Growing up, I usually got to see my grandparents twice a year. We generally spent one week in the summer in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the small town where my mother grew up and where her parents still lived. Altoona is known for three things; Horseshoe Curve, Mallomar cookies and the hometown of fictitious character Alex Owens from Flashdance.
Each year we embarked on the six-hour train ride to visit them with great enthusiasm and excitement. We would head for New York’s Penn Station with my parents and their his and her matching Samsonite luggage, my mother’s case packed to the brim as if she was spending a month in the South of France. She carried a Jackie Kennedy-like cosmetic bag that was big enough to transport a small dog which always seemed unnecessary to me since my mother didn’t wear much makeup. When they announced our train, the conductor would call out all the stops on the route with such vigor and heart that upon his retirement decades later, he was invited on David Letterman to call out the stops one more time. My favorite part was when he said All aboarrrrrrrrd!!! and he sounded something like this.
For me, the grueling train ride was one of the most exciting parts of the trip. While my father chain smoked and counted the hours left before arriving at his destination, I would play cards with my brothers and make frequent trips to the water fountain that had fancy cone shaped paper cups, similar to those used to hold the Chow Chow french fries I salivated over back home. I was allowed to travel through the cars to the snack car or bathroom if accompanied by my brothers. I only wanted to do this with my brothers anyway, because I regularly feared that I would make a wrong turn, exit the moving train and be squashed by its wheels. I continue to have this fear today.
Back then, the trains had a fancy dining car with table cloths and real silverware, unlike today where you typically get your soggy microwaved Amtrak food in a cardboard box. On a few occasions, I remember going to the fancy dining car with just my father. One time we were eating as the train climbed an enormous hill in Paoli, Pennsylvania. The table shook, the glasses threatened to shatter, and I obliviously ate a hamburger that tasted like shoe leather, mesmerized by my surroundings.
It was always exciting to visit my grandparents because they lived in a house, not an apartment, and owned a car. While many would take these things for granted, since we owned neither, these things seemed exotic to us. To this day, whenever I hear the sound of the turn signal in a car, I think of my grandfather and remember my drives with him.
The other thing I loved about visiting my grandparents was their yard which housed a garden and a birdbath. Additionally, my grandfather had an automatic pitching machine that pitched wiffle balls that you could hit with a plastic bat. My grandfather was one of 9 boys; enough for a baseball team. One of his brothers even made the minor leagues. So he was thrilled when his only granddaughter spent hours perfecting her swing while her brothers were inside exercising their minds.
There was no beach nearby, but my grandfather would take us to Lakemont Park, which had an amusement park, playground and the largest swimming pool I had ever seen in my life; at least three times as big as the Park City Pool. When we arrived home with wicked sunburns caused by the fact that there was no such thing as Fair-Skinned Ashkenazi Jew Sunscreen 50 in 1970, my grandmother would attempt to sooth our skin with a paste made of baking soda and water that left a trail of white dust around the house. I don’t think this concoction did a thing for our sunburns, but it made up feel like we were being taken care of. After I was coated in my Shake n”Bake-like mix, my grandmother would let me help her in the kitchen. Her specialty was apple pie and she taught me how to make it with a fancy schmancy lattice crust.
Sometimes my grandfather would take us out for ice cream or a burger. My grandparents kept kosher at home and when they went out they would bend the rules a bit, but my grandfather was not prepared for the bacon cheeseburger I ordered one time when I went out to eat with him. I’m sure my mother got a dressing down after this episode, and once again wished I’d attended Hebrew school at Temple Isaiah, but then again, she’s the same person who shared her first BLT with my father years earlier and vowed never to go back to the dark side of a pork-free existence.
One other week each year, my grandparents came to New York to visit us. My grandmother’s favorite thing to do was go shopping at Loehmann’s, the same store where my fifth grade teacher shopped. My grandmother had a penchant for anything lavender and bought a pair of lavender spandex pants there that she rocked at the age of 73. While she bought disco-wear, my grandfather spent his time at the nearby Jay Dee Bakery buying enough prune danish to wipe out constipation in North America.
As I got older, I continued to visit my grandparents and began making the trips on my own. While I was fortunate to have them both in my life until after I graduated from college, their health was steadily declining at that point. By my early twenties, my grandmother was displaying the classic symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. On one occasion, my grandmother who had kept a kosher home for 80+ years asked for butter on her bread while we were eating meat. My grandfather kept insisting that she must want margarine, since it was against Jewish law to mix milk and meat at one meal. My grandmother was insistent and my grandfather said, “My wife’s been kosher for over 80 years but if she wants butter, I will give her butter.” This moment touched me at the time and this memory still stays with me today as a symbol of his love and compassion for her.
My grandmother passed away first and her funeral was held on a bitter cold day. My grandfather died just a month later and the day of his funeral it was a beautiful calm spring day. It was as if things were now in order and they were back together again.
If I’m ever fortunate enough to be a grandparent, I hope I get to share memories with my grandchildren that will last forever, as mine have. I hope to be rocking lavender spandex as well, but this may be a feat that only my grandmother could achieve.