I had no idea we had a family plot in Queens until I joined my dad’s mother on a crazy odyssey to bury her sister, Shirley, there.
(Aunt Janice is on the left, Aunt Shirley is in the middle and Grandma is on the right)
My great aunt Shirley, nicknamed Shoo, was the oldest of the three sisters and the absolute sweetest. A giggly blond wisp of a gal in pink lipstick, she never had children nor worked a day in her life though she was a gifted painter. Her husband, my Uncle Benny, was a strapping ex-quarterback, who, according to Wikipedia, is “considered the first great passer in pro football” and inducted in The Football Hall of Fame.
(Dapper Uncle Benny)
In our family, it’s practically illegal to marry only once but Benny and Shoo defied the odds. Together for over sixty years, they struck me as the most happy-go-lucky couple of the bunch.
(Benny and Shoo at their apartment in NY)
My parents divorced when I was two and Pops hit the road for a few years on a 70’s style journey to find himself. Ma, an only child with a dead father and a less than a stellar relationship with her own mother, maintained a great rapport with all of my dad’s relatives after the split. She still claims to this day that, “I married your father because I loved his family.” That and, well, “He was a great dancer.”
From the time that I was six-years-old, I wrote blathering letters to the whole clan but Uncle Benny was my best pen pal. He’d dash off speedy typewritten replies, letting me know that I was his favorite correspondent. There was always a check enclosed because we were broke - what with Ma being a single parent and Pops off on his vision quest - but Benny found sweet ways to justify sending the money by saying stuff like, “you’re not a working girl” and “you might need money to buy more stationary and stamps.” I ripped open every letter with enthusiasm.
Benny and Shoo came to Los Angeles for a visit when I was around eight-years-old. The minute they walked into our dog-hair-dusted, rent-controlled townhouse apartment in West Hollywood, it was obvious that they were classy people and the rest of us were poor schlubs by comparison. Shoo in her kitten heels, silk blouse and tailored skirt, and Benny in natty pants, a pressed shirt and sports coat, they just screamed refined. Ma, no slouch when it came to style, got us dolled up in our best clothes but Benny still insisted on taking my brother, Chris, and me shopping at a fancy boutique in Beverly Hills.
We walked into a store that might have been called Papillion or something else whimsically French, and it just smelled expensive. The clothes were neatly organized on racks and seemed to sparkle with quality. Accustomed to wearing mostly hand-me-downs from a family friend’s kid, I was terrified to touch anything for fear that my grubby fingers would disintegrate the fabric on contact.
Ma picked out a few things and Uncle Benny gave a nod of approval. I ended up with a wool jumper and a crisp white blouse to go underneath but the pièce de résistance was the shoes. Patent leather Mary Janes that had removable ribbon “laces” which meant I could swap in any print or style of ribbon I wanted. I freakin’ loved those shoes and refused to take them off. Uncle Benny said I could just wear them out of the store because the guy was a god damned saint.
Uncle Benny treated Shoo like a queen and took care of her every need. And then one day, he sat down at his desk at home, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. It was a shock to everyone in the family, especially me. I just couldn’t wrap my twelve-year-old brain around it. How could someone as strong and kind as Benny do such a thing? I searched his letters for clues.
He often complained about the difficulty of finding a comfortable prosthesis after losing his leg to diabetes and “getting used to living with a handicap.” Everyone assumed he suffered depression because of the amputation. It made sense that an athlete who’d prided himself on his physical strength might fall apart after losing a part of his body. But there was more to it.
I’m not a fan and know next to bupkis about football except that it’s a game where men smash into each other until they are bloody, broken and brain damaged. But I’ve since discovered that when he retired as a player in 1934, not only did Uncle Benny hold the NFL record for touchdown passes - 66, he was an MVP of the Big Ten. This was back when a football looked more like a giant, overcooked meatball and was rounder and way harder to throw. After a knee injury ended his career as a player, he waited and waited to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Years rolled by and he kept getting frozen out. Like I said, I’m football ignorant but when you hold a league record and you’re the guy credited with revolutionizing defense and the first player who ever threw on the first and second down, what the hell do you have to do be honored?? Apparently, it helps if you’re not a Jew.
