To: My children, nephews, and children of my cousins
I have often thought of how interesting it would be to introduce my Grandma Madeline to her great grandchildren. As a group you are a bright, creative diverse generation and tribute to her genetic legacy. Individually you are 14 wildly different individuals, and each someone I would be proud to present to Grandma, and she had some pretty high standards.
But since I cannot tell her about each of you, perhaps you would enjoy some stories about her.
Grandma Madeline was born October 27, 1900 in White Plains, NY. She was the second of seven girls (Pearl, Madeline, Gladys, Flora, Sylvia, Ruth and Cynthia) born to Max and Lena Greenwald. She was quite tall for her generation, and solidly built. She did not appear to be overweight, but neither was she small and delicate. I remember the older sisters being tall also, but the younger ones were shorter, sort of like Lena was running out of material. Friends and family had advised Max not to move to the wilds of Westchester County. How could he possibly find husbands for seven (or as he put it one and a half dozen) daughters. The eligible husbands seemed to find them.
I mostly remember Grandma as a widow, and a working woman. Grandpa Ben died when I was not yet four. I have some vivid memories of him, as well as stories I have been told, but those will wait for now. Grandma worked as a bookkeeper for an accountant in the Northcourt Building on Main Street in White Plains (in the days before spreadsheets added the numbers for you). She got up every day and walked to work (she was an inveterate and enthusiastic walker). She had a driver’s license, but no car. She never drove after Grandpa Ben taught her to drive, and she passed her road test. Grandpa didn’t encourage her to drive, and was nervous about that and many other things. The license was just a document of identification an adult required.
She went to work rain or shine. I distinctly remember eating breakfast one morning when school had been cancelled due to the snow. Grandma called to tell my mom how bad it was out, and to admonish her to stay home with the children. “Mom, where are you calling from,” asked Carol. “Why, I’m at work, of course,” replied Grandma. She had walked of course.
One of my first memories of Grandma was visiting my grandparents at their home in Hartsdale. Grandma stopped me as I was about to run over to Grandpa sitting in his easy chair. “Don’t disturb grandpa, he’s taking a snooze.” Upset, I ran over to Mom—I had no idea what a “snooze” was.
Grandma was fastidious and a bit fussy. She was always well put together and liked a tidy home. She was an avid reader and, in many ways, quite worldly. In other ways she was very conventional, and aware of what others thought.
Some illustrative stories:
When Beth was in High School, and Larry in college, Beth planned a trip to spend a weekend with Larry (I believe she was looking at schools). Grandma asked Beth where she was going to stay while visiting, and Beth told her that she would stay in Larry’s dorm room. After some thought Grandma allowed that these arrangements were perfectly OK, but perhaps Beth shouldn’t tell a lot of people “who might not understand.”
She went with Carol and Mel to visit Larry at Tufts. Larry remembers her having a good time and being happy to be there, but she was a nervous wreck the whole time.
My father used to tease Grandma about her housekeeping by insisting that when he was courting my mother Grandma would empty the ashtray every time he put out a cigarette.
My mom and dad were also never without a book in progress. Books in the 1950s did adhered to strict standards of what was permissible to print. In one book, which they both read, one character called another a c_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _r, and neither of them could figure out the omitted word. After his years in the navy during WWII this was quite frustrating to my dad. One night when Grandma was visiting (well after I had gone to bed), Dad, on a whim, presented this conundrum to Grandma. “Mom, you’re widely read, do you know what this word is?” She reportedly turned beet read, exclaimed “I don’t use language like that!”, and refused to tell them. It took much begging and cajoling before she finally agreed to write it down for them. You figure it out, I don’t use language like that either.
Grandma also knew the power of networking. When Carol was young, and certainly before she went away to college at age 16, Grandma pointedly told her: “No matter where you go, and what you do, someone I know will see.”
I’m sure Grandma knew how to cook, and probably quite well. Grandpa Ben, however, was well known for his prowess in the kitchen. Once Grandma was making pea soup in the pressure cooker. She must have done something wrong because the rocker or safety valve blew spewing pea soup all over the ceiling. Grandma reportedly just stood in the middle of the kitchen screaming: BEN!
