It doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived; only a handful of moments have the power to remain deeply etched in your memory and be truly life-changing. I experienced one of these rarities at the pivotal age of twenty. And I can truthfully say I have stuck to my guns ever since.
I had done the unthinkable for a nice Jewish girl: I moved out of my family’s home in Brooklyn and into my own apartment in Greenwich Village. My mother was devastated. If anyone telephoned for me, she said I was in the shower or out mailing a letter. In an effort to keep the peace, I went along with this ludicrous pretense until one fateful day.
It was during my usual Sunday visit home when the phone rang. My mother answered, looking puzzled and surprised, and handed me the receiver, “It’s for you?” It was my maternal grandmother. What was this? She never called specifically to speak with me or any other member of the family, for that matter. Whoever picked up the phone was good enough for her. The dear girl was up to something.
To give you a bit of background, let me say that my high-cheek-boned, still beautiful, raven-haired Russian grandmother, all five feet of her, knew everything about everything.
Like the day we were driving along Ocean Parkway and passed the newly purchased house of a friend. I mentioned the Pearlman’s had paid $50,000 for it. (This was a long time ago.) My grandmother, who never laid eyes on these people, said they paid only forty. I said, that’s not true, I know they paid fifty. She said, I don’t think so. And that was that. Even if I had proffered written proof in the form of the actual deed she would only have murmured a weak “maybe”. Today, her response would probably be the basic brush-off of you-can-have-it-your-way-but-I-know-better, “whatever”.
So, when she called and invited just me to “brunch” the following Sunday, I knew she knew.
Firstly, she certainly had never partaken of brunch, much less prepared one. But she was aware that seeming sophisticates who lived in the city indulged in this exotic custom, and since I was now living in the city, then if the two of us had brunch together she would be able to show me she was “with it” and could communicate on the same level.
I smiled as I drove over to her place the next week, and wondered how she would go about giving me the third degree.
She met me at the door and we walked through the house to the big eat-in kitchen, its screen door separating us from a big wooden porch above a flourishing garden.
There were no Eggs Benedict or Bloody Marys in evidence, but she did produce quite a spread. Cheese omelet with sautéed onions, toasted bagel with cream cheese and lox, sliced tomatoes and freshly squeezed orange juice. Coffee was brewing on the stove.
I noticed that there was only brunch for one. Obviously, my grandmother was too full of emotion to eat. And much too concerned with her task at hand. But I kept mum.
She looked intent.
We sat down at the table, across from one another. For quite a few pregnant moments she looked straight into my eyes. I waited for it. “So tell me, how is everything?” she queried. That was all I needed. “I know you know, grandma,” I replied, staring her down.
“Well, how can you afford it,” came her instant retort, as she whipped out the practical card first. I was just as quick on the draw. I told her I had a roommate and would share the rent. And I had figured it all out down to the last penny and that the money I made working part-time would more than cover my half and any incidentals.
Strike one. Hmm. I could see her wheels turning. “Do you want another bagel?” she asked, even though she was abstaining from this, her first brunch.
Now she adopted an accusatory stance, opting for the guilty angle. I could swear I noticed some tears welling up in her eyes. “You know your father is not well. (Her voice caught in her throat.) How can you leave at a time like this? (Very Deborah Kerr.) Don’t you think you should be helping out…at home?” Visibly unmoved, I held firm. I told her that my mother (her daughter) and Martha, my younger sister, were a constant presence and that I made sure to visit every weekend and could rush over within half an hour in an emergency.
Only momentarily stymied, she gently cleared her throat, leaned over closer and in a rather theatrical soto voce of doom, enunciating each word distinctly, pronounced, “Nice girls live at home.” I could see this sentence carved into granite. This was the biggie, the morality issue, designed to get me scampering back to my roots. But I was ready for her. “Grandma, sweetheart,” I said. “Anything I wanted to do I could do in a car or a motel or even on the sofa in our own living room. My values are not based on where I live, but how I live.”
The epitome of cool, I polished off the last of my bagel and took another mouthful of the omelet. My adversary needed a bit of time to gather her thoughts. She adjusted her hair, gathered up some errant strands and re-inserted a long hairpin into her loosely arranged bun. Lee Strassberg would have been proud. No method actor could be more adept at the art of pacing, voice modulation or introducing “a bit of business” for impact, all performed in a highly believable, professional manner. Yet she was losing ground and knew it. What she needed at this point to be really convincing and persuasive on the morality question was a strong testimonial.
She closed her eyes to mere slits, pursed her lips, took a deep breath and let it flow. “My friend Sally Cohen’s next-door neighbor’s daughter, Stephanie, went to Grossinger’s up in the Catskills for their singles weekend and met a wonderful young man whose father owns half of West End Avenue and who is graduating from Columbia Medical School at the top of his class, no less, and who gave her a flawless three carat pear-shaped diamond ring from Tiffanys and now they are going to have a big fancy wedding in a few weeks at the Twin Cantors in Scarsdale, and…(here comes the clincher)…that girl lives at home!”
I didn’t crack a smile. Inside I was rolling about. Could she be more adorable or thorough in her interrogation. This was fodder for the next Woody Allen movie.
“Grandma, I do love you and admire your tenacity. But I don’t think I would be interested in any fellow who would only be interested in me if I lived at home with my family.”
I walked over to the back door to wave goodbye to my poor grandfather, who, obviously, told to keep away from the kitchen this morning, was hiding out under the grape arbor reading his newspaper. His sheepish look told me he knew his wife wanted her victim all to herself this morning and he was being a good boy and staying well out of it.
I bent to kiss my grandma, now standing mute and motionless in the middle of the kitchen, and walked towards the door. I guess I knew I won the psychological tug of war, but didn’t realize by just how much until I reached the front door. As I was about to grasp the handle and see myself out, I heard the pitter-patter of slippered feet coming down the hall. She got to me just in time, reached up and took my head in her hands. “Don’t buy dishes,” she said. “I have dishes.”