Apr 07

Remembering Grandma

We had a nice gathering at my aunt’s house tonight to celebrate the life of my grandmother on what would have been her 102nd birthday. Her three children, six of her eight grandchildren and 10 of her 12 great-grandchildren were on hand with other relatives in what was a very light-hearted night, the centerpiece of which became a post-dinner exchange of stories about her.

There’s one Grandma Sue story I don’t think I’ve shared before. A baseball fan who would talk more than once about how wonderful she thought Carl Hubbell was, she went to Dodger games with us into her 90s, though admittedly her view of the team was much more impressionistic and easy-going than mine. In the 1990s, she was very surprised to hear me criticize Eric Karros, who was having a rough time and not delivering, I felt, when it counted. Sure enough, at the next game we attended together, Karros went something like 9 for 9, and she grabbed my arm and laughed with each and every hit.

Several people tonight made the point that Grandma Sue was decidedly unsentimental, though that would seem to imply she didn’t cherish moments like those – but that’s not really what they mean. Rather, as my cousin Debbie put it, she was born completely lacking the self-pity gene (much unlike her seventh grandchild). She didn’t wallow in hardships, but not because she had embraced some self-help philosophy – it simply never would have occurred to her to do anything but move forward. My grandfather, Aaron, died in 1994, ending their marriage at 64 years. Grandma Sue laid him to rest, and then went on to have some of the richest years of her life.

Once, roughly around that time, she noticed I was depressed and asked why. I said it was because a girl had broken up with me, and Grandma Sue simply replied with matter-of-fact demanor, “Oh, well, you’ll meet someone else.” No pep talk, and moreover, no sympathy. At the time, it infuriated me, and to be perfectly honest, it discouraged me from ever again being all that open with her – but not from loving and respecting her. How I’ve envied her ability to just accept and move on.

Tonight, Grandma would have told us not to spend an extra minute in mourning. But what we were reminded of this evening is that we’ll never meet anyone else like her. So as easy as she might make it to take her advice, it’s hard to want to follow it.

Mar 26

Sue Weisman, 1910-2012

My grandmother, Sue Weisman, whom some of you have gotten to know here over the years, has passed away. She was 101.

Grandma Sue’s 102nd birthday would have been a week from Saturday, and as frail as she became in the past year or so, you never quite believed she wouldn’t roll right into through that milestone and many more. She was indomitable. I’m not sure I’ve ever known a woman who was more self-possessed.

She was born in New York into a childhood, the sixth of eight siblings, that eventually found her family in the thick of the Prohibition-defying liquor trade. She moved to Chicago, married at age 20, into a world where the shadow of Capone hovered over her young household’s livelihood. She, her husband Aaron and my father, aunt and uncle moved to Los Angeles in 1951, first renting a house from the Mankiewicz family that was the home of the actual Rosebud from Citizen Kane. And in this city she stayed, becoming a founding volunteer for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to whom she provided services for approximately half a century, indulging her limitless love of art.

She played catch with me in our backyard in her 60s, and encouraged me in every way.

She cherished her family. And we all thought the world of her.

Oct 16

A bit of thinking out loud on an October night

The Remembering 2011 series is a byproduct of my not wanting to do a final Dodger Cogs and Dogs rankings for 2011, because after Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, the whole exercise just seemed too tedious. Instead, I decided it would be more interesting to reflect on every player individually, be it Kemp and Kershaw or Eugenio Velez and Lance Cormier. In the past, I’ve dispensed with year-in-review reflections in one massive effort, such as last year’s online baseball cards, but this time I’m just kind of going all in. Hope you’re finding the posts worthwhile.

I’ve ducked in and out of the baseball playoffs. With the Dodgers eliminated and with no particular dog left in the postseason fight, it’s been a time for me to exhale as far as watching games on a nightly basis, but I do keep aware of what’s going on, and certainly there’s been enough drama where I’m going, “Man, what am I missing?” And I race to find a TV or radio. But again, the compensation for not having your team in the playoffs is the relief you get from not stressing over the outcome.

