Driving Miss Grandma, Part I - what really constitutes a collection?

by Judith Katz-Schwartz

Dateline: 6/24/99

I answered the telephone on the second ring and, to my astonishment, Grandma was on the other end. I was astonished because in our family Grandma never, ever called you--you called her (In fact, once my mother took an extended trip to California to see my brother, Arnie. During the three weeks she was gone, I phoned Grandma every day but one - I spent most of that day on airplanes, flying around on business. When my Mom got back, she asked if I'd stayed in touch with Grandma. I said, "Yes, I called her regularly". "Except for von day!", Grandma chimed in. "But, who keeps track?") I had programmed her phone for her (at her request, I might add) with all our numbers, but that made not one whit of difference. She was the Grandma. You called her. Period.

Grandma got right to the point. "I vant you should drive me to the benks tomorrow", she said. "I heff to go to the benks".

She had hundreds of bank accounts at hundreds of banks, and none of us could ever figure out how she kept everything organized, but she did. She had hundreds of passbooks, and knew exactly what was happening in each account at all times.

Now, I think it's important for you to understand exactly what Grandma was asking that day. Grandma was residing at the time in Flatbush, Brooklyn. I lived then, as I do now, on the upper East Side of Manhattan. My parents lived in Brooklyn too, but on the opposite end of the borough from Grandma. What Grandma was asking (no, telling!) me to do was to take the subway from my apartment to my parents' apartment (three different trains and an hour-and-a-half trip, on a good day), where I would pick up one of my folks' cars. From there, she expected me to drive the length of Brooklyn to her apartment to get her. Then we'd drive all the way back to my parents' neighborhood, because that was where all her banks were. After visiting the banks, she wanted me to drive her back across Brooklyn to her apartment, drop her off, drive across Brooklyn once more to leave the car for my parents, and then get back on the subway for the return trip to Manhattan.

So, considering how much she was asking, Grandma offered a tempting reward (there is no evidence that Grandma considered what she was asking to be very much. She just suspected that I might think it was). "I'll take you for lunch", she said.

Yippee. Who could resist the chance to spend eight hours or so traveling between Manhattan and Brooklyn, plus six hours going from bank to bank, when Grandma was throwing in lunch at a diner in Brooklyn?

You couldn't be related to Grandma without some of her instinct for dealmaking rubbing off on you. I decided to make a counter offer. "Grandma, of course I'll come out and take you to the banks. But, only if you will let me take you for a hearing test".

This might sound like a small matter to you, but I considered myself a hero, striking a blow on behalf of my poor beleagered family. Grandma was definitely hearing impaired, and we all knew it. Except for Grandma. Whenever I recount these conversations with Grandma, they are edited, to spare you the countless "Hah?"s and "Vaht?"s that punctuated each one. She drove us all crazy, because every single thing had to be repeated for her. We complained to her about it all the time, telling her she sounded like some kind of demented goose. "Hah? Vaht? Hah? Vaht?" Most of the time we felt sorry for ourselves, but when we were in a jovial mood it made us all laugh. (It is interesting to note that, when Grandma had a stroke about ten years ago, her hearing suddenly became perfect again. We know this because we attempted to have whispered conversations about her care in a corner of her room. One of us would say something like, "Should we bring her a TV to help her pass the time?", whereupon she would boom across the room, "No! I vudden vatch. Don't bring it!").

But Grandma was not only not amused, she was in deep denial. "I don't need a hearing ache", she said whenever the suggestion was made that a hearing aid might, well, aid her. But, on this particular day, she must have really wanted to get to those banks, because she agreed to get her hearing tested. Actually, knowing Grandma as I did, I realized she had no intention of having her hearing checked at all. She probably figured I'd forget about this one condition of my chauffeurship, or she'd just refuse to get her hearing tested once we got out there on the road, and there'd be nothing I could do about it. Hah! She had forgotten that, among other attributes, I'd inherited from her an intractable stubbornness and a long memory.

