I Never Understood Why Grandma Never Understood

I was awed by my grandmother and loved her dearly, taciturn and stern though she was. Imagine a life that began in Russia during the Czarist period of the late 1800’s. It continued in America and lasted some 95 years, though she wasn’t aware of the last several. As a little child she was a product of the horse and buggy age. She had a bird’s eye view of the Tin Lizzy transforming over time into cars that looked like aircraft carriers they were so big. She lived from the beginning of the age of airplanes to jet planes that became the norm for trans-Atlantic trips replacing the grand ocean liners that were the status symbols of her middle and early later years. And of course she went from “the wireless” to the radio, to the 12″ TV with more tubes than a subway line set in a back-breakingly heavy piece of furniture to if I recall at least the the 24″ color portable.

Grandma owned a hobby shop, a business that sustained her after her no-count husband, my grandfather, who left her or was “ex-communicated” by the family, depending on whose version you were hearing at the time of telling. She maintained that business for years after what then passed for modern medicine amputated her leg to almost the hip because she had a cancer on the heel her foot.

And grandma loved me. Her greatest fear about the amputation was her precious grandson shunning what she thought would be an unrecognizable person missing a leg who had replaced his grandmother. When she finally visited after the surgery healed I ran right to her and into  what was reported to be a river of tears.

When she would baby sit for me I became her soap opera listening buddy as we’d sit in the dinette glued to the radio. When she was bored she taught me canasta. She read to me and in her later years made me promise I would learn to speak Yiddish, a promise I am finally working on keeping.

Grandma loved me so much that she’d not let me leave the block we lived on for fear of my getting lost. She loved me so much that when I misbehaved and got close enough to her to be grabbed, she’d hit me with her ham-hock of a hand so hard I thought I’d been hit by a fleshy sledge-hammer.

Grandma loved me so much that she left “to my favorite grand-son Billy, a double portion of my estate.” Grandma didn’t have, as we said in Brooklyn, “a pot to piss in” she was so poor by the time she died. But that sentence enriched me beyond anything that money could have done.

So here was this woman who had a cat-bird’s seat for a dramatically changing world, a woman who spoke English, some Russian, and Yiddish, a woman who overcame disability, ran her own business, managed her own life and did it all with one leg and two crutches. I just didn’t get why she couldn’t understand baseball and why milk wasn’t still a quarter.

While raised in Highland Park, NJ, my grandma spent most of her life in Brooklyn, NY when it was probably the most baseball-centric place on earth. Everyone was into baseball. In Brooklyn, while one would occasionally run across the stray NY Giant or NY Yankee fan, “Dem Bums” as the Dodgers were known, mostly with affection, were part of the air one breathed. One could go to Coney Island Beach on a Saturday or Sunday when the Dodgers were playing and hear literally hundreds of thousands of transistor radios carrying the voices of Red Barber and Vince Scully calling the game. The swarms of radios could make the crack of bat on ball sound like a crack of lighting, it was so amplified, but those waves did not seem to penetrate my grandmother’s walls nor certainly her head.

To her baseball made no sense and when something makes no sense to a person they tend to ask what appear to be senseless questions, questions that are beyond exasperating because they have no answers. Here are a few:

*    Why do they always run the same way (to first base)?

  • What’s so good about hitting it over the fence? Now the ball is gone.
  • How come he didn’t hit the ball? Or a variation–why doesn’t he try harder to hit the ball?
  • Can’t they do something about the dirt on the field?

There are more, but even now they are more than a poor boy can take.

But it was the milk that boggled my mind. Understand the context first. Grandma couldn’t do her own shopping. Even if taken to the grocery store, many of which even into the ’50’s had saw-dust on the floor, she couldn’t safely get around. And in those days the only Lark there was lived in trees, it didn’t zip around stores and sidewalks like today’s adult bumper car. Mom, the neighbors, and Duggan’s (they of the 5 a.m. leave milk and drop-dead delicious muffins in a metal “milk box” by the door delivery service) took care of her.

When I was old enough to walk to the store myself and she would be staying over while my folks vacationed, she’d send me to the store. There were only two problems. One was Mrs. Goldstein, who sold “notions” wouldn’t sell her one nylon stocking because after all, one was all she needed. The other was milk.

To my grandmother a quart of milk cost a quarter, not a quarter plus tax, not 30 cents, a quarter. In the late ’50’s gas and a quart of milk were about the same price. Often times all grandma wanted was a quart of milk and a replacement stocking. Those were the worst trips. I was obliged to ask Mrs. Goldstein for one stocking, she was obliged to tell me they only came in pairs, and I had to go home without a stocking and try to explain it–again–to grandma.

When she only wanted milk she would give me a quarter. That quarter was produced from a handkerchief stucked into the pocket of her apron. The handkerchief was slowly unfolded and the quarter produced with the tenderness of holding a fresh egg. It was placed squarely and securely in my hand with the admonition to “put it in your pocket so you don’t lose it.”

I learned early about milk subsidies–they were provided by me. I knew I’d better have some change in my pocket because telling her it wasn’t enough money was fruitless. “In my neighborhood it’s a quarter.” It wasn’t, but even if it was, if her grocery charged a quarter then our grocery should too. The fact that they were miles apart made “no never mind” to her. It was like trying to tell a goat that if he kept butting his head into the tree he’d get a headache. In Yiddish one would say, “Gornicht helfen.” Nothing helps. Besides how much does an 11 year old know about commodity fluctuations, inflation, and import-export imbalances? It cost me what it cost. End of story. But not to Beatrice Peshkin Feinstein, thank you very much.

So off I would trudge, quarter in hand to Bohacks or Waldbaums–never to the A&P because Jews didn’t shop there. (Don’t even ask.) And back I would trudge with grandma’s subsidized quart of milk. That quarter didn’t easily end up in that handerchief nor was it going to be easily frittered away.

I loved my grandma. I just didn’t love shopping for her.

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