I’ve been trying to watch as much Stanford football as I can each weekend, since the Andrew Luck-led Cardinal is the best Stanford gridiron group in my lifetime and then some. It’s quite a change from watching the Dodgers – Stanford has won its past nine games by at least 25 points, and there I am, totally enjoying it – yet seeing all the flaws.  The team has given up zero points in the first quarter this season and only a total of six in six third quarters, yet I still see weakness in the defense that has me concerned for the Oregon game in November. The Dodgers should be so flawed.

I even made plans to watch a regular-season NFL game for the first time in ages. I got curious about San Francisco-Detroit because of them being two upstart teams, one of them coached by Stanford’s recent leader Jim Harbaugh. It was kind of fun, but at the same time, overflowing with penalties. Ultimately, I went to a family lunch at the end of the first half, and then, instead of watching the second half on my DVR, decided I shouldn’t sit on my butt any longer and worked on cleaning out the garage. It wasn’t until after dinner that I learned that Harbaugh is still Harbaugh.

Lunch today included Grandma Sue, who has passed the halfway point between 101 and 102. She is in a wheelchair, can’t hear anymore and doesn’t know who everyone is – only a few people closest to her seem able to converse with her. But she looked lovely, and she just keeps pushing along. At Jerry’s Deli, ate 1 1/2 hot dogs and some eggs – quite a meal.

My kids, as usual, have been alternately vexing and dazzling. And, predictably I suppose, in some ways it has gotten easier, but in some ways it has gotten harder.  It was around this time, with my youngest at 3 1/2 and my oldest at 9, that I thought there might be a window of relative ease – no toddlers or teenagers – but it hasn’t quite played out that way. Still Crazytown. But I hug ‘em every night.

My blogging at Variety suffered for a two-month stretch as I focused on Emmy and Fall TV Preview duties, but I’ve recently been making a concerted effort to post every weekday. Hope you’ll check it out. At the same time, it’s also time for me to get knee-deep into the film scene as we rev up for Oscar season. The best picture I’ve seen since “Moneyball” was “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” an intense drama starring Elizabeth Olsen.  I still definitely spend too much of my time in front of screens – TV, movie, computer.

St. Louis center fielder John Jay just made a wild catch in center field with two out in the bottom of the ninth at Milwaukee.  That would have been a heck of a final out.

It’s so quiet on the Dodger front. I looked back at my posts from the past two non-playoff Octobers – 2010 and 2007 – and even though the Dodgers were sidelined, it seemed newsier. This month, other than some McCourtroom droppings, it’s really just been a waiting game for things to happen. I’m not complaining, but I do occasionally imagine a tumbleweed blowing from first base to third in Dodger Stadium some mornings.

Let me know how your offseason is going. No detail is too mundane tonight …

May 31

Darkness and light

In the middle of Memorial Day, my wife and I punished my two oldest children. We love them more than life itself and have the highest hopes for them, but of course that doesn’t eliminate the paths to frustration with them.

In particular, they have developed some sort of simultaneous mental block to saying hello to people they know. They resist a friendly greeting like some sort of evil bacteria. I understand shyness – I was the shyest one in my family as a kid and it still crops up from time to time today. But these kids got to the point Monday where their grandparents, who have been very good to them, said hello and the kids didn’t so much as look up. It wasn’t shy – it was dismissive.

That ain’t right. It’s damn vexing, and it only seems to be getting worse. To be sure, my wife and I are wondering what we’ve done wrong to cause this and what we should or shouldn’t do to solve it. But in the meantime, taking away some of the kids’ Nintendo DS privileges seemed a logical stopover en route to the next parenting solution station.

Over the next couple of hours, the kids hardly snapped out of their funk.

At the end of the afternoon, we went to see my 101-year-old grandmother, who is deteriorating rapidly now in a manner that is difficult to take, especially for my father. It was not an easy place for any of us, including single-digit age children who, for the first time in their lives, are face to face with someone whose mind and body are failing.

