Apr/May 2021  •   Nonfiction


by Stephen Spicehandler

Artwork by Art AI Gallery

Artwork by Art AI Gallery

My wife lies next to me, still deep in morning slumber, her face gently shaded by the golden light behind her. She reminds me of my grandmother: both are beautiful women, thin-boned, with straight, dark hair (my wife's now mussed by sleep); both are aware of their beauty, having spent their lives making use of its charms and its humbling diminishments; both have been winners in their various social carnivals, one, perhaps, with cocktails, the other "a bisl ginger ale." It's kind of amazing that at this point in my life, I've brought my grandmother to my side, in Hyde Park, New York, no less, where my wife and I now summer and where, not quite 60 years ago, while I was visiting my grandparents' motel room, my grandmother removed the top of her bathing suit in front of me, assuming I was mature for my age, revealing her breasts, which I now recall in a dark pink shadow, full and sexier than they should be, warm like the summer flickering through the venetian blinds of the motel.

She was not above trying to win everyone's affections with her hoarse, high-pitched endearments, matched so well with the environment she grew up in, and where she pretty much remained, where everyone spoke above everyone else, competing to be heard over laughter, hyperbolic exclamations in Yiddish accents punctuated by Brooklynese. Other ingredients to her charismatic effect (at least on those it worked on) included her red-lacquered nails on pink fingers as she stylishly wafted cigarette smoke like a lady on Park Avenue instead of Brighton 13th Street, and the cherry red lipstick you could taste, and which invariably pocked all the cheeks in the room with its slurred, fossilized lip stains. And finally, in her better days, before she hid them behind sunglasses even in dark living rooms, there were her Paul Newman eyes, bright as turquoise, impossible not to comment on at first meeting.

Both women, impulsive, rebellious in the ways of their times, drew people towards them who were attracted to high spirits and trouble in equal measure. My grandmother was the most stylish of Bolsheviks—no Ninotchka she in spite of the occasional resemblance to a more Slavic Garbo—and my wife was a one-time traveler on the hippie highway, as she called it, with all the dissoluteness that could entail. Truthfully, I didn't know my grandmother's fiery side, I just knew the perfumed 50-ish woman who coddled her first grandchild, singing Yiddish lullabies in a thick, breathy voice you'd find in movies about the Weimar Republic. As for my wife, she too has been tempered by sorrows and childrearing, although I have seen her kick wayward New York taxicabs while crossing Rivington Street and pull up the skirt of her dress to reveal her leggings to virtual strangers, specifically me once upon a time. No bright red lipstick for her, but she would don the occasional eyeliner to net me with her air of impenetrable mystery. Impenetrable mystery, another term for manhandled children grown to adulthood.

But then there was my second wife, certainly a survivor until she wasn't any longer, who seemed like an open book in spite of the secrets she coveted and the abuse she had also been through. She bore no physical resemblance to my grandmother, her fragilities disguised by strong Italian gusto, but the template was there, the irrepressible need and determination. I last saw her 19 years ago on her deathbed at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, and could never have imagined I'd have another 19 years ahead of me, nor would I have wanted it. For years, I dreamt she had moved on to friendships with other people, no longer interested in our old life together. I always admired her independent spirit, even if it was a ruse of sorts, but I didn't like it that she was now independent of me.

With my second wife I broke my pattern of aborted relationships. I had been convinced by my first marriage at 22 that I was incapable of living with another person, which fed my already nurtured belief I was a psychological freak, partly, I believed, due to the suffocating parenting I'd been awarded by two of the nicest people anyone else had ever met. It was decades before I could comfortably own up to loving my mother, which I've tried to make up for over the last decade and a half, especially during my visits to her assisted living facility near my sister in Maryland before the pandemic condemned her to virtual isolation, stuck in 94 years of memories, or what's left of them. She, like so much else, is heading steadily downhill this year, so I can only hope my debt has already been repaid.

But until I'd met my second wife, no relationship had outlasted four years, and that had been with my girlfriend between my marriages who had waited patiently for me to let down my guard and move in with her, but who had had to find that person a few years after I told her I wanted to see other people. He was a nicer person, hopefully, who I've learnt over the years via Google and Facebook, had a son with her and died of cancer a few years after my second wife had.

So 19 years ago I closed a chapter on 22 years of loving one exciting, impossible woman, or rather the chapter was closed on me because I never would have chosen to do it. I still, I admit, sometimes wonder what she would look like if she'd been allowed those extra 19 years, but the proscenium housing that beautiful Italian opera had its plush red curtains fall between us with a thud. Perhaps I should have seen the way she looked in the year between chemo treatments as a preview of how she might age, except when her hair grew back, it was in tight gray curls, barely a resemblance to the thick mahogany strands, which would often fall down her neck with its graceful weight and which could never sustain a curl when she wanted it to.


Around the time I had moved in with my wife and her son in their East Village tenement apartment, my grandmother was in the habit of calling every weekday and hanging up immediately if anyone picked up the phone, unless, to her surprise, I was the one who answered. In her state of isolated anxiety after the death of my grandfather, she would call family members in the middle of the workday as if she was throwing out lifelines she didn't expect anyone to pick up. When she reached us in the East Village, I think she was too embarrassed to speak to the woman who answered, who would one day be my second wife and whom she had never met. To me she could fret about my mother, my father, my sister, my cousins, isn't it terrible, isn't it terrible, when what was terrible was how frantic she was, old, by herself in her untended apartment across from the schoolyard where her children had once played, in the apartment my grandfather had maintained before, she was convinced, she had killed him with her worrying obsessions. My mother never told me this, it would've embarrassed her to share this with her son, but she told my second wife she blamed my grandmother's menopausal change on the kitchen table abortion my grandmother had had during the war years, when with the Depression still on, my grandparents couldn't afford another child to support. My grandmother had begun losing her beauty, to her mind, around the time of these changes, and with her obsession with her looks, her clothes and even her false teeth began to pain her, and she began almost emptying their modest life savings, trying to eradicate the chaos from her life. Now Zayde's heart attack had left her alone to tear her hair out, to cry every day to my reliable, and reliably impatient, mother. A good day was my grandmother heavy on sedation behind her dark, dark sunglasses.

