This story is completely true. (At least, to the best of my recollection.) None of the names have been changed because no one is innocent. It is, by its nature, a sad story. But it is also a darkly humorous story about life, death, love, lies, family and the funny ways people react in times of tragedy. Spoiler Alert: Grandma dies.
My father, my grandmother and my mother.
When I was growing up in New York, my mother’s family lived in Florida. We visited them a couple of times a year when I was very young. As a result, I didn’t really know my grandmother, Millie, very well. I only knew that she was very sweet and loving to me. At the time, that’s all I needed to know. My father, Lou, was close to retiring and my mother, Muriel, wanted to be closer to her family. So they followed the typical Jewish migration of those years and bought a condominium in Miami.
It was a large three bedroom, three bathroom apartment on the 20th floor with an L-shaped balcony that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay. It sounds nice, I know, but I hated it there. They used to say that Florida was God’s waiting room. For me, Florida was more like God’s kitchen. Except he left the house in a hurry and forgot to turn off the oven. But it was their dream home and I was just a kid, so I didn’t get any say in the matter.
When I was 14, while we were still living in New York, my mother took a trip to Miami to start decorating the condo. It was sometime in September and I had just started a new school year, so I couldn’t go with her and my father stayed home with me. I distinctly remember it was in September because I was watching a new show during “NBC Premiere Week” in the living room when Lou got a phone call in the kitchen that pre-empted my regularly scheduled program.
At first, I didn’t know what was going on. I heard my father yelling into the phone but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I was more interested in the comedy I was watching on TV than the drama going on in my own home. Finally, I got up during a commercial to see what all the brouhaha was about. My father was still yelling into the phone, “All right! Calm down! I’ll take the next flight out! Just tell everyone to calm down! I’ll be there as soon as I can!” And then he slammed the phone onto the receiver so hard that I thought it would shatter into a thousand pieces.
This scared me. I can imagine the expression on my confused and innocent face when I asked him, “What’s the matter?” But I can’t imagine what my shocked and traumatized expression looked like after he shouted at me, “Ah, your Goddamn grandmother just jumped off the fucking terrace!”
(It was classic Lou. But you really have to understand my dad in order to know why he handled this situation the way he did. If you haven’t seen my recent blog post about him called “Lou’s Lessons”, you might want to read it for context.)
He was Pissed. Off. I’d never seen him that upset. If my grandmother wasn’t already dead, I think he would have killed her. The rest of that night is a bit of a blur. As I recall, I wasn’t really able to process what happened. I just went back to watching my show in a state of shock, while he got back on the phone to book a flight for him and to make arrangements for me. He dropped me off at the home of my friend Eugene Kravitz, whose parents were kind enough to take me in. I understandably had trouble falling asleep. Every time I closed my eyes I kept seeing my grandmother plummeting to her death, like a scene from any number of old Hitchcock movies.
Several hours later, probably around three or four in the morning, the phone rang in the Kravitz house. It was my father calling for me. He told me that he misunderstood what happened, that my grandmother had died but she didn’t jump off the terrace. She just had a heart attack while she was on the terrace and fell down. This new information helped me a lot. After that, the horror subsided and I was finally able to fall asleep. It wasn’t until a few days later, when my father returned home, that I learned the re-traumatizing truth.
Apparently, my mother was in the condo with her sister, my Aunt Tessie, Grandma Millie and my Aunt Rose, on my father’s side. They were all gathered for the traditional Yom Kippur dinner. For those of you who don’t know, Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Hebrew year
where Jews fast for 24 hours to atone for their sins and then end that day by committing the sin of gluttony.
They were having a perfectly nice dinner when my grandmother excused herself to go to the bathroom. She was in her late 60’s (which was considered very old in those days) and was gone for an inordinate amount of time. So the others became concerned and went to see if she was okay. But she wasn’t in any of the bathrooms. So they looked in the bedrooms, but she wasn’t in any of those either. Having no place else to look, they went onto the terrace to see if she’d stepped out for some air. There they found a patio chair, pushed up against the railing, with my grandmother’s shoes in front of it. (She was a short woman who could not have made it over the railing without climbing onto something.) When my mother looked over the railing, she had the rare experience of seeing her mother splattered in the parking lot 20 stories below.
The view from our terrace.
When my father got there a few hours later, one of the first things my mother asked him was, “What did you tell Richard?”
“What do you mean, what did I tell him? I told him his Goddamn grandmother jumped off the fucking terrace.”
“Lou! You didn’t! Call him right now and tell him you misunderstood.”
He objected because it was so late, but he did what she told him to because that’s what married men do.
I know all of this because my father came home, after the funeral, without my mother. She had to stay behind to deal with the sad details one has to after the passing of a parent. The way I remember it, he had just walked in the door and put his suitcase down when he said he wanted to talk to me. He spoke to me like a racetrack tout giving an inside tip on a horse, “So, you remember when I called and told you your grandmother had a heart attack and fell down on the terrace?”
“Well, that was bullshit. You grandmother jumped off the fucking terrace. Your mother made me call to tell you that.” He then proceeded to tell me what really happened before wrapping it all up with, “But don’t ever tell your mother I told you.” Then he went into his room to unpack his suitcase, leaving me with a lifetime of emotional baggage.
For the next 10 years, I kept my father’s secret. It wasn’t until after he passed away that I finally told my mother I knew the truth. I figured I couldn’t get him in any trouble at that point. But there hasn’t been a worse kept secret since Liberace pretended to be straight. There were blood stains on the concrete below our balcony for over a decade. Despite their best efforts, they were never able to completely clean them off.
It was only about a year after Millie decided to literally “take a flying leap” when we moved into that condo full time. I went to high school there. When my classmates found out what building I lived in they asked me if I knew about the lady who jumped to her death there. It became so uncomfortable for me that I started making bad Henny Youngman-type jokes about it. I’d say things like, “That was no lady, that was my grandmother.”
My grandmother never left a note explaining why she killed herself and we will never know why she chose to do it that way. For my mother, it had to be an unimaginably painful tragedy. We only ever really talked about it that one time, and she didn’t even want to discuss it then. For my father’s part, I don’t think he ever forgave his mother-in-law for doing that to his wife. I don’t know why they didn’t just sell that condo, but they lived there for another 15 years. Which would be like Roman Polanski renewing his lease after the Manson Murders.
As for me, it was a lot to deal with as a kid. Over the years, I learned to cope with it through sympathy and humor. It turned it into another familial memory and an amusing anecdote, just one more example of how we put the “fun” in “dysfunctional family.” I’ve been writing a lot about my unique family members in my blog lately. And I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. I know every family has their share of crazy relatives. Mine just seems to have more than its share.
I had a girlfriend once who, after meeting my family for the first time, told me, “Now that I’ve met your relatives, I’m surprised you’re not a lot more screwed up than you are.” I chose to take that as a compliment.