I remember Grandma and Grandpa living in a small house in Hartsdale. Greatpa (Max) also lived there with them for a while before he moved to The Jewish Home for the Aged in Riverdale. Carol and Zelda grew up in a prior home on Grandview Avenue a block from the White Plains High School, now Highlands Middle School. After Grandpa died, I remember Grandma living in apartments, first on North Broadway (one or two different ones), and then on Old Mamaroneck Road near the intersection with Mamaroneck Avenue where her sister Ruth had had an apartment for years. Aunt Ruth’s apartment was up the elevator off the lobby to the left, and Grandma’s up the mirror image elevator off the lobby on the right.
Taking Grandma home after a visit involved some small ritual. Larry or I (or both) would accompany a parent (usually Dad) to drive Grandma home. While Dad waited in the car, we were charged with walking Grandma to her door. She regularly insisted that this was not necessary, but we had our orders from the highest authority. At the Old Mamaroneck Road apartment that discussion was repeated at the front door, but the elevator was around a blind corner and we always saw her safely into the elevator. After someone was attacked in the building, the escort extended to her apartment door.
I don’t recall ever visiting Grandma’s apartment for a meal, but there was the occasional excitement of an overnight stay. Grandma’s apartment was furnished with grandma furniture, oriental area rugs, and twin beds. I didn’t understand why my grandparents slept in twin beds when my parents seemed so cozy in their double bed (extra-long). Mom and Dad never gave me a good answer for this, but now my assumptions are that was a combination of a generational difference along with long-standing tradition based on Jewish family purity practices.
Grandma’s BFF was Phoebe Marks. Aunt Phoebe was not really related, but the Marks and Golden families had been friends for at least two generations. My mother remembers holiday dinners at the Marks’ home, and being terrified by Phoebe’s mother, the forbidding Grandma Marks. Aunt Phoebe was a short, rotund, friendly, funny single lady (spinster in the parlance of the day) who was very often included in family get-togethers and events. She was a heavy smoker and not a big fan of physical activity. When Grandma suggested taking a walk or even sitting out on the deck, Phoebe would accuse her of trying to inflict fresh air poisoning.
Grandma’s birth certificate did not list her name as Madeline, but Matilda. She was already a grandma multiple times, and this came as a complete surprise when she needed to apply for a passport. She needed to get affidavits from family and friends attesting that she had always been known as Madeline and had never used the name Matilda. Maybe it had been transcribed wrong at the hospital, or someone just liked Madeline better.
Grandma loved to swim, and would usually do a few laps when she visited at the club. She wasn’t a big fan of getting her hair wet or immersing her face. She always wore a bathing cap, and did a mean sidestroke.
Grandma never went to the bathroom; she went to "powder my nose."
Grandma never went to the bathroom; she went to "powder my nose."
When we all got together for a big family meal (eating in the dining room!), and the children had been excused, she would sometimes smoke a cigarette with the other adults. I remember being confused by this. She wasn’t a very convincing smoker, but it was more mainstream, I guess. I’m still confused by some of the things adults do.
Grandma never insisted on being the center of attention, and often took a back seat to more outgoing adults when we were little. As we got older we all found Grandma to be interesting, a good listener, and worth taking the time to engage in thoughtful conversation.
Beth remembers asking Grandma how babies were born one evening when she was babysitting. She wouldn’t say. The next day she got the copy of the family book used to relate the facts of life. Lisa has the book in a closet if any of you need a refresher.
Larry relates seeing the movie Young Frankenstein with Mom and Grandma at the Pix movie theater. There was a scene where Marty Feldman is driving Gene Wilder and Teri Garr up to the castle on a rainy night. There are huge door knockers on the front door and Marty Feldman knocks on the front door with them. Gene Wilder is lifting Teri Garr out of the carriage and exclaims, “What knockers” and Teri Garr says “Why thank you doctor.” Whereupon Grandma Madeline turns to Mom and in a voice they could probably hear at the Showcase Delicatessen down the street, “I don’t understand what that means.” Mom was very embarrassed but explained it to her.
Speaking of the Showcase, Lisa remembers meeting her there for dinner after work. Ben remembers that she had bunions, but he (and others) does not thank her for that particular genetic legacy.
Grandma died in May 29, 1976. She had a heart attack, characterized at the time as a heart attack more typical of a younger man than an older woman. They transferred her to Lenox Hill hospital for better specialists—White Plains Hospital was not yet the regional medical center it has become. She survived for a few days, then died of either complications or a second heart attack. Fifty-seven months later the first of you was born.
Thanks to Zelda, Stanley, Larry, Lisa , Beth and Ben for helping me with these memories.
September 2, 2019