Before turning in the first draft of my book to my editor at Harper this past July, I ran it by three people to whom I gave some (but not absolute) veto power. They were my sister Lizzie, my stepfather, Bob, and my mom’s mom, Grandma Charlotte.
Grandma had three wishes.
The first: She wanted me to mention that Mom had been fluent in French and proficient in Russian. When the Goldberg family would travel abroad for the annual meeting of the International Astronomical Union, Grandma said, my mom, as a college student, would serve as a translator for some of the French and Russian scientists. “She was even translating Russian into French,” Grandma told me, breathless with a mother’s pride. I remember that this surprised me not because I ever really doubted that she was proud of her daughter but because Gram had never been an emotionally demonstrative person.
I appreciated the sweetness of the request and I told Grandma I’d think about it. But I was skeptical: No way was my mom discussing stars and nebulae in three languages. Ultimately, I decided that I would leave out the anecdote, but insert references to Mom’s lingual skills. I am so glad Grandma prompted me to do so because it compelled me to dig up some old letters Mom had written during her junior year in college when she studied abroad. The letters were funny and I ended up quoting one in the book, in what is now among my favorite passages.
Second, Grandma objected to this description:
Grandma still lives in Tucson. As I write this, she is approaching her 95th birthday. She is an exceptional woman, and not just because she has lived so long and survived so much without losing her vim. She is a spitfire, a trailblazer, a broad. She went to college during the Depression—a time when paying tuition for a girl’s education was thought of as a waste of a family’s money. She was a working mother—employed first as a Phys Ed teacher, then as a high school counselor—in the 1950s and 60s. She then became as a travel agent. She quit in her early 80s but got bored quickly and returned to work. She sent her clients a flier: “I’M BACK!” it began. “I couldn’t STAND retirement!” Until her late 80s, Grandma led groups (and not senior citizen groups) on rafting trips through Alaska, safaris in South Africa and hiking trips in Peru. She has traveled the world, visiting nearly every country on six continents. She hasn’t made it to Antarctica but she did boat down the Amur River in Siberia when she was 85.
“I think you kids have a different definition of ‘broad,’ than people of my generation do,” she said as we spoke on the phone last summer; she in her apartment at the Forum, her assisted living facility in Tucson, me on my sunlit back porch in Tuxedo Park, New York.
“When I say ‘broad,’ I think of a feisty, strong, take-no-guff Mae-West-type,” I told Gram.
“I think of a street walker,” Grandma replied. “During the Depression, there would be drunk women hanging out no street corners with smudged lipstick and cigarettes hanging from their lips,” she said. “They were ‘broads.’”
Oops. I apologized for referring to her as a hooker (in print, no less) and promised to make the change: “Broad” became “salty gal.”
Finally, Grandma asked that I reconsider this paragraph:
Mom used to get furious when she would find a huge jug of scotch underneath the kitchen sink in Grandma’s apartment at the assisted living facility. “You could fall and break your hip, Mother!” my teetotaling Mom would say to my boozing grandma. Eventually, when she was about 88, Grandma agreed that whiskey might be a bit much for a woman of her age. So she switched to wine. “What’s your favorite kind of wine?” I’ll ask her before coming to the nursing home to hang out with her and her friends during Happy Hour (which starts at 4 PM on Fridays if you’re looking for a raucous scene). “The kind with a screw-top!” is her standard answer.
Grandma: I am not a big drinker.
Katie: Did you or did you not until very recently keep a jug of scotch underneath your kitchen sink, including since you moved into the Forum?
Grandma: I did.
Katie: Do you or do you not look forward all week to the “Happy Hour” celebrations held at the Forum on Friday evenings?
Grandma: I never have more than two glasses of wine a night.
Katie: Are you 95 years old and approximately 95 pounds?
Grandma: I’m 94.
The paragraph stayed, minus the words “my boozing grandma.”
I hadn’t anticipated any of these specific concerns, though I did suspect that she would have some. Mostly, I assumed she would take issue with my including this paragraph:
She is outspoken, describing herself and her experiences in declarative sentences. Of her abilities as a golfer—she rarely scored below 110—she would say, “I’m rotten!” Of her tendency to look askance at anything she considers wasteful spending—when Lizzie and I would stay at her house, she would pour the backwash from our nearly empty diet Coke cans into a pitcher and serve it to dinner guests—she’d say, “I’m a skinflint!” She loves to be provocative, to blurt out things you wouldn’t expect from a little old lady. Of the hoopla that surrounded President Clinton’s oral dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, she said, “I don’t see what the big deal is. When I was growing up, we called that necking!” She said this at Thanksgiving dinner, sitting at Mom’s dining room table alongside a random group of Pilates students none of us knew well. In unison, Lizzie and I yelped “GRANDMA!!!!” with a mixture of horror and bemusement. Mom nearly choked on her turkey.
But with the “necking” reference, Grandma was fine—which only proved my point about her being provocative.
On Sunday, Grandma Charlotte died.
Death hardly can be considered sudden when you’re talking about a 95-year-old. But it felt sudden. It was just Thursday that I learned she was unwell. Lizzie flew to Tucson on Friday to say goodbye for both of us. On Saturday morning—appros po of absolutely nothing—my son Ari said to me, “Grandma Suzy is really sad today, Mommy.” And I felt the connection of the four generations.
Grandma Charlotte lived a long life and a very big life, and she had her wits about her until the end. This is not a tragedy. But it is sad. The life of an incredible, pioneering woman—my grandma, my role model—is over. And I feel like another piece of my mom has disappeared too, though I believe that Mom and Gram are now together and I’m glad for that.
There is no funeral. Grandma didn’t want one. She hated a fuss. Once, Uncle Eddie had asked her how she wanted things handled after she died. She told him she wanted to be cremated and to have her ashes spread over a golf course.
“Do you want there to be an obituary in the newspaper?” Eddie asked her.
She paused before answering: “The newspaper should just say, ‘Charlotte Goldberg’s dead!’”
This is not a newspaper. It’s just a blog and one that is not particularly widely read. But here it is:
Charlotte Goldberg’s dead!
Long live the broad.