The night I arrived in New York, my dad and his sisters had gone through a bottle and a half of wine and still hadn’t thought of anything to say about Grandma at her 90th birthday party the next day.
My aunts had elected Dad to give the speech and they had agreed to help write it. “But to be honest,” one of them said, “I can’t think of anything very complimentary.”
Finally around midnight, Dad came up with something. “She’s always been her own person.” We waited. “Don’t you agree?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Like she’s never worried about what other people think. She just does what she wants and says whatever comes into her head.”
The next morning we drove to Stamford, Connecticut, where Grandma has just moved into this super swank assisted living complex. We parked amongst the SUVs and walked through the lobby, past the plush furniture and fresh cut flowers, past the dining room where Grandma’s table of little old ladies orders filet mignon and happily carries on mismatched conversations since they can’t hear each other’s questions or answers.
We found Grandma in her sun-filled one bedroom doing her makeup. I hugged her and told her she looked beautiful.
“I look like a hoo-uh,” she said in her Boston accent.
“You know, a loose woman.”
Grandma is about three feet tall with short silver hair and generally wears elastic-waisted pants and loose sweaters. My aunt had helped her pick out a new shirt for the party, and Grandma’s concern was due to the fact that the neckline dipped just below her collarbones
“It’s very daycollettay,” she had complained to my aunt, who told her to shut up and bought it anyway.
She said she loved her new place and the neighbours on her floor are very nice, even though most of them aren’t Jewish. “People here come from all walks of life,” she said.
After Grandma finished her makeup, she got out her comb and went after Dad. “Come here, Rob, I need to comb your hair!”
Usually he submits, since it makes her happy and it only takes about five seconds, but this time he evaded her and started for the elevator. “Let’s go, Mother. People will be arriving soon.”
The party was held in the smaller dining room. Dad had suggested having it in the living room area, but Grandma said no: there are too many old residents who like to walk past there, and some of them even use walkers. She thought this might upset the guests.
After everyone had arrived — except for the cousins who boycotted the party because their second cousins had not been invited and the nephew whose train from Boston was delayed when someone threw themselves on the tracks — Dad stood up.
He had managed to put together quite a lovely speech about Grandma’s devotion to her family, her world travels and her playing tennis until she was 85. He wrapped up nicely with the “her own person” stuff, leaving out the part about her saying whatever comes into her head.
Then Grandma kissed him and stood up with her stack of index cards. “Thank you, Rob,” she said. “Now was that a eulogy or an obituary?”
She didn’t look at her notes once during her half-hour speech. Her voice is rich and full, and when she proclaims, as she did at the birthday, the Boston edge fades and she takes on that vaguely British accent of Hollywood actors from the 1940s.
“This is just random notes,” she said, “not a speech.” Later she gave me her notes, in which “Key Words” were written in red; one of the key words was “random.”
She started by acknowledging how much she missed her husband, who died about two years ago. This segued into a 10-minute exaltation of the Red Sox who, of course, just won the World Series for only the second time since 1918. “Eat youh hahts out,” she said, the Boston slipping in again.
Then she got to the main topic. “You turn 90 and the clichés start. ‘Oh, Fran, you don’t look 90!’ Well, I look in the mirror and yes I do look it! But who cares?”
She paused for effect. “This leads me randomly to the subject of longevity, what we eat and how we think. It’s confusing. Years ago, it used to be tofu, you had to eat tofu. Then it was the fibre parade and the grain parade. The rules change every week. I quit when they tried making whole grain ice cream!” She sighed. “And so it goes.”
“I used to smoke,” she continued, “and you won’t believe me but I never inhaled. I got a fancy cigarette holder and I huffed and puffed like Bette Davis with Paul Henreid in the last scene of Now, Voyager. Oh, I was glamorous.”
Grandma ended her speech with thanks to family and friends — after a brief check of her notes: “Where am I now? Oh yes, love and caring…” Then she waved her hand. “Thanks for coming. Gut shabas and gesundheit.”
Dad was right about Grandma. She really is her own person. She’s a little old lady who loves sports and doesn’t like the sight of old people with walkers and worries about looking like a whore and loves making speeches no matter how rambling.
She doesn’t hesitate to criticize people’s appearance or their career paths or their partners. But can I just say what was awesome about this visit was that she forgot to tell me I was fat, and so I got to focus on the fact that she is a fabulous role model for someone like me, who wants to write bitchy columns without worrying about what people think.
The morning after the party, as we got ready to go, Grandma’s face fell. “You’re leaving!”
“Do you want us to stay?” my aunt asked.
“No, I’ll cry for five minutes and then I’ll be fine. Have a good drive home.”