He never mentioned his professional struggles and only ever seemed interested in how I was doing but it blew me away to learn that the sports journalists of the time referred to him as “Jew Boy” and “Son of Palestine.” It is widely speculated and downright obvious to me that the reason it took so long for him to become a Hall of Famer is because of discrimination against his Jewish background. For all the non-Jews out there, this is what our people call a shanda (a disgrace!)
I’m a terrible Jew. I don’t practice, or go to temple. I even celebrate Christmas with unfettered glee. I just love me some lit-up trees and presents. It’s not really my fault. My parents weren’t religious Jews and never passed on any of the traditions. The only time I ever feel Jewish is when I’m around other Jews and then I’ll toss out Yiddish-isms like a ninety-year-old bubby. I can only attribute it to the rabbinical DNA hiding out in my genes, passed down from generations of people who fought the good fight like Uncle Benny. He was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005, which was about seventy-one years too late. Just one more reason to hate effing football. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benny_Friedman
To top things off, by the time Uncle Benny died, Aunt Shoo had Glaucoma and was nearly blind. She’d long ago given up painting and spent most of her time listening to her programs, drinking and getting her hair done. And though she couldn’t see squat and didn’t know how to pay bills or do anything for herself really, she was determined to stay in her beautiful, three-bedroom flat in a doorman building on East 57th Street until they scraped her cold, dead body off the floor. And it almost worked too. If it wasn’t for those meddling sisters.
My grandma and her siblings were born and raised in Manhattan but Shoo was the true definition of a “New Yorker.” She lived in the city her entire life and every night she walked down to Neary’s Irish Pub on East 57th street for a scotch on the rocks and a filet mignon. Whenever I visited, she took me to Neary’s for dinner.
Shoo was a tiny, elegant woman, barely 4’8, but she walked with command and purpose, even with her failing eyesight. She stepped into the dimly lit, stuffy, pub and glided past the mahogany bar and red leather stools like she owned the place. The proprietor, Jim Neary, a Lilliputian man in a dark suit with a puff of grey curls combed back, perhaps to give him more height, rushed over with a big smile to greet her. I don’t recall the food being anything special. It certainly wasn’t cheap but Shoo wasn’t there for the grub. I never saw her take more than one bite of steak. She was like a hummingbird, surviving only on the sweet nectar of malted whisky. The bulk of the filet went home in a doggie bag, which I think actually ended up as breakfast for a neighbor’s dog.
One night at home, after a scotch or two, a stray ice cube escaped from her highball glass and made its way under her foot. She slipped and broke her hip. According to Grandma, Shoe called the next day after a concerned neighbor came looking for her. “You know that commercial where the old lady is stuck on the floor and yells, ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up?’ That’s what happened to me!” Shoo said and laughed. God love her for having a sense of humor about it. Grandma, on the other hand, was not amused. She decided then and there that Shoo’s dolce vita was coming to a close. As soon as her hip healed, her two younger sisters packed her up and shipped her out to live in the apartment right under my grandmother’s place in Miami.
Shoo, convinced she’d died and taken the A Train to HELL, hated Florida with the passion of ten million suns. Who could blame her, really? She’d tell anyone who’d listen that she’d been kidnapped and was being forced to live in Miami against her will. My brother, Chris, witnessed a fight break out at lunch between the three sisters in a crowded Italian restaurant in Miami. Shoo shouted, “I hate it here! I miss New York and I want to go back.” I’m sure she hoped a kindly stranger would overhear and immediately notify the authorities to elder abuse.
The middle sister, my Aunt Janice aka “The General” who by this time looked like a slightly prettier version of George Burns, slammed down her fork full of Veal Parmesan and huffed, “Give it a rest, Shirl.”
Grandma chimed in, “You’re blind! What could you possibly miss?”
Without skipping a beat Shoe shouted, “The smell!”
She had them there. Florida reeks like a festering gym sock. New York smells like hot, candied peanuts and cash.
But Shoo never did move back to NY. She eventually died in that Miami apartment at 92, still dreaming of the city that never sleeps. I got the call from my dad’s sister, Aunt Jody, that she was meeting Grandma in New York, bringing my sixteen-year-old cousin, Elizabeth, and that I should join them for a girl’s long weekend to bury Shoe. The four of us had never really spent any quality time together and it sounded like an adventure. I hopped on a plane with a plan to meet them at a short-term rental apartment on the upper-east-side.
