Did you hear the one about the boy who calls his Jewish grandmother on Grandparents Day?
“Grandma” he says, “I’m coming to see you this afternoon.”
“I’m thrilled!” she replies. “Now let me tell you how to get into the building. When you’re on the front steps, use your elbow to ring my buzzer and I’ll open the door. Once you’re in the lobby, use your elbow to push the elevator button. Then, when you’re in the elevator, use your elbow to push the third-floor button. I’ll be in the hall to meet you. Got that?”
“OK, Grandma,” says the grandkid, “but why I do have to use my elbows?"
“What?” she asks, “you’re coming empty handed?”
I repeat this joke because growing up I always wanted a Jewish grandmother. It’s not that I knew any, having spent my first 11 years of life in a post-WWII tract house in Orange County, Calif.
My introduction to this coveted personality came in the form of Molly Goldberg, the central character of the old-time radio and TV comedy series The Goldbergs. For more than 25 years her creator, Gertrude Berg, played the resourceful, heart-of-gold Molly. A media trailblazer, Berg also wrote every episode of the show — more than 5,000 scripts in all.
The Goldbergs chronicled the everyday goings-on of a Jewish family that lived in a Bronx tenement; in later TV episodes the family moved to Connecticut. The show began in 1930 on radio, and in 1949 made the transition to TV, where it ran first on CBS and later NBC until 1954.
Molly was a plump, matronly woman who dedicated her life to cooking, meddling and hanging out her kitchen window so she could talk to her neighbors. During commercials, she would tell viewers why they needed to buy her sponsors’ products, like Ecko Flint stainless steel kitchen tools: “What would I be without my long-handled turner, for eggs, for pancakes?” (If you haven’t seen Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, the 2009 documentary on Berg’s life, check it out. She was the Jewish Oprah of her day.)
True, Molly Goldberg was a mother and not a grandmother. But when the TV show began, Berg was in her 50s, old enough to have grandkids. She certainly dressed like a grandmother — just like mine with her dowdy housedresses, sensible shoes, aprons and round, wireless spectacles.
Molly spoke with an endearing Yiddish accent. When she was happy, she’d smile and clutch her hands over her heart. So what’s not to love?
My grandmother wasn’t Jewish. She was the daughter of German Catholic immigrants. Still, she had more than a few things in common with Molly. My grandmother was born in the Bronx. She lived in tenement buildings until she was in her mid-40s. Like Molly, my grandmother had an accent, though not Yiddish. Still, it wasn’t one you heard outside of New York. She pronounced “oil” as “earl” and toilet as “terlet.”
Starting as a teenager, my grandmother worked in the garment district sweatshops of Midtown Manhattan. She was married twice. Her first husband died in the 1918 flu pandemic. My grandfather, her second husband, was a decade her junior and of Irish descent. They met at a social gathering for people who had lost their spouses to the illness that took some 16 million lives.
But unlike Molly, my grandmother didn’t exude a whole lot of warmth or exuberance for life. She didn’t cook and wasn’t into babysitting. I hated it when my parents made me stay at my grandparents’ house when they went out.
She was notoriously frugal. Even though my grandfather had steady employment throughout the Depression as a mailman, my grandmother refused to spend money. When my grandfather would come back from the grocery store, she'd make him show her the receipt, then check the price of every purchase to make sure he hadn’t been cheated.
I mostly remember her sitting for hours on end in an overstuffed armed chair in her living room watching TV. From what I could tell, neither she nor my grandfather had a social life.
If not Molly Goldberg, why couldn’t my grandmother be more like her half-sister, my great-aunt Rose? I met her only once when she came to L.A. from the Bronx. I remember her walking in our front door bearing candy and gifts. “I’ve come all the way from New York to see you,” she said to my brother and me. “So come here. I’ve got kisses for you!” She hadn’t been in the door but a few seconds before our faces were covered with smoochy red lipstick marks.
With Age Comes Wisdom. Right, Mrs. Goldberg?
It wasn’t until my own hair turned gray that I began to get a window into who my grandmother was, why she wasn’t the kind of grandmother that a lot of my childhood playmates had — a special pal who fussed over you, whom you couldn’t wait to be with.
When my late mother was in an assisted living center a few years ago, we’d spend our visits talking about family history. Even though my mother’s short-term memory was gone, her long-term memory was clearer than ever.
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I knew that my grandmother’s life in New York had been hard. If not, why would she risk leaving her home for an uncertain future 3,000 miles away? I have a photo from 1922 of my grandparents, my grandmother’s brother and my one-year-old mother crossing the country in a Model T. It took them a month to drive to California on unpaved roads, pitching tents at night.
My mother told me things about my grandmother I hadn’t known. Her first husband used to beat her badly. My grandmother gave birth to a girl in the middle of winter. The flat was so cold that she couldn’t keep the baby warm, and after four days the baby died.
When my grandmother was in a nursing home in the last months of her life, she received a letter from her estranged younger sister. I remember her reading it and discarding it in a wastebasket by her bed. “How could she have been so heartless?” I asked my mother.
My mother told me that after my grandmother moved to L.A., her younger sister decided to move there too. “Aunt Flo had always been a party girl,” my mother explained. “Once, when she was flat broke, she came to your grandmother needing money. Your grandmother lent her what little she had saved. Aunt Flo promised she’d pay it back, but she never did. She spent all of her money on booze and having a good time.”
I didn’t need my mother to tell my why my grandmother spent so much time in a living room chair. She was pretty much crippled from arthritis. I remember her constantly rubbing her legs, trying to soothe the pain. Who could blame her for not wanting to have children on her lap?
As for her thriftiness, more than once she told me that you had to save all your money for when you get old and ill. There was no Medicare in her day. When my grandmother's mother was dying of cancer, she had to take her in and care for her.
Now that I’ve reached the age my grandmother was when I was a child, I’ve gained some perspective on living, as anyone who gets older does. We all find ways to shield ourselves from life’s blows. As Molly might say, under the same conditions some grapes turn bitter and others sweet. I’ve had my share of hardships — who hasn’t? — but they pale next to my grandmother's. Even though I’ve inherited her arthritis, I take medicine that really does bring relief. (If I were Mrs. Goldberg, I would lean out my kitchen window and recommend it to you.)
I like to think that there was a Mrs. Goldberg hiding behind my grandmother’s protective façade. In fact, I know there was. Her father, my great-grandfather, had been a photographer. And so I have photographs of her as a child and teenager. In those early years of her life she didn’t look frumpy or dowdy. She had delicate features and wavy black hair. She had bright eyes and a warm smile, like Mrs. Goldberg.
I realize now that my grandmother did love me in her own way. And that some of her gestures of love weren't grand enough for a kid to notice, like her singing me German lullabies when I'd spend the night at her house.
This Sunday is Grandparents Day. If there was a way to bring her a gift, I would. I imagine that when I showed up on her front porch, I’d have to use my elbow to ring the doorbell.