Grandma is dead. She's waiting at a Jewish funeral chapel in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Near the brass knocker door: wealthy Aunt Mildred, a haughty figure in the bright September sunshine. Her veiled hat barely nods at my orange-haired mother and my stepfather, Seymour, dapper with mustache. Its dark-eyed contempt is aimed at me.
"So, the busy actress hitches a ride from New York. I'm surprised you'd bother."
Cold. Sarcastic. I don't reply. Wealthy Aunt Mildred has shrunk into a black blur against the neatly-clipped shrubbery.
Inside, a sickening silence of thick carpets and stark whiteness. But I am amazingly calm as I view the closed coffin. Eighty...emaciated with cancer; it was time. Still, oddly disbelieving, I stare at the gleaming coffin. Well, Grandma, it's me, Jenny. Do I hate you? Or love you? Suppressed pain; indescibable confusion. That's why I haven't been home much. Now I stand here awkwardly in black sheath dress, wondering what I still want from you.
If you were alive, I'd remind you that I'm thirty, Maryland twang vanquished at last! Prettier, too. Slender now with long black hair that emphasizes my oriental cheekbones and heavy-lidded eyes. You see, acting has taught me to accept myself. Even the acned pockmarks. Ah, nostalgic Jewish memories of chicken soup with dumplings, a fragrant noodle pudding warming in the oven. Starch soaked in grease. You with your broad back and overstuffed belly, what did you know about vegetables, vitamins, nutrition...
Someone has opened the coffin lid. Against white satin, coarse features remodeled with clay; pink-tinted skin like wax fruit. But it's her: the same sagging bosom under floral dress, the same cameo brooch modestly latching the V'd neckline. Meticulously pickled, she waits, shrivelled arms draped over stomach in artfully-contrived repose.
Numbly I stare and stare. So this was the woman who reared me. This superstitious, vulgar peasant from Poland who left the bathroom door ajar, uncaring who viewed her nakedness. This illiterate, applying mashed potatoes to a sore finger. Yet, the cliche of Jewish motherhood, bragging about her children's achievements: sophisticated Mildred with her fancy restaurant, brilliant Howard with Ph.D; my clever mother, snaring a good provider despite a child and former tuberculosis. They rarely wrote; they rarely visited. But they made money--fulfilling your dreams of success--and that sufficed. Damn you! Damn your ignorance, your twisted values. The children, always the children...
Envy. Intolerance. Guilt. Nauseated, I brace my arms against the coffin. Grandma slumbers unconcerned and I huddle inside myself, frightened. A wiry man in oversized suit peers up at me through watery eyes. My grandfather at my elbow whispers, "She was very strong. She wanted you to be strong, too. Come..." Gently, he steers me into another room. Among the stiff-backed chairs sit solemn relatives, the strained atmosphere filled with rustling clothes and delicate coughs.
Grandpa and I choose the second row. Facing us is Mr. Katz, the funeral director. A fat, cheerful man, he seems incongruous with his joviality. I smile and my nausea subsides. His gaze settles soberingly above our heads. Like a Rabbi conducting a synagogue service, Mr. Katz will chant a litany of virtues, the mourners nodding their approval. Grandma, too, would have nodded approvingly. He clears his throat and the eulogy begins.
"Sarah was a fine woman blessed with many friends."
Amen, nod the heads.
"A hard-working woman conscious of her obligations..."
Amen, nod the heads.
Decorous. Sterile. Sketching in stock phrases a personality he barely imagines. Her essence remains safely hidden beneath the painted face.
I reject the droning voice and shiny coffin. My plump grandmother with gray plaits and pinched lips sits in a rocker in Lawsonia, Maryland.
"Jenny, da'ling, if you have to ask if I love you, there's no use for me to answer."
From the orphanage near my mother's sanitarium, I, Jenny, age eight, arrive at the white clapboard house on Cove Street. Bewildered, hostile, I explore upstairs bedrooms awaiting infrequent guests. Downstairs, a museum of dark cells stuffed with furniture and knickknacks. The children's mementos are everywhere: Mildred's hooked rugs, Howard's books encased opposite the mantel, and on the coffee table my mother's grinning carnival doll. Their photographs speckle the wallpaper, reminding me of my intrusion. On the telephone I hear Grandma's shrill voice, the accent a strange blend of Yiddish and Southern, shouting so as to be heard long-distance. "When are you all coming down! It's lonely with just Jenny!"
Chanukah: I, Jenny, age ten, shuttle between kitchen and dining room. I serve stewed beef and potato pancakes, fetch more silverware and water. In the intervening bedroom, I pause to evesdrop.
"Zelda," Mildred says to my mother, "if Seymour married you, would he adopt Jenny?"
"Are you kidding? Sy wants his own baby, not somebody else's!" A pause. "If she was pretty, at least, well, maybe. But with that straight black hair she looks like a Jap. Some luck I got, huh?"
"Zelda, da'ling, let her stay with me. I raised three. I can raise another."
"Mama, a child is exhausting at your age," Mildred says. "Especially one as demanding as Jenny."
