My grandmother’s seventh husband, the one with the title, is the one she remembers most fondly. We call him “the one with the title” because he was the Mattress King of Canarsie. But even a self-appointed title, my grandmother always says, is a title nonetheless.
He’s the one who left her the estate out in the Hamptons—the one where we’re staying this summer—but that’s not why she remembers him as her favorite. It’s because, she says, he was a true gentleman, not a cad the way most men are nowadays, and he knew how to treat a lady like a lady. He would open doors and tell you how beautiful you looked. He would stand up when a woman entered a room or left a table. He would never let a woman pay. Never let a woman leave a party without seeing her home. Things that delighted my grandmother to no end, and about which I’m still forming an opinion.
The doctors told us that the Mattress King simply died of old age. There was nothing we could have done, they said. Nothing we could have prevented. They were trying to comfort us. Then the youngest doctor of the bunch, probably still a resident, discreetly pulled me aside to warn me that oftentimes, when an older person dies, his or her “mate” follows soon after, having succumbed to grief. So, clutching my hand, he told me that I should mentally prepare myself for what may come. I laughed out loud. Clearly, these doctors had never met my grandmother.
Her sixth husband was a former teen idol. I’m not going to say who he was, but you know him. Your mother knows him, too. He died three weeks after getting a diagnosis of mouth cancer. A lifelong cigar smoker, he puffed away right until his very last day. My grandmother always said that he died in the best possible way, if there is a “best possible way.” You find out you’re dying, say good-bye to all your loved ones, get your affairs in order, and then you’re out. Quick and easy. No long suffering. No sudden shock.
If anyone is an expert on the best way to die, it’s my grandmother. She’s buried six husbands already and she’s only seventy-six. There’s still plenty of time for her to find someone else, marry him, and have him die on her watch. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for dating my grandmother, but she’s always got men lining up, so I guess it hasn’t exactly cramped her style.
My grandmother’s fifth husband—the prince from a tiny French municipality just west of Monaco—died in a freak hang gliding accident while they were on vacation in Majorca. We called him “the one with the title” until the Mattress King came along. Now we just call him the Prince, or “the man formerly known as my husband,” in my grandmother’s case. She didn’t really love him. Not much, anyway. To hear her tell it, she was simply caught up in the moment. I should mention here that this was in the sixties and that it was a Grace Kelly moment she was caught up in.
My grandmother was off shopping for pearls when the news broke. The French newspapers went absolutely crazy over the fact that, upon hearing the news of her husband’s demise, she completed her purchase of the sixteen-inch double-strand she’d been trying on. (“He was dead,” she later said of the controversy. “It wasn’t like he was going anywhere.”) To this day, she is still persona non grata in certain parts of the South of France.
Some people say that it was my grandmother who killed her fourth husband, the Senator, but that was never proven. Even though he died in a room full of four hundred Republican contributors, there was not one witness to support the allegation. But my grandmother knew what happened that night. And she told me.
It was just a few well-chosen words that brought down the Senator, and with him a legacy of three generations—his father, his father’s father, and him. All United States senators by the time they’d reached forty. All staunch Republicans. Quite a feat for a woman who hardly ever voted.
The Senator himself had a kid at Yale, just biding his time until he could claim his birthright, his seat in the United States Senate. Junior the Third had considered everything in setting himself up for his rightful place in the family dynasty. He’d befriended all the right people, dated the right women, and volunteered for all the right candidates during high school and college. Of course, he also got a coveted spot in the Order of Skull and Bones, Yale’s secret society, which has produced at least ten U.S. senators and three presidents. Even if two of them were George Bush Senior and Junior, it’s still impressive.
But for all of his planning, even Junior the Third couldn’t have seen my grandmother coming. It’s her eyes, I think. They lull people into a false sense of security. A faint blue that looks violet in certain light, they make my grandmother look sweet. Angelic, almost. And she’s anything but. They should have seen her coming that night—her eyes lined in black liquid liner, lashes glistening with two coats of mascara. But they didn’t. The Senator smiled broadly as my grandmother walked over to him. Five minutes later he was dead.
