I didn’t ask her for any big truths. I wouldn’t have known what to ask, and she probably wouldn’t have known how to answer. But being around her for so much of the last four days was its own lesson, a reminder of some of the most striking aspects of her character.
One aspect is about poverty and generosity. She has savings of just a few thousand pounds. (And even this small amount is probably as high as my grandparents’ net worth ever reached, an amount saved Mr Micawber-style over many years by receiving a relatively tiny state pension but spending, week by week, even less.) Yet it was important to her to insist, when Mum and Dad and I went out to dinner on Saturday night, that she treat us to dinner. She’s always given tzedakah, even though the amounts have been small. She always got by. She made reference at one point to being proud that Mum and Yvonne had more education than she had, that she and Grandpa had tried their best to encourage that despite having so little money.
My instincts are almost unrecognizably different from hers. She has an instinct of thrift and I have one of wastefulness. She wants little or nothing and I want everything. She, even in her pain, would say “please don’t trouble the nurses, please don’t bother the staff” – even though she was in pain and they were there, in fact, to look after her. Whereas I can’t bear pain of any sort and would certainly be awful and insistent if I were bedridden and suffering pain or discomfort. She (like my parents) respects rules and limits and I do not.
I have no idea how to become, as it were, more Grandma-like in these ways.
It’s striking that Grandma takes such pleasure in simple things. In a fairly un-Grandma-like moment, she was happy to encourage me to smuggle into Heathlands the cooked liver from the JS Kosher Restaurant which she used to love. She actually had lamb chops and potatoes for lunch yesterday, followed by fruit salad and cake. I took the lamb off the bone for her so that she could get it on the fork in bite-sized pieces. And she really enjoyed her meal, just like she really enjoyed the flowers. She needs so little, but she enjoys so much what she has.
I was struck also by the strength and consistency of her Jewish observance. She told me that in her whole life she had never cooked on Shabbat, which I never realized. She had a dreadful childhood: her mother died when she was seven, and she was forced to live with an awful stepmother, who was both very frum and quite unpleasant. Later, when she was married, Grandpa was not interested in observance and was happy to work on Shabbat or to go to see City or United play football. But somehow despite being pushed away from observance by her step-mother and being pulled towards being less observant by Grandpa, she was always steadily keeping traditional mitzvot, in her gentle undemanding way. She didn’t mind what others did, she certainly wouldn’t tell anyone what to do, and she ended up with two daughters who are signally unobservant, yet through her whole life she tried, in fact, to be as observant as she could; and I didn’t fully realize that, I think, until this trip.
She maintained a similar balance with non-Jews. She is totally un-politically correct in the way that she sees non-Jewish people as different, and takes for granted that this is so. Yet at the same time she is insistent, and always has been, about treating everyone with respect, Jewish or non-Jewish. I think Mum has this latter quality from her and I have it in turn from Mum.
Yet at the same time that I celebrate Grandma, I don’t want to mythologize her. Mum was often irritated by her in the past, as I am irritated by Mum. Ours is a family at least as dysfunctional as the average Jewish family (which is to say, considerably dysfunctional) and my mother and thus my Grandma must be responsible for some of the faults of her children, as she is certainly responsible for many of our strengths.
This Land was Your Land:
A Review of Philip Roth
Am I Religious?
Down and Out in the Slipper Room
Tarnation: The Dream of Autobiography
Sitting on an aeroplane, while Grandma Dies
Our 580 Back Pages
Zeek in Print
Fall/Winter 2004 issue now on sale
From previous issues:
The Mall Balloon-Man Moment of the Spirit
Thinking Despite Doubt, Feeling Despite Truth