Remembering Grandma

At a second grade classmate's birthday party, the birthday girl's grandfather put her on his lap and presented her with a silver dollar. I remember wishing I had a grandparent who would affectionately put me on his lap. The silver dollar was extraneous. It was that automatic acceptance and affection I envied.

My paternal grandmother, Susan Gottesman Pollock, was a vivid presence in our home, first when we lived in Tennessee, then when the family moved to Baltimore. My father had changed careers so we could live in Baltimore.

Grandma was a widow, her husband died in his 50s, and she followed my father, her favorite son, to every city he moved. So she was a constant presence in Baltimore, rather than in her home town, Scranton. My grandmother lived on Social Security; she was not well off, but what she had, she gave. My father helped support her. Though she was not openly affectionate, she showed her love in the way she knew. She was generous to us.

The first time I remember my grandmother, when I was 7, my sister, Elissa, and I woke up to find in our beds two dolls, each with beautiful hair, tiny bobby pins and dresses Grandma made herself with scraps of material. I took such care of my doll, keeping her hair neat, guarding the pins in place.

My grandmother was the first person I ever heard of to travel to Israel. In those days, travel overseas was by ship. My father took Elissa and me to see her off at Zim Lines in New York. When she came back, we were amazed to see that Grandma had bought dolls for me and my sister from every country she visited. The dolls were in native dress, Scottish, French, Dutch, Italian and, of course, Israeli. The Israeli dolls were a female soldier and a Hasid dressed in a fur-lined hat and black coat. My Hasidic classmate, Malki, was fascinated by the Hasidic doll. Her father dressed like that. I lined up all the dolls on my dresser and lay them down at night so they could sleep.

My grandmother was industrious — she made rugelach, she sewed doll dresses, she embroidered a tablecloth, she traveled. She suffered from asthma when I knew her, and was never without an inhaler.

Though they were poor in the 1930s, my grandmother managed to buy her intelligent son, my father, a used set of Collier's encyclopedias. Installed in our bookcase wherever we moved and long out of date, they were never consulted. She also bought my father a set of children's classics — “Tom Sawyer,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “A Child's Garden of Verses,” “Treasure Island” and more. They, too, were lined up on our bookshelves throughout my childhood; I do not know what has become of them.

When my father was a teenager and quite scrawny, he got a job at a country camp as kitchen helper. When my grandmother visited and saw her son carrying heavy cans of milk, she somehow found the money so he could become a camper rather than a kitchen helper.

She loved my brother, Jerry, who looked so like my father as a child. She would make his favorite treats, lemon tarts with canned whipped cream on top.

My grandmother had strong moral opinions. When she and I went downtown, a large billboard advertised the 1962 epic, "Cleopatra." Grandma announced emphatically, "I wouldn't see that movie for a million dollars." I wondered why. It was on moral grounds.

On Labor Day weekend in 1965, we planned a trip to see my grandmother, then living in Scranton. But my father put it off so we could go to the State Fair first, on Sunday. We set off by bus the next day. My father's uncle picked us up in his cab. My great-uncle said something quietly to my father, and I saw that my father had tears in his eyes. What could this mean? Grown-ups never cried.

My father told me that Grandma had died in the night, of a combined asthma and heart attack.

I learned never to put off a visit to an elderly person — which 65 was in those days. When my father went to her apartment, he found in the refrigerator three bowls of lemon tarts, ready for her grandchildren.

Eileen Pollock ( lives in Baltimore. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, Baltimore Sun and elsewhere.

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