S e a r c h i n g F o r S e i n f e l d
"But Bubbe, how can you be related? He's Seinfeld, you're Katz."
"On his mother's side. A distant relative."
"Anyway, what's the difference? You like his show, why do you have to be related?"
"When I watch that show, Mameleh, I feel like I'm back home with my family. Especially that Kaplan. Just like my Uncle Charlie."
"You mean Kramer."
"His name is Kramer."
"Are you sure? I thought it was Kaplan. Kaplan was my Uncle Charlie's name."
"No, no. Uncle Charlie's last name was Krinsky."
"Right! That's it, Krinsky. Kramer, Kaplan, Krinsky. Who can remember?"
Bubbe got a little laugh out of this, and out of most things she said and did. It was a gift she had, to laugh at herself. I unfortunately didn't share it.
"My Uncle Charlie was a saint. When my father died, if not for him, I don't know. We would have starved. And the little Jewish fella, he reminds me of my brother Ralphie, he should rest in peace."
"What little Jewish fellow?"
"The little fat one. You know. The high strung one."
"Yeah, yeah, George."
"George is Jewish?"
"Sure. All of them, they're Jewish. Even the girl."
"But his last name is Costanza."
"Maybe he's Sephardic."
"Bubbe, let's go down to the lounge. They're serving ice cream."
At almost ninety, my Bubbe was the highest functioning resident in the Sons Of Zion Adult Residence in Brooklyn. She'd only been there almost a year. During that time she learned something about herself she never knew, and that was that she was a naturally funny person. Living with her family her whole life, even after she married, she didn't stand out. They were a whole bunch of crazy characters, and, from all her stories, it seemed to me my grandmother was the sanest of the lot. "Now that I'm living amongst strangers from other backgrounds," she informed me recently, "I realize I can make people to laugh."
"Ah, who wants ice cream. It doesn't agree with me. Listen Darling, isn't my birthday coming soon?"
"In a month."
"I'll be ninety or ninety-one?"
"That's some age!"
"You're a tough old bird."
"You know, I was the youngest in my family."
"Still, I'll die some day. Even the youngest dies."
She'd made this observation before. Many times. The first time I heard it, it struck me as almost interesting. Now, like everything she repeats endlessly, it’s annoying. Even more annoying than reading the same books to little kids over and over. The very young and very old thrive on repetition. For me, in the middle, I needed something new every day. One new thing that had happened was getting my first short story published in a literary magazine my friends called "The Obscurantist." Very funny. Not much circulation. But it didn't matter. The story was nominated for an award. Bubbe knew all about it and was excited thinking I was going to be famous.
"Next thing you'll write a movie for Steven Spieler."
"Spielberg. Spieler was your Cousin Irma’s name."
The next time I mentioned it, it was because I was desperate to tell her something when she asked me what was new.
"So, what kind of story is it? A comedy?"
"No. More like a drama, a slice of life."
"Since when can you slice a story? Is it funny at least?"
"Why not funny?"
"I don't write humor, Bubbe."
"Why not? What would be so terrible to make people to laugh?"
"It's not my style. I'm not like you."
"It’s in my blood,” she said and reached for her walker. She stood up. “I have to go make a report.” And she went into the bathroom. When she came out she asked me, “Did you see the one where the little Jewish fella has terrible gas and he doesn't want to cancel his date with the pretty gentile girl so he brings along a dog, and blames it on the dog?"
"No, I didn't. What happened?"
"Well, it's not so pleasant, but at least he got to have the date. She begs him to tie the dog up somewhere so they can be alone and what he fuss he makes! He won't leave the dog alone."
"So, the girl gets fed up and that's that."
Bubbe loved this Seinfeld episode, probably because she made it up.
"I'm telling you, Mameleh, this show is going to be a big hit."
"Bubbe, it's already the top show in the country."
"See? I knew it. This Seinfeld, is he married?"
"What's the difference? You have your eye on him?"
At this she laughed deeply. "Yeah, sure, I'll make a play for him," and she batted her eyes and swung her body suggestively. She was very pretty for almost ninety. Her blue eyes were still clear, her white hair was thick and wavy. Her clothes were clean and chosen with care. Only her sneakers revealed any hint of her age. They were too large. I had to stretch them for her because she was getting an ingrown toenail.
