My maternal grandmother, Mary, was a precocious and austere woman. Fastidious and tolerant, presumptuous and nonchalant, and ballsy yet perceptive; I marveled at the clarity of her moods and the frequency of their intersection throughout each day. Mary was adorable, petite and campy. Proper lady outfits informed her wardrobe, pastel, and floral poly-cotton blend sets with an elastic waistband and a tank with a boat-neck, never a “turtle” or a “V”. Mary had demonstrative brown eyes, high cheekbones and a permafrown, something we often joked about.
Every Monday, she schlepped to the beauuuty pahlah to have her short, brown hair “set” for the week. Mary never left the house without a ladylike “do” and make-up. She rose at the crack of dawn every day, blaring vintage crooner tunes that she’d hum along to in la-dee-dee (pause) la-dee-da, fashion, while cleaning, tending to the laundry, straightening up and baking sugar-free Mandel bread with one chocolate chip per cookie.
My sister, Kerri, started baking with her when she was nine. Once she added a dozen chips to one of the cookies, declaring it a more delicious variation. My grandmother softly reprimanded her, “Stop getting crazy with the chips. My mother’s mother did the one chip. My mother did the one chip. I do the one chip. Now, you’ll do the one chip.” “What does Ma do?” Kerri asked. My grandmother paused, “She doesn’t bake.” Kerri darted her eyes around the counter, “So, I’m the next Mandel bread generation?” she quipped. “Technically, yes,” Mary responded. It was a quintessential Grandma Mary moment. She never tried to be funny, she just was.
Mary instructed Kerri to put the cookie down and said, “When I was your age, your great grandmother taught me how to make Mandel bread. Mind you, I wasn’t rebellious enough to add as many chips as you did– I added two chips. My mother took the second chip out of the cookie and put the cookie back on the baking sheet. She asked me to share some of the things we discussed while baking. Sure, I thought it was an odd question, but what was I gonna do, say no? So, I said, ‘Your mother grew up poor in Russia. She worked as a seamstress. She met my grandfather tripping over a squash at the Farmer’s Market.’
Continuity, Kerri—Making Mandel bread is when we pass down our family history. I’m not sayin’ change isn’t good, but there are some things that must stay the same. If I started adding two chips and you added buckets of chips to individual cookies and your kids tossed those chips into the batter, we might forget where we came from.” With tears in her eyes, Kerri hugged our grandmother and removed all but one chip from her cookie before carefully placing it onto the baking sheet.
Mary was an ardent reader of romance novels, and took respites throughout the day to squeeze in a hundred pages while watching her favorite programs, The Price is Right, Let’s Make a Deal and Wheel of Fortune. Oy, old ladies and their wild crushes on game show hosts, noting first how their manicured coifs made them swoon.
Late mornings I helped Mary run errands. When I was 15 and had a driver’s permit, she allowed me to drive.
Mary: What are you racing out of the driveway for?! (I was going 5 MPH) Slowly. (3) Slower! (1/2) Fine. We’re out. Keep your hands at 10 and 2. I see 3 and 12, 6 and 1—you’re all over the place! I want 10 and 2. The stop sign is coming (halfway down the block). Slow down! (I was going 12, tops) Oy vey. Slooooow down! (This was as I approached the sign and slowed back down to 5) Stop. Wait. Wait. (7 minutes at the stop sign) Signal right. Wait. (3 more minutes) Now, turn right. Stop running like a dawg. (I accelerated to, what, 7?!) At the time, it made me crazy and left me feeling incompetent. In hindsight, I miss the hocking. Now realizing that was her way of saying, I love you.
My mother always says, “One phone call can change your life.” That’s true, but so can a vagina. Something I never anticipated, especially when it’s not my own and happens to be my grandmother’s. It all started when I innocently agreed to take my grandmother to the gynecologist as part of our late-morning errands. Three hours later, I’d read Highlights For Kids from cover to cover so many times, I thought a scope up my ass, a speculum inside my vagina and my breast smashed into a mammography machine all simultaneously would’ve been far more entertaining. I mean for chrissakes, three-hours? It’s one vagina. As the fourth hour fast approached, I was so disgusted I threw the magazine onto the floor and blazed past the nurse’s station in search of my grandmother.
Fortunately, she was easy to find; she was the one screaming. I pulled open the curtain and saw my grandmother spread-eagle as two orderlies tried to restrain her, a gynecologist between her legs and her vagina on the table. Not in her vagiynal place, where vaginas usually live. I mean to say I saw her vagina actually on the table just lying there and she was trying to push her vagina back inside herself.
