To Her, Generosity Had No Alternative

Whenever I feel concerned about finances, I open a small drawer in my bedroom and look at an old, black purse that sits there in its place of honor. It's Grandma's purse. When I was a little boy, she'd point to it and say, "An open purse is never empty." She could have also said, "An open heart is never empty." In her case, it would have been just as true. Generous of heart and impulse, sensitive to others' needs, she seemed always to have enough of whatever she needed, though she was never rich.

Grandma had no idea there was an alternative to generosity and forgiveness, to music and joy. She could always teach me a thing or two, in her wonderful way of being helpful without always knowing whom she was helping.

I remember a party I gave at home. I told my family to stay behind closed doors. This was my party. One of my guests brought his aunt, Mrs. Gloria Vanderbilt.

All of a sudden, utterly unbidden, Grandma appeared in the living room and sat down next to Mrs. Vanderbilt. I heard Grandma inquire of Mrs. Vanderbilt if she was Sephardic, like Grandma, since she had a "large nose." "It's a Morgan nose," was the reply. "They run in the family." I ran from the room in embarrassment.

Yet, after that stupendous icebreaker, Grandma somehow quickly extracted the secret news that Mrs. Vanderbilt was facing minor surgery, and was very fearful. Grandma immediately lectured her on this, since she'd had the same surgery herself. "It's going to be all right," Grandma assured her. "Don't be afraid. It's nothing." Later, Mrs. Vanderbilt sent Grandma a beautifully embroidered handkerchief and a long, loving note. (No one sent me a handkerchief.)

IF Grandma heard the faintest whisper of anyone planning to go out, anywhere, in our old La Salle automobile, she'd be sitting near the front door in a flash, her straw hat firmly pinned on, clutching her purse, holding her gloves, fully decked out and ready to go. You weren't going without her, for riding in a car was her great joy. She liked the radio on while we drove, and she could sing many of the pop songs she heard.

When it seemed time for us to find a retirement home for her, I got the job of looking for a nice one. I spent days visiting the best of the best.

Then I sat down with our family, and said, "Grandma is not going to one of those places. She can have my bedroom, and I'll sleep on a couch, if I have to." The ones I'd seen seemed so grim. How could we send Grandma to any of them? I found a larger apartment for all of us. I never slept on a couch, and Grandma never slept anywhere but in her own room, in her family's home.

Laughter echoed out of that happy home for many years. Once at dinner, my brother said he wanted more butter. Grandma, in her 80s, shot out of her chair like a rocket and came racing back with butter from the kitchen.

"What kept you?" my brother joked.

"I didn't have my roller skates on," was her instant reply.

Roller skates or not, Grandma knew her way around a kitchen. In a never-ending flow, out came incredible Old World tarts and pies of spinach or eggplant or beef that she had wrapped in phyllo dough and baked.

I live in France, the kingdom of cuisine, and I dine well. Yet, what do I dream of at night after one of those three-hour French dinner parties? Boyos con espinaca, that's what. It's no good wishing you could have some. First of all, it seems to me that you must come from Smyrna on the Turkish seacoast, speak Ladino, and be a Sephardic with original roots in Spain. What a mistake King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella made when they drove the Sephardim out of Spain in the 15th century! (Grandma's ancestors settled in Turkey.) The fragrances of borekas, gome de berenjena, pastelicos de carne, and more come floating out in memory to me.

Once, with plenty of trepidation, I took a job at a big manufacturing company in Los Angeles owned by relatives. My uncle was chairman of the board, and the word was that he was tough. My first week on the job, I looked up from my desk and saw members of my family cruising the corridors. They were looking for me.

As one of 8,000 employees, I wasn't pleased at being singled out for the Nepotism of the Month Award. I ducked down. But when I saw Grandma I arose at once. You have to hug your grandmother.

THE next thing I knew, my uncle had invited everyone into his office for a quick hello. I was dragged in, too. Everyone looked nervous, edging toward his office door. Suddenly, I saw Grandma go up to him, and I thought, "Oh, no! The kiss!" No, not a Mafia thing: Hers was a kiss of love only, and thus much more powerful.

She reached out both arms around my uncle's neck, pulled him down, and kissed him. That kiss bore a clear message: an artfully conveyed request to look after her beloved grandson. A promise shrewdly extracted by Grandma, and lovingly agreed to by the flattered, flustered chairman, in the single act of her kissing him goodbye.

"She's a remarkable woman," my outfoxed uncle said to me as he watched her leave. He had a huge smile on his face and was bubbling with pleasure. Grandma and the chairman both knew a special deal had been struck. It's only fair to say that my uncle seemed to look after me, in the kindest possible way, ever after.

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