They're Pioneers, and Adventurers, Matriarchs and Shtarkers . They Are My Gurus, My Personal Guides to the Existential Dilemma.
Compared to my grandmothers, I'm a shmegegge . That's shma-geggy , Yiddish for nerd or ineffectual slob. They, of course, would fiercely deny that their granddaughter is a nudnik . How could I be anything but brilliant and beautiful in their eyes? Perfect, even. But the truth is that next to them, I am a regular shmo .
Take gin rummy, for instance. The last time I played Tessie, my father's mother, she killed me--98-0. She knew she would. When I asked her to play, she replied, without malice: "Why? You vant to see how you can lose?"
As for my mother's mother, Pearlie, her particular genius resides in a ball of yarn and a crochet needle. You need a toilet-paper cover? A doll with braids? A place mat? An afghan? A beret? You name it, Pearl makes it. She shouldn't, because of her arthritis. But sometimes, a yarn master can't help herself and sneaks in a baby sweater for her great-granddaughter, packaged inside a knotted plastic bag. ("She's so beautiful, kineahora ," Pearlie tells me, invoking one of her oft-chanted Yiddish expressions to ward away the evil eye while pressing another crocheted goody into my hands for my 10-month-old daughter, Lucy. I am pathetic and bring Pearlie nothing. She waves her thin, veiny hand, as if to bat away my guilt, and says, "It's nothink, dahlink.")
My grandmothers are the strongest women I know. True, their health is fading. But in my mind, they're pioneers and adventurers, brave and fearless. Shtarkers , to be precise, who live by themselves. Tessie Weinreb in Queens, N.Y., Pearlie Feldman in Santa Monica. They're also the first women I've watched grow old, outliving, between them, 12 siblings, three husbands, one son and most of their friends. Pearlie is 92; Tessie is 93. "Maybe," Tessie says with a shrug, "God forgot my address."
Always with the jokes, they can get on my nerves. They can even drive me crazy, with their Old World superstitions and Neanderthal attitudes about a range of issues. Pfui! And yet, they are my gurus. Just as striking as their longevity is the sense of utter constancy they offer in a world that seems to speed along faster and faster. Like it or not, they are my personal guides into old age and the existential dilemma.
"You shrink, this you should know," Tessie advises.
"You shrivel up, just like a potato," Pearlie agrees.
Two matriarchs, they are my bubbes --the Yiddish term for grandmothers, pronounced with the vowel sound in bubbles, bub-ees. They are not in the least pretentious, nothing fancy-shmancy about them. And they offer no sugar-coated prescriptions for life: It is hard, it is complicated, it is not forever. There is joy in sorrow and sorrow in joy. Always, there is family. And passion. Even now, the titles of their favorite TV shows speak volumes. Tessie's is "The Young and the Restless." Pearlie's is "Mad About You."
The last of a breed, they are still close to their immigrant past, hardened by wars and the Depression and shaped by discrimination against Jews that began to dissipate only in the 1950s. Now they have little patience for basic questions. What is, is. Ask Tessie, for instance, why being an Orthodox Jew is so important to her, and she answers rhetorically: "Why does an Arab wear the shmatte on his head?" Ask Pearl why she continues wearing her wedding band, 17 years after her husband's death, and she quips: "I'm married forever to him. All my life. I'm a Jewish nun."
I should say, at this point, that I am utterly baffled at how middle age has turned me into a sentimental sop. Pathologically so. I cry over stuff that is embarrassing--my 10-year-old's Little League game, my 7-year-old's musical-comedy debut, my baby girl's weaning. I am a boomer sandwich, eyeing my children's growth, my parents' aging and my grandmothers' frailty as signs of my own mortality. So I unearth the past to make future connections, keeping the continuum alive. I go back to the Source.
To Pearlie and Tessie. My grandmas. My heroes. My bubelehs .
I first decided to interview my grandmothers when I realized that they were having a difficult time recuperating from falls they suffered in the summer of 1993. Both had slipped and broken their arms. Pearlie's stumble was especially traumatic, since it occurred when she was two-stepping with her folk-dance troupe, the Dancing Dolls, during the rousing finale of "Achy Breaky Heart."
I phoned them both to say that I wanted to write an article about them.
" Oy vaysmere ," Tessie complained right away, "Can't you get a better subject? I can't see. I can't hear. I can't talk. What else?" Translation: She couldn't wait to see me.
Pearlie was equally happy to comply. "Joyala, my life is an open book. You just tell me when."
