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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

36

Stuffing, Pastrami, and Chopped Liver

Thanksgiving makes me think of my grandmother — when my sister and I were kids, my family would make the four-hour drive down from Boston to New York City to see her the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, waking up at dawn (we had to leave by 6:45 a.m.), so my father could beat the traffic on the Merritt.

For 50 years, Gran lived alone in a small, rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment, with a bathroom faucet that leaked, in a beautiful prewar building on East 10th St. in Greenwich Village. When the historic apartment building, built in 1928, was turned into modern luxury condos, selling for $1.1 to $5.2 million, and the regal wooden floors in the lobby were replaced by slick black-and-white checkered tiling like you’d find in a Johnny Rockets, Gran said, “They want someone to spend a million dollars for that shit?”

Gran’s apartment could best be described as prewar elegance meets flea market tchotchke heaven. Above the stove, which was never used except to boil water for coffee, Gran kept her collection of antique matchboxes and a basket of plastic fruit.

A gorgeous stained glass lamp hung over the kitchen table — it might have been from Tiffany’s, or maybe she just said it was — and wooden picture frames adorned the walls; one held an embroidered “No Place Like Home” placard, another a replica of Picasso’s “The Dance of Youth," and another a piece of chocolate cake with a fork and knife cut out from an old magazine. Other frames were just empty. 

On Thanksgiving, the five of us would cram around that tiny table, some sitting on stools, Gran in her green nightgown, the rest of us wearing t-shirts and shorts, sweating because the heat was always turned up to 80, regardless of the temperature outside.

We weren't big on turkey, and Gran didn't cook, so we’d order take-out from 2nd Avenue Deli for Thanksgiving, and the best part was always lunch the next day: hot pastrami, corned beef, rye bread, brown mustard, potato salad, cole slaw, sour tomatoes, half-sour pickles, chopped liver, and cinnamon raisin rugelach. This was our family tradition. “Who needs stuffing when you have chopped liver?” Gran would say.

A few years before she passed away, Gran was hit by a taxicab while she was crossing the street near Union Square. After the accident, she told the ambulance driver, who was headed uptown, that there was no way in hell she was going to a hospital above 14th Street, and to take her to St. Vincent’s. The accident didn’t stop her — she worked full-time until well past the age of 80, learning how to use a computer, and eating bacon cheeseburgers with me when we'd meet at Silver Spurs every Friday for work lunches while I lived in the city (“Don’t tell your father”) — but it kept her off her feet for awhile.

Toward the end, when Gran got really sick, as much as she still loved eating corned beef sandwiches and bacon cheeseburgers, reading The New York Times, and watching television during dinner (“If they ever take Jeopardy and Seinfeld off the air, I won’t have a reason to eat”), the pain became too much, and she said it was no longer pleasant for her to be alive. When I’d ask her if I could get her anything, she’d joke, “A knife.”

When my sister and I were young, we’d play “restaurant,” Gran in her nightgown and slippers, sitting on her favorite red armchair while she pretended to order food from me (the waiter), and my sister (the chef), who'd serve her plastic food.

I loved when she told me stories about spending her Sundays lying on the beach at Coney Island — sipping Cokes that were five cents, or having dinner at Ye Waverly Inn for $2.95, or how she paid $70 a month (“Which we split three ways!”) for an apartment on Bank St. in the West Village. “I had a boss who used to say ‘good morning’ to me every day,” Gran told me one of the last times we were together, “and I would say to him, ‘Must you scream at me?’”

This is my family’s third Thanksgiving without Gran, but when I celebrate tomorrow with friends in San Francisco, I’ll bring some chopped liver. If I can find it.

Smiley Poswolsky is also on Twitter



36 Comments / Post A Comment

iceberg

Eccentric grannies 4 lyfe! I had one that subsisted on champagne & toast for about her last 5 years, and I hope to become one someday. Lovely, evocative writing.

SarahP

Your grandmother sounds awesome.

Lush Life

Happy Thanksgiving to you, Smiley! Thanks for this.

Heat Signature

My grandmother grew up on City Island in New York City. She swore like a trucker (my favorite saying of hers was "Oh, your sister's ass!"), told my aunt and cousin that their Glamourshots made them "look like whores" (kind of true?), and passed on to me her love of the hopeless, helpless, and downtrodden. She died about three and a half years ago and I miss her deeply.

Heat Signature

@Heat Signature I should also add that I am very thankful that I was able to spend so much time with her growing up, because even though she had lots of faults, she was also amazing.

TheMnemosyne

Grandmothers are just the greatest. I'ma go call mine right now.

ImASadGiraffe

I'm feeling blessed that I get to see my grandparents tomorrow. I will be hugging them both a little tighter when I see them. Thank you for this.

dtowngirl

Your grandma sounds like an awesome person. Thanks for sharing the story.

large__marge

Oh man, your grandma is the coolest person who ever lived. You're lucky to have had her.

Katie Walsh

Read this sitting next to my grandma, who offered me this tip on cooking turkey: "Read the directions." Lovely, Smiley, Happy Thanksgiving!

Smiley@twitter

@Katie Walsh Thank you! Happy Thanksgiving, have fun!

whimseywisp

Thank you for this. Missing my grandmothers this year. <3

PoBoyNation

This is wonderful; thank you.

Hellcat

"Tchotchke heaven"! Don't you love that about grandmas? I do.

TARDIStime

I love this so much and it made me all misty for all three of my Departed Grandparents.
One remaining Grandparent: you gettin' a phone call tonight.

Kimberley Anderson@facebook

You can get decent chopped liver at the BiRite on 18th street!

geek_tragedy

Grandmaaaaaas are the best! This is my first Thanksgiving without my grandmother. She knew how to live life, that's for sure.

MissT123

She sounds amazing! Thank you for sharing these wonderful memories!

Ally

This is such a lovely piece.

ThatWench

I wanted to add my thanks for sharing this lovely piece.

I also wanted to curse you (and Edith?) for that picture + description of a proper pastrami sandwich (mostly the picture). Now the only thing I want to do in this world is eat a pastrami sandwich, but the only place near my office that does them is closed today. :(

Lia LoBello@facebook

i really, really love this!

limejuiceandgin

Thanks for this: I lost two grandparents this year (until January I was lucky enough, at 25, to have all four still here), the second only a month ago. I'm struggling to see a way forward through Christmas and New Year, which have always been times for us all being together- it's good to know that sometime soon I'll be able to celebrate their part in the way we spend those times and maybe get rid of this heartsick feeling.

Smiley@twitter

Thanks everyone for the positive feedback on this piece, I know it would make my grandmother very proud.

samjohn4810

“The Dance of Youth," and another a piece of chocolate cake with a fork and knife cut out from an old magazine. Other frames were just empty. offers

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