by Bruce Eric Kaplan
Passover makes me think of going to my Grandma Rose’s. “Come on,” my mother would scream from the back hall, standing by the open door, waiting for us to come to the car. “We have to go to Grandma Rose’s.” I guess we were always late or just going to the bathroom at the last possible moment. When I was very little, in the early nineteen-seventies, my parents, my two older brothers and I went to the Seder on the first night of Passover at her two-bedroom apartment in Queens. Her neighborhood was Forest Hills where seemingly everyone was Jewish.
The Seder at Grandma Rose’s wasn’t a fun night. First, there was the drive from Maplewood, New Jersey which more often than not involved traffic. “It’s the tunnel,” someone would always say because I guess it was. Then we would finally get to her building and have to look for parking. “There’s no spots,” my father would say because there never were. The Seder itself was so boring. You read from the Haggadah for an hour, doing the little rituals like dipping your pinky in wine to symbolize blood, then you had a bad meal. My grandmother was a terrible cook and we brought the desserts. Nothing is worse than a Passover dessert, because of the lack of yeast. We made flat, chalky brownies every year using mix that came in a red box you bought at the supermarket, and you made it in about five seconds by adding water to some dust and then baking. After dessert, you sang a couple of songs, then gave up and went home.
The Seder was something you needed to get through. Just needing to get through things was big in my family. “Well, we got through it,” my father would say after some night out somewhere. It seemed like life might just be one long series of things you needed to get through. Grandma Rose was a big believer in getting through things. She was a big believer in general. She seemed to think about God and being Jewish all day long. “God wouldn’t like that,” she once said to me about something I can’t recall. She seemed very intimate with what God liked and didn’t like.
My family belonged to Temple Oheb Shalom in South Orange, New Jersey. Every September, we went there for the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah, and then, Yom Kippur. “The holidays are late this year,” my mother would say. Or in other years, “The holidays are early this year.” I am not sure that the holidays were ever on time. We didn’t get off from school for the Jewish holidays. Not being in school that day was a real statement. It said you were Jewish.
We lived one town over and drove a few miles to get to temple, usually about an hour or so after services started. I believe it was timed so that we skipped the early part. It seemed the main thing was to be there for Rabbi Shapiro’s sermon, which always started out having something to do with the bible and quickly turned into a statement about Israel. “I thought he made some valid points,” my father would say afterwards.
Because of our arrival time, we never parked in the temple parking lot, which filled up quickly. Instead, we found parking in the surrounding streets filled with beautiful old houses, much nicer than ours. We always knew how late we were by how far away we had to park. On the walk to temple, my brothers and I would pick up chestnuts from the ground and throw them into the air, or perhaps occasionally, at each other. The chestnuts were beautiful and brown, smooth in a way that other things weren’t. I never saw chestnuts anywhere else in New Jersey, other than the street we parked on at the High Holy Days. Summer was the most fun time of year, obviously, and when you walked down the street with the chestnuts on a cool September day, in a suit and tie, on the way to atone for all your sins, you knew the fun was over. It was now Fall for sure.
Even though there were tons of Jews in Maplewood and South Orange, being Jewish very much meant you were other, in a way that it doesn’t seem so now. My kids have two Jewish parents, but don’t seem to feel other in any way at all.
“Do you know you’re Jewish?” I asked them not that long ago.
“Yes,” my daughter said. But not very convincingly.
And I understand. They celebrate Hanukkah, but they don’t celebrate any other Jewish holidays. Plus, they celebrate Christmas each year at their aunt’s, and often Easter at their grandmother’s. So basically, my kids are just confused.
When I first started elementary school, there was a lot of talk about Christmas, and no talk about Hanukkah. Then there started to be a little cursory talk about dreidels. Christmas was a real holiday and Hanukkah was the Jewish version of it, except not. I went to my friend Jeffrey Van Kirk’s house on Christmas mornings, had some Christmas cookies, watched Jeffrey open all his gifts, and got a little gift from his mother. In that way, I had a tiny taste of what Christmas was.
But in another way, I did Christmas whole hog: I lapped up every Christmas episode of every TV show. And I watched every Christmas special and every single Christmas movie that was on at that time. The specials were fun but the movies were profound. When I was really young, they would show “The House without a Christmas Tree.” In that one, Jason Robards was a sad widower who lived with his mother, played by Eileen Heckart, and his daughter Addie, played by some child actress. He refused to celebrate Christmas — he associated the holiday with his wife and it was just too painful for him, but then Addie won some sort of raffle for a Christmas Tree at school. She got to keep the tree and celebrate Christmas, and Jason Robards got to move forward in his healing.
I loved and still love “Miracle on 34th Street.” Natalie Wood was an extremely compelling actress and no one ever talks about it. In 1985, Ted Turner created a colorized version of “Miracle on 34th Street” and it was bizarre. Everyone was just pink or yellow or blue; no one was really a real color. “It’s a Wonderful Life” showed up one year and never stopped showing. Now, as a husband and father, I often feel like James Stewart on that bridge, at the end of my rope. Marlo Thomas starred in “It Happened One Christmas,” a TV remake of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Truthfully, I wish there were more remakes of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It should be like “Pride and Prejudice” where every ten minutes you get another version.
But my favorite Christmas movie of all was called “June Bride.” It starred Bette Davis as a tough career woman, a magazine editor who descends upon a small town in December to do a wedding story for the June issue (there was a long lead time in those days). She’s very cynical and hard-bitten, but because of the magic of Christmas she falls in love with Robert Young, the photographer for the assignment. Like Jason Robards, Bette Davis was transformed into a new, more kind and loving person because of Christmas. I wonder if I loved the Christmas movies because someone always changed. No one I knew in real life ever changed. Everyone was always exactly the same. My father, who loved all old movies, could never really get behind Christmas ones. He had a hard time appreciating anything about Christmas. It would have seemed a betrayal to his people, or more specifically to Grandma Rose.