In the following months, with tape recorder in hand, I periodically visited them and, on occasion, telephoned. When I stayed with Tessie, we were roommates, and her snoring drove me wild; Pearlie and I stole time together over tea and bopkas . I found myself frantically jotting down notes about the details of their lives, as if the act of remembering would allow me to hold on to them longer. Then I resisted writing their stories with every journalistic bone in my body: How could I truthfully distill the lives I most wanted to extol ?
At first glance, Tessie and Pearlie seem as different as two women could be. Tessie can be secretive and has few close friends, though she is acidly funny; Pearlie, who tosses her head back and lets go a piercing cackle when she laughs, is vocal and has a range of acquaintances and relationships. Pearlie is ribald, Tessie is circumspect. Tessie boycotted my wedding 17 years ago when I married my husband, Brock, who is not Jewish; Pearlie not only came to our wedding, just a month after her husband died, but she also joyously danced there, a la Isadora Duncan, in pink chiffon. Tessie strictly observes Jewish rituals, keeping kosher and attending shul as often as possible; Pearlie, who prays by writing letters to her deceased son and husband, believes that religion resides in the heart.
On closer inspection, though, it quickly becomes clear that my grandmothers face the same predicament: Both women, in a sense, have become invisible. As with the matriarchs of the Old Testament, you have to read between the lines to understand them--or just to find them. To be an old woman in American culture is to be cast off, dismissed as daft. Jewish mothers, in particular, have become cultural icons and the butt of countless jokes. Yet, these public portrayals mask a deeper truth that is no secret: Women outlive men. Thus, their undisputed power resides in their longevity, as keepers of the family legacy. Tessie and Pearlie stand as symbols that sometimes there are men around and sometimes not, but life goes on pretty much the same either way.
They tell stories about their past with the narrative panache of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Are their stories true? Some go back so far, to the middle of the 19th Century, that they surely improve in the retelling. But accuracy isn't the point, really. What matters to me, anyway, is that I find the girl in the woman before me, still alive with possibility.
What follows is my ode to bubbe hood, a patchwork of interviews, recipes and kitchen-table advice: Pearlie's wisdom and Tessie's tsuris ("worries").
"You know what's tsuris ?" Tessie asks, casting one of her deadpan looks. "Two Jews were sitting on the train and they were talking tsuris . And the Irishman was holding onto the strap in the train. And he hears them talking tsuris , tsuris , tsuris . He says, 'For God's sake, if you have a sore ass, why don't you get up and give me a seat?' "
Mother's Day, May 8. 6:30 a.m. Inside Tessie's apartment.
"Come, mamashayna ," she says as soon as she's hugged me hello. "Come eat breakfast."
Bleary-eyed, I've just arrived on the red-eye from Los Angeles to her one-bedroom apartment in Queens. She lives in a six-story brick building, the Winston, in a tree-lined, working-class neighborhood of Briarwood, not far from Forest Hills. In anticipation of my arrival, she's already beaten the eggs for my matzo brei --scrambled eggs with moistened matzo. Wrapped in a plastic bag and covered with a paper towel is her homemade marble cake, my favorite.
At 93, Tessie stands just under five feet, though she once was a couple of inches taller. She wears thick, pink-framed glasses, red lipstick, a flowered housedress and sneakers. Her right hand shakes, her fingers are gnarled from arthritis, her sciatica is a source of constant pain. Still, she manages to have her fingernails painted fire-engine red.
"It's good to live long, but it's not good to get old," she tells me. "You can't do what you want."
She sets a cup of coffee on the place mat. "Do you use sugar or you use your disposition?"
Her apartment, decorated with family photographs from decades ago, is furnished neo-"I Love Lucy," with most of the lamps, tables and chairs from the 1950s. But they've held up for a reason. "This is what I learned from my husband Izzy," she says of the grandfather I never met and for whom I was given my Hebrew name. "If you buy, buy good." In the living room, above an overstuffed couch, there hangs a pastoral oil painting of Stevensville in the Catskills. On a side wall, there are two ceramic dancers in frames. Over her bed, too, there are framed prints of Degas dancers.
It's drizzling out. I ask about her arthritis.
"They wouldn't let me alone."
"Who wouldn't let you alone?"
"The arthritis. They stick to me. They like me." A jokenik, she deflects most questions with her highly idiosyncratic brand of humor. I offer her a Mother's Day gift--a box of soaps.
"Why spend money on me?" she asks.
"Why not?" I ask.
" 'Cause I hope I use it up." Meaning she doesn't think she'll live so long.
"I hope not," she says.
"You hope not?"
"Because me no like it," she says, invoking the upside-down syntax to a favorite old Yiddish musical, "Oy, I Like She."
