly. You’re so ugly, I can’t stand it. You’re so ugly, you’re beautiful.”
The time I worked on an Oscar-nominated film, and she said, “That’s great. What is it? Never heard of it. How’s your sister?”
My grandma never judged me for my reticence to settle down, or to work in an office, or to build a family. She never hurried me on those things, except for once, when she emphatically said — “Listen, bub, it’s a world of two’s. Remember that.” I hear her still.
She was not perfect, and I know she made life hell for some people sometimes, but I got the privilege of being once removed from that hell, and knowing her as Grandma. I got to spend so many years of my life with that voice, and that character. I am how I am, I am where I am, largely because of the roots I shared with her.
All the times she told me to let her know if I needed any money, really. And all the times I said, No, grandma, I’m fine — and then finally, “Ok, grandma, you want to give me money? How about you buy me a plane ticket out to New York to see you.” And she said, “Well, I’m not made of money. Only if you need it. Can’t you buy that yourself?”
New York always felt like my real home, because she felt like New York. Wherever she was, was home. Whoever she loved, was family.
“I leave the TV on just for company,” she’d tell me, but then still make me watch hours and hours of Hallmark films.
She’ll be buried in New Jersey, in the plot next to Harold’s. She hates New Jersey. And that feels fitting.
I’ll miss playing her in Words With Friends, and kicking her ass, even though she could destroy me at a crossword. I’ll miss knowing that she’s just on the other end of a phone line, always. Always there.
I can’t keep her hair in my seams, because that would be very weird, and possibly illegal? But I love her now, and have for a long time, and I hope that for my forever, I can remember just how much.
I’ll cheers a seltzer to you tonight, Grams.