Seems old grandma threatened to expose the fact that the Senator, for all of his preaching on family values and America’s moral compass, was gay. Upon hearing her threat, the Senator grabbed his chest and promptly fell to the ground, never to get back up again. Now, you must understand, my grandmother was not actually upset about the fact that the Senator had married her under false pretenses. “You can’t expect your husband to tell you the truth about everything,” she would say. But she was rather peeved when she found out that she wasn’t drawing the same weekly salary her predecessor got for her years of service. My grandmother is nothing if not business savvy.
Her third husband, the Italian race car driver, was the one with the most passion. Everything about their relationship was an extreme: their fights were the harshest, their makeups the most delicious. He was the one who taught her to follow her heart. And he was the one who died the quickest into their marriage—just four months to the day. Ironically, he died in a simple household accident when he slipped on a bar of soap in the shower and hit his head on the faucet. They do say that the majority of accidents happen in the home.
My grandmother’s second husband was my grandfather, my mother’s father. He was a trusts and estates lawyer from a good family. A solid man. A good provider. The type of man I should be looking for, she’d say.
My grandfather died in a car accident at the hands of a drunk driver when my mother was twelve years old. That was when, my grandmother believes, her run of bad luck started. You see, she’s always blamed herself for what happened to him that night:
It was well past 10:00 p.m. when my grandmother got a craving for an Ebinger’s black-and-white cake. They were already in for the night, already had my mother tucked into her bed and asleep. There was no reason for my grandfather to have been on the road that late. No reason for him to be on the corner of Front Street and Broadway, car idling at a red light like a big bull’s-eye. But it was a romantic gesture for him to indulge my grandmother in this way—she often said that she knew they were perfect for each other the moment they shared their first Ebinger’s. When he only wanted to eat the vanilla half and she would only eat the chocolate, she just knew. A match made in heaven. My grandmother still can’t look at cake without getting all misty.
In the end, she outlived them all. Just about every husband. The only one who did not widow her was her first. The one who looked like Rhett Butler. They ran away and got married when she was just sixteen. The details have always been fuzzy, but I do know that he was the only one who broke her heart.
Some people would call a woman like her unlucky. Others might call her cursed. But to me, she’s just Grandma.
* * *
My grandmother’s been there for me through everything. She stood proudly as I was sworn in at the New York State Bar; she lent me her shoulder as she nursed me through my first broken heart. She helped me pick out my clothes for my first day of school.
My mother, on the other hand, couldn’t be bothered with such parochial things. She’s a world-class photojournalist, so her life consists of constant movement. It’s served her well—she has the Pulitzer to prove it—but I think she sometimes uses work as an excuse. A way to get out of commitments she has changed her mind about.
I know this because I do it, too. Sometime into my first year of law school, when I had so much work that I couldn’t keep a set plan to save my life, I realized that no one ever balked when I broke plans because I had to study. They knew the drill, they knew how punishing the hours could be in law school. So they’d always let it slide.
I began taking advantage. Too tired to go out? Plead moot court. Want to skip that movie with a college friend you wish you hadn’t kept in touch with? Cry about how many pages you have to read before criminal law class at 8:00 a.m.
Looking back on my childhood, I wonder how much my mother used this little trick of mine. There was the skipped third-grade play when I was cast as the second lead. My grandmother sat beaming from the front row, but my mother was “stuck on assignment” in the Soviet Union. Or my high school graduation, when my mother was “stuck in an editing bay” for a Ronald Reagan retrospective. ABC News was using over twenty images that she’d shot during the Iran-Contra affair, and her contract stipulated final creative control. Her images couldn’t be trusted in just anyone’s hands, she would later tell me, as I took off my cap and gown and folded them quietly in my lap.
In my heart of hearts, I know she did it all the time, used work as an excuse. A way to avoid reality. I know it because we’re so much the same. I wish we weren’t, but we are.
My grandmother and I are not the same, not by a long shot, and maybe that’s the reason we’re so close. My grandmother has an entirely different set of values, a different set of skills, and I like to think that we learn a lot from each other. She finds it charming the way I take my work seriously and always strive to be the best. She just doesn’t think it’s particularly important. My work, that is. She’s the kind of woman who thinks that letter writing is an important art. The type who still thinks that penmanship is a very valuable skill for a woman to have. (Hers, of course, is impeccable.) But more important, and more to the point, she is a woman who has never in her life held down a real job.
My grandmother attributes much to her feminine wiles. She thinks I need to work on mine.
Copyright © 2013 by Brenda Janowitz