To listen to someone you love tell you that she'd prefer to be dead is dreadful. In my grandmother's case, though, it's predictable. She's been talking this way, without remorse or rancor, for the last several years, at least. But her depression is also understandable. Once stubbornly independent, she now must rely on her two daughters, who structure their week around shopping for her and transporting her to the doctor or to the beauty shop. She has an attendant five days a week to help out. And she has an emergency button, plus the phone, her lifeline.
"I lost confidence in myself," she explains about her fall last year. "I don't trust myself anywhere. I don't go down for the mail myself. I do sometimes, but the cane--I hate people should see me. So I don't go some places I want to go." She ventures out twice a week now, to her Golden Age Club on Mondays and to Danny's Specialty Beauty Shop on Saturdays to have her white hair fluffed and sprayed into a bubble-like crown.
"Now, anything that I want to do, I can't do it myself," she says. It takes her half an hour to fasten her bra, longer to clean a chicken. "So what is it? I don't want to aggravate the Man Upstairs, but it's no use. Why do they celebrate the Golden Age?"
She reconsiders. "Maybe I'm too critical on myself, too," she adds. "The kids say that I'm too critical. Do you find me that way?"
Not at the moment. She's just served me a giant slice of cake for breakfast. Who am I to complain?
Minutes later, though, I'm fair game. For this trip, I've lugged along a breast pump so that I can continue to nurse my 10-month-old daughter when I return home. Tessie disapproves of the setup. "If she could do the four days without you, you don't need it," she says of the pump.
I disagree. "All right," she shrugs, "nurse until her wedding day."
The blue door to Pearlie's apartment has a little plastic sign hanging from the doorknob, like the ones you leave out for room service in a hotel. But Pearlie's sign is a daily reminder of what it's like to live in the shadow of death: "Good Morning. I'm OK!"
Kathie Lee and Regis are blaring from the TV set. Pearlie tells me she doesn't much care for Kathy Lee's new haircut. We guffaw over Regis' beady eyes. Pearl has high cheekbones, bright eyes and a pixie haircut, like Peter Pan. I practically tower over her now, she's such a sliver of her former self. Though she moved to California 10 years ago, her voice is still coated in Brooklynese.
"You want orange juice or what?" she asks. She lives five minutes away from me in the Silvercrest, a concrete apartment complex for seniors. Her building is sandwiched between a muffler shop and the Phoenix Bookstore, a hangout for hipsters. During the week, she usually eats her meals downstairs in the dining hall; otherwise, she cooks for herself in her tiny kitchen, making nothing like the lavish spreads she is famous for in the family. But on the kitchen table, there is an entire plate of chocolate chip cupcakes she baked fresh for my visit.
She speaks in code sometimes, expecting me to fill in the blanks of her sentences. She forgets words. Names slip her mind. She calls this "the 92-year-old thing." I tell her that I've got the same problem, but I'm 51 years younger than she. She cackles. So do I.
"They're no-cholesterol cupcakes," she explains, sitting at the table, which is covered by one of her crocheted tablecloths.
"Did you make them from scratch?"
"And there's no cholesterol."
"Where's the recipe from?"
"From the box." A cake mix, in other words?
"Yeah. And they come out perfect. They're so easy. Yeah. Ya take 'em right out of the thing." The thing. She means the paper cupcake wrapper.
Her usual sartorial splendor is much in evidence. She wears a peach-and-white sweater with matching polyester pants and white Reeboks. She crocheted the sweater not long ago, and it has gold thread crocheted into the wool. Around her neck, she wears a gold charm that says "Happy Birthday," a gift from her grandchildren for her 90th.
"You gotta enjoy your life," she tells me, worried that I'm overextended. "Don't rush, rush, rush. Learn to enjoy while you have your health." Though she's slowed down recently, having stopped her volunteer work at the local hospital and cut out her weekly dancing with "the Dolls" for fear of another fall, Pearlie's great enthusiasm for life is undeterred by age. "I think if you keep yourself involved in lots of things and don't concentrate on yourself, it helps a lot," she says. "It's good to have outside interests, to keep the mind busy. It's like a sore in your heart to not be involved.
"Life is great, if we could only have it without pain," she says. "What's bad with life? There can be lots of fun in this world, lots of enjoyment--air to breathe, food to eat, places to go. What do we know what we have in the other world? Nothing."
