Last October, I wrote about my mother-in-law, Linda Gerstenblatt, who died of cancer at the age of 63. When people spoke to me about that article, they offered their condolences and shared in my frustration with the over-pinking and commercialization of breast cancer. My 99-year-old grandmother, however, who reads all of my writing, responded quite differently to that particular piece. “If you ever want to write something nice like that about me for the newspaper, I wouldn’t stop you,” she said, looking across her dining room table at me with a sly smile.
I’d like to introduce you to Rose Katz, who I call Nanny.
Many of you already know her, since she worked as a bookkeeper in Scarsdale village for almost 30 years and because she likes to talk to just about everyone. Walking around town with my grandmother is like taking a stroll with a cute puppy or a new baby. Everyone stops to chat with you because of the marvelous companion on your arm.
Nanny is a unique person, who is as tall on opinions as she is short on height. She has more viewpoints on a variety of topics than someone half her age. She’ll tell you if you look good, if you’ve put on weight, and if that lady over there has put on weight. She likes to compare herself to the second-oldest woman in the room – who is 80, most likely – and tell you that the octogenarian looks much older than she does. She might mention that a particular child at a birthday party is cute, but the mother? Feh.
She has a great collection of sayings, my grandmother. One that I particularly like has to do with women who dress provocatively (or people who call attention to themselves in any way) and then get upset when people notice or react. “If you don’t want to be saluted, pull in your American flag,” she’ll dismiss.
“A committee put together that person’s face…” she’ll begin, shaking her head sadly. “And the committee didn’t agree on nothin’!” Ba-doom, tsz.
What? She asked me to write about her in the newspaper, did she not?
At the time of this request, Nanny and I were sitting in her apartment in White Plains – where she still lives independently — drinking coffee that I had brought from Dunkin’ Donuts. I bring my own coffee when I visit because I don’t trust her Parmalat milk.
“The milk is good for weeks!” Nanny told me once. “Look at the date stamp.”
“That’s only before it’s opened,” I said, unable to explain why this was the case, but just knowing it to be so. “After you get air into the container, it’s good for a week just like everyone else’s milk.”
“Well, not mine,” she decided.
And so I decided to stay away from that milk, even though it seemed to be doing no harm to Nanny. (Perhaps the active cultures are acting as some sort of life preservative? Like whatever secrets they uncovered in the movie Cocoon?)
The thing is, of course, that we cannot know what secrets keep one person alive and healthy for a full century while others struggle and face a much shorter existence. In just the past few months, I have seen examples of lives cut way too short. I have seen families watch a loved one’s health decline over time and I have seen others surprised by the suddenness of death. As I’m sure you know from whatever your own life has dealt you, we don’t always take the opportunity to speak our hearts while our loved ones are alive and well. (Even if we end up publicly roasting them a little bit in good fun.)
Sometimes, when my kids are running late in the mornings and the lunches I’ve packed aren’t nutritious and it takes Andrew 6 minutes to tie his sneakers (why? Why?!) and Zoe wants to wear head-to-toe sparkles and hates her new leggings after ripping off the tags (why? Why?!) and Brett is rolling his eyes at something one of us said or did or didn’t do and THE SCHOOL BUS IS COMING, PEOPLE! it’s hard to stop and smell the roses and appreciate all that’s wonderful. Once my family is out the door, I just want to cheer my state of sublime aloneness.
And then I call my grandmother to vent or get sympathy, and she’s calm, and relaxed, and she can’t hear that well, but still, she offers an ear. “Whatsamattah, sweetheart?” she asks, probably while toasting a nice Kaiser roll and putting some (definitely expired) milk into her morning coffee. “You’re such a sweet and precious Mommy,” she tells me. This comment, which she says often, makes me feel both validated in my choice to stay home with my kids and guilty about sometimes wanting to run away from home.
Then she’ll launch into a story.
“Did I ever tell you about what Pop-Pop and I did when you were born?”
Only, like, ten thousand times. “I’m not sure,” I’ll say. “ Maybe you should tell me again.
There are few people that I love more than my grandmother, who will turn 100 on November 1st, and there’s certainly no one older in our family or maybe even yours. She has not asked for a party to commemorate the occasion so much as what she calls “a celebration of a life.”
“I don’t want a big funeral,” she has said more than once, even though she’s probably going to get one and there won’t be anything she can do to stop it. But, I know what she means: why put all that money and planning towards having the Jersey cousins come all the way over the bridge when it’ll be too late for her to hear them complain about the traffic?
Instead, although Nanny hasn’t used these words, I believe she wants a living funeral, a gathering of people around her — the same (kvetchy) group that would attend her eventual postmortem funeral, mind you, Jersey cousins and Long Island cousins and maybe even a few strays that we haven’t spoken to since the big blow-up at Roey’s funeral in 1990 – that would come and talk about her to her. Knowing my grandmother, the main event at this celebration would be her standing at a podium talking about herself to us. Nanny is a very enthusiastic storyteller.
She would tell you that I get all my creative writing talents from her.
She would also tell you that she’s singlehandedly responsible for the Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur break enjoyed by all public schoolchildren in the state of New York. (Long story short: she was the PTA president in Park Slope, Brooklyn in the 1950’s and spoke to someone of influence and from there it gets a bit nebulous.)
And so that is why I have officially kicked off this year’s “celebration of a life” by writing about my Nanny and sharing my love for her in the newspaper, while she’s here to see me do it.
Because – in this unique case, at least – I can.
To borrow a phrase of my grandmother’s, may we all be so lucky.