With Grandparents Day coming up this weekend, I found myself thinking about my grandmother, Millie. The story I’m going to tell you about her is completely true. At least, to the best of my recollection. It is a sad story, but it is also a darkly humorous story about life, death, love, lies, family and the funny ways people react in times of tragedy. Spoiler Alert: My grandma dies.
I didn’t know my grandmother very well. While I was growing up in New York, she lived in Florida. I only knew that she was very sweet and loving to me. At the time, that’s all I needed to know. My father, Lou, was close to retiring and my mother, Muriel, wanted to be closer to her family. So they followed the typical Jewish migration of those years and bought a condominium in Miami Beach.
It was a large apartment on the 20th floor with an L-shaped balcony that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay. It sounds nice, I know, but I hated it there. They used to say that Florida was God’s waiting room. For me, Florida was more like God’s kitchen. Except he left the house in a hurry and forgot to turn off the oven.
When I was 14, while we were still living in New York, my mother took a trip to Miami to start decorating the condo. It was sometime in September and I had just started a new school year, so I couldn’t go and my father stayed home with me. I distinctly remember it was in September because I was watching a new show during “NBC Premiere Week” in the living room when Lou got a phone call in the kitchen that preempted my regularly scheduled program.
I didn’t know what was going on. I heard my father yelling into the phone but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I was more interested in the comedy I was watching on TV than the drama going on in my own home. Finally, I got up during a commercial to see what all the brouhaha was about. My father was still yelling into the phone, “All right! Calm down! I’ll take the next flight out! Just tell everyone to calm down! I’ll be there as soon as I can!” And then he slammed the phone onto the receiver so hard that I thought it would shatter into a thousand pieces.
This scared me. I can imagine the expression on my confused and innocent face when I asked him, “What’s the matter?” But I can’t imagine what my shocked and traumatized expression looked like after he shouted at me, “Ah, your Goddamn grandmother just jumped off the fucking terrace!”
He was Pissed. Off. I’d never seen him that upset. If my grandmother wasn’t already dead, I think he would have killed her. The rest of that night is a bit of a blur. As I recall, I wasn’t really able to process what happened. I just went back to watching my show in a state of shock, while he got back on the phone to book a flight for him and to make arrangements for me. He dropped me off at the home of my friend Eugene Kravitz, whose parents were kind enough to take me in. I understandably had trouble falling asleep that night. Every time I closed my eyes I kept seeing my grandmother plummeting to her death, like a scene from any number of Hitchcock movies.
Several hours later, probably around three or four in the morning, the phone rang in the Kravitz house, waking everyone up, except me. It was my father calling. He told me that he misunderstood what happened, that my grandmother had died but she didn’t jump off the terrace. She just had a heart attack while she was on the terrace and fell down. This new information helped me a lot. After that, the horror subsided, I was left with only sadness and I was finally able to fall asleep.
It wasn’t until a few days later, when my father returned home, that I learned the re-traumatizing truth. Apparently, my mother was in the condo with her sister, my Aunt Tessie, Grandma Millie and my Aunt Rose, on my father’s side. They were having a perfectly nice dinner when my grandmother excused herself to go to the bathroom. She was in her late 60s (which was considered very old in those days) and was gone for an inordinate amount of time. So the others went to see if she was okay. But she wasn’t in any of the bathrooms or the bedrooms. So they went onto the terrace to see if she’d stepped out for some air. There they found a patio chair, pushed up against the railing, with my grandmother’s shoes in front of it. (She was a short woman who could not have made it over the railing without climbing onto something.) When my mother looked over the railing, she had the unimaginable experience of seeing her mother splattered in the parking lot twenty stories below.
When my father got there a few hours later, one of the first things my mother asked him was, “What did you tell Richard?”
“What do you mean, what did I tell him? I told him his Goddamn grandmother jumped off the fucking terrace.”
“Lou! You didn’t! Call him right now and tell him you misunderstood.”
He objected because it was so late, but he did what she told him to because that’s what married men do.
I know all of this because my father came home, after the funeral, without my mother. She had to stay behind to deal with the sad details one has to after the passing of a parent. The way I remember it, he had just walked in the door and put his suitcase down when he said he wanted to talk to me. He spoke to me like a racetrack tout giving an inside tip on a horse, “So, you remember when I called and told you your grandmother had a heart attack and fell down on the terrace?”
“Well, that was bullshit. You grandmother jumped off the fucking terrace. Your mother made me call to tell you that.” He then proceeded to tell me what really happened before wrapping it all up with, “But don’t ever tell your mother I told you.” Then he went into his room to unpack his suitcase, leaving me with a lifetime of emotional baggage.
My grandmother never left a note explaining why she killed herself and we will never know why she chose to do it that way. For my mother, it was an unbelievably painful experience that haunted her for the rest of her life. We only ever talked about it one time, after my father passed away, and I finally told her I that knew the truth. And she didn’t even want to discuss it then. For my father’s part, I don’t think he ever forgave his mother-in-law for doing that to his wife. I don’t know why they didn’t just sell that condo, but my mother lived there for another 15 years. Which would be like Roman Polanski renewing his lease after the Manson Murders.
As for me, it was a lot to deal with as a kid. Over the years, I learned to cope with it through sympathy and with humor. It was just one more example of how we put the “fun” in “dysfunctional family.” I know every family has their share of crazy relatives. It just seems like mine had a little more than its share.
Check out these other articles on family and life:
Don’t Mess With Muriel by Richard Basis
Lou’s Lessons by Richard Basis