My father’s mother, Greta, was the source of every Jewish mother, grandmother, and mother-in-law joke ever written and we were the punchline.
She always had to have things her way, usually only for the sake of having them her way. At my parents' wedding she threw fit over fit at things not being 'proper', until she hit a wall with my parents refusal to have hard liquor as well as beer and wine. No amount of whining would convince them otherwise, even after she stomped her foot and cried out in her most stereotypical of New York City Jewish tones, "First Hitler and now this!"
And as a former refugee from the Nazis you'd think she'd know from Hitler, but there was no degree of nuance with my grandmother, it was always all or nothing.
My dad once gave my mom an anniversary present of going to do the bi-annual visit to her so mom wouldn't have to, she was that unpleasant to be around.
When I visited her, she used to make plum dumplings, sugar cookies, or my very favorite, sachertorte - a two-layer Austrian chocolate cake with raspberry jam filling, the one recipe I ever bothered to get off her before she became too infirm to make it. She would make me sit and eat my entire serving, something which wasn't usually too difficult, even if my parents protested or said I ought to save it for later.
Then, when I was licking the last of the chocolate off my fingers, she'd lean in and say, "You know, I'm worried about you getting fat."
...yeah, and whose fault would that be?
She was constantly trying to marry me off, too. This was back before I transitioned, obviously. Granma never knew me as anything but 'Anna-le', little Anna, and she was fixated on me getting her some grandkids. She kept suggesting I talk to the rabbi about finding me a husband, and telling my mother behind my back that I wanted her to look for a husband for me, which my mom knew was bullshit because as far as anyone knew I was queer as a 3-dollar-bill.
I'd keep telling her ''Granma, your rabbi's in New York. I'm in Chicago. Any man he finds me is also going to be in New York.'
And she'd say, 'Eh. That's fine. He could move.'
I came out to her twice as lesbian to try and ward her off, and she forgot twice, and after that I just started nodding and smiling. It was the easiest way with a lot of Granma situations.
Granma eventually got old and went to live in a nursing home down in Tennessee near my parents. She continued to raise hell, constantly calling my parents or 911 at midnight just to get attention, or trying to book tickets back to New York with no plan for how she'd get to the airport. When they took her cell phone away she snuck out of her room in the dead of night, quietly inching down the hallway with her walker like some kind of geriatric Jason Bourne until she got to the lobby and used the phone there to call a hospital. I don't know what we were paying these people for if they couldn't keep one 91 year old woman contained.
Apparently she later stole a cane from another resident and bludgeoned a nurse with it. I didn't know you even could get evicted from a nursing home but she was making a good effort of it.
On top of the violence and phone harassment, she had this other unpleasant hobby of repeatedly almost dying. She'd go downhill and my parents would get a phone call from the doctor saying 'it's not long now, maybe a few days' in soft, sympathetic tones, and then the next day she'd be up and eating and nagging the nurses as powerfully as she'd been before.
It got to the point that my parents went on vacation and told the doctor who called them, 'We're not rushing home just for her to do this again. Call us when she's cold.'
Miraculously, the next day she was just fine. My personal standing theory was that she'd actually been dead for six months and the Grim Reaper was too terrified to take her away.
Finally, while walking out of a job interview in mid-August, I got a call from my parents that it was time to start booking a flight back to Knoxville.
"Ehhhhh. Are you sure. Are you really sure this time. You remember–okay, okay, if you say so. What do I do at the funeral?"
I don't know how to do funerals, so I have mom give me the directions. She tells me exactly how to dress - something for warm weather, nice shoes, wear lipstick. Exactly what to say to everyone's condolences - thank you and no further commentary than that. Everyone we know knows what kind of person Granma was but tradition doesn't permit you to just set off a confetti cannon and then go about your business. We are Jews and there are rules.
So following mom's guidelines, I showed up four days later to my grandmother's funeral in a flowered garden party sundress and black sandals that I only realized when I got out of the car at the cemetery, were not actually from the same pair of shoes. I even shaved my legs, which happened about once a century for me, because I think if I'd shown up to a funeral with hairy bare legs my mom would have disowned me for the next month and I wasn't wearing stockings in Tennessee August weather.
The funeral was, in true Granma fashion, as much trouble as possible.
The only attendees were the local rabbi and the assorted Jewish couples who were friends of my parents. My dad had collected a set of pallbearers from among his friends, all of which were between the ages of 55 and 70, under the expectation that they would only have to wheel the casket to the grave on the little rollycart and then lift it onto the straps that lower it into the grave.