A sigh. "Ya, she ain't easy."
"Why can't Aunt Sophie take her?" Howard says, pipe knocking against ashtray.
"My sistah is looking for a second husband. Why should she be bothered with a child?"
"So what should we do?" asks Grandpa impatiently. "Put her out on the street?"
"Abe, nobody said we didn't want her."
Ugly. Demanding. Causing trouble. After their visit, I smashed Mildred's graduation portrait, shredded a book, decapitated Mother's carnival doll.
"Jenny, what's the matter with you!" screams Grandma, surveying the damage with grief and anger. Her stubby finger points menacingly. "A good home you don't appreciate. Maybe we should send you back to Mama's sanitarium."
Shuddering, I shrink inside, spitefully fighting my tears.
A deep sigh. Her rough hand strokes my Japanese hair. "Ya, well, you had a hard life. But you must forget the bad things, eh, Bubbala?"
Back in the present, I hear the Director's soothing platitudes. "Sarah was a devoted wife, a loving mother..."
Amen, nod the heads.
Loving...depending on cirumstances. She could be threatening, cajoling, affectionate, and much, much more.
Saturdays, in my grandfather's long, narrow store, Grandma busily hauls pots from a satchel, clatters dishes at the card table, heats chicken fricassee on the hot plate. Beneath dim fluorescents, cartons loom like ghosts on surrounding counters.
I, Jenny, age thirteen, sit at a glowing pot-bellied stove while nearby grandpa's sewing machine whirrs steadily. Wearing enormous wraparound apron, Grandma beckons amidst the shadows. Jumping up, I bend my tightly-permanented curls above her plaits and strain to catch her whispers. "Ask Boone to dinnah. Maybe he'll treat us to ice cream."
Poor Mr. Boone, shabbily clothed, sitting in a rickety old chair. Shoulders hunched, he gazes drunkenly at the coal stove and fashions dreams from iron scrollwork. I hesitate, ashamed for him and myself. Still, I smile. "Y'all want some chicken, Mr. Boone?" He stiffens and blinks at my tight dungarees and red sweater. "Chicken. We're havin' dinner soon."
Uncomprehending, he grins and from a filthy pants pocket he hands me a wadded bill. "Here, kid, getcha self some ice cream." I hold the dollar reluctantly while he slumps, renestling in his alcohol. Oh, Mr. Boone, why did you drink so much?
A stubby finger beckons near the hot plate.
Head cocked in greediness. "How much?"
"Dat's all!" Indignant frown. With a gnarled, veined hand she thoughtfully salts the chicken. "Try again. Why should he waste his pension on liquor?"
Why, indeed, Grandma, when we could fleece him of it. Oh, well, he was just an old drunk, wasn't he...
Simple needs, simple evaluations. Grasping at opportunities. Calculating. Candid. Generous. And much, much more.
"How y'all doin', Mrs. Rosenberg?" Three black faces join Mr. Boone's at the coal stove; three hopeless faces, watching hungrily the hand stirring the chicken. "Mmm-mmm!" says Big Juno. "That shore smells good!"
Halfway to the screen door, I stop and return to the hot plate. Urgent whispers as she slips me another dollar. "Get roast beef sandwiches from Mrs. Evans' store across the street."
"What about the ice cream?" I pout, forgetting past shame.
Her square, homely face puckers in anger. "Do what I say!" Then, pale eyes pleading. "We can't let them starve."
Now, my attenion shifts to the funeral director as he continues his mythology. "Sarah asked for little, yet gave what she had..."
Amen, nod the heads.
Compassionate, yes, but in her own way. If you needed it, she'd give you the shirt off her back--or her nearest neighbor's. Primitive. Transparent as glass. Unfathomable.
Mr. Tawes is opening the screen door. I, Jenny, age fifteen, watch his tall silhouette against the hot afternoon sunshine, watch him scan the long counters, shrewdly finger denim jackets and coveralls.
"Look, Grandma, it's Mr. Tawes! I think he wants to buy somethin'."
At the card table dripping with washed lunch dishes, she peers through the dim lighting, wipes her hands on her apron, and hurries past ladies' blouses and children's bootees, her lips curved in a pleasant smile. "Well, what can I do for you, Mr. Tawes?"
"Don't want to buy nothin' yet," says the tanned waterman, thumbs hooked in suspenders. "Just lookin' 'round."
She nods, an elbow leaning weightily on counter. "So, look! Before you leave, I sell you something."
"Not if I ain't in the mood," argues the tactiturn waterman.
"Ha! If I wanted to, I could sell you anything." A heavy arm waves at the merchandise. "Go 'head, pick out something. I sell it to you."
He grins--slowly. A bony hand points to a row of suits crowding the far wall. "Bet you can't sell me one of them suits."
Her thin lips tighten in a tiny smile. "Maybe no, maybe yes." Folding her arms across bulging stomach, she peruses the counter and slyly studies him in his plaid shirt and hipboots. Then, strategy decided, she picks up a tan cap. "Could you use a nice, second-hand cap, maybe?"