I arrived in NY on a crisp, autumn evening. As I stepped out of the cab, the cool wind snapped against my face and I felt a surge of energy that made me forget I’d just spent six hours on a cramped plane. I’m sure what Aunt Shoo really missed about her beloved city was that je ne sais quoi in the air that makes one feel truly alive.
Our accommodations weren’t exactly “roomy” but by New York standards, comfortable. Decorated in a bland hotel style of metal and greys, the apartment was sans character but contained all the amenities that three generations of women might need to survive a few days in the city. Bags were dropped in our designated areas, Grandma and Jody were sharing the double bed, Elizabeth, the youngest with the strongest back had the air mattress, and I was on the couch.
Grandma had always been the glamour girl of the family. With her raven hair, hourglass figure, and flawless skin, she looked a Jewish Ingrid Bergman in her day. Inundated with suitors, she married five times and had a bit of a problem with infidelity, cheating on one husband with the guy who would eventually become the next husband. She was a tough, independent gal and once offered me relationship advice by revealing, “No man ever left me! I left every single one of them.” I thought that was pretty badass and took it to heart in my dating years.
Though she’d grown up a cosmopolitan woman, Grandma was attracted to a slower pace and fell in love with Haiti on cruise in 1956. Afterwards, she convinced her husband at the time to move there. Together they successfully ran a five star hotel called The El Rancho for several years. Once the marriage broke up, Grandma built the very first tourist beach in Haiti, called Kyona Beach Club. I found an article where she was interviewed in Haiti for the UK’s Independent Newspaper in 1995, about five years before I met up with her New York. She explained her attraction to the island like this: “Haiti’s not a country, it’s a feeling,” she told me over rum in her beachfront villa. “It’s a country that doesn’t make any sense, so there’s no point trying to understand it. You’ve got to feel it.”
Grandma traveled back and forth to Haiti well into her 70’s, sharing a beach house with another good-time gal named Bobbie though the years of drinking, smoking, and carousing were catching up with them both. She often lamented feeling and looking old and seemed to sink deeper and deeper into depression and alcoholism with each passing year. By the time this trip transpired, Grandma was at an all-time low.
At around 10 am the morning after we arrived, Grandma, dressed sharp in black slacks and a black jacket, blond hair coiffed and make-up applied, stood in the mini kitchen and poured herself a glass of chilled Popov vodka from a plastic bottle. “Want a drink?” she asked.
I winced. “It’s a bit early for me. I think I need some food first.”
She scoffed and knocked back her drink in a few quick gulps.
What made this scene even more tragic than the hour of day was that Grandma had always been a woman of class and taste. The daughter of a haberdasher, she rocked sophisticated style in all things. If someone ever made a social misstep, she’d be the first to yell “Common!” And yet here she was drinking cheap moonshine from a plastic jug for breakfast. The mighty had definitely fallen.
The plan for that day was to meet up with one of Grandma’s girlhood pals, Susan, and go to lunch at the Russian Tea Room. We stopped in at a bar first, natch. Susan, maybe ten years Grandma’s junior, looked a bit weathered and had one of those raspy voices from many years of puffing on smokes. She and Grandma ordered Bloody Marys. The rest of us had coffee. The two old friends, now more than a little tipsy, giggled in the backseat of the cab all the way to the Russian Tea Room.
(Grandma on the left, Susan, Aunt Jody, Me and Cousin Elizabeth)
Our reservation was in the Main Dining Room, an enormous blinged-out area with forest green walls festooned with golden pheasants and chandeliers all a shimmer with Christmas balls. It smelled like meatloaf as those types of oldy-timey restaurants often do. We followed the hostess across the ornate Russian rug to a cherry red banquette. I can’t remember what we ate, but I know for a fact that Susan and Grandma had some more booze.
It’s difficult to not be merry in a place so awash in green and red accents that it feels like Christmas 24/7, but something set Grandma on a spiral. It seemed to be a silent squabble over the check, like Grandma expected Susan to treat us. When she didn’t, Grandma threw down some money, stood up abruptly and hightailed it out of the room, practically jogging to the street. We found her standing outside the restaurant with tears in her eyes. A cab was hailed, and Grandma limped into it, her foot had started to throb from all the walking, something she did very little of in Florida and Haiti.
