As the clock struck 12:00 midnight on December 31, my head was flooded with memories. I’m not one to look back often. To be honest, nostalgia gives me the willies. I do display some old photos of my family but I pass by them routinely, without giving them much thought. However, this New Years’ Eve as I ate my antipasto, I was reminded of Grandpa Max.
My grandpa Max was a sweet, kind, very quiet fellow, tall and a bit stooped in his later years, and always with a dark wood or intricately carved white Meerschaum pipe dangling from his lips. To this day, at least 30 years after his death, the smell of cherry infused tobacco can pull me back to my youth when my cousin Bobby and I would hide behind his easy chair and softly call “Grandpa, Grandpa.” When he would look befuddled, searching for the source of the sound we would fall over with laughter. We were evil little children - knowing full well that Max was almost totally deaf. I don’t recall that he ever had proper hearing aids but instead wore earphones that were hooked up to some sort of large amplifier that he would carry around. The gizmo never worked terribly well.
The opposite of dear Max was my grandmother Sadie, who was a deceptively small but destructive tornado. She could and would argue on any topic and would routinely provide a range of unsolicited opinions. Apparently though, she’d been a warm and affectionate mother to my father and his brother, and was still warm, to everyone except my mother, with whom she never had a good relationship. She and my mother would argue over the styling and upkeep of my wild hair, my eager consumption of Sadie’s home-made chicken soup (my mother insisted it always made me sick to my stomach) and any other mothering issues. Unfortunately, my mother did not fare well in this particular competition as she could never be accused of being warm, affectionate or even remotely maternal. Those were facts that were never debated but shared often in hushed tones at family gatherings.
Max lived to be quite old, probably in great part because Sadie never let him have any fun. They lived in a small garden apartment in New Jersey for as long as I knew them. Thick plastic remained on the couch, vacations were nonexistent and deli meats were verboten. Max had some gall bladder problems if I recall – and the consumption of delicious, fatty, salty meats were not recommended.
Sadie lived to be 94 and her last several years were awful. She had Alzheimer’s and after Max could no longer care for her, they were both moved to a nursing home. And since Max was in better shape both physically and mentally than his wife of many decades, he lived alone in a separate wing. That’s when his decline began – or at least shifted into high gear. He started getting confused and uncharacteristically angry. He had his cataracts fixed and upon seeing parts of his body clearly for the first time in years, insisted emphatically that, during the eye procedure, the doctor had also changed the skin on his feet from smooth to veiny and wrinkled. When we couldn’t dispel his fears, we gave up and blamed the doctor. When Max would not come out of his room to join the family for our Thanksgiving outing, it was a very sad holiday.
When Sadie died, Max followed the casket down the aisle of the temple and cried, “I want to go with her.” We weren’t sure if he meant that he wanted to follow the casket, or that he wanted to join her in the ground. But after that, something remarkable happened. With Sadie gone, Max had his first slice of salami, the forbidden meat, in over 50 years, and was happy for a time. He could suddenly eat what he wanted without anyone telling him “No.” Max lived several more years, reaching 101, eating exactly what he liked. I wonder though, had Sadie lived on to monitor his deli meat intake, how much longer might he have lived?
Mona Finston is a publicist, a singer and a writer. She is currently working on a screenplay about the fantasy life of an older woman and a book of essays about her mother.