"Nope. Got one like that."
Solemnly she traces the barely-worn brim. "Look at dat. almost like new! You know what they say about all the eggs in one basket. Tell you what. I give it to you cheap, only one dollah."
"Weell..." Eyeing the cap, he scratches his gray head. Don't really need another one. But at that price...okay, I'll take it." From his shirt pocket, a folded bill is placed reluctantly in her outstretched palm.
"Aha!" Like a fat elf, she hops up and claps the cap on his head. "Won't cost you a penny--it's your own cap! See? See? I told you I could sell you anything." Hand slapped to face, she laughs and laughs at the surprised waterman.
"Well, I'll be dogged," he says admiringly. "Sold me my own cap!"
I smile to myself. That was Grandma, all right. Loved to think she could put one over on you. From chambermaid struggling with English, to New York housewife, to Southern storekeeper isolated from synagogue and delicatessen, she'd had to use her wits to survive.
Confident. Naive. Brimming with common sense. Unpredictable.
I, Jenny, age seventeen, gaze through the night rain splattering the car windows, my thoughts behind me in Fairfield, my tears blurry like the rain. Beside me on the back seat, Grandma and Grandpa chatter, seemingly oblivious of my despair as the cab driver takes us home.
"What's the matter with Jenny?" asks Grandpa unexpectedly.
Grandma pinches my arm. "Don't worry so much, Madela. Some you lose, some you win."
Heaving, I turn and blubber, "If I can't win a declamation contest in a hick town like Fairfied, I'll never become an actress. Never!"
"Ach!" She clucks her teeth impatiently. "Look what happened with Howie. He kept crying, "'Mama, I want to learn radio.' So, I bought him a crystal set. 'Don't cry,' I said, 'do it!' Well, he fooled around and fooled around with it and now he's a big doctor in 'lectronics." A hand gently cradles my wet face. "Da'ling, Gott gives people what they want. If they know what it is, then it comes, Jennala. It comes..."
My sobs have vanished. Into the tenderness of her thick voice, into the reassuring eyes examining mine. I am awed. Such a beautiful moment might never return. "Grandma, when you die, if I ever need you and call out, will you try hard to answer?
"What does she say?" asks Grandpa, straining forward.
Gray plaits swivel about. "She wants I should advise her after I'm dead! Jennala, when they bury you six feet under, you stay there--thank Gott!"
Desperately I strive to impress upon her the seriousness of my request. Surely, if she loves me enough, she might succeed in contacting me. "Please promise, Grandma. Like in that movie last week. Promise you'll try."
Her flabby arms flail the air in resignation. "Okay, okay, if Gott is willing. But why should a young girl worry 'bout such things? Soon you'll go to college, become a famous actress, marry a nice Jewish man, have lots of kindela. With all dat going on, I won't be so important then."
"Yes, you will. You always will!"
She nods sadly. "Ya, ya, but when the time comes, you'll remember what I said."
I glance now at the mourners: Howard fidgets with his glasses, Mother studies her lacquered nails, Mildred stifles a yawn. Curious examples of grief. Ah, if you really appreciated her! Not just another ignorant peasant from Poland, but fascinating, unlike any other...
Thirty years in Maryland and nobody suspecting her illiteracy. Concealing her shame with subtle subterfuges: "Jenny, da'ling, hand me down from the shelf a pretty blue nightgown for Mrs. Ford--size medium."
Basic, able to penetrate the complexities of a situation. "Arthur's ring is very nice, Zelda. But wait and see, eh? An engagement ring is like a deposit. The customer can always change his mind."
Shewd, persistent. "Don't cry about college, Jennala. We can cash in an insurance policy. Summertime, you work in the Catskills like your uncle Howie. A few dollahs here, a few dollahs there, and we do it!"
Chilling perception. "Abe, as Gott is mine witness, the pain is terrible. Like something eating me up inside."
Cancer, Grandma. Somehow you knew before Doctor Barr explained.
Once again, the Director intrudes upon my thoughts.
"Sarah will be missed by everyone."
Amen, nod the heads.
Grandpa nods, too, sadly, as if wanting to believe every hackneyed word the Director has said. When my frail, stooped companion squeezes my hand, I welcome his comfort, resting my head on his shoulder. Then, I release his hand to stand apart and let my tears flow. They speak of understanding, they speak of love...
Outside, the relatives crowd the walk uncertainly, bound in a lingering, uneasy silence. We scan the quiet street, seeking relief in flowers and sprightly curtains. Slowly I walk to Sy's new Pontiac at the curb. Despite Mother's chatter as we climb into the front seat, the silence follows me. Somewhere at the back of my brain, it gently reminds me that Grandma is dead. No need to still wonder if she really loved me. The question has become obsolete, unimportant. For now the silence splinters into bits and pieces of memories: a funny remark, a captivating gesture, delightful portrait of a remarkable woman.
I smile finally at my plump mother patting her absurd orange bouffant into place. Sy guns the motor and we drive away.