I have never met anyone quite like my grandmother, or Gram, as we used to call her. One of my earliest memories of her is of the two of us walking down Walnut Street in Philadelphia when I was five or six years old. She was a fast walker and I had trouble keeping up. ‘Grab a wing, chicken,” she said, as she extended her arm to me and I hooked my little arm through hers. She loved that phrase, grab a wing chicken, and would laugh at herself every time she said it.
All through my childhood, Gram was one of the few shining lights. She believed in me and had my back like no one else in my life. Whatever artwork I brought home from school was beautiful. She would talk to me with love and interest and want to hear about all my childhood issues. She taught me to sew and use her Singer sewing machine. I loved her more than I loved my parents and in a different way. My parents were disciplinarians. Gram was my support system. When I felt unsure of myself and that I did not fit in with other children, she made me feel ok. In my twenties and thirties, I could not imagine a world that she was not in.
All this is not to say that she was never critical of me. One Christmas morning, (even though we were Jewish, my grandmother would give us Christmas gifts when we were very young until my father put a stop to it), when I was five years old, she gave my sister Barbie dolls and me the Ken doll. My sister and I had hours of fun playing out elaborate scenarios with the dolls in her bedroom.
But less then a year later, around the time I began first grade, Gram began to chide me for playing with dolls. I remember her walking in on my sister and me at play, saying, “You are too old to be playing with dolls. Dolls are for girls. Do you want me to tell all your friends that you play with dolls?” I was very confused since she had given me the Ken doll. But I was old enough to begin to understand that playing with dolls was not something boys did.
Since Gram made comments like this on a number of occasions, and never once spoke to any of my friends, I soon began to realize that she would probably not tell them. But I also began to feel ashamed for my desire to play with dolls–a girl thing. This was one of the seminal events that had me feel bad about myself. Something must be wrong with me, I reasoned, for enjoying playing dolls with my sister so much, and having no interest in boy things like baseball and football.
Gram had a wonderful sense of joy and pleasure as she moved through the world. One of her favorite phrases learned from her mother upon being asked to go somewhere was, “Wait till I get my hat.” Translated this meant, I am up for any adventure – just ask and I am ready. And Gram, true to her love of that phrase, was always ready for any adventure.
In the late 1980s when I was involved with a silent protest outside of a New York City hotel. I asked Gram to come up to New York City and join me. Without asking for many details, she said yes. She was probably close to 80 years old at the time. I met her at Penn Station and we took a taxi cab to the hotel on Park Avenue. The group protesting formed a single line of people silently encircling the hotel. She stood with me for the few hours of the protest, never complaining, enjoying herself. When I asked her later what she thought about the event, she wanted to know what we were protesting. I loved her for coming to New York City from Philadelphia, no questions asked, to support me. I was so proud of her that day and also felt so loved by her.
For Gram’s 90th birthday I spent months recording interviews with her about her life as we talked over the phone. Then I dutifully transcribed the interviews into a single chronological story about her life, which I had printed into a book. I interspersed the interviews with color copies of old photographs from her early life and postcards of the hotels she grew up in. I had to manually assemble each copy of the book since the software at that time could not easily integrate the text and pictures. The book was a hit with everyone at her birthday weekend and I had copies made for all the immediate family.
Today my aunt’s copy of the book sits in tatters at the assisted living facility where she now lives. Pages from the book, remnants that remain, sit on her nightstand. I still have a few bound copies of the book, carefully preserved and wrapped in plastic. The interview with Gram later formed the basis for a family history website that I built to house my growing collection of family memorabilia.
Gram’s husband, my grandfather, died in 1952 of a massive heart attack, five years before I was born, and a year before my parents married. Gram was only 48 years old. After her husband died, she never dated again and never remarried. Gram lived with my aunt, who had never married, for the rest of her life. She also never worked or held any kind of job after my grandfather died.
Family lore has it that my mother and aunt both told my grandmother that she did not have to work and that they would take care of her. My mother was engaged and about to marry my father. My aunt, though only in her twenties at the time, never really worked at anything for very long, and held jobs only sporadically throughout her life. So supporting my grandmother (and my aunt) fell to my mother, placing an early burden on her and her new husband. My mother would give Gram money each month to live, in the early days, from her earnings as a school teacher, and Gram would in turn give money to my aunt. This became the source of lifelong fights between my mother and father.
Gram and my aunt were an inseparable pair. They went everywhere together. They had season tickets for years to the old Robin Hood Dell, the precursor of today’s Dell Music Center, and to the Theatre Guild in Philadelphia, which had Broadway roadshows, and in the 1960s pre-Broadway tryouts. My grandmother and aunt had second-row matinee seats and my parents had the same seats on Friday evenings.
My grandmother and aunt loved to wander around the suburbs of Philadelphia going to B&B sales. B&B sales were tag sales where the contents of better homes would be sold, run by two enterprising older women, B and B. My aunt’s excessive collection of expensive clothing was purchased, in part, from B&B sales over many years. My aunt’s hoarding, which would later fill her apartment to the brim with clothes and garbage, had its early beginnings at the B&B sales.