Her mind is razor sharp, especially when I ask about her past. She conjures up vivid memories of having her tonsils extracted ("just yanked out with, like, pliers, but then I got to get ice cream with my father on the trolley"), of asking advice from the local health department on how to take care of her first baby because she wasn't sure if feeding him spinach at three months was advisable, of going through menopause ("The doctor said to me, 'Just lie down, put a cold compress to your head and chest, and relax.' And I didn't have any problems: It didn't last too long, about two years"). I survey her tiny apartment, decorated with recycled furniture from my parents' house, including the vanity table from my bedroom when I was a girl. Over the peephole to her door, she's hung a macrame object and little purple pompoms.
"That's a shmtchek , shmtchkie --a thing," she says, explaining this all-purpose Yiddishism (pronounced shmitch-eck and shmitch-key ) as a whatchamacallit. "If you want a hand, you say, 'Give me that shmtchkie .' " She smiles mischievously. "Grandpa used to call this a shmtchkala ," she says, pointing to her crotch.
I ask her to please not turn this into an X-rated interview. " Shmtchek can be any part of your body," she says.
Clearly, she was mad about Moe, my lusty grandfather who'd give me rides on his feet and make his biceps dance to the strains of Russian folk songs. She invokes his memory, his joie de vivre , whenever possible. When my younger sister recently reported how wonderful, kind and supportive her new husband is, Pearlie asked only one question, a la Moe: "Is he a good lovah?"
A BUBBE QUESTIONNAIRE
Do you have any famous relatives or ancestors?
Tessie: None of them were in jail. To be famous? I can't recall.
Pearlie: No, except on Grandpa's side. His sister's daughter was married to a gentleman who was a senator. I forget his name. That's the only outstanding one.
What is your favorite health, beauty or fitness tip?
Tessie: Beautiful I was never. I'd rather go for health than beauty. But I can't control my health anymore. I like to be clean, neat. Fancy? No. Of course, I have my hair done and nails done every Saturday at Danny's. I'd rather look decent. So people wouldn't say, "That old lady, she looks such a shlump !" As for health, I just ate some potatoes.
Pearlie: When I look in the mirror, I'm not happy to see the wrinkles. The skin changes so much in your 90s. The whole face changes. I don't know how to stop it. I just don't want to get to look any worse than I am now. (Laughing.) Because I don't want to look scary to my great-grandchildren--and it's bound to happen. Your face becomes crepey. Your eyes become smaller. Your nose becomes longer. I put on sunscreen when I go out. Just a little powder and lipstick. I can't pluck my eyebrows because the skin gets red and sore. I do the best I can. I brush my hair and wash it. Otherwise, no secrets. I never was one to stay in the beauty parlor. As long as I take a shower twice a day, keep myself clean. Not be a shtunk , smelly.
The word that best describes you is:
Tessie: Not a blabbermouth. My children say critical. It's easier to criticize than be correct.
Tell me the most unusual things about yourself or unusual things you have done.
Tessie: I got married again. Maybe I shouldn't have. I don't know.
Pearlie: I like to tell dirty jokes, a simple joke. It's nice to make people laugh.
How do you like to celebrate your birthday?
Tessie: No wishes, no shmishes. That's all. I don't tell anybody it's my birthday. What's the difference? Those years that come, I don't appreciate it. I can't do what I want. I don't enjoy with the old age. To me, I'm not that thrilled about it. I'm living the longest of anybody in my family. So? Pish posh.
Pearlie: To be with the family. Oh yeah.
Can you love your children too much?
Tessie: There is no such thing to love children too much. No. It's not possible. Or is it?
Pearlie: When you give love, you give it with your whole being. I don't think I could love my children less, no matter what. Even my son-in-laws. My family is my life.
It is a beautiful, crisp morning in New York. By 10, Tessie and I are still wearing our flannel pj's, with no intention of getting dressed. We've already broken into a box of chocolates I've brought with me from L.A. She likes the chocolate-covered honeycomb. "We're not eating, just noshing," she explains.
A lifelong Democrat, she loves to talk politics and is presently castigating Paula Jones. "Maybe she really instigated him," she says, referring to President Clinton. "This she wouldn't tell you."
We break out the cards, and I "wash" or shuffle them. The cards fly, 10 to her, 10 to me. She turns over a king of spades, double points. Her joints ache, her cough won't quit, her ankles swell. But over a game of cards, the physical ailments subside and her mind is as agile as ever.
My grandmother always uses a deck of red Bicycle cards, the ones with two cherubs atop bicycles in opposing circles. The drawing makes me think of Tessie as an angel, playing cards. The circle of life. It's a nice reverie, a confection that has nothing to do with reality.
"What kinds of meshugeneh ("crazy") cards you gave me?" she asks, surveying her hand.