My nickname, as a child, was "sour puss." Hard to believe I came from the same gene pool as Bubbe. Just watching that Seinfeld show made me uncomfortable. Why were four healthy adults doing nothing all day, going nowhere relentlessly? And that unlocked door just annoyed me. In New York City yet! If Jerry would have locked that damned door, half his problems would have disappeared and the series would have dried right up. But beyond all that, my problem with the show was that I didn't like any of them. Not one. They weren't nice people. And I doubt they'd have liked me either if they'd met me.
"Now my Uncle Charlie, he was a fancy dresser," Bubbe told me. "He never went out without
spats. And my sister Sophie's nickname was ‘pishegeh’ because she was always having to go to the bathroom. One time in winter she wouldn't go to the outhouse because it was too cold and so she peed in the sink. So, we called her ‘pishegeh’. I was so fat in those days you know what they called me?"
- - - -
My mother and father lived in Florida. They had offered to take Bubbe with them last year, when they moved, but she refused. "Too many old farts," she complained. We all tried to reason with her, to explain that she couldn't live by herself anymore. If she didn't move to Florida she'd have to go into an adult residence. At first she wasn't happy about this but when she learned that an "adult residence" wasn't a nursing home, she was more willing to pay a visit and see for herself. The Sons Of Zion Adult Residence was trying hard to be upscale. It was carpeted, clean, decorated and even had a kosher kitchen, which delighted Bubbe and my parents, but not me.
The place was depressing: old people sitting around doing a lot of nothing in the lobby, waiting outside the dining room a full hour before meals. Old people in the lounges, asleep, their heads sunk into their chests. Old people with their keys hanging around their necks. A real swell place.
To tell the truth, I didn't relish the idea of having to visit Bubbe there either. And, with my parents
gone, I knew I'd be the only one who would. The whole idea of “visiting” bothered the hell out of me also. Once someone is in a home, excuse me, a “residence,” you’re not really family anymore. You’re a “visitor.” Still, she wouldn't move away.
Bubbe and I had shared a room during my tortured teenaged years. She would give me sly looks when I came home from a “date.” I never had any real boyfriends, only friends who happened to be male. So they weren't really dates anyway. There I was thinking there was something wrong with me for having friends instead of dates and then I'd have to face down Bubbe who expected me to be having real dates complete with kissing and necking and God knows what. It wasn't easy. At eighteen, before I went away to college, I asserted my feminism by buying a copy of Playgirl magazine. I hid it from Bubbe but she found it and waved it in front of me, the centerfold flapping obscenely: “My God!” she exclaimed. "He's like a horse!"
When I came home on visits and shared the room, she plagued me for details of the boys I was going out with. I avoided being alone with her during those years. Afraid she would embarrass me. Now, I spent hours alone with her, immune to embarrassment.
“Do you remember my old friend Mrs. Sunshine?" she asked me. “My friend from the old building?"
“You mean your friend with no first name?" I teased.
Bubbe laughed. “Of course she had a first name, but I never called her Sarah. For some reason she was always Mrs. Sunshine. She was like a sister to me, we were so close."
“What happened to her?" I asked. (She died in a car accident.)
“Well, she was in a car and they said she had a crash but I always thought she did it herself."
“Why would she do that?" (Shame.)
“She had two daughters who were no good. They slept with boys and didn't try to hide it. I knew all about it but I never said anything to her. Of course not. When she would complain to me I would make like I didn't know. But I knew it was eating her up. She couldn't show her face."
“How terrible. How did the girls take it?" (They killed her.)
“They didn't even tell me! No. I went to see her one day and they said ‘Didn't you hear about Ma? She's dead.’ I nearly plotzed. They were no damned good. They killed her."
“And her husband?" (He couldn't satisfy her.)