So, the next morning, off I went to the subway, a good book in hand, for the long, long trip to Brooklyn. I picked up the car my parents had left for me and drove back across Brooklyn to get Grandma.

I pressed the button for the buzzer to Grandma's apartment on the intercom in the lobby of her building. "Who?", Grandma's voice asked from the speaker, at about three million decibles. "It's me, Grandma!", I shouted at the top of my lungs. "Vaht?", she blasted back. Sigh.

After three or so tries, during which I alternated shouts of, "It's meeeee!" and "C'mooonnn Grandma!", she buzzed me in. I took the elevator to her apartment, rang the bell, and waited for her to look through the peephole and ask "Who?", even though we'd just spoken on the intercom (Grandma never was a very trusting soul. After all, the big bad wolf could have killed me on the way up, donned my clothes and then figured out which was the correct apartment door to approach). When she opened the door, the first thing I noticed was the dining room table, set for two, and laden with every imaginable cold buffet item in the world. There were smoked fish, pickled fish, sliced tomatoes, onions and cucumbers, bagels, cream cheese, butter, cake--you name it. If it could fit on the table, it was there.

I reminded Grandma that she was buying me lunch and that meant eating away from home, and she said, "This is breakfast. Lunch ve eat later". All this was taking place at about 11AM, three hours after I'd left home, and about five hours after I'd eaten breakfast.

"Breakfast? Breakfast! Grandma, it's 11 o'clock! I ate breakfast a long time ago. Besides, if we stop and eat now, we'll get there so late, the banks will be closing!". No one, not even Grandma could argue with the logic of what I was saying. So, Grandma didn't argue.

"Zetz!",she said, with finality. "Sit!". I knew there was no point in fighting with her, that my best strategy was to eat very, very fast, which I did, while Grandma reminded me that I wouldn't be eating breakfast so late if I had gotten there earlier, as she replenished each item on the table as soon as one mouthful of it was consumed. Foolish me! Why didn't I think of riding the subway at 4 AM, so I could arrive at Grandma's for breakfast in a timely manner?

Finally, at noon, we were on our way. At the first bank, we were seated, after a short wait, at the desk of a bank officer. "How may I help you, Mrs. Miller?", he asked.

"I vould like to haff a present", Grandma said. "I vant a toaster".

I should tell you here that this conversation was taking place during a time when banks would offer small household appliances as incentives for customers to open new accounts.

"But Mrs. Miller", the bank officer said, "those toasters are for people who open new accounts. I can't give you a gift because you're not opening a new account".

Famous last words. I pitied the man. Almost.

Grandma's expression remained blank. She looked at the bank officer and said, "Hokay. I heff two accounts. In vun, I have $20,000 and vun is $15,000. Please give me the money. I go across the street to dat benk. I open new account, and they vill give me a present".

"How many toasters would you like, Mrs. Miller?", he said, as I suppressed the urge to laugh wildly, like a madwoman. I felt a strange empathy with the poor bank officer, who did not understand that when you challenge Grandma, you have come face-to-face with a force greater than a hurricane, greater than a nuclear bomb, greater even, than The Internal Revenue Service. He also did not understand that one of Grandma's greatest pleasures in life was to furnish everyone's household at no cost. As soon as you found a new apartment, got engaged or re-decorated, Grandma would say, "You need a toaster, a schissel (bowl), some dishes, a coffee pot? You comm over. I'll give you". When you showed up, Grandma would open a closet door, and there would be shelves and shelves of toasters, broilers, electric coffee makers, sets of dinnerware, all in their original boxes, looking like the housewares aisle at a Target store. But, the hapless bank officer didn't know that about Grandma - yet.

So, Grandma and I loaded her two new toasters into the trunk of the car, and off we went to the next bank.

Driving Miss Grandma Part II

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Copyright 1999 Judith Katz-Schwartz. All rights reserved.