But when we had all but given up hope on the kids salvaging the day, they came alive. They were not only friendly, but they went and put their piano lessons to tremendous use, playing an impromptu mini-concert for Grandma Sue and a few others at the assisted living home, something so wonderful that thinking about it now does something to my head that I can’t find the words to describe. They did something for this woman, who whom they essentially can no longer communicate with through words because of her hearing and speech decline, that I could never do.

I hope I’ll never forget that moment. I know I won’t forget, at least until my mind goes, the look on my grandmother’s face as we were leaving, a look of direct melancholy but also of one that had been engaged in the world at least one more time.

Anyway, I started writing this tonight after the Dodgers took a 5-1 lead against Colorado and reached this final paragraph with the scorer 8-2, on the way to what hopefully for them and their fans will be their third straight authoritative victory, with the plan of drawing a connection of how quickly simmering frustration can turn to elation. That seems a bit forced now that I’ve gotten to this point, so all I’ll say now is that I’ll never cease to be surprised by how often I can be surprised, much less blown away.

Apr 07

Happy 101st birthday, Grandma Sue

Not to make light of it, but this has been Grandma Sue’s roughest century.

She was all but self-sufficient until the age of 95, and still very much herself in her sharpness and personality through last year, when she hit the milestone of her 100th birthday. But it hasn’t been the same for most of the past 12 months, with her memory and ability to recognize people slipping.

The instructions are for no emergency life-saving procedures to be taken on Grandma’s behalf. Last summer, I got a call early on a Sunday that she had collapsed. I’m about seventh or eighth on the protocol – it was as if the Secretary of the Interior had been told he was in charge. I stood there on the phone, faced, as far as I could gather, with the decision of letting her go. I wasn’t prepared.

After a minute of being just frozen, I told her nurse to call 911. I just couldn’t be the one.

I drove to her apartment in the assisted living facility near UCLA, arriving after the paramedics. She lay there on the floor, unconscious. But breathing. A couple of hours later, in a hospital bed, she began to come out of it.

I didn’t really know what to think. We were taking it day to day after that, but that was about 10 months ago or so. She’s still going. For a couple of those months, she was doing pretty well, but then a slide began. At my uncle’s 80th birthday party in February, she couldn’t really place my kids. This week, I got a message to call her, and when I reached her, she kept calling me Jack and seemed to have me confused with someone else. It was like talking to a distant spirit.

Overall, I have seen her and talked to her very little in recent months. I haven’t been a good grandson, in the slightest. There’s no making up for it. But we’ll see her tonight, and in a quiet way, celebrate her incredible life.

Apr 07

Happy 100th birthday, Grandma Sue!


Aaron and Sue Weisman

I’m in such awe that I don’t feel I can convey it sufficiently, so I’m left with starting this post with the basics.

Sue Weisman, my grandmother, born on April 7, 1910, is 100 years old today.

The last thing you expect is for someone to live to be 100, but if anyone were going to do it, it was Grandma Sue, a straight-shooting, take-life-as-it-comes woman. Her early childhood years – the sixth of eight children of Minsk immigrants – came during World War I: “I used to be scared that those horrible helmets would be walking down the street. During the night I used to think about that. … The spiked helmets scared the hell out of me.” Grandma heard about the end of the war from a phone call to the family business: Hers was the first family she knew to have a telephone. “There was a false Armistice, and we thought we’d get a day off from school. So, instead of us going to school — and of course, we were penalized, and we had to stay after school, so I never forgot that. And then about two weeks later, there was a real Armistice.

Her parents owned a restaurant. “They were originally in the saloon business until … Prohibition came. My father was a Beau Brummel, a gay blade, who wore something on his mustache when he went to bed and kept his hat in a leather case and loved all the nice things. My mother worked like a dog.”

My favorite story about her is from her New York/Lower East Side childhood, when in between ice skating and baseball and football with her friends of both genders, this little Jewish girl was dressed as if she were being driven to church, all so that he could be a decoy for liquor to be smuggled undetected during Prohibition. Married and moving to Chicago at age 20, her next decade brought her a husband, Aaron, who found work during the Depression working as an accountant for Ralph Capone, Al’s brother – years living in terror underscored by Aaron’s uncle Sol being “taken for a ride” and never returning. “Honey, the stuff I had to take in that crappy apartment, oh God. Every hoodlum in the world was up there.“  The first year they were married, Aaron met her outside their apartment one night and told her he was nearly tossed out the 10th floor window.

