In Memoriam: Estelle R. Freedman (1926 – 2017)
On New Year’s Eve in 2013, I took a college friend of mine down to Atlantic City to visit Grandma Stell. We made dinner; then, a few hours before midnight, my friend and I got ready to walk down to the casinos to ring in the New Year. As we bundled up to face the nighttime cold, Stell grew very concerned about our plans to go out. It was dark, Atlantic City was not safe these days, there are lots of crazy people around during the holidays, etc. We told her not to worry, but of course she was going to worry, because Jewish grandmothers worry, and Stell could out-Jewish-grandmother any other grandmother on the planet.
We insisted on going, and Stell’s worries subsequently shifted: she became concerned that we wouldn’t have enough money for the casinos. She wanted to give us money to gamble with. We refused, of course, but she was not pleased with our stubbornness. Take the money, she urged us. The same woman who saved paper shopping bags full of decades-old receipts “in case there was something useful” would not relent: if her grandson was going to go to the casinos on New Year’s eve, well, then, she was going to give him money to do that. Only after a long standoff and my comments about the paucity of the social security system did we manage to reorient her concerns back to safety and the fact that we were going out after dark.
She implored us to be safe as we headed out the door. We stepped inside the elevator when the apartment door flew open and Stell came out, yelling at us. “Hold up, hold up!” she screamed.
“What is it, Grandma?” I asked as we retreated back into the hallway. I thought someone had been hurt, or worse.
“I forgot to tell you,” she said. “Make sure you win some money.”
We returned to the apartment around two in the morning, tiptoeing silently through the door so as to not wake her. But she was wide awake, sitting on the couch, waiting for us to get home.
“What are you doing awake?” I asked.
“I was worried about you,” she said.
My memory tells me that the next thing she asked was, “Did you win any money?”
Any remembrance of Stell will focus on two things: worrying and talking. Her care was expressed as worry, and she liked to talk, which meant that you were always fully informed about how much she cared, and thus how much she was going to worry.
In college, I woke up one morning to a distressed phone call from Stell. She had received a scam call saying that I had been arrested for drunk driving in Canada and needed someone to wire me money. She was on the verge of sending money, because she was worried.
When I moved to Washington, DC, she did not hesitate to share her concerns. “Stay away from the kookaboos,” she warned me. By kookaboos she meant crazy people, and by crazy people she meant kookaboos. And it didn’t matter: if I was thinking about going near them, she was going to worry.
And, of course, then I moved to China. I understand her worries about that one.
Yet despite this, she always maintained that she was not worried. “Joshua,” she would tell me, “I was with the girls, and we were talking about our grandchildren, and I said, ‘If there’s one grandkid I don’t have to worry about, it’s my Joshua.’” I’d inform her that, yes, she told me that the last time we spoke, and the time before that. “Well, it’s true,” she’d say. “Of all my grandchildren, I know I don’t have to worry about you.”
And when there was worry, there was something to talk about. Phone calls to my other grandmother, and nearly any other person in my family, have always been short and utilitarian, never lasting longer than a minute and a half. The key points — safe, healthy, no long-term relationship, no life direction, eating a lot — were satisfactorily established, we said “I love you,” and then we hung up. But phone calls with Stell could last nearly an hour, meandering from topic to topic, circling back around to once more bring up key worries (or lack thereof, because “have I ever told you that, of all my grandchildren, you are the one I never worry about…”). The telephone was basically an extension of her arm. It didn’t matter who was on the receiving end: she would take any opportunity to talk to you about what was going on in her life, about the Phillies and the Eagles and their painful ineptitude, about her grandchildren. She would walk through the Plaza Place apartment building, where most of the residents had long since cleared age 65, and work the room like a suave executive. She would spy her friends on the other side of the main social area — the card playing room — and launch into multiple conversations at once. “Harry, how are you this morning? Rose, what a beautiful day it is outside today!” And, of course, “Harry, Rose—have you met my grandchildren?”
