Many of us are lucky enough to have felt fully loved by our parents. But, let’s face it, when it comes to being absolutely, unconditionally ADORED, please step aside, Mom and Dad, and do come right in, Grandma and Grandpa — wait, is that super toy you’re carrying for ME??
And of my four grandparents, all of whom I was lucky enough to know at least as a young child, it was my Grandma Zivien (ZIVV-vee-yen) who held the title of World’s Greatest Kveller.
Now “kvell” is a Yiddish verb meaning “to brag”— but not just any kind of brag. It’s the kind of public rejoicing about your own family that would be obnoxious for parents but is usually charmingly acceptable for grandparents.
And did my grandmother ever kvell about her five grandchildren — Herbie, Philip, Ronnie, my sister Gloria, and me. Gloria and I felt exceptionally special since Gloria was the only granddaughter (you can imagine the frilly outfits that grandma lavished upon her) and I was her youngest grandchild. Because our mother was her youngest daughter, Grandma Zivien would call my mom her “baby” and therefore I alone was her “baby’s baby.”
She was our sun; we grandchildren were her precious planets. This is why what happened to Grandma a few months before she died was such a shock. First, she’d suffered a small stroke about a year before which had suddenly made her quiet and docile. Before that event, quietness and docility would have ranked at #188 and #189 on a list of Grandma Zivien’s most prominent traits. How this four-foot ten woman could captivate and lead!
And then about six months later her personality took an awful turn. Suddenly our adored and adoring grandma became obsessed with her possessions and with her will. I still remember her lawyer’s name — Shotwell —because she’d cry out “Call Shotwell!” to one of her daughters so that she could leverage yet again what little she had to bequeath to her family, friends, and charities. The strangest twist was her new obsession with re-hiding her “jewels”— always demanding someone bring her special box to her from some drawer or cabinet when, in fact, there were no such gems.
To us grandchildren we felt bereft because it seemed she basically had forgotten us in her paranoid last months. We were all teenagers or older at this point in 1965, yet it still hurt. But then the very day before she was taken by ambulance to the hospital where she died two days later, my mom suggested that her rabbi visit her in her home. He was a kindly, older gentleman, more grandma’s contemporary friend than spiritual advisor.
He stayed over an hour with her and then came directly to our house, just three blocks away, to give us an update. Thank goodness, he reported, she was again her sweet self, no talk of wills or lawyers. “Oh,” he added “but Etta did ask me to fetch her jewels from her bottom dresser drawer.”
“Oh, dear, I’m sorry.” I remember my mom saying, “Mama just won’t give up on that illusion.”
The rabbi smiled kindly and then we noticed the small square box he carried.
“No illusion, Helen,” he said to my mom. “I opened that drawer as she requested and there was this box. You should have seen the beatific smile on her face when I looked inside.‘Those are my precious jewels’ she whispered.” And he handed the box to mom who opened it and discovered within not even one shiny gem.
Instead, inside was a small square Polaroid snapshot taken at our Zivien family Passover dinner many years before. This was the picture that my dad had taken at grandma’s specific instruction.
It was just we five — Herbie, Philip, Ronnie, Gloria, and me, her baby’s baby.