Saturday, April 12, 2014

My grandma

     My mother and I talk on the telephone several times a week. A few days back, she mentioned that Friday, April 11, is the 30th anniversary of her mother's death.
    Which got me thinking: "I should write something about Grandma Sarah." That was the first thought, anyway. The second thought, arriving hard on its heels, panting, as if worried it would be too late to stop something embarrassing from happening, was this: Don't do it. Writing about grandmas is a fraught endeavor, best left to amateurs. What subject is more prone to schmaltz than one's grandmother? How many buckets of ink, how many pixels, have been slathered on the subject by writers less mediocre than I? Has anyone, in fact, in the wide swoop of literature ever written anything good about their grandmother? She loved us. There's nothing more to say.
     Back away slowly from grandma and nobody gets hurt.
     Which I was about to do. When a third thought, so far sitting in the audience, arms crossed, scowling, shot up its hand, waited then, when called upon, identified itself: "Too timid to write about his own grandmother."
     Fuck no. Never. Better to be bayoneted on the field than expire of fear cowering behind the battlement. That's not our way.
     Sarah Bramson was a tiny, birdlike woman. She was trim, put together. I never saw her sloppy or disheveled or anything other than ready to go. She was a professional woman. She worked in the May Company department store in Cleveland, a salesclerk—we were all proud of that. It was a sign of respectability. Plus there was the 20 percent employee discount, proof that we were not only an industrious family, but insiders, connected. We all benefited. I remember being, oh, 21, tucked into the back of my grandmother's blue Chevy Citation, with her and my mother, on an outing to the department store to purchase a Calvin Klein bomber jacket for me, the discount taking off a bit of the sting. I loved that jacket.
     She sang, with the Jewish Singing Society, the played poker and mahjong. She had cronies who would try to fix me up with their granddaughters. When I was small, she would stack the deck on our excited greetings by keeping Hershey's bars in her purse. Our grandma AND chocolate! What's not to love?
     She was the center of her world. My mother has written a lot of poetry, but the one sentence she wrote that really nailed her subject was the opening line of a poem about her mother: "She achieved the fame we all seek." Yes, exactly.  She was the sun in our solar system.
     Yet she was part of a matched bookend set with my Grandpa Irv, who was quiet and Polish and smoked and drank Old Grand Dad and popped Luden's for his ravaged throat. If there was an edge of vague menace to him — he would give my mother "a licking" when she was young — there was the story of him chasing her down the street, belt in hand. There was the implication I could get one too, if I didn't watch myself. I watched myself.
     They lived together on the East Side of Cleveland, in Cleveland Heights, where my mother grew up. I was 22 before I ate a Thanksgiving dinner that she hadn't made.  She baked — "garbage cake" is what I recall, a pastry roll with whatever was around the kitchen tucked inside (hence the "garbage") -- jam and raisins and walnuts and cinnamon and apples. I'd happily pay $100 to eat a slice now. There's no recipe. My mother has tried to make the dough, many times. Couldn't do it.
    My grandfather died in 1981. He was ailing, but robust, and it took us by surprise. He took ill having lunch with my mother, and was gone in a couple hours. My grandmother wanted to climb into the grave. Then she did something that shocked us. She recovered, fast, and was living, doing things. She had a gentleman friend, Dave. She was Blanche DuBois, only Jewish and in her 70s and in Cleveland.
     Then she died too. Also in a day.  Good for her, bad for us. Her death was worse, 30 years ago Friday, because we didn't have her to worry about. We didn't have anyone to worry about. Only us, and what were we now? It was over. My mother's extended family never gathered together in the same room after her funeral. My wedding, maybe, but then that was it. What would be the point? Half of us didn't even like each other. She had been the glue. The house was shut down, her possessions scattered. I took a photo of my grandfather as a young man, and a compact she bought on her honeymoon, at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago.
     I only remember one thing my Grandma Sarah ever said to me — and grandparents, this might be a hint to choose your words carefully. There had been an episode of "The Price is Right" — she and my grandpa loved to watch "The Price is Right." A woman had said, during the little pre-game interview they do, that she had worked as a dresser in Hollywood in the 1930s, and the host asked her if she had any regrets from the experience and she said, according to my grandmother, why yes, that Clark Gable had asked her to sleep with him but she had refused.
    "Of course she should regret it; the woman's a fool," my grandmother snapped, her eyes hard. But then a soft look came over her. "I would have said, 'Just let me get my clothes off."
     To which I, maybe 19, replied, "Grandma!" But I always cherished that, it was who she was, a romantic, a dame. She had aspired for better things for herself — she cried, my mother always said, to see the house on Rossmoor. It was so small. A person such as herself deserved a better house. But she lived in it for 35 years. She was smart though, and followed things — she subscribed to The Reader's Digest, so the best of news and writing would be delivered monthly to her door. I'd be embarrassed to touch it in any other setting, but a visit to her house entitled me to a happy half hour lapping up its bowl of predigested pabulum.
     There is another memory, oddly tied to my post Thursday mentioning the Eurythmics. A high school buddy of mine, Jimmy Armstrong, had a band, The Pony Boys, and were playing at the Agora in Cleveland in 1984. The Agora was a sort of music hall bar in Cleveland. He asked me to come see them and, being a supportive kind of guy, I agreed. But the Agora is on the East Side and I figured, if I'm there late, rather than schlep the hour back to Berea, I'd just crash at my grandmother's house. She was delighted to have me. I had never done it before.
     His band I've completely forgotten. But Annie Lennox — turned out the Pony Boys were opening for the Eurythmics — had short, carrot-colored hair and played the flute. During "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)" she stuck the microphone into the audience, right into my face, and not only did I sing a verse, but slowly, and very gingerly, I reached out, with two fingers, and touched her hand which, at 23 years old, was something.
     Thus, the next morning I woke up in my grandmother's house. At breakfast, the strongest memory I have of my grandmother, a happy woman in a pink dressing down setting a plate heaped with scrambled eggs in front of me, so happy her grandson is right here, telling her about his big night.
     The next time I was in the house and she was dead and I was looking at everything with flat sorrow, for the last time. On the mantle, by the bookshelves lined with volumes of Reader's Digest Condensed Books, there was a newspaper clipping and a desiccated bunch of flowers. The clipping was a photo of myself and Edie—she never met my future wife, but she saw her, because the Tribune took our picture, backstage at the ballet, identifying us, incorrectly (The Tribune regrets the error) as "balletomanes," lovers of ballet, when what we were in fact were young people who had scored free tickets. No matter. Years later I was glad she had at least seen Edie's picture. Next to the clipping, the dried flowers, and I went to read the card, still attached. They were the flowers I had sent, months before, to thank her for putting me up for the night I went to the Agora. She had kept them there, in their cheap white porcelain FTD vase, even though they had drooped, died, then shriveled up. She hadn't been able to throw them away. Heartbreaking. I was both relieved I had sent them and sorry that over the years I hadn't sent more.