When she got a cell phone, she would call me and leave a message.
“Joshua,” she would holler. “I just wanted to give you a call and hear your lovely voice.” Then, as if there were many octogenarian women who called me by my full first name, Joshua, and claimed I had a lovely voice, she would add, “This is your Grandma Stell, just in case you were wondering.”
It was her voice, and her style of talking, though, that will stick with me. Jahshua, she would say, drawing out the vowel to leave no doubt that she was my grandmother. My grandson Jahshua is coming to visit. It was an intonation grounded in a lifetime of Philadelphia accents; and it carried hints of Yiddish from her parents and older relatives, whose genes I share but whom I never met. When I was little she would pinch my cheek and shake it back and forth like a ringing phone. Shana punim, she’d say.
She even managed to turn a simple negation—“I don’t know”—into something funny in only the way that she can make it funny, something with just a touch of unnecessary shorthand. “Where’s the remote,” I would ask, and she’d look around and say, “Well, I haven’t the foggiest.”
I would talk about Stell to my friends, and even wrote a creative writing essay in my junior year of college about her. I don’t know many grandparents who would let their grandchildren tease them about their age or their verbal idiosyncracies, but I would do my old-Jewish-grandmother voice — modeled off of Stell and, to this day, the only accent I can do with any semblance of accuracy — and she would crack up and tell me that I’ve got plenty of new material for my next comedy show. And all of my friends who met her have memories that will never fade: her combination of unforgettable worrying, loquacity, and love makes even a regular Jewish grandmother look boringly plain by comparison.
Visiting Grandma Stell was a yearly ritual from my earliest days, and many of the memories that I retain from childhood are snapshots of time spent with her. The apartment she used to live in, with its rhyming address: three-hundred and twenty-two/north Wissahickon avenue. Bounding up the carpeted stairs on our immature legs to that apartment, where there sat a glass table with garish gold trim that could not have been more out of place in our own home, with its strict modernist decor. An infinite supply of paper shopping bags saved from Casel’s supermarket, and a corresponding number of discussions about the price of corned beef and potato salad. Eating Chinese food with her, in which she would never order her own dish, simply saying that she preferred to eat a little bit of everyone else’s. The story she would tell about her next-door neighbor in Philadelphia, the Italian woman who was aged 39 and already a grandmother. Learning to play, and then to love, the game Spoons. The all-you-can-eat buffet at Caesar’s casino, which she could take us to for $9.99 per person due to her discount from frequenting the penny slots. The smell of the salty marsh water of South Jersey wafting through the streets. That time we tried — and failed — to introduce her to the Internet, giving her the screen name GrandmaStell39. Spending hours thinking about what to eat for lunch, and then, after eating lunch, launching into the process of brainstorming all of the options for dinner. The animatronic teddy bear that lived on her couch, gifted to her by one of her friends, that belted out the oldies song, “Sunshine, lollipops and/ rainbows everywhere.” The number of times I pushed the bear’s paw to kick off the song-and-dance number would have annoyed just about any other human being in the world, but not Stell — she would be-bop along with it, absorbing its positive energy into her own routine.
The toll of aging is nonlinear: for a while, time seems frozen and bodies healthy, and then suddenly time works with incredible speed and nobody can keep up. When I was in high school and college, Stell’s signs of aging were still hidden, imperceptible unless you were looking for them or living through them. She had her canasta games, and her friends throughout the building. Her limp was getting stronger and she had more trouble getting to the casinos, but she was still the life of the conversation, in the center of everything. She would go downtown with her friends Selma and Zelda, whose names are forever etched in my memory, and she would attend her weekly or monthly girls’ lunches with all of her friends. She was aging, sure, but she was talking, and worrying, and telling stories about her reluctant visits to her new doctor, a young man, who could not believe that she was already in her 80s. “And I told him,” she said, “I said to this young doctor: age is just a state of mind.”