And then there was her live-in mother-in-law, Aaron’s mother Ida, who once held a butcher’s knife to her and was so remorselessly unpleasant that when she passed away in 1961, my father says he went down to the hospital “to make sure she was dead.”

Sue has three children – Jerry, my father Wally (75 next month) and my aunt Elinor – eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. It’s both fact and appropriate metaphor that Sue did all the driving in the family. Aaron, who never got behind a steering wheel in my lifetime, retired relatively young from a liquor distribution business and led a sedentary life, but Sue was constantly out and about. Papa Aaron taught me poker; Grandma Sue played catch with me in my backyard well into her 60s.  A fanatic about books, art and culture, Grandma Sue was an original volunteer at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when it opened in the 1960s and, long after my grandfather died in 1994 at age 86, continued there past age 95. No doubt, soon after we celebrate her birthday tonight and this weekend, she’ll be escorted to a play or the opera. Physically, she isn’t what once was, but her mental acuity has barely dimmed at all.

My sister Robyn – whose video interview with my grandmother from years back provided the quotes above – offers the following:

In 1928, Grandma Sue took the New York State Regents Exam in English. She scored 90 on the exam, with a perfect 50 on the essay portion. Not only was it the highest score in the five boroughs of New York City, it was so unheard of that 20 years later, Grandma’s younger sister Mickey, by then an English teacher herself, mentioned this to an older colleague, and he said, “Your sister was the one who scored that 50?” with the sort of awe that’s typically reserved for Hank Aaron’s 715th home run or Sandy Koufax’s perfect game.

“I don’t know what the hell I did! I wrote something very naturally, and I never had a grammatical error,” Grandma told me a few years ago. When I asked her what the topic was, she said she wrote about a young man who came from lowly surroundings and built himself into a well-dressed and well-educated boy who wore a suit and a real hat when other boys his age were still wearing caps or going bareheaded.

“So it was a creative essay?” I said.

“No, I couldn’t write about Tom, Dick and Harry. I couldn’t write a story,” she said. I didn’t argue with her because her hearing is so bad and shouting and enunciating is something I try to avoid unless it’s really necessary. If a (then) 96-year-old woman wants to claim she isn’t a storyteller, I guess I can nod with the condescension the middle-aged too often show the elderly and think, “Right, this coming from the woman who changed her name from Sarah to Sue around the time ‘The Great Gatsby’ had its first printing because it sounded more modern.”

But just know that Jon can’t help it that he writes about baseball with such depth, humor and lyricism. It’s in his genes. He descends from a woman who tells a story with such craft that it feels tossed off, which it may well be. It’s an intuitive sense that she has, like her perfect grammar.

I’d love to recount some of her recollections from the days when our grandfather worked for the Capone mob, among so many other stories. Instead I’ll tell one she told offhandedly to Jon, me and a few other relatives the day of Jon’s youngest son’s bris because it’s an example of her offhand approach to storytelling.

We were waiting in Jon’s living room while Jon’s wife and the baby were in a guest bedroom with the mohel, and everyone was nervous. Then Grandma piped up. “After Jerry was born, my father came to Chicago for the bris, and when he saw how the mohel was holding the knife, he grabbed it out of his hand — because from running the restaurant, he knew how to use one — and he said, ‘I didn’t come all the way from Manhattan to see you castrate my first-born grandchild!’ And he did it himself. It was a real worry back then, you know.”

She was 98 when she told that story. She’s 100 today. Happy birthday, Grandma. We wouldn’t be here without you (obviously), and you shaped us into who we are. And for my part, I’m grateful to you for it.

Yes, happy birthday Grandma. I have never been the greatest grandson, but I am so proud of you and to know you, and do love you.