In My Grandmother’s Closet
I was sure that I could have been a beautiful girl. I had lots of practice. By the end of fifth grade, wearing my grandmother’s dresses had become a routine for me. It might have started out as a ploy to get attention from my notoriously bored grandmother, but slowly it turned into a genuine interest of mine.
Actually, truth be told, my infatuation didn’t start out with the clothes. It was more about doing imitations. I was gifted with an innate ear for mimicry, and by ten years old I could impersonate almost everyone I saw on television. It just so happened that the people I was most interested in impersonating were women. Go figure.
My grandmother loved the imitations, and they became a staple of her Friday nights. She had Atse pop some popcorn, and the two of them settled onto the sofa in the living room, eager to watch the show.
“Do Julia Child first. Atse loves Julia Child,” my grandmother said.
“That’s right,” he said. “TGIF! Tell us what you’d do to that chicken, Julia.”
“Then this is for Atse,” I said, winking. “First you take the chicken,” I screeched, “and fold the skin over the anal cavity. This makes room for that delicious rosemary stuffing. I know I enjoy a bird that’s stuffed in more ways than one.”
And while my grandmother and Atse would be laughing, my grandfather would be stewing in the corner. “This isn’t funny,” he’d say. “He could be doing something else, something with a ball. Something in the park.”
“Oh, Howard,” she’d scoff, “it’s Friday night. The only people doing anything with balls in the park are pedophiles. Go on, Matthew. Do something else. Do Zsa Zsa.”
My grandfather would throw up his hands and retreat back to the study.
I’m not sure if it was a natural consequence of examining the attitudes and personalities of so many women, but I had always been drawn to their clothes and then to the biggest closet in our apartment, my grandmother’s. My grandmother’s closets had the best mirrors in the house --- floor to ceiling, 180-degree angles --- and I’d entertain myself there alone. One quiet afternoon, while my grandparents were out and Atse and the maid were downstairs, I slipped on a pair of my grandmother’s pumps. My grandmother’s feet must have been very petite, or my own abnormally large, because the shoes fit perfectly. Like they were made for me.
But just standing there in Chanel pumps seemed somehow incomplete. I looked around and was drawn to the dresses and skirts. My grandmother had an outfit for every occasion, even for horseback riding. (I never saw her touch a horse.) The clothes called out to me. Put us on, they were saying. You know you want to.
I hadn’t thought of trying on a dress since Elaine brought me that Ms. Wood dress back in the third grade. But these dresses were so different. They were stylish, and I could imagine them floating around me like a cloud if I’d just put them on. I thought girls were so lucky to have such fun clothes. Boys’ clothes were all so dull. Nothing boys wore looked like a cloud. Pants were tight until they started sagging in the back. Dresses always kept their shape --- at least on my grandmother they did.
So I caressed the lonely fabrics that hung in my grandmother’s closet. They were silky and soft, and that just made me want even more to try them on. Still, I hesitated. It was one thing to do female impressions or wear dresses to make fun of your teacher --- or so I thought --- and another story to do it in private. Certainly that wasn’t normal. It took me weeks to gather the courage to pull one off its padded hanger. It was actually my grandmother who suggested I go for it.
I was impersonating a friend of hers. “Oh, Sophie,” I said. My voice was high, and I stretched the ends of my words. “You simply go to Henri and ask him to wash your hair a second time. It’s like a spiritual experience,” I said, touching my grandmother’s shoulder. They’d had this conversation during one of the weekly poker games my grandmother hosted for Upper East Side society women she wanted to con out of some money.
Recognizing the conversation, my grandmother laughed. “It’s a good thing you live with me, or my life would be all over CBS.” Then, as if remembering something, she got up and went to the closet. She took down a lavender skirted suit and studied it for a minute before turning and saying, “Here. Put this on.”
I eyed the suit with confusion and desire. Was my grandmother teasing me? I must have been staring. She soon became exasperated, the way she did whenever anyone kept her waiting. “Put the god-damn thing on already. You’re not having surgery or anything.”
I grabbed the suit and carefully slipped on the jacket. The fabric sliding against my skin was bliss. It was like putting on a whole new identity. I swore to myself right there that one day I would have my own dresses like this --- maybe makeup, too --- but first I knew I’d have to ease my grandparents into the idea.
This was a start for now, though. I held up my hands, imagining I was under a spotlight, and then I saw my grandfather standing at the doorway of their bedroom.
“This is a bad case of déjà vu,” he said, and I knew he was remembering coming into my room and finding me impersonating Ms. Wood.
“What’s the matter?” asked my grandmother. “I think he looks pretty good.”
“Good?” he growled. “What is he doing in that getup? This isn’t good! Why are you encouraging this?”
