I recently received the sad news from a friend that his grandmother had passed. She was 93, and endured a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s. To me, the end of an existence is always heartbreaking—circumstances be damned. Whether one was 20 or 100, it still marks a completion. No matter the spin, that’s a somber thing.
Speaking with my friend inspired me. I’m in southern Florida this week, trying to wrap up a book while my kids spend the time with their grandparents (they’re on winter break). Coming down here always reminds me of my boyhood, when my brother David and I would pay an annual visit to our grandparents, Mollie and Nat Pearlman.
Earlier today, I returned home.
Grandma and Grandpa were your typical older Brooklyn Jews, in that they tired of the snow and cold of winter and moved down to Sunrise, Florida. Back in the early-to-mid 1970s, this was the thing to do, and the place to go. Sunrise featured all these new stucco buildings that oozed Florida living. They had:
A nice pool.
Mostly, what was offered was The Dream. Sun. Warm weather. Social activities. Tons upon tons of other transplanted New York Jews, who would join Mollie and Nat in flocking to early bird specials ($3.50 for a steak or chicken, baked potato, piece of bread and coffee or soda … as long as you ate by 4) and play cards and cook mediocre pot-roast for one another.
Yeah, it sounds sorta lame. But it wasn’t. It was beautiful. A beautiful, sparkly dream world.
And I friggin’ loved it.
I can still see Grandma and Grandpa standing at the end of the jetway as David and I ran off the plane and into their arms (this is well before 9.11 screwed the whole scene up). Quite literally, we would feel the warm air brush our faces—the first sign that this was going to be a dream week. They’d drive us back to Sunrise in Grandpa’s brown Buick with one of those felt bobblehead giraffes sitting on the dash (I believe the car also had a compass on the dash. But I could be off on that one). We’d pull into the parking lot of Phase II, building 46 and see the above photo. Then David and I would sprint down the front pathway, brushing our fingertips along the top of the green-and-red bushes …
Man, did I love my grandparents’ apartment. I probably can’t fully explain this, because—technically—it wasn’t anything special. When we were younger, my grandma would actually celebrate our pending arrival by covering the furniture in plastic (a very Florida old Jewish thing to do back in the day). We’d enter, see the shiny plastic-coated couch, bolt out to the back patio, run into our room (we shared a pull-out bed), hit the kitchen. The refrigerator had a magnet that read MOLLIE’S KITCHEN. Grandma would spoil us with cookies; chocolate; stuff we rarely got at home.
My brother and I would inevitably want to swim. When we were old enough, Grandma and Grandpa would actually let us go by ourselves. But the whole experience was an ode to paranoia. After lathering us in suntan lotion, Grandma would warn us, oh, 722 times how dangerous it was to cross Sunrise Lakes Blvd. She’d ultimately let us go—but she’d stand there and watch until we were fully out of sight.
I embraced everything about a visit to Grandma and Grandpa’s. Everything. We’d run up and down the hallway, knocking our hands against the white railing. We’d scrape our fingers against the stucco. We’d do puppet shows with one of the neighbor’s granddaughters. We’d stand out back and watch ducks in the canal (this made Grandma very nervous. She’d heard of an alligator sighting. Well, maybe it was an alligator. Or a large salamander. With fangs). My grandpa was an awful athlete, and he once (laughably) showed me how to play golf using the rusty clubs he’d likely inherited from a Salvation Army dumpster. I can still feel the thick green grass. The smell of the building—musty, grassy, sweet—is one of my all-time favorite scents. I took it in today … pulled in deep, soothing breaths, and felt 8 or 9 again.
Every year my grandparents would take us to Ft. Lauderdale Stadium to catch a few hours of Yankee spring training workouts. They’d buy me a 50-cent roster, kick back and watch me beg for autographs. Mr. Guidry! Mr. Griffey! Mr. Arnsberg! They’d lay out a stack of brochures on the bed and ask what we’d like to do. Parrot Jungle. Monkey Jungle. Lion Country Safari. Boat ride. Fishing. The week was ours. The possibilities were endless.
As I walked around their old building today, it all came back. That’s not a cliche for cliche’s sake—It. All. Came. Back. I was euphoric and heartbroken. I wanted to be a boy again. I wanted to knock on the door and have them answer. I wanted my grandma’s crap pot-roast; wanted my grandpa to take us to his synagogue to show us off; wanted to hear my grandparents argue.
“What, Mollie? What?”
Alas, I am nearly 41-years old, and my grandparents are long gone. They are buried in a cemetery not all that far away, beneath stones that bare their names. I have not visited in years, and have no intention in doing so.
I don’t need to.
I’ve got Phase II.