“He was a nice man, always made a living. I think he was a painter. Even in the Depression they had what to eat. But he was a little bit of a schlemiel if you know what I mean. A very quiet type. She told me he couldn't satisfy her. He would get on top and finish up one two three do re mi and fall asleep. She was a normal woman, Mrs. Sunshine. One day she said ‘Faye, let's go to a dance.’ So, I went. My husband was dead so why not? She danced all night with one fella and how much do you have to see to know? A nice man. Everyone knew him. He was the sweet potato man."
“Her husband never knew?" (He was a nebuchl.)
“Noooo. He wasn't that type. He went to work and put food on the table. A little bit of a nebuchl, you know what I mean? But a nice guy. I told her she had to live a little. One time my brother Ralphie, he should rest in peace, he had his eye on her. My brother who looks like that George, the little Jewish fella.”
My mother had called me from Florida about arranging a ninetieth birthday party. She wanted it to be a surprise but I figured Bubbe should know. It would give her something to look forward to, and, an event like that could fuel our conversations for a long time. Once I told her, I also had to promise to take her shopping for something new to wear.
We were in the elevator of the parking deck at Sears when she told me she wanted me to invite Jerry Seinfeld to her party. We were lost. I had taken the wrong elevator and there was no wheelchair access to the store from where we ended up. The arrows all pointed to a dark corner. And Bubbe needed the bathroom. I had to take the elevator back up to the parking lot, push her across to the other bank of elevators and go down again.
It took twenty minutes to negotiate Bubbe and the wheelchair into the bathroom and help her with her stretch pants and bloomers. We had only managed to get back to the elevator and make it to the third floor when she said she had to go again. So we took the elevator back down and went back to the bathroom. It was after the second return trip that I realized we were stuck in some kind of Sisyphysian tragic-comedy, gave up and took her back without buying anything.
“Lasix,” the nurse said. “It’s a diuretic. It’s best to take her out in the afternoon since we give her the pill first thing in the morning and it makes her go.”
Thanks for that little tidbit.
I went back to Sears myself and bought her a sateen top with a v-neck because she insisted it made her neck look longer.
“Can you call him for me, Sweetheart?" Bubbe asked, as she tried on the new clothes.
“Jerry. I would call but I can't hear on the phone."
“How would I reach him? I don't have his number. Bubbe…he's so famous. Everyone wants to reach him. Why would he even take my call?"
“Because we’re family."
A week later Dr. Neufeld, the psychiatrist, asked to meet with me. He was the only shrink I had ever met who hated to talk to people. Or, maybe it was only old people. At first I was confused by the guy. I thought he'd welcome the chance to talk to Bubbe when she was first admitted and was very unhappy. I thought there was, at least, a spiel they gave the new admits to help them adjust. But not even that. After five minutes he offered her drugs and she looked at me to verify what she thought he had said. I told him to forget it and from then on he never bothered with her or me.
“Well, let's get to the point. I think your grandmother is in the early stages of dementia."
“And why do you say that?"
“Have you noticed her fixation on this Seinfeld show?"
“She talks of little else lately."
“To you. To me she talks about the same stuff she always talked about: her distant past."
“Well, the staff and I feel that her interest in the show and certain episodes in particular, has become obsessive. If this continues I'm afraid we'll have to recommend moving her to a nursing home."
“Look, Doctor, this is the top show in the country right now. Obviously a lot of people are ‘obsessed’ with it. In her case, she just has nothing else to talk about."
“She also insists that Mr. Seinfeld is a relative and that's an indication -"
“Oh! But she's right," I blurted out.
He was dubious.
“There is a remote relationship. I asked my parents."
He chose to ignore it. "Still, I think she might benefit from some drug therapy for now. Low doses of course."
“How will she benefit specifically?"
“I think she'll be calmer. You know, she does have excitable episodes, usually when you're not here. And, they seem to be occurring more frequently."
“She's excited about her birthday party next month, that's all."
The episode in question happened a few weeks before the party. Bubbe’s room had a door with a lock but we all decided it would be best if it was kept opened since Bubbe and her roommate both tended to lose their keys. The place had a problem with theft but they wouldn’t admit it. So, we locked Bubbe’s wardrobe. When she lost the key the lock had to be broken. The third time it happened they told her they couldn't afford to keep replacing the locks and so she became agitated.