If American Indians listen to their elders around a campfire, I listen to my grandmother with cards fanned in my hands, a discard pile between us. It's our little ritual, practically sacred. For as long as I can remember, we've related this way. First it was the game of war, then go fish. Then, when my hands were big enough, gin. She used to let me win when I'd stay with her while I was still in college, the two of us smoking cigarettes into the night. Now she's ruthless. I throw another card on the discard pile.
"See?" she chides me. "You don't know how to play. You gave me the jack and the queen!"
I tell her it's because I'm kind. She throws another card that I pick up.
"You take cards for tromba ," she chides me again. "You know what's tromba ?" I shake my head. "For speculation."
My knowledge of Yiddish is extremely limited, but Tessie uses these card-playing sessions to offer lessons. Amazingly, she has no age spots on the back of her hands. This, she tells me, is because her family had an oil business in Europe and her hands were constantly immersed in cottonseed oil. Her job as a teen-ager was to teach the workers how to extract the oil. "I was never young," she says of her childhood. "I was never a child."
Her father ran a brick and oil factory in what was then Austria, formerly Poland. Her mother never paid her a compliment. Raised "to be nice," she was born Toby Teitel in the shtetl of Kozowa in Galicia, not far from the Russian border. Her education was cut short when she was 13 because of World War I, though she could speak six languages. A refugee for two years, she crossed the Carpathian Mountains by horse and wagon to Czechoslovakia with her family and returned home around 1917, only to find that her Polish neighbors had taken her family's home apart, brick by brick.
After contracting typhoid fever and losing her hair, she supported her family by working the black market, trading oil and kerosene for flour and tobacco. Anti-Semitism was endemic. Since her father had a long beard and was easily identifiable as a Jew, he risked his life every time he walked outdoors. She, on the other hand, could pass as a shiksa in bare feet and peasant skirts.
Was she angry with her father for not protecting her? "The cannons were shooting over our heads," she remembers, "and if anything had to be done, I could do it. For me it was an adventure. An adventure to go, to do more than my father does. My father once said, we were having an argument, he says, 'I like to argue with Toby.' He knew I'd answer him right. And he liked it. He'd ask me my advice. He and I, we were really pals. Why should I be angry? I protected him, so he shouldn't have to go outside."
On Aug. 15, 1920, she and her parents came to America by steerage. At Ellis Island, she had her first taste of white bread and corn flakes for breakfast and reluctantly agreed to change her name to Tessie at the urging of her sisters. Within a year, she met a dapper egg handler, Izzy Horowitz, a gentle man who didn't have much of a flair for business but adored the violin. Together they opened a mom-and-pop grocery store in Brooklyn, called Clover Farms, and had three children. My father was the only boy. Tessie lived up to the meaning of her married name, Horowitz: "works hard."
Was she in love with him? "Yes, but I knew that I can do better than he. We were in business. . . ." Her voice drifts off, as if to suggest theirs was a marriage of convenience. What followed were years of the Depression, when they lost the store. While her husband worked as a grocery clerk, earning $20 a week in her brother's store, she raised money for the local hospital, the kosher one with two kitchens. During World War II, she sent her son off to war; he returned from Japan, wanting to become a psychoanalyst. Her daughters became a bookkeeper and a schoolteacher. Not long after Izzy died in 1951, she married a milkman, Sam Weinreb.
For Tessie, it is a virtue to never reveal one's true feelings, especially sadness. When asked how she's dealt with her grief, she says, "I never made any sour face to anybody. Nobody knew what's inside of me. They still don't." She catches herself, as if she's said too much. "I'm talking now," she adds, "but I shouldn't."
"Pheh," she replies, waving her hand.
It's 12:30. She snaps on the TV. "Shut up!" she's yelling at the TV set. Her soap opera, "The Young and the Restless," is on, and she's bored by one of the plot lines. She likes to watch this show for the blind character who she claims has never blinked, a sign to Tessie of fine acting ability. But more, she's interested in the trial of a woman who's been charged with killing her husband.
If she'd had the opportunity, my grandmother tells me, she would have been a lawyer. Or better still, a writer. She's never admitted this girlhood fantasy to me before. With my pen and notebook in hand, I search her milky gray eyes and feel my shoulders lighten. The flash of connection, a flesh-and-blood link of desire, spanning three generations. Not that she says any more. She doesn't need to.
She sits in her recliner chair with the blue embroidered cloth draped over the headrest. "Oh, here's the caca-mercial again," she complains.
The phone rings. Bad news. My mother has learned she has breast cancer. She's opted for a mastectomy.
The phone rings again. It's Pearlie, her voice shaky, bordering on hysterical. She asks for my permission to call my mother, even though she's just spoken to her. She's made the same call to my older sister.