Money was tight for Grandma. Haiti’s perpetual political strife had long put a major dent in her beach business. She’d been leasing the beach property out to a local businessman but he was a bit sketchy and income was limited.
Back in the early 60’s, Grandma, known around Haiti as “Madame Muriel” wined and dined Italian Countesses, Hollywood royalty and friends at her Kyona Beach Club Resort. She always kept the cocktails and cuisine flowing and the island music pumping. It’s just a guess, but I’m sure Grandma hosted Susan many times at the beach and now that she was here in her friend’s city, she expected The Big Payback. When it didn’t happen, it tore at the very fiber of her being like so many other slights and offenses yet to come in the next couple of days.
As we made our way around Manhattan, and eventually to Queens, Grandma was never without an old, Louis Vuitton attaché case clutched in her hand or under her arm. At one point, she stepped out of a cab and the case flopped onto the ground. She gasped and frantically jumped out after it. My cousin picked it up and handed it to her.
“What’s in there?” Elizabeth asked.
“It’s Aunt Shirl!” Grandma shouted.
We all broke down in some much needed hysterical laughter. I was happy to learn that Shoo’s ash receptacle was something chic and classic, the likes of which of woman of her stature was accustomed to.
Later, on our way to the cemetery to deliver Aunt Shoo to the plot, Grandma patted the seats and searched down by her feet, having misplaced the ashes again. “Where’s Shirl?” she asked.
I said, “I’ve got her. She’s in the bag.”
Aunt Jody quipped, “So what else is new?”
Thank god for levity.
At the gravesite, the sun shone bright in the sky and the air was brisk. It was a perfect day to say goodbye to Grandma’s sunniest sister. I stood, bundled in a wool coat and scarf, next to Aunt Janice’s youngest son, Cousin Jimmy, a tall, mustached 50-something fellow in a cowboy hat, jeans and a dark blazer. A resident of the tri-state area, he showed up to bid Shoo a final adieu.
There was an empty dirt hole in the ground right next to Uncle Benny’s grave. The other kin buried alongside included Grandma’s parents and Janice’s husband, Uncle Leo. Grandma unceremoniously dropped the plastic bag of actual ashes, no longer in the attaché case, into the grave and said a few words. Jimmy did the same. The rest of us blew kisses at Aunt Shoo and off we went, back to the city for a final send off at, where else? Neary’s.
Jim Neary, still in his signature suit, hair more white than gray, ushered our group, including Jimmy’s wife, Linda, to “Shoo’s table.” With as much bravado as he could muster, he saluted Shoo for being one of his favorite regulars. We sat around drinking my great aunt’s cocktail of choice, eating steaks and potatoes and swapping stories. I’ll admit I just choked down a few sips of scotch and quickly switched to a more palatable vodka tonic and ordered some fish instead of steak but I was with Shoo in spirit. One thing I did not inherit from my grandma or her sisters was their ability to drink straight booze. Round after round of drinks appeared and I wondered if they call them rounds because they are destined to make the room spin. I paced myself but I can’t say the same for Grandma. She was, as one would say in Yiddish, “farshikert.” The bill arrived, it was split between a few people and Elizabeth and I helped our toasted Grandmother into a cab. After that, things really went south.
Grandma had a temper. I’d seen it flare up many times growing up and had even been on the receiving end for a myriad of reasons like defending a family friend who had pissed her off and for not brushing my hair before dinner. When she’d been drinking heavily, which was most of the time, anything could set her off. That night it was “Jim Fucking Neary.“
From the back of the cab, Grandma cursed and shouted the Irish barkeep’s name. “The nerve! After all the money Shirl spent in that dump! The least Jim Fucking Neary could have done is send over some free drinks!” All the way back to the apartment, she ripped up one side of Jim Neary and down the other. We told her that it was fine and clearly, enough drinks had been enjoyed by all. But our efforts to get her to move on were pointless. “It’s the principle!” she fumed.