“It's not safe!" she cried. “Things are always disappearing. I can't take it! Sometimes I forget, sure, it's true. But they have long fingers. They take and take!"
I told her I would pay for as many locks and keys as she needed but it still took half an hour to calm her.
It was true she was missing some of her stuff. Her nicest clothes never seemed to make it back from the laundry and sometimes things would even disappear from her closet. One of the nurses tried to tell me Bubbe herself sometimes threw away her clothes. They claimed they had found one of her blouses in her garbage can. Yeah, right.
- - - -
“So, when are you going to get married again? And have children? An only child should have a lot of children,” Bubbe asked on my next 'visit.’
“It’s not the same.”
“Who said the same? But at least if you had a lonely childhood you shouldn’t have a lonely old age.”
“Am I complaining? I have no complaints. Everyone here is nice to me, why should I complain?”
“Well, maybe I’m just having a lonely pre-middle-age.”
“So, nu? Find yourself someone, you won’t be lonely.”
“I found myself someone and I was still lonely. Now he’s gone and I’m lonely some more. The only difference is, before I was lonely and angry. Now I’m just lonely. At least before I had the anger to distract me.”
“You know that episode where Jerry makes Kaplan return the keys to his apartment?" she asked just before I left for the day.
“I don't think I've seen that one."
“Keys are very important."
I actually had to subscribe to the Internet. My free trial membership had expired and I needed to chat with people in the Seinfeld fan club to see if there really was an episode like the one Bubbe described. Thank God there was. Still, I couldn't see what all the excitement about the Internet was. Maybe because I wasn't a very social person. “You're more the type who likes to keep to herself," Bubbe once told me.
- - - -
“Why do they stay down there?” Bubbe asked me. “It’s so hot you could plotz.”
She was off on her anti-Florida tirade again.
“They’re all old farts down there anyway. And no single men.”
“You think there are more single men up here? In Brooklyn?”
“Enough that you could find one if you wanted to.”
“You think I don’t want to?”
“I should know? You never talk.”
“I’m only divorced a year.”
“It’s not like death. You didn’t even have to wait a year.”
“I wasn’t ‘waiting.’ I just didn’t feel ready.”
“All right, all right. But writing all the time is no life for a pretty young woman like you."
“I wish I could write all the time. I haven’t written anything new in months…maybe even a year."
“So what did you send to that contest?”
“Oh, that was some old thing I had lying around.”
“Listen, Sweetheart, try writing comedy. I’m telling you, it’s good for you.”
“I don’t know what’s good for me anymore.”
Two weeks before the party I was busy with the caterers. The small affair had mushroomed and now included friends of my parents who had managed to stay in Brooklyn against all the odds.
“Bubbe, we have about forty people on the list. Is that too much you think?”
“How could it be too much? It’ll be lively. Especially if Cousin Jerry can make it. Maybe he can write a few jokes for the occasion. I tell jokes too but it’s good to have a real comedian in the family. A professional is a professional, even with comedians.” She stopped to think. “You know that episode where Kaplan thinks the scale is wrong because it says he weighs too much?" Bubbe asked.
“I don't think I've seen that one."
“He thinks his scale is broken because it says he weighs seven pounds too much. So he runs into Jerry's apartment to try his scale and it says he weighs seven pounds too much, so he's convinced all the scales in the city are broken so he runs around town like a chicken without a head, weighing himself on every scale he can find and he decides that something is not right."
“Yeah, he gained weight."
Bubbe laughed at this. "Of course. You're right. But he doesn't realize it. He thinks the magnetic north pole is broken!"
“The magnetic north pole? What's that?"
“It's not the same as the North Pole. It's only in science.”
She paused, a memory forming. “You know, I was so fat when I was little you know what my nickname was?"
Back at home I asked around in the Seinfeld fan club and no one had ever heard of this "episode." For the hell of it, I also asked if anyone knew anything about Seinfeld's mother's maiden name or whether there were any Katzes in his family.
“The magnetic north pole?" my mother asked, long distance. "Did she make that up too?"
“Nope. It's in the encyclopedia. I checked." I asked for advice on the whole Bubbe/Seinfeld thing.
