Susan's Blog

Monday, November 20, 2006

Hey Grandma, updated

[Note: to learn more about my wonderful and oh-so-Taurus late and great Grandma, get it firsthand, in my dad’s book, Catskill Summers]

I came across the following in my old documents file. I thought of Grandma, and there it was. It is almost five years to the day that I wrote this, about my larger-than-life paternal grandmother, Esther Senator Gross, a year before she died. I have edited it a tad and I give it to you, in her honor…

My grandmother is not doing too well. She’s been falling a lot lately. I can’t help but picture the hand of God kind of nudging her down, shaking out the last bits of life in her, helping her get on with it. She’s 93. But every time, she recovers, a little smaller than before, but still herself. But still.

And so these days I find bits of her life floating over to me, the bits that intertwined with my life. The thing is, Grandma has always been a real character. She’s a bit difficult to get along with, argumentative, impulsive, moody, but passionate about those she loves, fiercely loyal, and unafraid to speak her mind. She has always been a real person to me, not some pedestal-perfect grandmother who bakes cookies — though she used to bake: three different cakes at a time when I would visit her in Florida, draped in dishtowels, standing on the table. “Aren’t you going to have a piece of cake? What are you, on a diet?” She and I have had a real relationship, with committment, love, anger, and understanding. I cannot bear that she is leaving me.

I see her chubby hand reaching into her huge white leather purse, rooting around for something for me. I’m five or six. She pulls out a huge pink foil-covered flat circle of chocolate, which I unpeel and eat immediately. Then she stuffs five dollars into my hand, which I dutifully hand over to Mom or Dad. The chocolate was the thing, not the money.

Later, she pulls me onto her lap to kiss me like a hundred times, and tells me “Never go with strangers. You hear?” Yes, yes, of course I won’t! I’ve read Betsy and Bill and the Nice Bad Man. Seargent Shean spoke to our whole school. I know all about that stuff. Yet, she tells me every single time she sees me, which back then was a lot.

My sister and I slept at her apartment only once, a long, hot night in a Brooklyn apartment, in an uncomfortable sofa bed. No toys except two bottle openers with walnuts hulls with faces glued on and yarn hair. It didn’t matter; we played with those things for hours. She had a lot of china figurines, which I found you were not supposed to play with because they broke. There was a visit I remember where I think I broke at least three different things, and she kept yelling at me, while my Dad just laughed (for he did the same thing when he was a boy). Because he laughed I knew I was not really in trouble; in fact, I never was, with her even though she yelled at me a lot all my life.

Although we stayed with her in Brooklyn only once, we stayed with her in “the country” often. This was her bungalow in the Catskills. It was a little boring being there with only my sister, who liked different things than me, like pinball and board games, rather than dolls and pretend games, but we amused ourselves with the pool and swingset nearby. I was always told to be careful in the pool; that somebody had drowned horribly there by sticking her head in the pool bars that divided shallow end from deep. Why would someone do that, I wondered to my sister. I was also told not to swing (!) But I did anyway. One time my cut-off shorts got stuck in the swing and when I jumped off I was left hanging by the swing, with Laura laughing her head off. If Grandma had seen this, she would have yelled so much, but luckily she didn’t know.

I remember hating her food. The cakes were old world style, babkes, mushy apple, no chocolate kinds, no frosting. Once she cooked me a “minute steak,” which tasted like a stick, and canned vegetables, and expected me to eat everything. She made me chocolate milk, really brown, which I loved, so I kept asking for more, but then she scolded me for drinking too much milk. My sister and I just looked at each other, mystified.

As we got older, and the grandparents all moved to Florida, I remember that it was easier to stay with my other grandmother, who left me to my own devices more, and spoiled me with the most delicious food, new clothes, and lots of easy conversation — but that’s another story altogether. We would visit Grandma, and once, when we got ready to leave to go back to my other grandmother, she said in a snit, “What’s she got, the Brooklyn Bridge over there?” Once it got so hard for me to stay with her, because of all the nagging, that I “escaped” to my other grandmother’s, and stayed there the rest of the time. But Grandma was merely puzzled by my move, not angry. Maybe she knew she got on my nerves. She accepted that in me. She once said I was “ornery.” I hated when I displeased her, because I was so used to basking in her love. She did not like when I got too thin or plucked my eyebrows; she said I looked like a “Shiksa.” She had a strange expression on her face, though, like she half admired my ability to achieve this look.

