My nana, a small-yet-mighty jewish woman

By Lizzy Rosenberg


I feel sympathy for anyone trudging through the ongoing pandemic with a living grandparent. To be honest, I feel bad for any adult with a living grandparent. For the last several years of my dear nana Sylvia’s life, I panicked about receiving the bad news every time my mom texted me and urgently requested that I call her. She was usually just calling to ask ordinary questions, such as what she should get my boyfriend for his birthday or what I wanted her to make me for dinner when I came home from college. That was up until I got the actual phone call that my nana had died.


She was 93 when she passed in 2016. Her health had rapidly declined after suffering from a coronary artery spasm a few months prior. One of her last wishes was that Trump would lose the election. Even though her wish didn’t come true, she’s probably somewhat relieved that she didn’t have to live to see “that evil son of a bitch” in office, as she would say.


My sweet, bite-sized nana was what many would describe as “quirky.” When she got too old to safely drive by herself, my mom and I started taking her on day-long shopping trips. This one time after checking out at Costco, she ran at full speed toward the exit with her cart. My mom said it was to “beat” other people to the exit, which to my mom’s embarrassment, she had done regularly when my mom was a kid.


Nana sprinted with a cart filled to the brim with various bulk items and crashed into a Costco worker by the door, who had the misfortune of checking receipts at that moment in time. I could tell he was annoyed and probably somewhat in pain because he was smiling through an obvious cringe. Despite her five-foot and 80-pound frame, Nana was tough as balls. The Costco employee, who was probably bruised, still drew a smiley face on her receipt, because who could get mad at a woman who’s quite literally just shy of 100 years old?


Nana continued to dye her hair until the end of her life and I was fully convinced she was invincible against grey hair. Long after she passed, I also learned that she went under the knife quite a few times. She was the same beautiful and confident Nana to me nonetheless. I thought her looks were natural, but she looked incredible anyway.


Throughout Nana’s life, I worried that she didn’t have enough “healthy” relationships. Her first husband (my grandfather) was a Second World War veteran. From stories I’ve heard from my family, it sounded like he had severe PTSD. He often woke up yelling in the middle of the night, convinced that his Brooklyn apartment was under attack. By the sound of things, Nana and my grandfather engaged in relentless screaming fights. My mom often wished they would just get a divorce. He passed away when I was three years old, and from then on, Nana often pretended to forget his name, solely referring to him as her “first husband.” The shade.


Nana and her son also had somewhat of a combative relationship. To this day, he still voices mundane complaints about her, brooding over the fact that she cooked with too much marinara sauce for his liking and that she nagged him about his affinity for Wonder Bread. I think he probably didn’t like that Nana always spoke her mind and felt no remorse about seeming too forward. She was a difficult woman, you could say.


Chocolate-covered espresso beans are usually delicious, but now they make me sad. Nana always loved them and they fit her personality to a tee — sweet with a slight bite. I insisted to my mom that I bring Nana some when she was in the hospital, but my mom was too nervous to tell me that she wasn’t going to be able to eat any of them after her stroke.


I was lucky enough to be present for Nana’s second wedding when I was 10. My cousin and I were her ring-bearers. Nana wore a beige pantsuit and looked awesome. I will never forget the way she looked like a badass 80-year-old in her Hilary Clinton-esque outfit as she stood under that chuppah. It was truly a sight for sore eyes.


My oldest cousin on my mom’s side called Nana “Dewey” because, for the first few years of his life, saying the word “nana” was a challenge. He continued to call her that nickname, even as he went to grad school. He included the term of endearment in his eulogy for her.


Nana never liked talking about her age or about her past. For Hanukkah one year, my cousin and I received grandmother-granddaughter bonding activity books, which prompted us to ask her questions about her life. Although I thought it was incredibly boring at the time, we participated and asked Nana questions. She became noticeably agitated and snapped at us as if we did something wrong. This was a rarity. My cousin and I took the hint and dropped the game. At the time I worried it was because she didn’t have enough joy in her life, but years later, I realized that she simply didn’t like letting on that she was just really, really old.


Nana didn’t approve of the man my mom dated when she was in her 20s. He was a goy (what Jewish people call a non-Jewish person) and that was apparently the entire reason Nana disliked him. Even though, like my parents and I, she was not religious in the slightest. I was worried about her meeting my boyfriend because he wasn’t Jewish. Nana asked my mom before she met him if he was “part of the tribe,” to which my mom responded, “you think [insert also incredibly non-Jewish name here] is Jewish?” Luckily, my boyfriend and Nana were able to meet before she passed and she took a liking to him quickly. Shortly before she died, she asked, “are you dating that boy?” She had met him a few times, but she was starting to lose her memory. I said yes. She told me that he’s a keeper and I trust her judgment — she was an incredibly wise woman.


Many grandmothers are perceived as weak and dainty, but like I said, Nana was strong. Her hugs were extremely painful — especially if I had a canker sore or a toothache. As my mom said, “she doesn’t have a gentle bone in her body.” I love Nana but damn, I did not love her hugs.


Not a day goes by where I don’t think of her or retell a story I’ve told a hundred times about her peculiar ways of doing things. I’m glad she wasn’t alive to see Trump elected and I’m thrilled that she isn’t currently isolated in her Connecticut condo alone. I constantly see parts of her personality in me and my mom through our attitudes, lack of patience and affinity for coffee. And, when I’m feeling especially sassy, I use the excuse that I’m channeling my inner nana, the feistiest little lady in all the land.

Recent Posts

See All

I KNOW YOU

By Sarah Perlmutter The pieces of a puzzle I gave up on last month, waiting on my living room couch. I know you ‘cause I saw you sneak a needle through my skin, swirling pink and purple intoxicating m