In what Andy-Warhol-meets-Billie-Holiday-meets-Jack-Kerouac universe does a granddaughter have to deal with her grandmother’s vagina? Failing to hit the nearby wastebasket, I vomited and gave myself a fast, silent pep talk, trying to convince myself I could face my grandmother’s vagina. “Woman up, child. Your grandmother’s vagina is now literally on the table, and you need to know why.” I also wondered how I was going to approach being supportive. Was I going to say, “Grams, I’m so sorry that you’re vagina fell out. Do you want to talk about how that makes you feel?” Or, “I’m so sorry God rearranged your vaginal equipment. What was he thinking that you wanted to be a contestant in a reality show?” She loved a good laugh, so maybe that was the right approach. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. My grandmother used to refer to her vagina as “her business”. Vadgeversation was never appealing to her and I didn’t want to make her more uncomfortable, all things considered.
Dr. Hillsdale was annoyingly perky with a super nasal, strong Wisconsin accent, in an lavender, crepe suit and her “Congratulations on not flunking out of medical school” pearl necklace, coordinated to match her button pearl earrings flawlessly. In her happiest sing-song voice, she condescendingly whispered, “Dear, your grandmother has what we call a prolaaaapsed uuuuterus. That’s what you saw on the table.” She heartily laughed and continued, “Women’s wombs fall out every day and their ovaries, like your grandmother’s, hitch along for the ride. Oh, did I mention that her vaginal canal also collapsed? Anyhoodle-doodle-do, it did and it’s super common.”
Defending my own crotch, freaked out that I was contestant #2, I remained in the keggel squeeze position and pushed my legs together so forcefully, I’m sure I stopped circulating blood to my down there. I held my breath, too, for good measure.
“I think your grandma’s also got short-term memory loss. She’s suuuuuper repetitive.” Dr. Hillsdale said.
I had to interject. “No, she’s Jewish.”
She looked confused and continued, “I’m serious. She shows classic signs of mental illness. Verbal abuse…”
I said, “No, wait, listen if she called you a crazy bitch, that’s not abuse. That’s love.”
And, that’s when it got ugly, “Listen to me. Your grandmother needs to see a neurologist immediately. She scratches, bites, kicks and screams–” I lost it, “Hey! She’s not Cujo. She’s a tiny, 90-year-old broad from Queens with a vagina gone awry. Cut her some fuckin’ slack.”
She was pissed, pursing her pink lips and snapping. “Your grandmother needs a hysterectomy and vaginal reconstruction. Immediately.”
That part, I couldn’t argue with. Though, I had a question, “Why vaginal reconstruction? It’s not like she uses it, so what’s the point of rebuilding it? What are you thinking? If you build it they will come? She’s 90.”
Her face flushed and she clutched her desk, draining blood from her knuckles. Dr. Hillsdale had no sense of humor. That was my cue to leave.
I felt like I was in a Roman Polanski revision of “Deep Throat”. My mind was drowning in neurosis. I was terrified uterine prolapse was hereditary. I kept wondering if it was my destiny to schlep to Katz’s deli on a Sunday for a grilled tomato and cheese on rye with my vagina in one hand and my pocketbook in the other. Eclipsing that fear, I wondered how I was supposed to tell my mother that her mother’s vagina was now an accessory.
I practiced this phone call several times, realizing that as much as I wanted to say nothing, my options were limited. This wasn’t a let’s-take-it-to-the-grave item. I needed to loop my Ma and fast; we were on the precipice of a hostile vaginal takeover.
Initially, I thought I would ease into it by explaining that Dr. Hillsdale thought grandma was senile-ish, thinking the ish diminished the blow. When I said that, my mother asked, “Because she’s repetitive?”
I reservedly explained that I thought it might be because grandma was kind of, sort of, maybe being aggressive-ish with the orderlies. She deflected that like a superhero; bouncing off of her and right out the door, saying, “Can you blame her? I hate the gyno.”
Mincing words into digestible sentences wasn’t even bordering my point. I decided on the band-aid approach and swiftly said, “Ma, Grandma’s vagina fell out and she’s biting people.”
My mother handled it curiously. “Child, I am your mother. I know you better than you know yourself. Spinning a yarn is one thing; this is your grandmother’s mental status we’re talking about. Now, I’m going to pick up my cell phone this instant to call the doctor, and if I find out that you’re lying to me, I will be very, very angry with you.”
After speaking with Dr. Hillsdale, my story was confirmed. My mother was worried and insisted my grandmother see a neurologist. After a thorough examination, Dr. Bush, an insolent prick, dismissively told us Mary was in the first stage of Alzheimer’s, squashing my mother’s hope that maybe, just maybe, it was a just mild form of dementia.
