Grandma’s Secret


There is no person on this planet more concerned with my
single status than my grandmother. No phone conversion with her is complete
without several highly unsubtle prods about finding a
suitable Jewish female companion.

Try as I might to steer our discussions as far away from
marriage as possible, Grandma has a way of looping us back to her favorite
subject. Just the other day I had her on the phone in order to get some cooking
tips as I prepared an omelet. As yet another golden yolk turned brown on my frying
pan, she offered her best culinary advice: “Why don’t you find a wife who can
make it for you?”

As much as I love my grandmother, her single-minded
obsession with my romantic life is fraying every nerve in my body. It isn’t
just the one-track phone conversations, either. Nearly every Jewish human being
Grandma meets she grills –Â in search of an unattached female family member or
friend to set up with me. While her intentions are good, it has become
difficult to question the standards with which she seeks my mate, because she
apparently doesn’t have any. Then she gets angry because I refuse to call an
18-year-old ultra-Orthodox girl whose first language is Yiddish and happens to
live in another state.

But just when it seemed there was little hope of getting
Grandma off my back, some help came from an unexpected source. I had taken on a
project with an uncle of mine to transfer our family tree, which traces my
ancestors back to the 17th century, to a computer program that could more
easily accommodate updated information. It was a fascinating exercise that gave
me personal statistics on hundreds of family members — including Rose Flatow,
my grandmother.

As I perused her file, an alarm went off in my brain. I
noted that 1944 was when she married my grandfather, who died 20 years ago.
Recalling that she is 92 years old, I realized something I had never thought to
question before: the age my grandmother got married. It was 33 — two years
older than I am now.

My next thought was euphoric: What better way to get her to
ease up on me than to point out the simple fact that she was pressuring me to
accomplish what she herself had not done? Grandma was a hypocrite, and though
it might put me out of the running at the Grandson of the Year Awards, I
planned on holding that over her head for as long as I could.

For our next phone call, I was ready to pounce. Seconds
after her first reference to marriage, I retorted, “Gee, Grandma, that’s
interesting coming from you considering you were 33 when you got married.”

Disclaimer: This may sound like a disrespectful way to talk
to a 92-year-old grandmother, but Grandma actually enjoys a good verbal
sparring match. A woman who describes “doing time” at a nursing home in Long
Beach, N.Y., entirely in prison metaphors without a trace of humor begins to
act like a hardened lifer after a while.

“Have it your way,” she responded. “I just hope I’ll still
be around for the wedding.”

The guilt that comes with having your grandparent play the
Age Card might humble an ordinary soul. Not me. As her most formidable Scrabble
competitor, I recognized it in the same way as when she would play a 10-point Z
tile without bothering to align it with a triple-word score: a last-ditch
gambit.

Intrigued by her defensiveness, I pressed on in search of more
information. As ordinary as it is today for a woman to be married in her 30s,
it was distinctively rare when she came of age. I wanted to uncover why.

There is nothing my grandmother loves more than reminiscing
about her younger days, but nudging her nostalgic riffing in the direction of
her dating life was terra incognita for me. Like many Eastern European Jews,
Rose Silverstein grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and the Lower
East Side of Manhattan. She was the youngest of seven siblings, five of whom
were brothers. She “kept company” with some of their friends, she admitted, but
doesn’t remember being too enthralled with any of them.

“If they asked you on a date, fine, and if they didn’t call,
well, who gave a damn,” she said.

Probing further, I learned Grandma took a dim view of men
during the Depression. While she held down a job as a secretary at the Parks
Department, she saw many of the unemployed men she encountered as lazy and
passive; how could they ever support her, she wondered? Many never went to
college, but she attended night school to get her degree even though her father
frowned upon it. Sometimes she attracted the wrong kind of attention: When a
drunken coworker chased her around the office one too many times, she had her brother,
Louie, give him a stern talking-to.

Listening to her travails, I felt chastened. She had bona
fide sociological trends to support her reasons for late marriage; I could not
compete with that. Just the same, I was glad to get to know Grandma not as a
grandmother but as a woman with whom I shared common ground. Growing up we tend
to assume our grandparents were pretty much born at the age of 65.

Her story has a happy ending. She met Sam Flatow on a beach
in Far Rockaway. He asked her if she minded watching his things while he went
for a swim. She watched them until he returned and promptly stepped into his
shoe and crushed the eyeglasses he forgot he had hidden inside.

I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to top stomping on a glass
should there be any foreshadowing of a Jewish wedding in my own future. Â


Andrew Wallenstein writes for the Hollywood Reporter and serves as a weekly commentator on National Public Radio’s “Day to Day.” His work was included in the recently published “Best Jewish Writing 2003” (Jossey-Bass).
He can be reached at awally@aol.com.

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