The mourners slipped on the icy grass and poked each other with oversized umbrellas as they huddled together for protection from the snow and sleet at my mother-in-law's funeral last January. At the unveiling last week, however, the weather was beautiful, an autumn spectacle tamed by the balm of a November Indian summer. "We know Grandma is here," said my nephew Greg. "Look how she brought us a bit of Florida."
We've been told how the horrors of September have caused serious reflection about cherishing loved ones and appreciating small moments. Thelma Lefelt, aka Grandma Thelma and Aunt Thel, didn't need these difficult times to understand the value of her family and friends or to enjoy every day of her life. Even when she reached 80 and heart disease turned her brisk walk into a shuffle, she fluffed out her steely-silver hair, dabbed on her blue eye shadow and Paris perfume, stepped into a glitzy pants suit, and slipped behind the wheel of her Buick, clobbering each day.
Her grandchildren treasured her, calling every week from New York, from Georgia, from Virginia, from Hawaii to tell her their secrets. "She was someone you could say anything to," my son Todd said at the funeral. "This didn't mean that she wouldn't call you a schmendrick, or threaten you with a potch in tochis. But she never responded with the concern of a parent, and it was always obvious that she lived to hear our successes and dreams, that she had unwavering, unconditional faith in our abilities. If we ever failed, it was the world's fault and not ours. If something went wrong, we knew Grandma had our backs. She would dream with us, making plans to arrive in a Lincoln Town Car at the Broadway debut or the Whitney retrospective, draped in her mink coat and gaudiest diamonds, screaming, 'Make way for the front row! That's my grandchild!' To her we were magic, and that made us proud and daring."
Todd's older brother Jack would fly to Fort Lauderdale to waltz her around her living room, cuddle her on the couch with his arm draped around her shoulder, and take her to the independent and foreign films she loved but couldn't convince her girlfriends to see. And sometimes on family visits when the bed in the den and the living room couch were taken, though he was thirty-years old, he'd sprawl on the other side of her king-size bed.
When we first met, I was an intimidated, newly-pinned college sophomore, and she was the buxom Sophie Tucker of New Jersey, entertaining flocks of her friends with funny stories ("You never saw anything like it in your life!") and raunchy jokes. Thelma was loud and blunt, not exactly my idea of the mother of a nice Jewish boy. My husband likes to tell about the time he and his mother greeted the astonished date who had come to pick up his sixteen year-old sister by dueling with coat hangers as they ran from room to room, jumping on and off the living room couch. "She actually cut my hand," he remembers. The woman swashbuckled her way through life.
She was 47 when her husband died suddenly of a heart attack, shattering everything familiar. But she breathed in strength from family and friends and went to work in a jewelry store ("I'm a fancy lady, a gemologist," she boasted.) Within a few years she remarried and moved with her second husband to a condo in Lauderhill, Florida, filling her pantry with bubblegum, Twizzlers, and almond-studded Hershey bars for her grandchildren. "Whaddya mean your mother won't let you have sugar?! Here. Put these tootsie rolls in your pocket. And don't tell her." Their grandma, the chocoholic. When they stayed at Thelma's, she was the boss, and they packed into her bed watching forbidden late-night television, fighting over which channel to watch, making fun of the actors, and laughing at each other's bad taste.
And then, after three years, she found her second husband dead of a heart attack. She stayed in Florida and sold jewelry at the mall where her customers kept returning because Thelma was behind the counter. Besides being a hoot, she really did know gold and diamonds. At Halloween she came to work in her leopard print blouse with sparkles and passed out candy corn. And when the young gay salesman told her his problems, she brought him home and roasted him a turkey.
The youngest of five children, Thelma watched all her siblings die. Ruby first, then Joe and Yetta. When the health of the beloved older sister who had raised her began to fail, Thelma took charge, driving Mae back and forth to the hospital, to the assisted-living community, to their relatives, and finally, to the nursing home. When Mae complained, Thel would glare at her and yell, "Knock it off! You don't know how good you got it. Look around you. The whole world's got problems."
Until Mae died, Thelma bullied her into coping. But she was just as tough on herself. Instead of complaining, she got on that plane with a girlfriend and her gargantuan suitcase and flew to China, to Russia, to Morocco and to the Canadian Rockies. She drove to California and back with a friend. She took courses at elder hostels, attended lectures at Chatttaqua, and went to plays in New York and London's West End. She climbed down into the quarry with my husband and me to see Todd's sculptures when he spent six months at an art school in the tiny village of Lacoste beneath the castle of the Marquis de Sade in the south of France. She got on a plane and flew to every family wedding and Bar Mitzvah to dance the hora and light the candles.
Growing older and sicker but desperate for independence, Thelma and her Florida girlfriends established their own support system. With their husbands dead and their children far away, they organized a phone chain to check up on each other each morning. Selma called Thelma, who called Betty who called Sylvia, and so on. They'd meet at the pool for an hour of exercise, subscribe to local concerts and theater, make the rounds of the early-bird restaurants, spend weekends at a South Beach spa, and play bridge and mah jong at the condo club house. In her group, Thelma was still the fancy lady decked out in pearls, still the life of the party who cracked everyone up as she recited Goldilocks in Yiddish, still the head of the conga line.
Sometime during the year before she died, on a visit North shortly after she refused open heart surgery, Thelma stayed to care for me during my long bout with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. She made roast turkey and turkey soup and turkey meatballs. We sat on the couch together and read (in one week this woman who never went to college devoured Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full and George Stephanopoulos' All Too Human) and talked about movies and books. I asked how she was feeling. "I don't walk so good, but as long as I can see my friends and go to my shows, I can't complain."
After she left, she took her pills and saw the doctors ("Damn doctors. I hate them. What do they know?") but a few months later her friend Betty called to say that Thelma was in the ICU. She had been rushed to the hospital with chest pains the morning after a night at the theater. By the time we got to Florida, emergency surgery had failed and she was hooked up to life support, all purple and swollen. My son Jack insisted on sitting with his father by her bed while the nurse removed the tubes and wires.
Stuffed in the bottom of a drawer, my husband found a notebook with an inventory of her jewelry and instructions explaining who should get which pieces of her jewelry. Scrawled on the bottom of the last page was the warning, "Don't Fight!" That's how she scolded her rambunctious grandchildren - "Be nice. Don't fight." Now they wear her pins and necklaces and rings, which they insist still smell like her and hold something more of her essence.
Although my mother-in-law was spared the events of last fall and never had to worry about anthrax or airplanes flying into buildings, she could have been a poster-lady for our times, slapping aside whatever threatened the days of her life with great courage and humor. At eighty-one, she was a woman with attitude who'd be on a plane to Hawaii or London or some other place she wanted to go right now. "You think I'm gonna let this Bin Laden keep me from seeing my newborn great-grandson?! The farshstinkener should only kush meer in tochis. "
© Carol Lefelt
Carol Lefelt is a retired English teacher and Humanities Supervisor at Highland Park High School in Highland Park, New Jersey.
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