She, too, died of cancer, but in the day when hospitals were loathe to medicate sufficiently because it might cause dying people to actually, well, die, so they let the pain do it for them. "Am I dying?" my grandmother would cry, tossing to and fro in her hospital bed, unable to escape the pain. "No, no!" my mother and my uncle would say, trying to calm her with the lies she knew enough not to trust, terrifying her even more. I couldn't bear to watch this and was tempted to blow my mother and uncle's cover, so I stayed away after that. She and my second wife never met, never spoke, but in my mind they are inextricably connected, as are all the women I have loved, but here because my grandmother called every day and hung up whenever my newfound love picked up the phone. But also for other reasons.

My second wife herself made the connection for me.

"You see me as your grandmother. You're your grandfather, the one who loyally looks after the crazy woman."

I didn't think of my second wife as crazy, though I know now she feared that was the reality. Her older brother who hadn't been able to handle her as a wayward teenager thought so. And their father had been institutionalized for a period of time, so whenever her furies got the best of her, he was never far from her mind. I thought of her as more vital than most everyone else, certainly more than me, but that didn't mean I always thought I could handle the drama I was attracted to. I was poorly prepared for what I might now call my Petrucchio complex, proving my masculinity by attaching myself to a wild woman or, seen in another light, a woman of strong passions. I used to call her The Goddess Hyperbola (she didn't think it funny); everything was the worst, the best, the stupidest, the smartest it could possibly be. At one moment she could declare herself a Communist or an admirer of the Cuban revolution, and at the next profess her admiration for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani or John Gotti, while I would reel from the contradictions. The common thread was the disdain for the niceties, the attraction to confrontation. As uncomfortable as these qualities made me, I nevertheless embraced them enough to make sure many of the confrontations would be with me.

I never had to confront my grandmother in any way. That would've been the job for the older generation, and besides, she was my biggest champion. I was her little man, her Tom Thumb beau. I could do no wrong in her eyes. And I felt the same about her, even when I knew as I grew up how sad and delusional she had become. But until then, my family was among those completely ensorcelled by her passionate affections. Not everyone was, though. Many people who considered themselves practical or serious people, like my father's family, disdained her emotionalism and struggled to tolerate this silly woman. I would notice as a child when people condescended to her, to which she seemed to me oblivious, and I found it confusing. I was proud of my beautiful grandma, even daring my friends to guess her age, which, to my surprise, none of them found difficult. She was 59, the age of grandmothers in 1962 when I was eleven. My friends didn't need to be geniuses to figure that one out.


My mother has been calling me the last few days from her assisted living facility and hanging up after I answer. If I call her back, she picks up, is silent and then hangs up while I call out to her. She's forgotten how to use cellphones and portable landlines; she just pecks at the buttons and gives up. Sometimes I suspect she's confusing it with the TV remote, this panoply of technology laid out for easy access on the small table near her motorized easy chair, all confounding her. Twice a week I speak to her via FaceTime, and although she's glad (and usually partly stunned) to see me ("Where have you been? You never answer my phone calls!"), she spends most of the FaceTime call conversing with the young intern helpmate, the computer screen having so much less of a presence in the room to her than the polite young women who set up the contraptions and pamper her. My mother, whose self-appointed job was to take care of everyone else's problems, can now barely manage her own, so decisions great and small consequently fall to the various others who guide her through all this foolishness. A world without mom being the decider is a world gone off its rocker, and in fact, she's right, it has, and it's been this way for a few years now. Typically, she would give untaken advice to the talking heads on MSNBC, but lately she's forgotten how to find the channel.

Wife Number Three can relate to my mom's predicament. She's terrified of our Smart-TV, and if something should happen to me, she'd be stuck watching the Home & Garden network or Netflix via our computer for the rest of her life. Somehow, I've come around to marrying a synthesis of all my feminine touchstones, someone impulsive enough to have many husbands and lovers, but controlled enough to raise a child with a loving iron grip and run non-profit arts organizations even when it wasn't her job description. She cries when she sees my mom whom she loves, she weeps when she wonders when she'll see her grandkids again or when her own child doesn't return her text messages. She loves to laugh but, I suspect, partly to keep from crying. She's retired, feels less essential, and doesn't want to lose any more people, not to age or breakups or AIDs as she once had, and so we've bought an eccentric upstate house where she can tend to her gardens and home like another one of her caustic art installations. I don't deserve this extra opportunity for love and companionship I've had for the last 12 years. There are so many far less lucky.

One evening, 23 years ago, when my second wife, let's call her Susan, called me from Owego, New York, where she was living during late-in-life graduate studies at SUNY Binghamton, she left on my answering machine a recording of a song instead of leaving a message of her own. I didn't recognize the voice at the time, but it was Ella Fitzgerald, and she was singing "Ev'ry time you say goodbye, I die a little." At the time it felt almost like being stalked. Susan was afraid I'd leave her, and there were legitimate grounds for her concern. I never stopped loving her, but there were times I felt I had bit off more than I could chew, and she knew it. In fact, she suspected it in all her relationships to some extent: that people would give up the ghost on her, like her mother who died when she was nine years old, leaving her in the hands of her disturbed father. But in my case, I have found that none of the people whom I loved have ever really gone away. It's true, I die a little, but they're all still with me. I'm lucky that way.