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

by Judith Katz-Schwartz

Dateline: 6/29/99

So far, Grandma and I had been cutting quite a swath through Brooklyn. The bodies of bankers, hearing technicians, shopkeepers and waiters littered 86th Street, all of them face down in the mud where they had fallen, the victims of self inflicted gunshot wounds. I will have to tell you someday about shopping for clothes with Grandma. Half the clothing store owners on Orchard Street gave serious consideration to suicide after an afternoon spent trying to sell her anything.

We returned to the car with the last load of waffle irons and hot rollers (but no hearing aid--bummer!), and I opened the trunk to squeeze them in. Grandma surveyed her booty lying there in a neat stack and said, "Hokay, now ve go home and eat."

The fight that resulted lasted all the way to Grandma's house, a half hour drive away. By the time we arrived at her apartment, I knew I would have to eat something. Infantile as my mood was, I remembered a routine I'd developed as a child, whenever my mother served fish sticks for dinner (if you're reading this, Mom, I apologize. Still, this is about the worst thing I've done that you don't already know about, so you can relax). It involved wrapping some fish sticks in a napkin and excusing myself to go use the facilities.

After eating as little as possible, and fighting with Grandma every step of the way, I stood up and actually ran away from the table, refusing to go near it again. "Grandma", I said, let's put all your stuff away. I have to bring the car back to my parents, and then I have to take the subway back home, and it's a long trip so I should leave right now."

Grandma didn't even dignify my remark with a "Vatt?". She just ignored me, and started opening closet doors, revealing shelf after shelf of appliances, each in its original box, some of them having been there so long, they were obsolete. There were toasters, clocks, clock-radios. There were curling irons, waffle irons and steam irons. There were pots and pans and utensils. There were salon-type hooded hair dryers (and who ever uses them any more?). There were electric manicure sets and blenders. There were electric coffee pots and regular coffee pots and oven-proof coffee pots. There were dishes and glassware and--no need to go on here. You get my drift. Grandma's shelves looked as if she had set up shop as a housewares merchant. Or something worse. Any stranger who was permitted to see the inside of Grandma's closet (this would be likely to happen roughly twice as rarely as she would let a stranger past the front door, which was never) would simply have assumed she was a crazy lady with a penchant for small objects that make whirring noises.

But Grandma's purpose in throwing open all the closet doors was not so we could put away all her latest acquisitions. No, if you know Grandma, and by now I think you do, then you know that her real reason was to see how many things she could get me to take home with me. I tried explaining that after driving the length of Brooklyn to return the car to my parents' house, I had to walk six blocks to the subway station, and then take three different trains, with the requisite trudging up and down several flights of subterranean stairs to make the connections, and that I couldn't do it loaded down with packages. I tried telling her that I also had to walk seven blocks from the subway station to my apartment, but I might as well have been speaking Urdu. Grandma simply ignored me. She began pulling boxes off shelves, and saying, "Here a nice coffee pot you need some dishes maybe? the dishes you have I don't like here take this teapot hairdryer bank blender hand mixer can opener toaster you need an iron?"

To which I replied, "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no and no". I answered very firmly and got my point across with finality. Except I was up against Grandma.

Once she had selected, oh, six appliances I couldn't live without, she began packaging them for the trip home. She opened a cabinet which contained The National Archives of String (some of it 50 years old, I'm sure), and selected exactly the two or three hundred yards she felt she needed to properly do the job. She then divided the boxes into two stacks (one for each hand), and began to tie them together. She raced around her living room for about an hour like a mad spider, wrapping the endless length of string around the boxes, ensuring that they were bound so tightly that they could not unravel while being carried miles by me, or by being dragged up the subway steps, or, God forbid, as the result of an earthquake or explosion that might strike New York City exactly at the same moment I was on my way home. After that, she opened the drawer that contained the 2,000 or so little handles that looked like toilet paper rollers, which she had saved from every department store clothing purchase any of us had ever made (if Grandma was in the room when you got home from shopping, and your package had one of those little handles on it, she would grab it and say, "This, I'll take." Ditto the string. Of course. She was a major obstacle at birthday parties, too, never allowing the birthday girl to just rip the wrapping paper off a package. Noooo, you had to do it neatly, so she could save the paper) and selected two, which she carefully twisted onto the two bundles. After that, she tried packing up some food, too, but the resulting high-pitched whining deterred her.

Finally, I was on my way, having kissed Grandma good-bye, and having refused offers of 50 or so addiitonal items, mostly whatever she looked around the room and laid eyes on. I returned the car to my parents' house, and trudged toward the subway station, lugging the two bundles. I had a long ride ahead of me and my hands were loaded with packages, so I couldn't read my book. With nothing to do but think, I mused about Grandma. It occurred to me that some people might think of Grandma as a collector, although everyone in the family knew she was more of a pack rat. It was on this trip home that I formulated Judith's Definition Of A Collection and this definition has stood me in good stead through the years. For example, a few months ago, my brother and his wife gave birth to their first child, a darling little girl named Miranda Lauren. My brother, understandably in love with this child, immediately began searching eBay, looking for any item with "Miranda" in the title. He sent me a list of what he'd turned up, including a bear, a cow figurine, a Carmen Miranda post card and a camera, and wanted to know how they'd look as a collection. Applying my definition, there'd be no collection to look at.

Judith's Definition Of A Collection
1. There must be an apparent connection among the items. This would make Grandma's stuff more of a collection than the things my brother was buying for Miranda. At least they were all appliances. No one glancing casually at my brother's collection would realize that all the things in it were Miranda-related, or related to each other.
2. The collection must be attractively displayable. Yes, Grandma's stuff was, in a manner of speaking, displayed within her closets, but it was not a pretty sight.
3. The collection must be of interest to the collector. This is the most important part. Grandma had no interest in the items she had in the closet, other than to attempt to foist them all off on me. A collection is something that should be built lovingly and slowly, with fascination and passion. When you amass a collection, you also should be learning something about it along the way.

The point is it's supposed to be pleasurable. Not that Grandma didn't derive pleasure from her appliances, however unconventionally she was using them. I know that, as I dragged my bundles off, and the door to her apartment closed behind me, she was probably holding her arms up in the touchdown position and, after high-fiving herself in the bathroom mirror, she must have danced in the endzone for a few moments before she started doing the dishes.

Driving Miss Grandma, Part I

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Copyright 1999 Judith Katz-Schwartz. All rights reserved.