My grandma Bess died today. She was very Yankee for a Jew. Strong Boston accent, very elegant in that Hepburn-y low-key never-trying-too-hard way, not very into fashion or beauty (though she was VERY beautiful), super-duper athletic in her day. (Kennedy-esque!) When I was a kid, she could swim halfway across the lake and back in a picture-perfect front crawl. I remember taking walks with her on Cape Cod, on cracked and winding asphalt roads (no sidewalks in the country back then), admiring her Wallaby shoes and hoping I could keep up. Grandma was very smart — she went to Boston University in an era when not many women went to college, because she was too smart NOT to go. She was amazing with numbers and she was very open-minded. When Andy came out to her, she barely batted an eye. (She said, “I know. We all have them in families. In my day we called them ‘bachelors.’”) She welcomed Neal into our family and adored Andy and Neal’s daughter Shirley.
Grandma was not the cuddly, soup-making bubbe of children’s books. She was not super-demonstrative, and she was not much of a cook. I associate visiting her with eating little oval knishes (from a box — I loved them). When we visited her on the Cape, we chased lobsters around the kitchen floor. The one thing she made, and made amazingly well, was blueberry pie. Grownups in her house had drinks in heavy highball glasses. There were always cut-crystal candy dishes filled with pastel-coated chocolate mints. Even in her late 90s, when she was living in an assisted living facility, even when she wasn’t doing much talking anymore, she’d direct her home health aide to offer you candy. (Josie and Maxie loved visiting her, because she had candy AND a karaoke machine.)
Bess’s husband, my grandfather, was a beloved pediatrician who made house calls. He was my mom’s pediatrician, and he used to joke with my mom’s mother that one day their children would marry. But he didn’t live to see it happen. He died when my dad was 14 and my aunts Gilda and Nancy were even younger. Bess was very strong for her kids; she wasn’t a huge crier and she wasn’t a drama queen. She was practical. She married again when she was still young and beautiful — she and Papa used to go dancing. She loved to dance and the two of them cut quite a rug. As a kid, I was happy that she had one husband who sounded as though he’d been serious and a little exacting, and one who was indulgent and fun.
She was a young woman during the Depression. We laughed at her for saving teabags to reuse two or three times, and carefully rinsing tin foil, smoothing it out and putting it back in a drawer.
But she was engaged with and fascinated by the modern world. She had email (remember WebTV?) in 1998. She LOVED her email. (Her address was email@example.com, because she loved Scrabble, could kick everyone’s ass in it, and played for blood. Sometimes she’d pretend to be a little doddering so you’d let down your guard, and then she’d put down a gazillion-scoring word, slapping down the tiles triumphantly.) And she was utterly engaged in politics. She sent my brother this note when Andy told her he was considering voting for Nader in 2000:
I think you are wrong. There is still a big difference between the 2 parties. The democrats are still more concerned with helping the poor, and improving health care for the needy. Look at W’s record in Texas. It is not all that he claims. And his emphasis on this being a CHRISTIAN COUNTRY is scary. Lieberman’s euphoria and talking about God etc. has already spent itself. I think he will now concentrate on political campaigning and tone down on religion. He has been in the senate for about 8 years and he never threw his religion around. Also, if the democrats get in, Liebeerman as v.p. will have to defer to the pres., Gore. Don’t waste your vote on Nader. He, too, is not what he was early on. I know you like to be a protestor.But think first before you protest. First and foremost,Bush is not the man we want for pres. Sometimes you have to chose the lesser of 2 evils.
When she was in her 80s, we took her to a Nam June Paik exhibit at a Florida museum. We pushed her through in her wheelchair as she gaped at the crazy techie installations. In the car on the way back to her apartment, she kept saying “What a wonderful world!” She read my column in the Forward religiously [sic] for years and sent notes. She was SO warm and complimentary about my writing (and told me whenever she disagreed with me). My dad always said that she was demonstrative and boast-y about her grandchildren in a way she never was with her own children. And I found her infinitely more expressive and loving in email than face to face.
It can’t have been easy for her as a widow with three young children. She was also trapped by poor hearing, and then poor vision, for a long time while her mind was still active. (She read up a storm until her early 90s.) But she was not the type to allow herself be miserable. When I had a miscarriage, she emailed me to say she’d had one too, before my dad was born, and it was pointless to dwell. Just stop thinking about it.
She was a remarkable woman.
Baruch Dayan Emet.