“Try suggesting someone else to her. She used to like Milton Berle." Then she paused and I knew there was something else coming. “You know, Sweetheart, it may be time to check out some local nursing homes. Or, we can find one down here."
“Oh, he's an old-timer," Bubbe said, dismissing Berle. "Anyone can put on a dress. That's not talent. Did you invite Cousin Jerry?"
I'd given up trying to explain to her that you can't just call Jerry Seinfeld on the phone any old time.
“You know that doctor, Newman?” she asked me.
“Neufeld,” I corrected.
“He was in to see me yesterday. He asks questions he thinks I don’t know why.”
“Oh yeah? What kinds of questions?”
“What I do with myself all day. I told him I read and watch television and have my meals. I think he wants to get me all mixed up.”
“Why would he do that?”
“He never liked me. I can tell when a person doesn’t like me.”
“Why wouldn’t he like you?”
“He doesn’t like Jewish people.”
“But I think he’s Jewish, too.”
“You never met a Jewish anti-Semite? The worst!”
“Well, I’m not crazy about him either, but I don’t think he dislikes you.”
“Then why was he yenta-ing around?”
“It’s his job to yenta around. He’s a professional yenta.”
“A professional yenta? That’s a job for me! You have to go to college for that?”
I laughed. Then she asked, “Did you reach Jerry yet?”
A week before the party I learned I had won the writing award. In addition to publication in a special volume of winners, I would receive one hundred dollars. I told Bubbe and she was delighted for me.
“I always knew you would make something of yourself. Ever since you were a little girl you would write. Remember when we went to the bungalow colony?"
(You would spend all day writing.) “All the children would be playing and swimming and you would be sitting under the tree writing. You would spend all day writing. How old were you then?"
“I was eleven."
“What could such a little bit of thing like that have to say?” (You were so serious.) “And you were so serious. Like the world was on your shoulders. All the women used to ask me, Faye, what is she so busy writing about?" With this she leaned towards me and pinched my cheek. “So what will you do with so much money?" she teased. “Take a trip to the mountains?”
“I think a hundred dollars will just about cover the toll on the Verazzano Bridge.”
“Actually, I’m going to take a writing workshop I've been wanting to."
“A writing class?"
“Already you won an award. What more can they teach you?"
“It's a comedy writing workshop."
“You're a smart girl," she said with a smile.
Two days before the party I visited Bubbe and reminded her again that her party was coming up. She hadn't forgotten but was surprised to learn it was imminent.
“So who's coming?" she asked. “Did you reach my brother Ralphie?" She had never before spoken Ralphie's name without adding `He should rest in peace.’ I was dumbfounded by her question and retreated to silence but she didn't notice. “So, who?" she asked again.
“Mom and Dad and Cousin Andy. And a lot of friends."
“And Mrs. Sunshine?"
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that she also forgot that Mrs. Sunshine was dead. “She couldn't make it. She lives too far away you know."
“Oh, of course. I forgot. And Cousin Jerry? Can he come?"
On my way out Dr. Neufeld intercepted me. He felt it was his duty to let me know that he had brought in a colleague to evaluate Bubbe and that they concurred: she was on the express train to nowhere.
“It occurred to me, listening to her talk about these shows of hers, that it's a possibility she's making them up. I don't watch the show myself, do you?" the doctor asked.
“Yes, I do, Doctor, religiously. It's my favorite show. And every episode my grandmother has ever referred to, I can personally attest has aired. I mean, can you really seriously believe that a ninety year-old deaf woman with a sixth grade education is capable of making up entirely believable plots for the top rated show in the country?"
I got on-line mid-afternoon and asked around on the Seinfeld Fan Club for anyone who resembled Jerry. Several people referred me to agencies that handled celebrity look-alikes. One agency was even in Manhattan. They were pretty sympathetic when I explained what I needed and why, but with such short notice they couldn't guarantee anything.
“Call me as late as you need to. I'll wait for your call," I told the woman. It was already four o'clock and she had left messages for three different guys who supposedly looked like Jerry. Two of them even lived in Brooklyn. I backed out of dinner with my parents, who had arrived the day before. Their old friends, the Greenspans, were having a luau and wanted me to come. Everyone was going to wear something Hawaiian. But I stuck by the phone waiting for a Jerry to call.
