JULY 3 MARKED the 47th anniversary of my grandfather’s death. I remember it well because I was with him at the time, the only person present as the rest of the family were all out at a wedding and I opted to keep him company since he was ill with lung cancer and not feeling well that day. Thinking of him, a true saint who walked among mere mortals, I was reminded of his wife, the devil incarnate. They say opposites attract, and I guess that was true for those two.
I grew up in a dysfunctional family, and that’s being kind, believe me. The leader of the pack was my grandmother, whose patchwork rules were directly responsible for my mother’s closet bacon addiction. While Hitler was busy going after those six million Jews, my grandmother somehow managed to escape. Arriving in New York City from Poland as a young girl, Sarah never learned to read or write English. Yiddish remained her chosen language, and even if I didn’t know what she was saying half the time, her inflections got the point across.
Sarah was unpredictable, vacillating wildly between her old-world morality and her desire to see me safely married. When I didn’t have a date on a Saturday night, common enough to be called a pattern, she’d sympathetically pat me on the head and advise me to “let the boys kiss you and touch you whenever they want.” But if I went on two dates in a row, she’d scream to my mother, “What is she, a floozy?”
Nothing escaped her critical eye. No fashion plate in her frumpy cotton housecoats, stockings held up at the knees with rubber bands, nevertheless she always had something to say about what I was wearing. The first time she saw me in something new, it was, “Another outfit? What, is your father made of money?” The very next time she saw it: “Again you’re wearing that schmatta?” Concerning makeup: “Go, put on some lipstick, you’ll never get married.” But if I did put on lipstick, and maybe, God forbid a million times, eyeliner and mascara, she’d shriek, “Like that you’re going out? All of a sudden you’re Elizabeth Taylor?”
My food addiction is directly traceable to her sugar cookies, for a dozen of which this very instant I would join ISIS. There were many nights when I’d sneak downstairs to the kitchen to gorge on those cookies, which she baked literally by the hundreds and brought to us unceremoniously packaged in a large brown-paper grocery bag filled to the top. Who could tell if eight, 10 or maybe 12 were missing? Granny, that’s who. Somehow I was urged to eat, eat, eat, but yet not get fat, fat, fat. One minute she might say, “Enough already, stop with the cookies,” and 10 minutes later she’d implore me to “eat something, look at you, you’re skin and bones.” (I have since performed this service for myself on a daily basis.)
Her reputation as a cook spanned two continents. There was a waiting list for her Passover seders, which were attended by no fewer than 25 people on both nights. Julia Child couldn’t have drawn a bigger crowd. (It was the matzo balls that kept them coming: Perfect spheres, they were dense but, at the same time, light. How did she do it?) When she finally died, her funeral was attended by scores of people, each one desperately seeking the recipe for one of her famous dishes. As the rabbi fabricated stories about what a wonderful, loving person she had been, he could barely be heard over the frantic cries of the mourners:
“Oy vey, Gut in himmel, I’ll never have her apple cake again.”
It went on like that, young and old alike commiserating over the eternal loss of their favorite foods. Sarah was most noticeably missed at the gathering following her funeral, the first family affair that had to be catered.
But while cooking was Sarah’s heart and soul, human relations were her Achilles’ heel. In a nutshell, she disliked everybody and everybody disliked her. “Zust nor voxen a trolley car in boch!” which meant something like “A trolley car should grow in your stomach,” was her favorite insult, hurled daily at anyone from the butcher to the mailman to her brother-in-law.
She divided the world into three groups: those who should Live and Be Well, those who should Only Drop Dead and those who should Rest in Peace. These phrases actually became part of a person’s name, and chances are they stayed that way for a lifetime. You never heard her utter just a name. For example, if she liked the person: “Uncle Benny, he should live and be well, is coming for dinner.” Defying logic, the phrase would remain positive, even if she was angry with him, as in, “Uncle Benny, he should live and be well, should burn in hell forever!” More amazing was the fact that even when she hated someone she could still acknowledge their inherent goodness, as in, “Peska, she should only drop dead, is a saint.” (Peska, by the way, was my grandmother’s sister, a fact I didn’t fully comprehend until well into my teens, since the most negative of insults always accompanied her name.)
In the case of a corpse it was anything goes, as long as it remained undisturbed, as in, “Charlie, he should rest in peace, was a cheap son-of-a-bitch bastard.”
Death was a big topic with her. When speaking about the unspeakable, she would open with, “God forbid a million times, it should never happen, if I die.” I would always remind her that death was not an “iffy” thing, but it seemed to have no effect. And since my grandfather was one of 13 children, the chances were pretty good that one of our zillion relatives was at death’s door, or at least the front curb, at all times. When Sarah called each morning for her daily family briefing, my mother would usually answer the phone with, “So, who died?” Sarah always came through with the suspected tumor, confirmed diagnosis or actual demise of someone remotely related to someone related to us.
For my grandmother to actually like you, you had to be one of three things—Jewish, rich, or a doctor. Obviously, all three in one person represented nirvana. When, in college, I started dating a non-Jew, she was miserable, wailing, “Oy vey, I should only drop dead!” However, upon learning his parents had money, her cry changed to, “Oy vey, what a doll, I could eat him up.” I eventually married the guy, causing Sarah to plead, “You couldn’t wait a minute, maybe you’ll meet a doctor?” Years later, overjoyed at my divorce, her only comment was, “God willing, I should live so long, next time you’ll marry a Jew.”
She didn’t, but I took her advice. I figured it couldn’t hurt.
Andrea Rouda blogs at The Daily Droid.
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