Most families have a scoundrel, a nearly famous ancestor, or a lost-fortune story - an Uncle Henry, say, who invented the metal tips for shoelaces but didn't get to the patent office before someone else "stole" the idea. And in most families, there is one who is the hub of the familial spokes and the keeper of such legends. In our family, it is my wife's grandmother, Great Gramma Evelyn.
She is our story keeper, hence the preserver of the archetypal greatness of family, should the younger generations weary of holiday get-togethers. Through the legends and news she passes along in postcards, daily phone calls to her sisters back East, and visits, she connects the generations to the care, the graceful love, and shelter that "family" ought to mean, as well as the peccadillos, rivalries, grudges, and heartbreak of the clan.
But the positive qualities predominate.
When I meet Gramma at the airport, she is usually carrying a small bag of clothes and a groaning bag of baked goods. She has gifts for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including the bagel and cream-cheese nosh served on the airline shuttle. She will have asked the flight attendant for an extra two bagels for "my three little darlings." The rest of the food bag contains a brisket - already cooked - gravy, vegetables, some cans of tuna fish, and a few boxes of her rugelach (filled cookies).
We don't let her into the house without the rugelach. And it is my ceremonial duty to certify that it is up to standards. It can only be compared with previous batches by Gramma, since I have never eaten anyone else's rugelach. I would be a scoundrel to do so. It will be enigmatically wrapped inside several layers of tinfoil within the mystery of a department-store gift box, within a carefully taped brown-paper grocery bag. Her baking is "seasoned with love," as she might say, and not enough sugar for my taste. Nonetheless, I can blithely consume the whole box of rugelach with afternoon tea.
When we drive up to the house, her three great-grandchildren will be waiting at the door in their tutus, ready to perform for the most devoted audience they will ever know. I have anchored the new ballet barre in the library for the swirls, turns, and leaps inspired by their favorite U2 song, "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking for." ("You too, dahlings? What a lovely dance," Gramma might say.)
The kids love it when Gramma breaks out her makeup. She may even allow them to apply lipstick or eye shadow to her face. But all she needs to do is dote on their faces: a little blush here, a little blue eyeliner there.
Fabulous! "Dahlings, you look wonderful!"
For her fifth birthday, Hilary received from Gramma a package of Elizabeth Taylor's Passion accessories: perfumed body lotion, talc, hairbrush, compact, and two scarves. The house has been a mite aromatic since. The dog won't go near the kids for fear of being Impassioned.
When we visited Gramma at her apartment in Los Angeles last summer, the girls put on so much white makeup they looked like Kabuki actors.
I was doted on by Gramma from our first meeting, the week before my wife, Lesley, and I were married. Lesley, her father, and I met Gramma at the airport and drove her to her sister Ruth's house in Queens, N.Y., where she stays when she comes for a visit. She has her own room at Ruth's, her own closet, and her "Eastern wardrobe." I was ushered from the front door to the kitchen - for doting. I remember Ruth's husband, David, greeting me from his seat at the head of the table. I was going to be the tallest member of the family by what seemed like several feet. I felt like Gulliver.
I was used to food as the coin for caring and welcome, but here was a new menu.
"Some herring? Potato salad? Bagels?" offered Gramma and Aunt Ruth simultaneously, leaving no refrigerator shelf unchecked for offerings. "Check your calories at the door!" Gramma is fond of saying. I wasn't a very hearty eater just then, nor was I in the mood to try something new like creamed herring.
LESLEY and I were married in her parents' living room by the town mayor, who told us that she would apply her honorarium to the town beautification fund. If we ever got divorced, though, she would have "our shrubs" pulled up. Gramma was a good sport about the kilt I wore, made especially for the occasion. My brother wore the other family kilt. She kidded Lesley: "Honey, I told you not to marry a Gentile."
Gramma's Los Angeles apartment is small and tidy, opening onto the courtyard swimming pool. The living room is dominated by the "wall of fame," her photo gallery of four generations of family: Lesley's cousins, siblings, parents; our children; aunts, uncles; Lesley's father riding a pony on Coney Island; Evelyn's three sisters; and her husband, Grandpa Joe. We duplicated our vacation photos and organized them into an album before we left, so that there would be no gap between our presence and the arrival of the photos - a stock of memories and proof of our arrival and two-week presence.
Last summer, the San Francisco cousins came East for a visit. Gramma's tin of rugelach arrived just hours before they did, with a note and a check. The note read: "Stop talking and feed the children!" What prescience. Gramma remembers, more faithfully than we do, our birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays, particularly the major ones like Halloween and Valentine's Day. She sends a few dollars to the kids "for ice cream and cake - and don't forget to treat your parents."
Before school starts, she'll send a check "for socks and underwear - or whatever." There's always a suggestion of what she thinks our need is, but the funds are always unrestricted. This year's pre-school letter went like this:
Hands off the money until you read this!!
My Darling Family:
Now that the birthdays are "up-to-date" and I promised a set of sheets and P cases and, as I told you, Les, the cost of sending is outrageous, so $25 is for the sheets -- Please buy that.
The remainder is for my little precious ones for some of their needs for school, which, before long, will be on top of us. ($50) I'll have to stop eating soon!! Of course the saving department, I can't impress the importance from where I'm sitting - I did it for years, but in my generation it was sure a lot easier. However, this check is also for the celebration of the Jewish New Year, which is September 16th (I get a lot for my money).
My love and I sure miss you all!
Great Grandma Evelyn
She came to our house for Thanksgiving this year and brought the cranberry sauce - her special cranberry sauce. She took two buses to reach the store that sold the proper oranges. When she found the bag of oranges so heavy that it unbalanced her for the return trip, she bought a second bag for her other hand, just to even things out. A gallon of sauce, in two separate containers, was enough.
But it almost didn't make it. She was on a late- night flight and left the all-important, sauce-laden suitcase in the rental-car company's van. The sauce was circling various terminals on ground transport. By 2 a.m., they had retrieved it; Thanksgiving was saved. But, as Gramma said to the assembled family at the start of the meal: "It's not what you eat, or where you eat - it's who you're eating with."