My grandma died today. I tried to organize my feelings here, but I have mostly failed. Molly Figatner was born in 1914, and would have been 93 years old this week. She struggled with Alzheimer’s for over a decade before passing peacefully this afternoon in New York with her son at her side. She leaves behind a devoted son, three grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. The funeral will be on Tuesday. Doolies and I are travelling to NY tomorrow morning to attend.
My grandmother with her two sons (my father is on the left) in 1969
For much of my life, my grandmother lived in an apartment in a middle-class housing project in Canarsie, Brooklyn. When they first built the housing projects, they designed them to provide affordable housing to the growing middle class. Like many housing projects from that time, it was a failure, and over the years, it became more rundown and crime ridden. My parents and uncle tried to convince her to move, but she preferred to stay in her rent-stabilized apartment. She grew up during the depression, and she believed in saving every one of her pennies.
My uncle tells a story about my grandmother’s visits to Sizzler and other all-you-can-eat establishments. She would bring a large purse, and move up and down the buffet lines, filling her purse with food when nobody was looking. It’s difficult to relate to this story because I have never lived through such times. It’s so easy for me to take food and money for granted. It is only when living in a time of wanting that you truly appreciate what you have in times of plenty.
My grandmother remarried when I was very young. Her wedding, which took place in our first house in Sheepshead Bay, was the first wedding I ever attended. I don’t remember much from it, but I do remember running downstairs to my other grandmother’s apartment to use her bathroom instead of waiting in line to use ours. I remember being very proud of this fact. Clearly, with this much insight, I was destined for big things. Her second husband, Lou, was an artist, and we would sit and watch him draw and color cartoons for hours at a time.
Her home was a reprieve from my mother’s somewhat-strict Kosher kitchen. It was at my grandmother’s that I would eat cheeseburgers. My mother describes a chicken dish that my grandmother cooked. As far as I can remember, she never made it for us kids, probably because we wouldn’t have eaten it. What I did eat were her grilled cheeses. She cooked them in thick slabs of butter. She would press down on the sandwich with a plate to seal in the cheese, and create unimaginably thin and amazing grilled cheeses.
There is much more I didn’t know about my grandmother. She lived a difficult life, but I never asked her about it. I never took an interest in most of my family’s lives. It’s something I regret. I wish I were more outgoing, more willing to sit down and pry into their pasts so I could learn about where I come from. I failed to do this with my grandmother before she grew too sick to remember. I failed to do this with my mother’s mother as well. Such interesting times they must have lived in. How quickly and easily those times can be forgotten.