April 8, 2004
There is no person on this planet more concerned with my single status than my grandmother. No phone conversion with her is complete without several highly unsubtle prods about finding a suitable Jewish female companion.
Try as I might to steer our discussions as far away from marriage as possible, Grandma has a way of looping us back to her favorite subject. Just the other day I had her on the phone in order to get some cooking tips as I prepared an omelet. As yet another golden yolk turned brown on my frying pan, she offered her best culinary advice: "Why don't you find a wife who can make it for you?"
As much as I love my grandmother, her single-minded obsession with my romantic life is fraying every nerve in my body. It isn't just the one-track phone conversations, either. Nearly every Jewish human being Grandma meets she grills --Â in search of an unattached female family member or friend to set up with me. While her intentions are good, it has become difficult to question the standards with which she seeks my mate, because she apparently doesn't have any. Then she gets angry because I refuse to call an 18-year-old ultra-Orthodox girl whose first language is Yiddish and happens to live in another state.
But just when it seemed there was little hope of getting Grandma off my back, some help came from an unexpected source. I had taken on a project with an uncle of mine to transfer our family tree, which traces my ancestors back to the 17th century, to a computer program that could more easily accommodate updated information. It was a fascinating exercise that gave me personal statistics on hundreds of family members -- including Rose Flatow, my grandmother.
As I perused her file, an alarm went off in my brain. I noted that 1944 was when she married my grandfather, who died 20 years ago. Recalling that she is 92 years old, I realized something I had never thought to question before: the age my grandmother got married. It was 33 -- two years older than I am now.
My next thought was euphoric: What better way to get her to ease up on me than to point out the simple fact that she was pressuring me to accomplish what she herself had not done? Grandma was a hypocrite, and though it might put me out of the running at the Grandson of the Year Awards, I planned on holding that over her head for as long as I could.
For our next phone call, I was ready to pounce. Seconds after her first reference to marriage, I retorted, "Gee, Grandma, that's interesting coming from you considering you were 33 when you got married."
Disclaimer: This may sound like a disrespectful way to talk to a 92-year-old grandmother, but Grandma actually enjoys a good verbal sparring match. A woman who describes "doing time" at a nursing home in Long Beach, N.Y., entirely in prison metaphors without a trace of humor begins to act like a hardened lifer after a while.
"Have it your way," she responded. "I just hope I'll still be around for the wedding."
The guilt that comes with having your grandparent play the Age Card might humble an ordinary soul. Not me. As her most formidable Scrabble competitor, I recognized it in the same way as when she would play a 10-point Z tile without bothering to align it with a triple-word score: a last-ditch gambit.
Intrigued by her defensiveness, I pressed on in search of more information. As ordinary as it is today for a woman to be married in her 30s, it was distinctively rare when she came of age. I wanted to uncover why.
There is nothing my grandmother loves more than reminiscing about her younger days, but nudging her nostalgic riffing in the direction of her dating life was terra incognita for me. Like many Eastern European Jews, Rose Silverstein grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She was the youngest of seven siblings, five of whom were brothers. She "kept company" with some of their friends, she admitted, but doesn't remember being too enthralled with any of them.
"If they asked you on a date, fine, and if they didn't call, well, who gave a damn," she said.
Probing further, I learned Grandma took a dim view of men during the Depression. While she held down a job as a secretary at the Parks Department, she saw many of the unemployed men she encountered as lazy and passive; how could they ever support her, she wondered? Many never went to college, but she attended night school to get her degree even though her father frowned upon it. Sometimes she attracted the wrong kind of attention: When a drunken coworker chased her around the office one too many times, she had her brother, Louie, give him a stern talking-to.
Listening to her travails, I felt chastened. She had bona fide sociological trends to support her reasons for late marriage; I could not compete with that. Just the same, I was glad to get to know Grandma not as a grandmother but as a woman with whom I shared common ground. Growing up we tend to assume our grandparents were pretty much born at the age of 65.
Her story has a happy ending. She met Sam Flatow on a beach in Far Rockaway. He asked her if she minded watching his things while he went for a swim. She watched them until he returned and promptly stepped into his shoe and crushed the eyeglasses he forgot he had hidden inside.
I'm pretty sure I won't be able to top stomping on a glass should there be any foreshadowing of a Jewish wedding in my own future. Â
Andrew Wallenstein writes for the Hollywood Reporter and serves as a weekly commentator on National Public Radio's "Day to Day." His work was included in the recently published "Best Jewish Writing 2003" (Jossey-Bass). He can be reached at email@example.com.