Sunday October 12 would have been my grandmother Mollie’s 95th birthday. She’d had surgery right before Christmas, and recuperation proved too much for her. We gathered on Long Island this weekend for some eating, drinking and celebrating of her, all of which she would have strongly approved.
She was mentally acute right up until the end. My last conversation with her, during which we were discussing Axel’s mother, who several years ago passed away so suddenly that as we describe it, she got the Cosmic Phone Call in the middle of her morning coffee:
Mollie: “I’m ready for my Cosmic Phone Call. Who do I contact?”
Me: “Someone in customer service?”
Mollie: “I’ve tried but I never get to talk to a real person.”
And then later: “You know, when I die, I’m going to come to California and haunt you.” (This from someone who refused to travel, hence the main reason for our wedding being held in NY.)
Me: “You mean I’ll finally get you to visit?”
To which she responded with a great belly laugh. That laugh is how I remember her. She was always appreciative of a smart alec retort, or a quirky presentation. When we gave holiday gifts, it wasn’t so much the gift as it was the motivation for the gift, the planning of the gift, or the presentation involved with the gift. I think sometimes we would plan entire evenings around eliciting that laugh.
It was fascinating to watch her attitude toward “things” change over the years. My earliest memories of her were of her little house on Long Island, chock full of antiques, brick-a-brack, and oddities. She loved to collage, arrange, refurbish and clean; she loved to find a tarnished treasure and bring the shine back to it. She had a series of little antique shops, and she had such a good eye that the things she would buy for a song would fetch double, or once in a while 10 times that price when polished and presented for sale. Of course, sometimes she would resell something for half a song if she happened to like the customer. Many of her “customers” became lifelong friends.
She sold the last shop on Long Island, took the proceeds and did what she’d always wanted to do: moved to Manhattan. She lived on 2nd Ave and 40th street, right next door to the Daily News building, (which, more important to my equine-centric world, also housed the offices of the then American Horse Shows Association). She had a view all the way up and down the avenue from her balcony. She went to the theater, museums (including her favorite, the Frick and the Folk Art Museum), Sarge’s Kosher Deli, and she actually enjoyed the constant noise of the avenue. I sometimes worried about her coming home late at night from a show, but then I’d think: who would mess with Mollie? Even at five-foot-nothing, she had that aura of invulnerability about her.
I think it was the noise that she missed that most when she was no longer able to manage on her own and had to move to an assisted living apartment on Long Island, which was nearer to my father. She missed her New York City neighbors, who checked in on her and brought her the news of their days. She missed her daughter, Marsha, who had lived across the street in Manhattan, and who had died several years earlier of lung cancer. But most of all I think she missed the hum of a city that someone once described as a great machine that would continue running even if all the people vanished.
During the last few years, I saw how “things” mattered less and less to her. All those objects that she had surrounded herself with, all those beautiful things that had given her security and comfort, which she had carefully arranged on walls and table tops, I watched her divest herself of them. Oh, they got loving homes! But I’d like to think that her most important gifts weren’t things at all: from Mollie I got a role model for frankness and honestly, and for being able to see the good heart beneath all the layers of “things” that we wrap around ourselves.