Ma asked all the questions we’re supposed to ask in these situations, “Are you sure it’s Alzheimer’s? Is it hereditary? How did she get it?” He provided no insight, choosing instead to belittle her inquiries and behave like a foolish bastard, “Beats me. Nobody knows where it stems from. Bunch of different theories running around. It isn’t just an aging disease anymore, either. People your age are getting it. It’s too bad really.” He paused. “Well, you should probably start thinking about an Alzheimer’s ward for her long-term care.”
My mother unhesitatingly assailed him, “Maybe you can throw your parents away like trash, but I can’t and I won’t. We’re getting a second opinion—go fuck yourself.” The second and third opinions were delivered with more tact and care, but they were the same.
Later that week, my grandmother had a hysterectomy and vaginal reconstructive surgery. The procedure was a complete success, so much so, that within a few short hours of her five-hour procedure, she barricaded herself in her room. After all, she was done and wanted to leave. It took a hospital variation on SWAT to get the door open, followed by two doctors, three orderlies, a straightjacket, wrist restraints and a round the clock Valium drip to sedate her.
Six months, four heart attacks, five bladder infections, two bouts of pneumonia and fifteen personalities later, we knew we had to place her in a home. Sunday visits went from afternoons at Cedars, or if my grandmother was well, schlepping her to the movies and for a nosh, to Alzy ward shopping day. If we liked it, Medicare wouldn’t cover it. If we hated the nursing home, Medicare would. The only commonality these convalescent homes shared was a noxious stench of grandparents marinating in urine and heavy duty cleaning solvent. It was unforgettable, infiltrating our taste buds and making us gag. Finding a place that didn’t leave us heartbroken and guilt ridden became impossible… But we had to, so we did.
Once we lured my grandmother to her new digs, The Senior Fun House, under the false pretense of a matinee, Sundays became known as, “Let’s See Mary Run Day” because she was so busy with herself. She couldn’t stop obsessing, or rearranging things, or restacking papers, or repeating herself even for five minutes.
“Where’s my pocketbook?”
“I have it, Grandma.”
“Lemme pish and we’ll go. Where’s my pocketbook?”
“I have it, Grandma.”
“Lemme pish and we’ll go. Where’s my pocketbook?”
“I have it, Grandma. Lemme pish and we’ll go.”
Oy. We didn’t know if we were on spin or rinse. We always ended the evening at Shanghai Grill. I would tell myself, “Just make it through a little Mu Shu. Take Mary to lockdown and you’re home free.”
Oh, but, it was never that simple: Too hot. Too cold. Nah. No good. No ice. More ice. Where’s my pocketbook? I can’t eat this. Who are you? Gimmie your rice. I hate this rice. They can’t give a crispy noodle? Pass the salt. These are soft. I want crispy. Coffee’s cold. Too hot. Give a lil cream. Water. No ice. More ice. Who are you? The cookie’s stale. More coffee. Too hot. Too cold. Help! The Chinaman stole my pocketbook.
After Alzheimer’s ransacked my grandmother’s mind, rendering it a bleak wasteland, incapable of uttering words, it demolished her vital organs, draining the soul from every fiber of her being. Warm eyes that once reflected familial history and strength were absconded by disease.
The night before my grandmother died, she looked as limp and lifeless and gray as the blanket keeping her warm. It was all so sad and tragic. Very deathy. I was relieved and felt guilty because I was relieved. I felt like we could finally bury the disease and mourn the loss of a woman we loved, who really, was gone long before this. Nevertheless, I found myself missing those days at Shanghai Grill, chaotic and maddening as they were. Bits and pieces of my grandma would surface, occasionally wading in shallow waters, reminding us that she was still there.
My mother and grandmother were best friends, as close as my sister and I are to Ma now. We wanted the physical suffering to end for my grandmother and my mother’s emotional agony to end. When it finally did, my mother was devoured by grief. There were no more near-deathversations to be had. All that was left was inconsolable sadness. The day of her death, the three of us sat by the fire drinking wine, sharing our “Best of Mary” yarns. My mother went through every photo album, imparting the memories her mother left her with on us.
To bear witness to Mary’s deconstruction was impossible to rationalize—it was surreal. One day this person we loved so much, who drove us crazy in a way we wouldn’t have traded for all the bagels in Brooklyn; stopped. She just stopped.
There is no upside to death unless it is that death subdues what ails. This was that.
— Performed at Sit-n-Spin – Based on my play – Feature Film Forthcoming (WGA# 1034204)