They had forgotten that my family plot was on a 45 degree angle. So these old Jewish men in their suits in the August heat had to lift this pointlessly expensive and heavy wooden box and walk step by careful step down the 45 degree angle of the hill and caaaaaaarefully put the coffin down onto the straps. As they come back I see Bernie Rosenstein holding the back of his hand, where his parchment-thin old man skin ripped open from the effort of holding the coffin. I shouldn't be surprised Granma grabbed a few ounces of flesh and blood on her way out.
We took our seats on these flimsy folding chairs rented from the cemetary, facing downhill at the 45 degree angle. I'm digging my heels in trying not to tumble forward into the open grave, very aware of my mismatched shoes.
Rabbi Alon starts in with the psalms and the mourner's Kaddish and all that. He called me earlier in the week to ask what my grandma was like so he could do the eulogy, and I didn't feel like mincing words - she sucked. She put me through college, she loved me, and she sucked. I didn't expect that last part to make it into the eulogy, I'm assuming he'll put together some nice feelgood loved her grandkids credit to the Jewish people bullshit, what with it being his job, so it didn't matter what I said.
Turns out he'd talked to my parents. Turns out my parents had assumed the same thing and also been more honest than usual.
So the rabbi finishes praying and he puts his hands together and says "Thank you for coming out this afternoon to support Ted, and Wendy, and their children in this time of grief. As Greta would say….first Hitler and now this."
And he. Goes. Off. My jaw hits the floor as the rabbi recounts what an absolute hot mess my grandmother was, from the incident at my parents' wedding to how she made every family trip a nightmare, to an intensity that I'm watching the coffin in the fear that she might actually sit up and start putting in complaints. Everything I've wanted for years to say at this woman's funeral is being said and I am joyous.
Dad, of course, didn't see it as pleasant. He's very concerned with propriety and also honestly his mom just died so he's dealing with some complicated feelings, and he's sitting there grinding his teeth to not say anything. My mom's face is blank, but I'm pretty sure she's having the same joyous emotions I am.
The rabbi does give credit where credit is due. The phrased 'we are all cracked vessels' is used, though with the implication that some vessels are more cracked than others.
Afterwards we go back to the house. The funeral committee brings us lukewarm lunch and stands there awkwardly while we eat it. We don't say much. The moment they leave, my mom turns to me and asks, "You brought your bathing suit, right?"
Sitting shiva for Granma Greta goes right the fuck out the window once the community's no longer watching. The rest of the afternoon is spent sitting by the lake with my parents and their neighbors downstream from us, them drinking their middle-range beers and me eating all the chips between rounds of paddling around in the green water.
Of course we talk about Granma, but it's less like a wake and more like a roast in absentia. We have a lot to get off our chests.
It's then that I learn something very interesting. Like I said, Granma was a refugee. She was the child of a rich Austrian doctor, rich enough to have servants who would put slippers on her feet and bring her a warm cookie from the bakery before she even left her bed in the morning. One day she woke up and the maid slapped her across the face, saying 'Now YOU go get me a cookie.'
It was shortly after that that the growing Nazi powers meant her family had to flee for America...and not all of her relatives were lucky enough to get out at all.
Now, that part I knew. And I knew Granma Greta was 13 when she came to New York City. Life in America wasn't easy for her, either. She didn't have her former wealth and position, she didn't speak the language fluently, she was Jewish. It didn't help she was a little on the chubby side - and since that was the one thing she could control, she starved herself in the hopes of getting thin, thinking that would be what would finally win her people's love.
When we were looking at old photos later, my mom pointed out that my grandmother circa 1935 - a little chubby, her curly Jewish hair falling in waves around her face - looked almost exactly like I did as a child.
I can only assume Granma noticed it too. I was her only granddaughter, or so she thought, and in her weird way she did love me. But Granma didn't really know how to love people anymore by the time I met her - just how to hold on to them so tightly that they suffocated.
Jews don't really do the afterlife punishment for sins in the living world thing, but Granma wouldn't need it anyway. The punishment she got for being Granma Greta was having to live with being Granma Greta–and I could barely handle an hour with her. A lifetime of being her would be punishment enough.
First Hitler, and now this.
About the artist...
Elliot Besmann identifies as a self-loathing narcissist. Originally from Tennessee, they started doing stand-up storytelling when they realized it meant people would have to quietly listen to them talk for 7-10 minutes without a single interruption. They've gone through two names and three pronoun sets over the course of their career but are too lazy to go back and amend the older ones.
Elliot's work focuses on queer issues, Jewish identity, the inherent folly of conflicting cultural norms, and being a giant nerd. They perform frequently at storytelling shows around Chicago, including the Filet of Solo Storytelling Festival two years in a row and the premiere of 'Am I Man Enough?'.
In their spare time they enjoy cross stitching swear words, dressing up as a supervillain, and trying to remember the third thing on this list.