Monday, August 11, 2008

Goodbye Grandma

My grandmother passed away on Wednesday. She was 97, would have been 98 next month. She went the way we all hope for...practically without pain up until the last day of her long life, in her sleep, surrounded by family. My mother was completely devoted to her and had taken good care of her up until the end. When she first started having health problems my mom was going down to Florida constantly, and a few years ago she moved her to the Jewish Home in Syracuse where she could visit her every day. Mom was always totally on top of her care and made sure she had everything possible. My uncle was also remarkably devoted and drove up from Connecticut to see her quite often. For her part, Grandma was always an easy resident for the staff--never demanding or cranky--so everyone liked her. I think she was relatively happy there, but it was always sad to see how much she had declined mentally in the past couple of years.

Per her wishes, there was no funeral (she hated both religion and ceremony), but my sister and my uncle's family all came to Syracuse for the weekend. We spent a lot of time looking at old photos and reminiscing. It was really not sad at all. In fact, it was kind of nice. Grandma was quite a character in her day, so it was fun to hear the stories.

I found out her original name was Bessie, although she changed it to Betty at some point because she thought Bessie sounded like a cow. She also changed her birthdate somehow. She had always been stubborn about not telling anyone her age ("old as the hills" was as close as she would come). This drove my mom crazy her whole life. Finally, when she was in the hospital several years ago, my mom snuck a look at her driver's license and found out she was born in 1912. So in 2002 we had a family reunion in Florida celebrating her 90th birthday.... Well, a couple of years later my mom cleaned out her apartment when she moved, and guess what? Her birth certificate said 1910!

Grandma was born in NYC but grew up on the Jersey shore. She always hated the beach, because sand got in everything. After graduating valedictorian of her high school, she moved back to New York and worked for a high fashion dressmaker. I find this hard to fathom since she could have cared less about fashion in her later life, and she hated fuss about material things. My mom says she went without a bra or slip long before it was the fashion (rather scandalous, actually). My sister recalls that she used to try on clothes right over her own clothes because she couldn't be bothered with taking them off. "Good enough," she would say. Jessica also reminded us that Grandma used to run a comb through her hair and then just cut off anything that stuck out. She definitely did things her own way.

Betty married Ralph, the love of her life, in 1938. She chose a man who was the opposite of her own father, who was apparently a dandy, a womanizer and a gambler. I wear the 2.5 carat diamond from his pinky ring (which Grandma had to buy back from the pawn shop after his death) as my engagement ring, and it always gets stares. Grandpa is a whole other story, which I won't go into now except to say that I am really sorry I never knew him well. He died when I was 5. Grandma never really got over his death, and she refused to even consider dating another man. In addition to being an all-around great guy, he stabilized Grandma. Apparently she was much more anxious all the time when he wasn't around.

She was a strong woman and a feminist before that was even a word. For a long time she was the only woman of her generation in the extended family who drove a car. She had a job as a bookkeeper when most married women were housewives. The company she worked for made greeting cards, and I remember getting cards with those goofy big-headed kids for years. She never wrote anything in them except "XOXO, Grandma" (and enclosed a big check).

Grandma lived in Yonkers when I was little (I do remember the house), but in West Palm Beach, Florida most of the time I knew her. We used to go down to visit every February. When I got old enough to travel alone (12 or so), I used to go by myself at other times. We were pretty close in those days, and I enjoyed talking to her. She used to tell me things like "When I was young, I thought everyone liked me. I was shocked when I got older to find out that some people really didn't like me. But I know now that you can't make everyone like you, so don't waste your time worrying about it." I remember her as a very independent woman who had a lot of friends and joked in Yiddish all the time. She would play tennis most days and bridge several times a week.

She also used to come up to Syracuse for a long visit every summer, and often would take care of Jessica and me while my parents went off somewhere. Grandma was a great traveler herself. Both before and after Grandpa died, she traveled a lot. I still have my collection of dolls from around the world that she brought back for me. For many years she also went to "elder hostel" programs at various colleges. She was a very intelligent woman who had never had the chance to go to college, so this was her way of getting a late education. Probably the last ones she went to were at U of Wisconsin--John and I used to go visit her in Madison since we were living in Chicago at the time.

Overall, I think Grandma was a unique person and in her own way a great lady. She had a good life. We should all be so lucky.

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