"I don't want to be a bother to her," she tells me, saying she doesn't want my mother to worry that she's worrying. "I hesitate 10 times before I call. I don't want to be a nudge.
"See, when your children are babies and you learn to protect them, no matter how old they are, they're always your children. They're still your babies. And that feeling never leaves.
"I know I'm a pain in the ass," she adds, her voice cracking. "Please forgive me, Joyala. But she's my baby. My baby. Why can't it be me, not her?"
When I hear my grandmother, fragile, frightened, nervous, wanting to help but knowing she can do nothing, I hear myself--and I cannot bear to listen.
In the weeks that follow, while my mother is recuperating from surgery, I speak to Pearlie more often than usual. Normally, we talk on the phone weekly and see each other about twice a month--for family gatherings, brunches, birthday parties--and invariably she ushers me home with another batch of French toast for my kids. But now, we've become allies in the worry department. My mother's cancer brings me closer to my grandmother, who tells me that her greatest wish in life is that her daughter be well.
For the time being, anyway, her wish has come true.
In June, Pearlie, my mother, Lucy and I watch my middle child, Gus, perform in a little show at the Odyssey Theater--a four-generation cheering section. Afterward, Pearlie hands me an envelope to deliver to him. In it, she's enclosed $15 in cash and a note telling Gus how much she loves him. The following week, she bequeaths her old typewriter to my kids, too. Always giving, always bearing hugs and kisses, even in print with her Xs and O's.
And I wonder, how is it that someone who grew up with so little can give so much?
Born on the Lower East Side in 1902, Pauline Rosenwasser hated her given name, so she changed it to Pearl. Her parents immigrated from Austria in 1894. Her father pressed women's coats. Her mother opened a series of candy and dry goods stores in Brooklyn, often leaving her children unattended. While playing on a fire escape one day, Pearlie watched as a cousin fell three stories, suffering a minor concussion. She remembers her mother saying, guiltily, "It should only have been one of my children," and later wondering if she had cursed her own family. Of seven children, three died young--two baby boys and a 13-year-old girl, from a weak heart.
By the time Pearl was 13, she had to leave school to help support the family. Before she learned shorthand and worked as a stenographer, she sewed labels into coats for $5 a week. When she needed a winter coat, a family friend suggested she could get one wholesale from Morris Feldman, who worked on Second Avenue and specialized in tucking and tailoring coats for heavyset women.
"When I first met him and he invited me up to his shop, he took my measurements--and he never tried anything," she remembers, dreamily. "He was a total gentleman! I always respected him so much for that!" She fell in love instantly; he was so handsome--blue eyes and thick, wavy hair--and he taught her how to tango. Her mother disapproved, since he was Russian-born, not American. Pearlie couldn't help herself; they had three children, a son and two daughters--a stockbroker, a schoolteacher and an artist.
Not that everything was idyllic. She endured her husband's love for schnapps, cigars and horse races and the shock of her son's death, at age 53, from a heart attack on a subway. At the funeral, Moe had no idea their son had died, since he had suffered a series of strokes. Three years later, after nursing him through a terminal illness, Pearlie moved West to be closer to her older daughter, my mother.
Just how Pearlie managed to live this long is a question she's often asked, since she's outlived everyone at the Silvercrest. "You got to listen to your body," she says simply, "like even if you get a corn, you soak your feet." There are some dietary concessions, including the no-cholesterol cupcakes. But truth be told, she's a big proponent of butter, of an occasional glass of wine and of gargling with Cepacol at the first sign of a sore throat. And exercise is important: She walks to the Third Street Promenade daily, jogs in place in her apartment and takes an exercise class for her arthritis twice a week.
"I really think as long as you can move, you should keep on moving," she says. "Because when you sit, everything sits with you. When you hit 92, especially, the body sort of lets you know, 'Ah, you're getting old, take it easy. We're tired of taking care of you, the bones.' " Most recently, she realized her taste buds had stopped working.
But back to the longevity question. "Oh, I think it's the family that makes me live this long," she says of her nine grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. "There's so much enjoyment in this. I couldn't ask for anything more. No money. No jewelry. No anything could compete with the wonderful family I have." I assure her she doesn't have to say this for my benefit.
"I say thank you to God for letting me live this long. And anything He gives me over that, I thank him again twice. But I want to tell you something," she adds. "If you're a good person when you're young, you're a good person when you're old. And if you're a nasty person when you're young, you're a nasty person when you're old. Character doesn't change. Age don't change character."
What does Tessie think of Pearlie and Pearlie of Tessie?
