Our grateful columnist keeps it all in the family.
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. But I realize now that I only knew those stories because they were told to me by other people. The night of Mindy Perlmutter's terrarium party, my grandmother was telling me the things she wanted me to know. She talked about dances and boys and a silvery blue dress she'd sewn with her sisters. She told me about a time when all her friends were doubled over with laughter because...well, I'm not really sure what it was they found so funny. There was a honk and the glare of headlights, so I gave my grandmother a fast peck on the cheek and flew straight out the door. She went into the hospital the next morning, and she never came out.
I sit playing Candy Land with the great-granddaughter Rose Kogan never got to meet. Julia Claire closes her eyes, blows on the dice, and whispers, "C'mon, c'mon, Mama needs a pair of deuces."
I have no idea why my 6-year-old sounds like Edward G. Robinson, but I make a mental note to quit letting her play blackjack with the doormen. She rolls "snake eyes" and becomes my little girl again. "I want a do-over, Mommy."
I start to explain that we don't really get do-overs in this world, that you kind of have to play it as it lays. I believe the parenting books call this a "teachable moment," but my follow-through leaves much to be desired. I hand Jules the dice and say, "Go for it, kid."
The truth is, I want a do-over, too. I have ignored my instincts, I have embraced my neuroses, and there have been more than a few serious lapses in judgment over the years—hell, I once painted my bathroom aubergine. But if I could get just one night back, it would be a chilly October evening when nothing mattered more to me than hanging with my friends in Mindy Perlmutter's basement.
I would have taken off my coat and sat back down, only this time I'd have faced my grandmother instead of the driveway. I would have asked her if the good times outweighed the bad, if there were nights she'd do differently, if she'd ever felt like giving up—or if that was even an option. I never told her how smart and talented and brave and lovely I thought she was. I never heard what was so great about Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver. I never found out what she did to make her skin so soft and her matzo balls so firm or if she'd have preferred it the other way around. And I never thanked her for being my go-to grandma in the unconditional goodness department.
Julia and I finish the game and say our goodnights. I am eager to return a couple of calls, get her lunch packed for school, and watch the episode of Mad Men I've got waiting on our DVR. But my daughter is feeling chatty. "Mommy," she begins, "do you know why the Princess Barbie Musketeers have swords that match their ball gowns?" Before I can answer, she announces, "It's because they're royal squashbucklers." I tell her I'm pretty sure the word is swashbucklers, and she tells me she's pretty sure I'm wrong and goes on talking. She doesn't want to let go of the night, and so I nudge away two stuffed poodles and curl up beside her. The calls and the lunch and even Don Draper can wait, because I have learned the hard way that my job is to sit quietly in the dark and listen to whatever my daughter has to say.