Things have not changed all that much. She always wanted me to name one of my children after Joe, her second, odd (probably Aspie) husband, but I did not. Nat was born the day Joe died, so she feels a special sad connection with Nat. She has never accepted the fact that Nat has a disability, only views him as “a little slow,” which drives me crazy: “He’s not slow Grandma! He has a problem with language, socializing, school work…” What does it matter? To her that’s being a little slow. She always asks,”How is he, is he talking more?”
And I reply, with honesty, “Yes, he is,” because he is always improving.
Then she says, “How about the other one? He’s so handsome.” And then, “How’s the baby? He’s cute.” Benji is now three, but still the baby. She can’t keep track so well anymore of all the other great-grandchildren but I always feel like she keeps track of mine, especially Max and Nat, whom she knows so well.

Every year we visit her in Florida, take her out to dinner. Once I took her to the Rainforest Cafe. She’d just been in the hospital. My dad had warned me to take her someplace easy, because she could not walk so well, but I wanted to do something fun for all of us. When I got to the restaurant, it looked like it was ten miles from the curb where Ned dropped us off. I thought, “Oh, Dad is going to kill me.” But Grandma charged ahead with her walker, found a shopping cart, and pushed her way through the mall until we got to the restaurant! When I took a look at all of the auto-animatronic animals there, I thought, “Oh, Dad is going to kill me. This is too much for her!” But Grandma liked the place, liked the fun of it. She took one look at the menu and passed it to me, saying, “I don’t want to eat nothing.” Then, “see if there’s a little pizza there.” So we got her a kid’s pizza, and she liked it, without sending anything back or yelling at the waiter. She even ate dessert.

Well, I’m heading down there by myself m
id-March. She’s in the hospital again, a little disoriented I hear. I sent her a letter and in all caps I wrote, “I’m coming on March 16!” My way of saying, “Hey Grandma. Hang in there! I can’t imagine the world without you so please, don’t die!”

We’ll see if she listens to me.

The March visit was the last time I would ever see Grandma alive.


Susan, I’m curious did you write this before your book or after? I see a lot of the same ideas here – that being with real people, however they are, can be a greater joy than being with people who alway present a perfect but fake facade. Actually, you can see a lot of the ‘realness’ in all your writings. Was this realness a product of your journey with Nat or something you always had?

— added by Pete Lyons on Wednesday, November 22, 2006 at 11:13 am

Hi Pete,
Thank you for the thoughtful question. I wrote this before the book, about a year before I started really putting the book together (I wrote it five years ago, and the book maybe three-four years ago). “Realness” as you call it is something I may have always had but Nat taught me that it was definitely a good thing, and a greater joy than the perfect but fake.

— added by Susan Senator on Wednesday, November 22, 2006 at 11:19 am

Hi, Susan!
I just finished reading your dad’s book, and was intrigued by the character of his mother. The next day, I googled “Esther Senator” and was directed to this interesting piece on your blogsite.
My condolences on Grnadma’s passing. She sounds like an incredible mother and a smart woman.
I found “Catskill Summers” very interesting and enjoyable to read. One of the things that struck me most powerfully was the common sense, tolerance, and real wisdom of many of the adults he was privileged to be surrounded with as a child. Lots of kids would benefit from having a Sam Weisner in their lives! And the story abiout him breaking the expensive china in his aunt’s store and everyone just relieved that he was okay- is it true? Wow!
and your grandparents really sound like people with “sechel.”
Another reason the book drew me is that we have been spending summers in the Ferndale area for quite some time- first at a now-razed colony on Upper Ferndale Road, and, mnore recently, on Lt Brender Hwy. Where, exactly, is “Summer Farm?” Were the Garden Resort and Starretts names of real places?
I’d love to hear from you and/or your father.
Lavender Garden

— added by Anonymous on Monday, April 28, 2008 at 2:46 pm

Hi Lavender,
I forwarded your kind and astute comments to my dad. But we don’t have your email address, so we won’t know how best to respond to you! Please email me directly at susan at susansenator dot com. Thanks!

— added by Susan Senator on Monday, April 28, 2008 at 2:51 pm

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