My grandmother never seemed to care about money, a trait I picked up from her. She was also never very interested in what people call, the finer things in life. That is not to say that my grandmother was poorly dressed. Gram was always impeccably dressed, often in the clothing she had made for herself or that my aunt had picked out for her. But when it came to acquiring things, she just was not interested.
Gram loved a good cup of coffee and a doughnut or bagel. Often sneaking out of the house to have a few quiet moments away from my aunt to sit in a coffee shop with her coffee and a bagel. She did not care about going out to fancy restaurants but would go with my parents and enjoy herself.
Gram loved spending time with her grandchildren, and always had time to focus on them and their questions. She went to art museums, I suspect, because my aunt wanted to go, but I am not sure she would have gone on her own. She was very simple in her desires and never was one to go after acquiring things in the world. During most of my childhood, my grandmother’s sewing machine was a fixture in our family room. She was always repairing our clothes, sewing in camp labels, and loved teaching me to sew.
After my aunt went to live in an assisted living facility, and we were finally able to clean out the apartment that she and my grandmother had lived since 1963, I found many odd or funny inexpensive knick-knacks that my grandmother had purchased. She had boxes of junk jewelry she had bought at yard sales which she never wore, but only a few pieces of fine jewelry which she wore all the time. All the finer things in the apartment were purchased by my aunt.
Sometimes when Gram babysat for us, which she did frequently, we could get wild and into fights and she would get angry. “Do you want me to tell your parents about this when they get home?” She never did tell our parents, ever. My bedroom was close to the front door of the house. I could hear my parents asking how the evening went upon their return. “Oh, they were wonderful,” she would reply.
Gram also used guilt quite effectively when we misbehaved or talked back, “I know you would never say such a thing to your grandmother who loves you dearly.” Guilt certainly shut me down and helped get me under control. I never wanted to do anything to hurt my grandmother.
In 1986 when I told my aunt that I was gay and was going through a program in New York that said it could help men change from homosexuality. (I didn’t change.) My aunt, without missing a beat said, “Oh dear, grandmother and I have always known. I was in the theatre for many years. I knew many homosexual men.” So there it was. They knew and they still loved me. I am sure that I also told my grandmother around the same time, but I have no memory of that conversation.
When I came out to my aunt again two years ago, after 22 years of marriage to a woman, she simply said, “Dear, you have to be who you are.” And that was it. When I think back to my grandmother, she was from a different generation that did not really understand homosexuality. But I believe her love for me would have won out, and she, had I come out earlier in my life, would have been fully supportive.
I miss Gram. For so many years of my life, I adored her. I knew someday she would pass away, but the thought of that always brought me to tears. When she was 100 years old, Gram went into a coma and was brought back from the hospital she had been taken, to the apartment she and my aunt were renting in Palm Beach, Florida. She was not expected to live for more than a day or two, but she lived for about ten days.
I flew down to Florida while Gram was still in the hospital, and by the time I arrived, she was already in the coma, which she never awoke from. I worked with my mother to arrange for hospice care and we brought her back to her apartment. I then took on the job of taking care of her for the next six days, before returning home. I gave her droppers of morphine. I cleaned her and changed her diapers. I was the primary caregiver for the next six days. For most of that time, my aunt hid in her bedroom, railing against my grandmother’s illness. My aunt was sure that the night nurse at the hospital, that was hired to sit with my grandmother, had done something to her while she slept.
When it came to the hospice people, who came a few times a day, my aunt hated them. Every time hospice would come by the apartment my aunt would hide in her bedroom, leaving the hospice conversation to my mother and me. Soon other family members arrived. My father came to join us and then my brothers and sister flew down. For a few days, it was a lovely celebration around the hospital bed set up in the middle of the small second bedroom/den that opened into the living room of the apartment. We sang songs. My sister, a filmmaker, shot a video of the scene. We celebrated my grandmother’s life. While my aunt mostly stayed in her bedroom, I remember her coming out a one-point to file my grandmother’s nails and putting on fresh nail polish. At a certain point, I felt I needed to leave and head back home to my wife, son, and job. I flew home and my grandmother passed away a few days later.
I did not go back to Florida for the burial which was a very simple affair but did go back a year later for the unveiling. For the unveiling of my grandmother’s headstone, just one of my brothers, my mother and aunt went. Gram is buried next to her husband in an old Jewish cemetery in Miami, Florida. My brother read some prayers in Hebrew. We placed a few stones on the grave, cried a little bit, and left. I remember my aunt complaining throughout the entire day how she hated cemeteries and that my grandmother was not really there.
I have been back to my grandmother’s grave every time I visit South Florida. I do not feel I am visiting my grandmother exactly, but there is something comforting about visiting her grave. I guess it is the only way left to be physically close to her.
My grandmother used to say, “I’m a happy go lucky.” Nothing ever bothered her. She was one of the happiest people I have ever met. When my grandmother entered a room, she had a way of lighting up the room. Gram, well into her 90’s, would do the Philadelphia Mummers strut, at the drop of a hat. She would say, “I am full of pep.” And she was.
I like to believe that Gram’s way of seeing the world rubbed off on me. Her enthusiasm for life and her, wait till I get my hat get up and go is part of me. She used to say about me, “My grandson can do anything.” She believed it and I came to believe it too. Every child should have someone who thinks they can do anything. For me, that person was Gram.