Rose, my great grandma, used turkey neck bones to season soup. If my life were such a soup, Grandma would be the bones: she brought flavor and dimension to my world, enriching it in the same way that those bones created depth in her famous, healing broths. No sickness or heartache, no matter how big, could resist their curative powers.
Whenever I’m teaching Pilates, I think of Rose and those bones. “Necks are delicate,” I explain. The implication being: snap! “They take longer to strengthen than the rest of your muscles. Have patience.”
Grandma would be 120 today, only she’s been gone for two decades—dead now for longer than I knew her alive. She passed a few weeks into my first semester of college. Her birthday, and subsequent death day 11 days later, wrecks me every year. We were close. Bosom buddies. She lived with us in the downstairs bedroom of a cold, modern house that, only in her presence, or under one of her hand-crocheted afghans, transformed into a warm home.
Even though I kept her up at night, kicking, she often let me sleep with her. When I woke on her side of the bed to a “Hey, sleepyhead!”—my long, blonde hair in a heap—she’d reach for the antique silver hairbrush on the mahogany armoire and detangle the mess patiently. Her own hair was short and grey and smelled of cigarettes—until I convinced her to quit—and also of Ivory soap, which she used as shampoo and swore by.
“That soap got me through The Great Depression, Melissa,” she mused as I tossed an expensive conditioner bottle into the shopping cart and met her still-loving frown. “So did saving $1 a week, even if it killed me. It’s like I always say, ‘Watch your pennies, and the dollars will watch themselves.’” (She loved a good expression.)
Grandma, grating, and grease come to mind when I remember Rose, who not only made delicious soups with leftover poultry bones, but also, potato pancakes fried in Crisco, and a renowned imitation crab salad with celery. Her matzah balls, which bordered on toothsome, and her cheesecake, with its top-secret crust—teething crackers—were equally popular. She had so many specialties. Her own mother, like mine, was a caterer.
Grandma Rose saved the neck bones for her soups from Thanksgivings past. She also saved us—my mom Debbie and me—by acting as a keeper-of-the peace. She was in a unique position to referee because she understood us both so deeply, so well. “I used to get in trouble for reading under the desk back in grade school, and you get in trouble with Mom for speaking before thinking,” she said. Being direct was her forte. Another superpower of hers was knowing that I needed a “daily cry” to feel balanced. Afterward, I’d rest my head on her impossibly-large chest to feel safe.
Grandma called her bras brassieres, just like she called our Sub-Zero refrigerator The Frigidaire. The brassieres’ hefty hooks, which I helped fasten, went all the way down her back, and she was a tiny woman. (Years later, when working at a lingerie store specializing in large cup sizes, I’d marvel at the advancements in bra technology.) In Rose’s case, her undergarments could barely contain her unruly breasts, just as her slight frame could scarcely contain her giant personality.
An ex-New Yorker, Grandma was never without an opinion—“This meat is a little chewy, Deb”—or her adorable, cheapy cane with its worn, grey handle and accompanying hand-crocheted cap. The embodiment of a strong, Jewish woman, she exploded into rooms even when, in her late 90s, she rolled in by walker. Small but scrappy, sharp-minded (see: mental math) and sometimes sharp-tongued (see: chutzpah), Rose was bold, like her colorful discount clothing. It’s fitting that the hole I still feel in her absence is larger than the breasts I once lay against; larger than life, just as she was. Luckily, I still have pictures of her, framed on the end tables—where she kept and kissed an image of her own departed Maxy nightly—and the memories of the neck bones she kept for soup.
Marilyn was the director of my synagogue’s parenting center—the expert my first-time parents turned to for help with their “spirited” child: me. I remember dreading the sessions at Marilyn’s office as a little girl, not because I didn’t like her (on the contrary, I felt comfortable around her, like everyone did), but because she was another person telling me how I felt. She said things like, “I bet that makes you sooooo mad,” naming my feelings—always with her signature warmth—and then I went home to my family, and they renamed my behavior: “You’re out of control,” they’d say in frustration. That made me so mad because I was entirely in control—just angry. Marilyn allowed me to own my emotions, rather than be ashamed of them. She showed me that I didn’t need to be fixed; I simply needed someone to listen.
