Illustration: John Ritter
Mindy Perlmutter was having a birthday party, but this was not just your garden variety, chocolate cake, two kinds of ice cream, balloons, and a piñata type soiree. No, this would be an affair to remember. This would be even more fabulous than Alicia Mittenthal's tie-dye-your-own-pillowcase gala or Daisy Feng's macramé-your-own-bracelet bash. This was to be a build-your-own-terrarium shindig, complete with colored sand and plastic stones and an incredibly classy assortment of glass goldfish bowls. At the time (the time being about 34 years ago), it seemed like a very big deal—I mean, let's be honest here, it would still be a big deal to go to a party where you get to build your own terrarium...in, you know, a kind of retro, '70s, ironic, hipster way.
So there I sat, looking out the den window, which gave me a clear view to the driveway while I waited for my ride to come spirit me away. Actually, it hadn't been our den since my grandparents returned from their life in Miami Beach and my folks rented a hospital bed to turn the den into my grandmother's bedroom. I loved my grandmother, but I can't say I ever really got to know her. She was the lady who played bingo and walked with a cane and kept a plump red tomato pincushion next to the creaky old foot-pedal-powered Singer sewing machine. I remember that she put up her own pickles and draped strudel dough across the kitchen table, and I know that she learned to reupholster her own furniture and got her first driver's license when she was deep into her 50s, and I'm acutely aware that she spoke to my grandfather in a very stern Yiddish whenever he tried to convince me to watch The Lawrence Welk Show. My grandmother endured an awful lot from the man, but no grandchild of hers was going to be forced to watch Lawrence Welk so long as she still had breath in her body.
Anyway, the sun was going down and my ride was running late and my grandmother started to talk. I thought she was going to warn me to be careful of something or other, because she was from the generation who believed that pigeons carry polio and she worried a lot, but if she was anxious about anything that night, she didn't show it. "I used to love to go to parties," she told me. She might as well have said that she used to enjoy scaling Mount Everest in flip-flops and a tutu. I was pretty sure I'd heard all the stories from my grandmother's life—and none of them involved a party.
The talk I'd heard was always the same: She and her mother and her five brothers and sisters starving through the bitter Russian winters in a little village whose name sounded like a sneeze. I knew about the malnutrition, the crippling rickets, the father who slaved away for years in Detroit trying to earn enough money to bring his wife and children to America and how when he finally did manage to save enough, the man he entrusted with the job of bringing the family over disappeared with the money (was he killed? did he steal it?), leaving my great-grandfather to start all over again. I'd heard how my great-uncles Sam and Isadore would scrounge through fields looking for anything edible while my grandmother supported everyone with her job as a maid to the butcher's wife, and I knew by heart the story of how she lost that job because the woman caught her taking a sip of milk. I also knew how she met Arthur Levy, the love of her life, who my great-aunt Molly swore looked "exactly like a young Perry Como," and that he died a few weeks after she married him, though she never stopped wearing his ring. I knew that the first son she had with my grandfather had died, and that on a Friday afternoon in 1939, her father, the man who worked so hard to bring the family here, died, too, after being pushed off the roof of a building in an anti-Semitic attack. And, of course, I knew that she worked nonstop to build a better life for her children.