Back at the apartment, Grandma sat on the edge of the bed and continued her rant. She was a petite woman and with her short legs dangling over the side the bed about a foot above the floor, she resembled a small child in the throes of a full metal tantrum. Aunt Jody, Elizabeth and I escaped into the living room and left Grandma on her own to vent, hoping that might calm her down. It didn’t. She just raised her voice louder and this is what came out: “I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT CHEAP, MICK, SHIT, JIM FUCKING NEARY COULDN’T SEND OVER A LOUSY ROUND OF DRINKS FOR SHIRL!”
It was like my tiny, wasted grandma had just morphed into Mel Gibson. The three of us, eyes wide, shook our heads and laughed quietly. What else could we do? It was a terrible, awful thing to say but we knew it was the alcohol talking. Grandma wasn’t a bigot but she was unhinged. The room fell eerily silent shortly after that. We peeked around the corner and she had finally passed out.
In the morning, Grandma didn’t feel so hot. The previous day’s activities had taken a lot out of her and though she wouldn’t admit it, she had a hangover the size of Brooklyn. But there was still one last person to visit, another old friend of Grandma’s, named Beverly. It had been years since they’d seen each other and Beverly wanted to take us all out to lunch, which was a huge relief because I didn’t think I could handle any more drama over meal tabs.
Beverly had married well and was living pretty high on the hog as a widow. She picked Le Cirque for lunch. Jody and Elizabeth bowed out but I decided to tag along for a fancy, free meal. When we arrived, Beverly, a small woman in her 70’s, was seated on a fabric-covered bench in the waiting area. She wore a lightweight, black fabric baseball cap and a long black skirt with a white button down blouse but really, the only thing I can remember with any great detail is that cap which seemed to cover short wisps of dyed auburn hair. When she rose to meet us, she reached for a cane that rested against the bench and used it for support to get up and walk.
The Maître d’ showed us to a table under a big glass decorative dome facing a large window with the shade pulled to block out the brightness. I rubbernecked a bit for celebrities but the room wasn’t very full and I didn’t see anyone of note. Grandma and Beverly did some catching up, but Grandma was pretty quiet and seemed agitated. I chalked it up to being hungover though that didn’t stop her from ordering wine with lunch.
Beverly turned out to be a charming woman, smart and kind, and from what I could tell, not a drunk. Lunch was pleasant so I certainly wasn’t expecting Grandma to go off on another post-meal tirade. But I had overlooked another huge transgression.
“What the hell is a woman her age doing in a baseball cap?” Grandma shouted as soon as Beverly was out of earshot. “She wore that damn cap the entire time at LE CIRQUE! How could she??”
Oh boy, I thought, here we go. From the hair that was visible around the hat, it didn’t look like Beverly had very much and may have been balding. “I think her hair was pretty thin and that’s probably why she wore the hat,” I said.
“That’s no excuse!” Grandma said. “Wearing a stupid baseball cap at LE CIRQUE! Who does that? A woman her age. It’s just embarrassing.”
The angry diatribe continued as we travelled back to meet up with my aunt and cousin. Grandma wouldn’t drop it. This third and final slight was just too much to take. There had been talk of meeting up with Beverly again but Grandma wasn’t having it. She was done with her baseball cap sporting friend for good and New York City too.
They say, “You can never go home again” and for Grandma, her hometown had been nothing but an infuriating series of disappointments. But I knew that those slights were not at the core of her unhappiness. Her oldest sister had passed away, and her other sister, Janice, had suffered a stroke and was in a wheelchair. Grandma felt her mortality day in and day out and it scared the crap out of her. But more than that, it pissed her off. It was easier to take out her misery on Jim Neary, Susan and Beverly, but the reality was, she was livid and terrified about getting old.
That trip was the last time I ever saw her. About six months later, she’d gone back to Haiti to stay at her vacation home, suffered a heart attack and slipped into a coma. She never recovered. We were glad that she died in Haiti, the place where she was happiest and that she didn’t have to suffer a long, drawn out illness. She died the way she lived, on her terms. I have a feeling that if there is an afterlife resort, Grandma is running the show with a strict NO BASEBALL CAPS ALLOWED policy and every new arrival is treated to unlimited rounds of free drinks.
Read the interview with my Grandma in the Independent here :