Here’s to Grandma Mimi!
A Jewish Cockney born in London, within earshot of Bow Bells, she came from a poor family – the kids slept three in a bed. Slum childhood was rough but fun and it prepared her for an adventurous life.
Though apolitical herself, she married a Socialist pacifist who was forced to go into hiding during World War I for his views. She used to visit him in his London hideout and sing the 1915 poster song, “What Did You Do In The Great War, Daddy?” to tease him. He was apparently highly amused.
They emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Brooklyn. She was widowed quite young with three children. With only a minimal education and no particular skills, she improvised and somehow survived while the children went on to become: a Columbia University anthropologist/writer, a Penn State English professor/science fiction writer, and a public school teacher.
Alone, in her later years she could have lived with her children or other relatives, but she preferred a small low-rental apartment in city housing on the Lower East Side. “It’s easier to stay friends,” she said, “if you don’t live together.”
I looked forward to our nightly telephone calls. A natural storyteller, she had a hilarious and caustic tongue.
This night I am remembering, I had just set her fine recipe for cabbage soup simmering on the stove when the phone rang. Perfect. She knew when to call – between cooking and dinner. Her “Hello” was resonant, even triumphant. Something had happened!
My first queries brought no information. She was well. The apartment was fine. Nothing had happened.
I held off curiosity a bit then I noted, “You sound different tonight.”
“If you had that yenta Gross for a neighbor, you wouldn’t sound normal either.”
“What did she do to you?”
“Do to me? Nothing. What could she do to an old widow like me? Only, let me tell you, Gross is the biggest show–off in the world! No question about it.”
Then she paused. Though dying to tell, she was holding back to work up her audience.
I waited attentively. Grandma Mimi’s timing was impeccable; really, there was no pushing her.
“This morning I was sitting outside on the bench with my next doorka, Klein, you know, a quiet woman, a fine person, who was telling me how to make gefilte fish without sugar, when Gross came along and asked could we move over a few inches. Then she planted herself like Queen Cleopatra with all her tchotchkes: her sunglasses and her creams and her movie magazines spread out over every sunny inch of bench. Gross is no string bean herself, you understand. A few inches for her is nothing.”
“But, Grandma Mimi, she lives in the building. She’s entitled to sit on the bench.”
“Entitled? Who says no? She can get up at daybreak and take the whole bench. She can bring all her relatives. But today WE were there first! For my part she can even go to Brighton and bake herself then say it’s a Miami tan.”
Grandma Mimi stopped but I knew there was MUCH more to come. You didn’t get a kerflofel like this out of her for minor infractions. I was eager to hear. “Is that all she did?”
“Of course not. But you need to let me tell my story my way.”
“Tell,” I invited her. “Please tell – only wait one minute, just let me get a chair.”
“Okay. I am already sitting.”
Crucial information. Major! It was a long story.
“Right away she began to brag about her grandson’s three bar mitzvahs.”
You heard me,” she said. “You heard right.”
“Please – come again.”
“Her grandson’s three bar mitzvahs!” Grandma Mimi assured me. “Now you should understand that Gross always begins friendly and chatty. But she’s sneaky. I know her. This time she started right off in a voice as sweet as honey. ‘So where was your grandson’s bar mitzvah?’ A person could get diabetes just from listening to her.
So I told her proudly, in New Jersey in their community’s own beautiful synagogue, and his mother with my help made a marvelous feast, afterwards, in their lovely garden: roses and lilies and lilacs wherever you looked.
‘You can’t eat flowers,’ Gross, that genius, observed.
‘Fortunately, no one had to,’ I assured her. ‘The food was incredible, all home made even the challahs; such kishka and holopchi and strudel. It melted in the mouth. No frozen you-don’t-know what’s in it. All fresh.’
‘Like a dream such a bar mitzvah is,’ my friend Klein agreed. Gross sniffed. ‘I didn’t know people still made such old fashioned bar mitzvahs anymore. My grandson’s bar mitzvah was on Masada!’
‘That’s very impressive,’ I told her. ‘To go all the way to Israel when you’re not even Orthodox is really very impressive.’
‘And then he was bar mitzvah a second time in Jerusalem – at the Wall.’
‘Twice?’ Klein expressed honest confusion. ‘How can a boy become a man twice?’
‘Not just twice. Three times,’ Gross corrected her. ‘Because, my bad luck I got pleurisy and I couldn’t travel to Israel, so they had to do it again in their temple on Long Island. But no one had to lift a finger. Every single dish was catered. Champagne gushed from a gold spigot – like water!’”
“Grandma Mimi! What an incredible showoff she is!” I exclaimed.
“You don’t for one minute think I let her get away with that?”
“Of course not. WHAT did you say?”
“Well, first, because I am a peaceful person, I decided I would just sit quiet a while. But by then, the clouds were hiding most of the sun and I felt a chill on my back because whatever little sun there was left, Gross was using it up. So I got up. Then I picked up my cushion. ‘Gross,’ I said before going in, ‘your grandson is a very lucky boy.’ And this brought a big fat smile to Gross’s face: The cat who ate the canary. ‘Yes,’ I observed, ‘the boy is remarkably lucky that this was his bar mitzvah and not his circumcision.’”
It was several minutes before I could successfully stem my laughter and offer my mother-in-law my tribute. “Grandma Mimi, I have always known you were very clever – but this was genius! Sheer genius!”
“I know,” she said modestly. “Every single neighbor on the floor says the exact same thing.”
mgershun on Sheila remembered in the Wall… google on The Limerick Lady Carol Bullivant on Men Who Went Against The Grain… Janet Yano on Remembering Sheila mgershun on Remembering Sheila
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Sheila – I just got to your essay – and I am laughing out loud! What a wonderful story – I could hear every word. Thank you so much for sending. Love to all!
Sheila — A great one and a tribute to Grandma Mimi. The only thing missing is the fourth bar mitzvah — the safari!
PS Have you ever wondered why that generation of Jewish people called one another by their last names? I think it has something to do with propriety.