By Todd R. Nelson
Most families have a keeper of legends, recipes and communications— someone at the hub of the familial spokes. Ours was Great Gramma Evelyn, my wife’s beloved Brooklyn-born grandmother.
Gramma Evelyn kept the stories that preserve the essence of family. She passed the news coast to coast in frequent postcards, daily phone calls to her sisters back East, connecting all generations to the care, the graceful love and shelter family signifies—and a few of the peccadilloes, rivalries, grudges and heartbreak of the clan. Positivity, however, predominated.
And visits. When I would meet Gramma at the airport, she inevitably would be carrying a small bag of clothes and a heaping bag of baked goods; gifts for her grandchildren and, eventually, great-grandchildren. She always saved the bagel and cream cheese nosh served by the airline. The food bag held a cooked brisket, gravy, vegetables, cans of tuna fish and boxes of her rugelach—her entry visa.
It was my duty to certify rugelach standards. It was always enigmatically wrapped in several layers of tin foil, within the mystery of a department store gift box, inside a carefully taped brown paper grocery bag. Her baking is “seasoned with love”—her mantra—but not always enough sugar and butter. Nonetheless, baking is the coin for affection. I can blithely consume the whole box of rugelach with afternoon tea.
When they were young, our girls loved Gramma’s makeup. She allowed them to apply lipstick and eye shadow to her face, or have her dote on their faces with moisturizer, a little blush here and a little blue eyeliner there. “Fabulous! Dahlings, you look wonderful!” For her fifth birthday, Hilary received a package of Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion accessories: perfumed body lotion, talc, hairbrush, compact and two scarves. The house became a mite aromatic. When we visited Gramma at her small apartment in Los Angeles one summer, the girls applied so much white makeup they looked like Kabuki actors. They were initiated into the rituals of baking rugelach too.
Small and tidy, her apartment opened onto a courtyard swimming pool. The living room was dominated by the “wall of fame,” her photos archiving four generations of family: Lesley’s cousins, siblings, parents; our children; aunts, uncles; Lesley’s father riding a pony on Coney Island in the 1930s; Evelyn’s three sisters; her late husband, Joe. We duplicated our vacation photos and organized them into an album before we left so that there would be no gap between our presence and a fresh stock of memories and proof of our magical visit. Gramma heroically bore the geographical distance between family members.
Another summer, when the San Francisco cousins visited Maine, Gramma’s anticipatory tin of rugelach arrived only hours before they did. There was a note and a check. “Stop talking and feed the children!” What prescience. Gramma remembered, more faithfully than we do, our own birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, particularly the major ones like Halloween and Valentine’s Day. She always sends cash: a few dollars to the kids “for ice cream and cake…and don’t forget to treat your parents.” Before school starts, she’d always send a check “for socks and underwear…or whatever.” Though there’s always a suggestion of what she thinks our need is, the funds, like her love, are always unrestricted.
I first met Gramma the week before our wedding. Lesley and I greeted her at JFK Airport, arriving from Los Angeles, and chauffeured her to Queens where her sister Ruth lived. There, in her own room and closet, she stored her “New York wardrobe.” Uncle David, a florist, greeted me from his seat at the head of the kitchen table. I was going to be the tallest member of the family. I was Gulliver, ushered straight from the front door to the kitchen for doting on.
“Some herring? Potato salad? Bagels?” offered Gramma and Aunt Ruth simultaneously, leaving no refrigerator shelf unchecked for offerings. “Check your calories at the door!” Gramma was fond of saying. Such effortless affection; sincere generosity; and so many calories to be checked.
Gramma was a good sport about the kilt I wore at our wedding, made especially for the occasion. But she took her granddaughter aside. “Lesley, are you sure you know what you’re getting into?”
Gramma always obscured her age but kept her heart in plain sight. Best to say she was as old as love, never retired, and her memorial plaque reads simply “Ageless.” What every grandmother knows, and all ye need to know. As I too am a grandparent now, I aspire to rugelach, kabuki, a fresh round of bedtime stories and spitting in the eye of time and distance.
Todd R. Nelson lives in Penobscot.