Vital Signs

Grandma's Appointment in Samara

When my grandmother was 89 she became a mild celebrity as a painter. Another Grandma Moses. Only better, at least I thought so. She began painting in her late 60's, after her husband died, to fill the void and loneliness. Then, quite unexpectedly, two famous artists stumbled upon her work while she was exhibiting at the outdoor Greenwich Village Art Show. Both men bought her paintings and hung them on their studio walls, and suddenly the art community was asking about this old lady who paints like Marc Chagall and who had never taken a lesson in her life.

At this time. I was a fledgling writer. I saw in the stir an opportunity to write an article on Grandma Lottie and so break into print, and she agreed to do it. There was also the other benefit, that I would learn about sides of her I never knew. And that was important—because time was running out.

She had always been just "Grandma," making chicken soup and alternating between Yiddish, which I did not understand, and a heavily accented English. She would kiss me, even as an adult, the way that peasants do, grabbing my face in her big meaty hands and pressing my whole head to her lips. The smacking sound made my ears ring. That was unmistakable affection.

Grandma Lottie lived in a fifth floor walk-up in the Bronx, and it was that long climb that kept her young. When I was a kid her neighborhood had been respectable and Jewish. But time and...

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