Tessie: I like her very much. I admire her very much. She is a different type than I am. I grew up in Europe. She grew up in America. I don't know which way is better or worse.
Pearlie: Tessie? She is a good person, a very interesting woman. She has a different attitude about life. She is looking toward death. She thinks it would be a relief. I don't figure that. I want to last as long as I can. I want to be on this Earth. She says it would be great if she died in her sleep. But life is so interesting, you know? So much change. You find it interesting enough to want to stay.
The status of women in Judaism has always been problematic to me. Things are changing, of course, but not by much. It takes a lot to undo 5,000 years of put-downs. Just take a look at the Book of Leviticus and the childbirth purification ritual: A woman who bears a son is unclean for 40 days thereafter, whereas a woman who bears a daughter is unclean for 80 days. Exactly how this hideous little 40-day difference can possibly be accounted for is unclear to me. Can anyone in his right mind really believe that girl babies are somehow dirtier than boy babies?
Here's my grandmothers' feeling about it: Gender shmender.
Still, to explain the exalted-cum-pampered status of males in my own family, Tessie offers a story. "My grandmother Toby, the one that I'm named after, she had a daughter. Then she had a boy. The boy died young. She had another baby, a girl. Another baby, a boy, passed away. The boys couldn't live and the girls lived. She already had three daughters and not even one son. And it bothered her.
"She became pregnant again. She had a dream that an old man with a long gray beard came to her, and he said, 'You know you're pregnant and you're going to have a boy. But name him after me. My name is Chaim. And he's going to live.' They had nobody in the family with that name, Chaim. You know, there was a Yousla, Moishe, but no name Chaim. And the baby was born a boy, and she named him Chaim, and he was the only son. That was my father. He was a spoiled brat. He took advantage of his four sisters." Yet she idolized him completely.
Hoping that Tessie and Pearlie would give voice to my own beliefs, I asked them the same leading question:
Are you a feminist?
Tessie: Say it in plain English.
Pearlie: What do you mean, a feminist?
Do you believe in equal rights for women?
Pearlie: Definitely. Women need to work and be equal. But also, not to hoit yourself. It's hard to have a career and family. I love to see women get ahead in the medical field and all over. When we were younger, we didn't have that. We were treated like a pot on the stove. Really! We had to do the dishes and clean the house, and the men got so much more respect because they were supposed to be smarter than us. They had more education than us. Now, when I see these women doing things that men never even dreamed of doing, I think the coming world is great. We can expect much better and bigger things now.
Tessie: Yes, that I would like. I wouldn't mind that at all. Politics interest me very much. If I'd be much younger, I'd run for senator, and I'd make the law even better for the women than the men. My mother and her mother were brought up to just get married and keep house and raise the children. When I grew up, they had to educate the boys. The girls don't need anything because they can wash diapers without education and things like this. A woman should have the same rights as a man. I wouldn't let my husband go above me. If he drives, I drive, too.
Just now, Pearlie is remembering her happiest moments as a child and confides they were stolen and secretive--reading. "My biggest pleasure was going to the library, taking home seven or eight books--they'd give you as much books as you wanted--putting it under my cover in the bed, and after Mama would go to bed, I'd turn on the light and read for hours. I got more out of reading even than going to the movies."
Today, like the last few times I've seen her, Pearlie's eyes are red-rimmed. At first, she says the pinkness is caused by her allergies, but later admits it's more often from crying.
"Living here," she says, "most of the people that die--and they die in their sleep--everybody else says, 'Oh boy, if I could only die in my sleep, it would be wonderful.' To be honest, everybody fears it. And they won't talk about it, either. They just say, 'Oh well, I wish I could die like that.' "
This is not the first time that Pearlie has spoken to me about her fear of dying. On more days than she cares to recall, another apartment in her building stands empty because of the death of a friend or neighbor. More than once, she has told me that she feels "desolated." Just a week ago, her 95-year-old brother, Marty, died.
Pearlie sits in her recliner chair from Sears, the one my mother and aunt bought for her last year. It almost looks thronelike, since she's covered it with one of her purple and orange afghans. She drifts off for a moment as the car mechanic next door checks another muffler.
"It makes you feel sad," she continues, shutting her sliding glass door to mute the noise. "Your family leaves you. It's like a tree grows, and the branches come down, and the tree looks so lonesome and lonely. But I don't feel abandoned. I still feel attached."
I call Tessie, worried about the headaches she has begun to mention to my father. She recently was scared by a dream, of her parents calling out to her. Is her time near?
"How's your head, Grandma?" I ask.