  1. Thank you Neil, that was beautiful.
    We may just get healthier if schmaltz replaced hydrogenated oils...

  2. Thanks for sharing. I am now a grandmother and hope I can achieve those same feelings from my grand kids some day.

  3. One of my grandmothers subscribed to the Reader's Digest, and I spent many happy hours pouring over the back issues she kept neatly in a cabinet (with a glass front, such as you might see for legal books) ordered by date. She bought me my own subscription when I was in about the 6th grade. I shocked when one of my high school teachers was horrified by thought of anyone reading the Reader's Digest, but I received it - and read it - until my grandmother declined too much to be to continue to send it. My other grandmother was college graduate, a pianist, and a working woman. She took the El to downtown and worked in an office for many years while my grandfather taught school and coached in a suburb. I think I am most like my father's mother (the Chicago working woman), but both of them were very important to me. And we lived overseas for most of my youth. Although, I saw them very infrequently, but the impact is still there. One has been gone for 34 years and the other for 26. I miss them terribly.

  4. I think it was Readers Digest Condensed (not Abridged) Books wasn't it? My family accumulated dozens of them as well

  5. Thanks Neil. Grandparents fade away as one ages, but your piece brought back my little Welsh "nain," who died when I was quite young, but evidently not before infecting me with her love of letters and addiction to the sweeness of of learning. She taught me to read, pre-school, wrote poetry in Welsh and took a scholarly interest in history, particularly the "war between the states," knowing all about Chancellorsville and Second Bull Run and cherishing the timeless rhetoric of "Mr. Lincoln." After she died I learned about the hardships she endured as a young widow raising five children on a meagre, depression-era, salary and of the people she helped in her job as a social worker. I know where she's buried but never go there, which brings to mind the lovely sendoff George Eliot gave Dorothea Brooke in the concluding lines of "Middlemarch."
    "Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

  6. Neil
    Great stories. Dunno if you ever saw what Dan wrote about our grandmothers, but let's just say that pabulum is no the only option, and honesty is always the best.

    And so: hard on the heels, not heals. Gotta edit, cannot help myself.

    1. Thanks Bill -- no, I haven't -- where is it? I'd like to see it. And thanks for the edit. If readers don't edit this, nobody does, I try, but certain errors fly by the author. As long as it's done in a matter of fact fashion. What irks me is when readers make correcting a typo into an exercise in scenery-chewing ("I would THINK that a writer as SUPPOSEDLY erudite as yourself would KNOW the difference between 'heal," to cure, and 'heel,' the BALL of one's FOOT!!!!!"

  7. Miriam Greenberg-BobyApril 12, 2024 at 11:56 AM

    Thank you Neil. Your post was a beautiful tribute. As far as I'm concerned, any typos don't matter.
    I never got to meet my maternal grandmother. She died over 79 years ago just before I was born. I was named after her as we do by Jewish tradition. I've been told she was a vibrant individual and that everyone could see that same vibrancy in her seven sisters. I was only able to know my grandmother through them. Sometimes I mourn that loss.

  8. lovely, not sure how I missed this- she looks lovely in that photo and I see she's a lively one with her comments ;)


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