My father was a dutiful son. Every night, he called his mother, after dinner and before the nightly news. My father never missed the nightly news. Neither did Grandma Rose. They watched Chet Huntley on NBC. If you were a grown-up you had to watch the nightly news or you might not know what happened that day and that would be terrible. Grandma Rose seemed very old, which she was. Maybe she seemed very old for her age her whole life until she was in her nineties, when she seemed just right. She had glasses with thick, coke-bottle lenses, through which her eyes looked crazy big. She only had wisps of white hair that barely covered her scalp. She had no eyebrows. And she wore fairytale red lipstick at all times. I never saw her without lipstick. Her apartment was full of big, dark wooden furniture. Except for the television cart, which was made of wire and very rickety. It was as if a television didn’t deserve to be on a serious dark piece of wooden furniture. It just wouldn’t be right.
She worried about everything. Plane travel was a big one, perhaps the biggest one. If someone took an airplane, Grandma Rose needed to know what time it was taking off, what time it was landing, and what airline. Just in case. But really any kind of travel was worrisome. My father always called her the moment he got home from visiting her. If he didn’t call immediately, the phone would soon ring and everyone would know who it was.
“Hello,” my father would answer.
“You didn’t call,” she would say.
Grandma Rose was almost blind and got blinder and blinder. When we went to visit her, she served us raw carrots, which she peeled. But they were never fully peeled. They were just sort of peeled, since she missed most of the carrot. There was a lot of dirt on those carrots. You just ignored it despite the odd feeling that you were eating something very unclean and could die from it.
On our Sunday visits, we would have lunch. When I was very young, she would boil chicken and we would have that and the partially peeled carrots. And a few pieces of rye bread served on a plate. After that became too much for her, we would take her to one of the diners she loved. Every day during the week, she would take a walk down the boulevard and have coffee and a little lunch at a diner.
“With some decaf,” she would always order.
The walk to and from the diner was like her job. As far as I know that was the only thing she did each day. Oh, also she had a “story” she watched in the afternoons. I think it was “As the World Turns.” I only ever heard her call it her story, never a soap opera. She didn’t really discuss it with us, other than to mysteriously say “they do terrible things” on it.
My parents always talked with Grandma Rose about what books she had been reading. Any book she read was either about Judaism or being Jewish in some way. Or it was by a Jewish author. Ideally, it was both. Evergreen, by Belva Plain, was a big book for her — the saga of a Jewish family, spanning many generations. She was obsessed with William Safire. But there was a year or two there where every adult in the world seemed to be obsessed with William Safire. She loved Sam Levinson, who seemed to have endless books about his very Jewish childhood where they didn’t have much, but were happy. Not having much but being happy seemed the ideal goal in her mind. Having too much was disgusting in some way.
Occasionally, Grandma Rose visited us in New Jersey for some particularly good reason, like a Bar Mitzvah. But it was strange when Grandma Rose was in New Jersey. She seemed like an alien if she was anywhere other than Forest Hills. Grandma Rose didn’t show much emotion. My father once told me that he was happy one day as a child, when all of a sudden for no reason, his mother reached out and pinched him.
“Ow,” he said and maybe even cried a little. “That hurt. Why did you do that?”
“I just want you to know that sometimes life is unfair,” she said.
When I was around ten, my aunt Leah was killed in a car accident. She was Grandma Rose’s only daughter. The shiva was held at our house. We had to get a special cardboard box for Grandma Rose to sit on. There is some rule in Judaism about not being comfortable for a certain amount of time after a loved one dies. It’s hard for me to imagine you need the box to be uncomfortable but whatever. I wish I could remember where we went to buy the cardboard box. I remember it was made expressly for the purpose it was used for. It sat in our basement for months after shiva was over until me or my brothers played with it and ruined it.
As Grandma Rose got older, she repeated herself. She told one story over and over again to me. She was visiting our house one afternoon when my father yelled at my brother Andrew for doing something. Maybe he told him to go to his room. As my brother stormed up the stairway (the third step up rattled because it wasn’t put on right), he loudly muttered under his breath, “I hate you” so my father could hear it. Grandma Rose was scandalized by this. But worse, she was horrified that my father didn’t say anything.
“And then your father didn’t say anything,” she would always recite to me. “I asked him why. He said he wanted Andrew to be able to hate him.” She would then look at me with her big glassed eyes. Can you imagine that?” As if it would be fine for a son to hate his father?” She was confused and upset by it anew each time.
I moved to Los Angeles when I was 21 and Grandma Rose was mystified by the whole thing. Moving on the whole was very mystifying to her. I believe in her mind, she thought, why would a person move?
“What do you like about it out there?” she once asked when I was home visiting.
“I don’t know. I like the whole culture,” I said.
“What culture?” she said drily, but it wasn’t really a question.
Towards the end, Grandma Rose started falling a lot. I was visiting my parents one time when Grandma Rose was staying with them because she had fallen and hurt herself. She was in a hospital bed in their den on the first floor of the house. It was a small room and the hospital bed was crammed between the comfortable chairs and the television set. We watched “Some Like it Hot” over her. Once she started falling, Grandma Rose talked a lot about wanting her life to be over. Not that she would have ended it. I believe in her mind, God would have been angered by the very idea of that.
I am trying to remember her not worried, and it is difficult. One time comes to mind. For some reason she was telling me about being a child and how when it was winter, she was allowed to buy warm chestnuts from a man on the street.
“They were so delicious,” she said. “Delicious like nothing else in this world.”
As she recalled the memory of eating the warm chestnuts in winter, she was transformed. She was a totally different person. But only for that moment.