As my grandmother was being buried on a cold day in Syracuse, I stood in my pajamas in the garage of my home, 3,000 miles away in California, listening in on my cell phone as the rabbi began his blessings.
It would have been her 91st birthday.
It was two days before Christmas, it was storming, and it would have been thousands of dollars to fly there. My mother and uncle insisted I stay put, and through my tears I agreed only if they would return with me over the summer for her unveiling when I would be in New York.
I couldn’t believe I wasn’t there.
Her home had been the one I was sent to when at four years old my father died suddenly. My mother went off to establish our lives in a new city, and I went to my grandmother’s, to her home on Miles Avenue. That home and she were my salvation.
My grandmother met my grandfather while hanging out on some porch with her cousins. In my mind he was wearing his army uniform and she was all big, dark brown Andrew Sisters hair. Soon enough, they were together and he was sending her letters from the frontlines of WWII. The capital letter of each sentence of each letter he mailed was a secret code letting her know where he was stationed. The Pacific. There’s a photo we have of him outside a tent, bent on his knee, some white dog by his side, dogtags dangling.
When he returned, they married within two weeks. Their wedding picture rested on a high shelf in their dining room and I thought the satin of her dress was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
“Her home had been the one I was sent to when at four years old my father died suddenly.”
“But I wanted a few more minutes.”
It also struck me just how beautiful she was in those pictures. Like movie-star stunning, worthy of the man with the dog and the dogtags. She had been a singer, with a voice to lure a handsome soldier, but those records were hidden away, of a time long ago.
I would stand in her dining room, staring up at the pictures, as she made me a fried egg inside her kosher kitchen where we would spend afternoons polishing her silver, and I remember being surprised by the beauty I saw in those frames. She was older now and as a six year old, a ten year old, a twelve year old, I did not know to see that in her now. Besides, in my family smarts was the new pretty. It was nice to know somewhere in my gene pool was actual pretty. It provided awkward me hope that smart and pretty were in there somewhere.
She lived on Miles Avenue. There was a porch, of course, and a porch swing covered in plastic fabric swirled with blues and greens. At the base of the front yard, where the grass angled up, I would make snow angels even when the snow mixed with mud.
The floors were sloped in her house, especially on the second-floor landing outside the bedrooms. The bathroom had marvelous wallpaper featuring old newspaper ads and a pink plastic french poodle that held a toilet brush. When she was moved out of the house, the poodle was the one thing I wanted, but it was long gone.
There were always bowls of butterscotch and red-and-white peppermint candies individually wrapped ready for the taking.
My toys were stashed in the closet of the small bedroom that had been my Uncle David’s. My grandfather used to tell me when I was getting ready to go back home, “Make sure you packed everything. Anything you leave behind we’re gonna sell.” As a child I didn’t hear the joking, and desperate over having to leave my very big tea set, I would run to my grandmother crying. And I’d hear her lovingly scold, “Oh, Marvin.”
I always think of it as her house, even though for much of my childhood it was hers with my grandfather and then later with her second husband, Moe. When my grandfather died, I was never sure if she replaced the chair in front of the TV in the living room where she found him. Every time I sat there and watched cartoons I wondered if this was where he sat, where he’d died.
When my mother, uncle, aunt and I returned to Syracuse in July for her unveiling, we dropped our bags at the hotel and headed straight out to see her. There in the lobby were the same red-and-white candies she always had. I grabbed a handful and placed them in my pocket. At her stone, my mother recited some Hebrew and we picked some grass and threw it. David read the lyrics to a song she used to sing about Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice’s blue dress. The dress had been quite scandalous. It reminded me of my grandmother at her 1940s best, with her Andrew Sisters hair and voice to match.
My family each placed rocks on the top of my grandmother’s stone and my grandfather’s. Instead, I slipped the red-and-white candy from my pocket and placed it among their rocks on top.
“Can we drive by the house?” I asked.
And so we did. We parked across the street. It was beige now, repainted and re-landscaped. I could feel my mother’s anxiety rise. She said it was time to go as we watched a car pull into the driveway. Removing my grandmother from her home, selling it while she was in the nursing home, knowing she would never come back to it, and that she needed the house money to pay for her nursing care had almost undone my mother.
But I wanted a few more minutes. I would have gone in, explored the basement, the attic where I always worried about falling down the stairs, where while in college down the road I would spend hours going through her unwanted boxes.
Then I saw a young girl get out of the car. I saw her skirt twirl just a bit as she headed up the three steps to the front porch. It was as if the house were waving goodbye. And with that I knew it was time to go.
“Their wedding picture rested on a high shelf in their dining room and I thought the satin of her dress was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.”