At eight o'clock I was told the two Brooklyn Jerrys were available and would come to my house for an interview at nine if I would be willing to pay an extra fee.
“They'll come together?" I asked. "Won't that be awkward?"
“Oh no, they know each other. Besides, it's getting too late to schedule any other way."
At nine o’clock sharp one of the Jerrys arrived. I’m no Seinfeld expert so when the second Jerry didn’t show up by nine thirty I hired this one on the spot. As he was leaving, the second Jerry rang my bell. I’m pretty sure they must have bumped into each other on the stairs. As soon as I opened the door I realized that I made a mistake hiring the first one. This guy looked much more like him. So, I hired him, too.
The day of her party, Bubbe was all decked out in her best stretch pants and the sateen top I had bought her. Her rouge was a bright pink mass on each cheek, making her look like an aging starlet.
When the first Jerry arrived, Bubbe was beside herself. “So nu! Look at this! It's Cousin Jerry! Come Tateleh, tell me what's new. How are your parents?"
“Well, Mom's in Florida, Aunt Faye. And Dad has passed on..."
“Oh sure, of course. And you? What are you doing with yourself?"
A flicker of confusion crossed his face. After all, didn't Bubbe know he was a big star? “Well, most of my time is spent on the television show. Your granddaughter told me you watch it all the time."
“Of course I do! You're a big hit! Come, let me introduce you."
Bubbe dragged Seinfeld Number One over to me and introduced us. “See Darling, I told you he would come. Sometimes you have to open your mouth."
Number One just smiled politely.
When Seinfeld Number Two arrived, Number One was schmoozing it up with the guests and eating hors d'oeuvres like crazy. Number Two was reluctant to be introduced to Bubbe. “You can’t introduce us both as Seinfeld!” he insisted. “She's not that demented.”
I wasn’t convinced.
“Can't we just say I'm a different relative? Like, Jerry's brother or cousin or something?”
The guy looked so uncomfortable with this gig that I decided to give in.
The party was being held in a “lounge” just off the main cafeteria. Through the glass doors I could see the staff filing past on their way to the conference room down the hall. I dragged Number Two over to Bubbe and finally introduced them. Then I grabbed Number One and brought him over also.
“Bubbe, let's go introduce the family to Dr. Neufeld," I suggested. "He's right over there," I said, pointing.
“Come," she said, and looped her arms through each of the Jerrys standing on each side of her.
Number One was quiet, with a small mischievous smile. Number Two held Bubbe close, as if she really were his relative.
I opened the door, and led the two Jerrys and Bubbe outside.
“Dr. Neufeld," I said, as he approached, clipboard hugged to his chest. "I'd like you to meet my Bubbe's great cousins, Jerry and Barry Seinfeld." Both Jerrys thrust out their hands and Dr. Neufeld shook, reluctantly, first one then the other, as he studied them, his eyes peering out over his glasses, squinting, not saying a word.
“Jerry is very successful, Doctor," Bubbe informed him. Then she turned to Number Two. “Of course you are too, Bubeleh, but I don't think anyone would recognize you from television."
“No, I don't think so. Proctologists don't usually get their own sitcoms," Number Two said without missing a beat.
“But you make a nice living anyway," Bubbe added.
“Just bought a townhouse on the Upper East Side," he said with a small, humble nod. Who was this guy?
“Well, congratulations Mrs. Katz. It's a beautiful party and you have a lovely family," Dr. Neufeld said, looking at me as if I were the one with creeping dementia.
“Thank you, Doctor. I get such pleasure from all of them. Did you get a piece of cake?"
“I have to run to my meeting now but maybe I'll stop in for a slice when it's over."
“Of course! There's enough for an army!" Bubbe said. Then she took both Jerrys by the arm, using them instead of her walker, and headed back inside to her party. I ran ahead and held the door for the three of them, and as they shuffled through, Bubbe gave me a wink.
Copyright 2018 Rachel A Levine