"What head?" she rifles back, deflecting my concern. She asks about my children, starting with my older son, Trevor, one of her 14 great-grandchildren. I report his latest accomplishment, placing second in a citywide math meet. As if to make up for lost moments (with my father, I wonder?), she instructs me to tell him how wonderful he is.
"You should!" she insists. "You should give him a compliment. When he deserves it. Don't be stingy! I'll teach you psychology. Really. No, this is a fact."
Then she adds, "Tell Brock hello." She has almost forgiven him for not being Jewish. When she was last in California, he teased her about flying off with him to the Caribbean. It's a joke she can't resist. "Tell him he's still my lover boy."
She says her health won't allow her to make her annual pilgrimage to California. She jokes that maybe she'll be "out of town," as in no longer alive. "If I don't come next year," she quips, "I'll come two years later."
I've put myself in an impossible position. Contrary to professional standards of journalism, I promised my grandmothers they could have prior approval of the details in this article. Family over business, as they'd say.
What did they think?
"Praise the children more," Pearlie says of her daughters. "They're the best. They don't come better. And you make Grandpa sound like a finagler and a gambler. You should portray him as a family man. Family always came first for him. He was such a good man."
There is one other little thing, Pearlie says, laughing. "The Salvation Army runs this building. Do you have to put in the part about my, you know, crotch?"
And Tessie? "It's OK," she told me, obviously holding back. "It's all right. I still don't like that you're talking about me. I don't want to be popular."
"Did I get anything wrong?"
"If I didn't want you to write it, I wouldn't have told you," she adds, shrewdly reflecting the advice most press agents offer their celebrity clients. "It's my simple life. But it is so."
SAY GOODBY, BUBBES
Tessie: The more you live, the more you learn, the more you can forget. Farshtayt? ("Understand?")
Pearlie: People are so good, you have no idea. Anything else you want to know, Joyala?
GRANDMA PEARLIE'S FAMOUS FRENCH TOAST
I put in two eggs, two large eggs. I put in just a cup of milk. And I put in a little drop of vanilla. You can use almond flavor or vanilla. If you don't want to use it, you don't have to use it. And a little sugar. I start off with a teaspoon and I find if I feel I need more, then I just add a little more, but don't forget the children put syrup on it, see, so we don't need it that sweet.
You can use any kind of white bread, sliced, if they like white bread. If you like whole wheat, you use whole wheat.
Now, you can fry it in butter, you can fry it in the no-fat, no-salt margarine. If I haven't got margarine, I use butter.
Soaking the bread, that's the secret. You have to have your oil or butter or whatever you put in there melted, and you mustn't leave it in too much in the milk. If you leave it in too much in the milk and the eggs, then it gets sloppy and then you can't have it like one piece. So you just put it in, take it out. I don't use too much grease. While it's frying, I see if it needs it, and if it's starting to burn, then I just add a little more, because I try to use as little as possible.
And that's the whole big spiel.
GRANDMA TESSIE'S AMAZING MATZO BALL SOUP
First of all, the chicken should be fresh. A good chicken. Usually, the non-Kosher chicken is not so fresh, because non-Kosher can stay in the freezer who knows how long? But if it's a nice, fresh-killed chicken, I clean it up. Take out all the feathers and all. Clean. And then, let's say for a chicken, you need four pounds. It's a good chicken already.
You put in some water in the pot to cover the chicken. Slowly, you bring it to a boil and take off the stuff. It gets foam, like. The fat. Nowadays an hour and a half is a lot. You cook it slowly. You put in vegetables, like carrot and celery. I don't like onions. I don't use no pepper, just salt. Very plain. Other people put in other stuff, yet. It's not like liquid when it gets cold. It's so like Jell-O.
I take out the carrot with a spoon or when I pour off the soup. I like the carrot. I don't like the celery to eat. I remember my sister Leah, she used to put in all kinds of vegetables. And he, Harry, her husband, he ate it all, the vegetables. I couldn't stand it, to see him eat it.
The matzo balls, you cook it separate, not in the soup. Let's say I make two eggs, is more than enough. For one person it's even enough one egg. And I put in a little matzo meal, about a half a cup. I beat it up good with a little salt. You can even put in a drop of pepper, which is OK. A drop of seltzer makes the balls fluffier, maybe a tablespoon of seltzer. I don't know the measurements. That's why I can never give anybody any recipes. Because I just mix it and I see, when it starts getting thicker or so. It's important you should let it stay a few hours, so it hardens up by itself.
Then I boil up a pot of water. Throw in the balls. But don't make them bigger than a walnut, or it'll come out like a big peach. Let it boil for 40 minutes. And that's all. So what?
published in the Los Angeles Times