My grandmother cooked and baked. Out of duty, out of necessity, out of love.
For most of the 69 years she was married to my grandfather, she was also in charge of feeding the family. Of making sure dinner was on the table every night.
She was a working woman even when she was a girl, getting jobs to help support her family from the time she was 16, when her father died. She went back to school when my mother was in elementary school and then had a proud carreer as a reading teacher in New York City public schools. In a jewlery box on her dresser, sits a tiny lapel pin from the association of New York public employees.
She cooked because that’s what women of her era did, but she also fed the people she loved because she loved them. She made us brownies and brisket and said “eat, eat” and “what can I get you” and “eat, eat” and “what can I make you?” What she meant was “I love you. I made this for you. I worry about you. I love you. I love you.”
My grandfather read the newspaper. When he died, it had been decades since he had been on the subway–I don’t think he has ever used a metro card. Still, he folded the New York Times the way New Yorkers, subway riders, did.
He was an artist, a lover of all things beautiful, he painted landscapes, city scenes and rural scenes, portraits of strangers, and portaits of people he loved. The sound of birds made him smile. As did a grandchild modeling a new dress, a clear blue sky, a painted masterpeiece, a symphony, an opera. He would hum and sing and whistle. He also demanded things to be just so. Coffee made with the milk left over from his cereal, soup at just the right temperature, vanilla ice cream rather than chocolate, the whole newspaper, all of the facts.
My grandfather complained he was getting older, he couldn’t read all of the newspaper anymore. “Now I only read the front section, the opinion section, the sports section, and arts,” he said. Once, we tried to give him the large-print edition of the New York Times, and he was furious to discover that it wasn’t the whole paper. It was mainly feature articles that the editors seemed to think older people would be interested in. “What is this?” He said. “There’s no news in here; nothing about what’s going on in the world.”
My grandmother claimed she didn’t remember recipes anymore. Every thanksgiving, my mom would call her and ask how to make the turkey and the stuffing. Every year, my grandmother would claim she didn’t remember and then provide detailed lists of ingredients and directions.
* * *
My Papa Marty, Dr. Marcus Kaplan, died on Saturday, 13 months after my grandmother died.
On Saturday night, I stood at the sink and washed dishes. When I was done with the ones in the sink, I took the dishes out of the dishwasher and washed those. It was too late too cook or bake; I don’t know how to paint or sculpt like my grandfather did. But I wanted to do something. Even in a tiny way, I wanted to be helpful. Like my grandmother was for so much of her life and wanted to be all the way until the end, even when she was frail, like my grandfather was in epic ways, especially at the end of my grandmother’s life. I needed to have my hands moving. I wanted actions that said “I love you. I miss you. I worried about you.”
I honestly can’t believe that my grandfather lived that long after my grandmother died. In the 29 years I knew my grandmother, I remember only a couple of times that they were apart for even more than 10 minutes. It was such a strange, infrequent occurrence that I had convinced myself that I had dreamt a time that my grandmother was in my house without my grandfather.
The feelings of missing and loss for my grandfather is new and raw and completely entwined with my missing my grandmother. They were a unit, and so I miss them both.
* * *
There is a newspaper fingerprint on my college diploma. It was a fitting end to four years devoted mainly to The Columbia Spectator. But over the last few days, I’ve been thinking about that fingerprint and my grandfather.
My grandfather wore a University of Pittsburgh ring until the day he died. He was a proud Pittsburgh Panther, the son of a pickle seller and a member of the Dental School class that walked across the dais, received their diplomas, and joined the army. He treated both soldiers and prisoners of war. He was proud of his education and of mine; he suggested jokingly that I carry my grad school diploma around and hang it in any room I entered. What he meant was “I love you. I’m proud of you. I love you.”
But that newsprint fingerprint floats into my mind and I don’t I think about my grandfather’s education and the blessings of being not only third generation college educated but also third-generation graduate school educated. I think about my grandfather folding the newspaper and about my standing behind him as he learned to navigate the New York Times app on the iPhone. Ironically, it wasn’t until he died that I realized that my incessant need for facts and information, my love of the news isn’t only a product of the information age I grew up in. It’s a gift from my grandfather. I don’t have his talents but I have his thirst for knowledge. And I hope I have his capacity for love and for humor.
Today, I missed my grandparents and so I read the news. I missed my grandparents and so I planned menus. I made lists of ingredients and read directions. I thought about information and creation. I read, and planned, but what I meant was, “I love you. I miss you. I love you.”