MY GRANDMOTHERS’ LESSONS
(This appeared in The Buffalo News (May 10, 2013 op-ed page) in a slightly different form.)
As a new grandmother this Mother’s Day I am thinking of my own, both gone from this world almost 50 years, yet reminding me how they showed up, and helping me in the role.
In 1964, a week after my Grandma Davidoff died from surgery complications, my Grandma Cohen, about to pay a shiva call, got hit by a car crossing the street at my aunt’s house and died immediately. We did not find out what was in her covered casserole dish. I did not, as I had for Grandma D, find the words to write a poem.
Intensely social and conventional, Grandma C judged my quirky, misunderstood mother who struggled to fit in. She would come to our house for Friday dinner wearing a dark dress and long face, tighten her lips when we kissed her, and check in with Mom in the kitchen, where a disagreement might ensue. At the table, she bragged about my country club uncle and the life he afforded his family, disapproving of my father’s preference for literature to making money, showing little interest in me.
On Sunday visits to Grandma Davidoff’s, I got hugs when Dad and I walked in. Then she put freshly baked kichel (sugar cookies) on a plate on the kitchen table. “Just for Nancy,” she would say, sitting me down, her eyes gleaming. Dad walked around shoving one after another into his mouth. “No one bakes like you, Ma.” Although I thought her kichel were dry, of course I agreed.
At age seven, on a car trip to Florida, I listened to her stories of two Russian sisters, Mashington and Tashington, in the back seat with my head on her lap. After four days, she told my parents, “I never knew how smart Nancy was.” I reminded her I hardly said a word. “That’s why,” Grandma said.
She did not drive. Once or twice a week after school, even as a teenager, I visited her while my mother did errands. We watched “Our Five Daughters” our favorite soap opera. I hated when Mom picked me up. Later I called Grandma to continue our ‘soap’ discussion but really because she made me feel loved.
Every member of her clan felt that way. Anyone who did not think we were the smartest, most special people on Planet Earth would get a look from Grandma Davidoff. Yet when my Aunt Dora, her younger daughter, came running home with a suitcase, railing about her spouse, Grandma told her, “I bet he has something to say, too.”
The mutual respect and adoration between Grandma D and her brood comforted me. The tension between my mother and Grandma C hurt. I believe Grandma Cohen suffered from depression and, feeling guilty she passed it down to Mom, could not embrace her or her children. I understand now, too, that praise and affection were hard.
She showed up when it mattered–to take me to the movies on Saturday; to shop for school clothes when my mother was hospitalized; and to help bury my turtle. When Myrtle died, I insisted on having a funeral. My mother, already sick and spending afternoons in her room, would not participate. I needed a substitute mom. “She’ll come in a dark dress and long face,” I said, asking Dad to call Grandma Cohen. Sure enough, a half hour later, she appeared in our backyard wearing both. My father dug a hole in which I placed Myrtle in her bowl. Then my sister, Dad, Grandma and I put dirt, daffodils and dandelions on my little turtle’s grave.
I am sorry I had no couplets for Grandma Cohen. I have promises now for my grandson. Should he get and lose a pet for which he wants a funeral, I will be a respectful mourner and stand beside him wearing the appropriate dress and face. In the meantime, I will shower him with pride and praise and kisses and hugs, reminding him with a gleam in my eyes that he is the best. The brightest. Special.