Four Augusts ago at my wedding, Marilyn—in her flowy black pantsuit with black and green flouncy coat, matching chunky necklace, and fresh blow-out—beamed at me from her front-row seat. In my twenties, she was an intermediary between my mom and me just as Grandma Rose had been. When one of us had a bone to pick, we called Marilyn. She convinced Mom to help me pay for my own place because, as she framed it, I needed to feel independent, even if I wasn’t yet, financially. When I was a first-year teacher, earning a decent-enough salary, Marilyn pivoted: “I think you should be able to swing things on your own now, honey.” She was fair, unlike other therapists who always sided with whomever was footing the bill. Marilyn had long-since retired. She moderated, gratis.
Marilyn once told me I was carrying a backpack full of bricks, and if I could just unload one of them, my body would feel lighter. I was in my senior year at UCLA, planning to go abroad that spring, so long as I could first complete the five required courses in the term before leaving. I was overwhelmed. I’m frequently overwhelmed. “Take off a brick,” she urged me. Had I been complaining about an overcomplicated soup recipe that day instead, Marilyn would have told me to leave out an ingredient: Forget the carrots. Nix the parsnips. Buy boxed. She was practical that way. The bouillon cube to Grandma’s labor-intensive neck bones, Marilyn solved by simplifying.
“But if I withdraw from a class, I won’t be able to go abroad,” I countered. We were sitting at the Glen Deli, eating bagel chips.
“So, you’ll go another time. You’ve been to France already. You’ll go again,” she said matter-of-factly. She was always so rational. So calm. So exactly what I needed.
Truthfully, I was scared to go off to Paris alone. I very much wanted to take off a brick, to withdraw from that fifth course, so I’d have to back out. With her blessing, I had permission to take something off my too-full plate, and the lesson she taught me—to lighten the load—is one I keep returning to all these years later, whenever my tendency to overcommit rises to the surface like boiling broth.
Toward the beginning of the pandemic, I shared some lockdown musings on Facebook—namely, how I had all the time I needed. Marilyn’s time, meanwhile, was in short supply. “Your writing is so interesting. I’m so enjoying following you,” she wrote on my wall after wishing me a happy third wedding anniversary. (She wouldn’t live to see our fourth.) “Do return to your singing. Your voice is beautiful. Please don’t neglect your gift. Sending all my love.” She wanted me to know she saw me. She’d once named my feelings. Now, as she quietly died of cancer, she named my talents.
Two months later, my mom called me crying to tell me of Marilyn’s passing. We’d just been celebrating life. My papa—Rose’s son, Larry—turned 99 the very day that Marilyn left us. Mom doesn’t often cry. Not like I do. Since girlhood, I could conjure tears at a moment’s notice, just as Grandma intuited. I’ve always been that way: “so sad” in addition to “so mad.” But Marilyn’s optimism, even in death, inspires me. She held Mom’s hand metaphorically through my toddlerhood, when Grandma was still in New York, and into my adulthood, after Rose had died. At my wedding, Marilyn quite literally held Mom’s hand too. She sat there with her coiffed blonde hair radiating positivity, her infectious smile—accentuated by a pink lip—more radiant than her jewelry.
A counselor by nature, even without the professional credentials, Marilyn was familiar with the full spectrum of human emotions. At the end, she knew joy alongside pain. She was a widow, dying through turbulent political times. Dying during COVID. Still, in her last communication with me, she signed off with happy emojis: a heart and a kiss.
I hope she voted early.
I hope she’s feeling so much peace.
I know her memory, like Great-Grandma Rose’s, will continue to be a blessing.
As blessings go, I was blessed for loving them. For being loved by them: these two Jewish grandmother-figures who related to me fully even though only one of them was actually my relative; these women who offered their ear and their laps, their recipes and their advice, their wisdom and their support. Sometimes, that support was a shoulder. Sometimes, it was a spot beside them on the couch. And sometimes, it was a chat—whether a just-because phone call, which Grandma always ended with a “so long,” or an as-needed intervention.
These beloved matriarchs—may they rest in peace—kept the peace. What a gift to act as mirrors, so Mom and I could see ourselves clearly and find our way back to one another. What a gift to love us with their cooking and their hands, without judgement or holding back. What a gift to love us the way I still love them: from deep in my bones.
Melissa Greenwood holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles and has been featured in Brevity; The Los Angeles Review; the Los Angeles Review of Books; Meow Meow Pow Pow, where she was nominated for a best small fiction award; The Manifest-Station; Moment Mag; and elsewhere. She publishes poetry and nonfiction and lives in LA with her husband, where she teaches Pilates, and he teaches elementary school.