And then it was no longer just a state of mind. She needed a wheelchair long before she was willing to sit in a wheelchair; too embarrassed to admit that her body was failing, she would say that her refusal stemmed from the fact that she didn’t want to bother other people to have to wheel her around. Soon after she stayed up late into the night on New Year’s to make sure I had done well at the casinos, she couldn’t live on her own any more. She could not pick up new information. The smart and clever woman who would tease us and regale us with stories and generosity couldn’t figure out how to use a simple piece of electronics. Yet she could still remember old information clearly; as long as it happened long ago, it was clear in her mind.
When I visited this past August, we watched videos of her wedding, in 1950. She recognized each of the family members dancing across the screen in the grainy black and white. I had never met any of the people on the screen: they had died decades ago, at least. I never knew her parents, my great-grandparents. Yet she could pick them out with clarity, and drop nuggets of information about their lives. Her body was falling apart, but as long as she had her memory, she had stories, and she could talk, and she could worry, and she could love her grandchildren, even if they were off gallivanting somewhere in Asia.
I never called enough, of course; because we all never call enough. I have been fortunate to travel all over Asia in the last three years, and I made it a mission to send her a postcard from whatever far-off locale I visited. Finding postcards in Asia turned out to be more difficult than anticipated — only weird foreigners like me have any interest in sending postcards — but I could always dig up something to mail to Estelle R. Freedman, c/o Seashore Gardens Living Center, 22 West Jimmie Leeds Road. Sending postcards was an important way for me to stay connected, but it was also insufficient: Postcards are a one-sided conversation; they don’t capture what it means to be fortunate enough to be the grandson of Stell.
Of course, I had it easy. I got only the good parts, in a way. The infrequently visiting grandchild is always rewarded: just by showing up or sending a postcard I could brighten my grandmother’s day. And although I saw the toll of aging, I only saw it through a tiny porthole; if I caught her on a good day, even toward the end, it was almost as if not that much had changed from when she would dance around the apartment singing, “sunshine, lollipops, and / rainbows everywhere.” I didn’t have to be there for the bad days, or care for her when she was at her most vulnerable and feeble. In my infrequent visits, even the most obvious signs weren’t enough: I assumed there would be plenty of time because I thought she was still young at heart, even as she brought up her own mortality, and that Selma and Zelda and all of her friends were long gone, and her surprise that that she was still alive and kicking at the age of 90, and then 91.
I was worried about her, of course, because as her grandson I inherited at least some of the same tendencies. But worrying about her didn’t make much sense to her: she was never worried about herself, only about other people. If I asked how she was doing, she would laugh at the very question. “Of course there’s nothing doing here,” she’d say. She wanted to talk about me, to hear about my life and perhaps to find some new reasons to worry about me.
And even now, it is hard to make her death sink in. It is much easier to see the Stell that is telling the young doctor that “age is just a state of mind.” I still see the Stell that is engaging us all in a comprehensive discussion about the relative merits of each of the deli counter items at Casel’s. I still see the Stell that is hopping from one phone call to the next, filling her retirement schedule with card games and social outings and worries about her grandchildren. Even after she submitted to using a wheelchair, I still remember the Stell who, when I wheeled her out on the Boardwalk, was too worried that my arms were getting tired to appreciate the beach scenery.
Our phone conversations, fewer than they ought to have been, always ended with the same repartee. Other grandparents might say, “I love you,” and end the call. But that would not be Stell. “Have I ever told you lately that I love you?” she would ask.
“I believe you’ve said that before,” I would counter.
“Well just in case I haven’t, I want to say it again. I love you.”
“I love you, too, grandma.”
And sometimes she would forget something she wanted to say earlier, and we would chat for a little while longer until she would remark that she was probably keeping me from doing something more interesting. And before we actually ended the call, she would ask again, “Have I ever told you lately that I love you?”
“Nope, haven’t heard that one in a while,” I’d say. She would laugh; her memory was fading, but it hadn’t faded yet.
“I love you, Joshua.”
“I love you, too, grandma.”