July 14, 2005
Bebe and Me
A lot of people my age feel pressure from their families to get married, but I think my not being married is the only thing keeping my grandmother alive. Bebe often tells me she just wants to live long enough to see my wedding. I'll say "I do" and then she'll immediately keel over. It's a lot to bear.
Bebe likes to pretend she's open-minded and doesn't care if I date non-Jewish women. I should point out that I am technically Jewish -- both my parents were born Jews. I never went to Hebrew school but we did celebrate Chanukah -- until the year we couldn't find the menorah. Then that was that: Bring on Christmas!
People see my freckles and last name and are surprised to find that I'm Jewish. They say something like, "Come on, Dutch Jews?" I remind them of a book by a girl named Anne Frank and tell them the reason there aren't too many Dutch Jews is because of a little thing called the Holocaust. I pretend to be offended, they feel horribly guilty; it's a win-win. But honestly, I mostly embrace my Judaism as a party trick.
But to Bebe it's important. I'll call her to tell her I'm dating someone and she'll go on her Semitic fact-finding mission.
"What's her name?" she asks. Sometimes I like to mess with her.
"Christian," I say. "Christian Hitler."
"Oh." A pause. "Is she nice?"
Bebe is in incredible health. She's 87 years old but you'd never believe it to look at her. She swims laps three times a week at the Jewish Community Center and still rides the ancient stationary bike in her guest room. None of this prevents her from preparing for death.
The last several trips I've made to see her, she's handed me blank labels and asked me to put my name on any items in her house that I'll want when she's dead. I refuse to do this; I think it's morbid and tacky (and besides, how do I know which macramé throws will go with my future settee?). My sister and uncle have embraced this though -- their names are on way too many things. I'm talking napkin rings and liquor bottles, and not even good ones. My other grandmother had her kids do the label thing before she died and I think it just ended up confusing her. She had Alzheimer's and thought the coffee table was named Becky.
I guess if I were 87 I wouldn't exactly be thinking about my 20-year plan, but I would try to leave my heirs out of it. Bebe is constantly asking me what my father is going to bequeath me. I'm not sure if it's so she can try to outdo him, or if she just wants to make certain that I don't end up with two chafing dishes.
Of course, for Bebe, mortality is a longtime companion.
She's outlived every important relationship you can have in life: two siblings, two husbands, two parents, a child, a best friend. What's left? Six grandchildren, alive and well and unmarried. Maybe that's why she worries so much for us.
Whenever Bebe dies it will be the end of an era. She's not the kind of lady who would have her portrait hanging over a fireplace, but she's a matriarch nonetheless. She leads this family with the iron fist of guilt in the velvet glove of worry. How do you paint that?
When my mother, died, Bebe became my advocate, often the only voice of reason to counter my father's short-tempered resolve. Even though she lived an airplane trip away in Louisville and was no longer his mother-in-law, my father knew better than not to listen.
Through the years Bebe and I have bonded over our two common enemies: depression and my father. Our relationships with both have gotten much better, and in a weird way I miss how we'd struggle through them together, comparing strategies, medications, and, ultimately, successes.
If I get a gig, it doesn't count until Bebe's seen it. Every time I'm on a set, I make sure to get a Polaroid of me in costume to send to her. Open the cigar box in the top drawer of her rickety highboy and you'll see square photos of me in all my Hollywood glamour: as Waiter, Ticket Taker, Game Show Host, Usher, Man No. 2 -- proof that I did a TV job she may never see.
Another thing she may never see is my wedding.
I don't know if Bebe will be around long enough to experience the shock of me getting married. If so, I hope she can at least hold out until the reception. Incidentally, Bebe's been single longer than I have, but I don't give her a hard time about who she dates. I'll have to mention that next time I talk to her.
J. Keith van Straaten is a writer and performer who currently hosts "What's My Line? -- Live on Stage" every Wednesday in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.jkeith.net.