She looked at me and shrugged. “I think it looks fine. He just doesn’t know what fun is,” she said, gesturing at my grandfather. “No-Fun Howard, that’s what we’ll call him.”
Then she held out her arms for a hug, and I ran right into them.
I was never exactly starved for physical affection, but my grandmother made me work for it. Hugs weren’t free. “What have you done to deserve a hug?” she’d often ask me. She’d lock her arms to her sides or fold them across her small chest like a Jewish genie. It was almost impossible to penetrate the Jewish hug genie. “So tell me what you’ve done to deserve a hug,” she’d say. “These are very expensive.”
I lacked the ability to construct a reasonable argument --- so much for going into law or politics --- so I once threw myself down and grabbed her ankles so she couldn’t get away.
“Hug me!” I shouted, kicking myself around in a circle on the floor like Homer Simpson. “Hug me! Hug me!”
“Nope,” she said softly, pretending to examine a nail.
“Just give the boy a hug,” my grandfather said. “Come here, Matthew, and I’ll hug you. Forget about her.”
I looked up at my grandmother. She eyed me skeptically. I looked back to my grandfather, whose arms were wide open. I loved my grandfather, but he gave out hugs like John D. Rockefeller gave out dimes to needy children. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I begrudgingly crawled over and leaned in.
“That’s nice,” said my grandfather, patting my back.
“Yeah, it’s great,” I said. I tried not to sound sarcastic, like my grandmother.
Not wanting to be outdone, she huffed and said, “I might be interested in a hug.”
And just like that I tossed my grandfather aside --- almost knocking him down in the process --- and ran and jumped into my grandmother’s outstretched arms. She smelled so wonderful --- like Chanel No. 5 --- and I would have stayed in her arms forever if she had let me.
After my grandmother showed me that dressing up was okay, my imitations became a full-time comedy circuit in our apartment. To create acts, I didn’t discriminate based on age or color. Mine was an equal-opportunity muse. I scoured television and film alike, looking for distinct voices and a definitive sense of fashion.
When I finally got the nerve to ask for my own dresses over breakfast one morning toward the end of fifth grade --- “for performances only” --- my grandmother’s face seemed to light up. “What a great idea!” she said. However, my grandfather drew the line. “Absolutely not!” He crossed his arms and then pointed at me. “I’ve had enough of this business. You. I’m putting you in Little League this afternoon.”
I looked to my grandmother, hoping for a reprieve.
She shook her head gravely, obviously nervous that her free entertainment would be lost, and proposed a compromise. “Howard, what about voice lessons?”
My grandfather scratched his chin. “What kind of voice lessons?” he asked softly.
“Whatever kind you’d like. You’re the boss.” She smiled sweetly. I began to laugh, but my grandmother turned and glared. I shut up. And my grandfather, who loved to be flattered, brightened at her idea. “How about he learns some Sinatra or Tony Bennett? He could be a crooner!” He went back to reading the newspaper, and my grandmother rolled her eyes.
I gripped the table, on the verge of blurting, “But I don’t want to be a crooner!”
My grandmother must have sensed this, because she quickly changed to a subject less emotionally charged: politics.
A week later Eric showed up at our apartment. He was a small, androgynous man who, I later learned, played piano in a cabaret downtown. My grandmother asked him to come over when my grandfather was out. Later, when my grandfather asked about my voice lessons, I heard my grandmother lie. “I found a great coach!” she said. “He works with the Metropolitan Opera.”
“Great!” He beamed. “Matthew the Tenor. I can see it now.”
She smiled. “I had you in mind when I found him.”
He paused, reliving his own Plácido Domingo fantasy, and strolled off singing something from La Boheme in Italian. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath, and I let it out, relieved that my grandfather was happy.
My grandmother shook her head. “There really is one born every minute.”
During our first lesson, Eric asked what kind of music I was interested in learning.
“My grandfather says that I should try to learn opera. He said opera or Sinatra.”
My grandmother called out from across the room, “How about musical comedy? Don’t you think that would be fun, Matthew?”
I nodded. “Sure.”
Eric smiled. “That’s my specialty.” He began playing the score from Funny Girl on our piano.
“And he’s Jewish, too!” said my grandmother. “Eric, you’re perfect. Maybe you could teach him something from Hello, Dolly!”
Eric paused on the keyboard. “There really aren’t many male singing parts in that show.”
My grandmother waved his comment away. “Who wants him singing those parts, anyway? I’m not wasting a Saturday night on Michael Crawford.”
“What about Grandpa?” I asked. I was afraid that when my grandfather heard me sing show tunes and not Sinatra, he’d be angry.
“Matthew,” said my grandmother, “what do you want?” I looked at her. I looked at Eric. They both watched me. I hated when she asked me questions like this. I just wanted to make everyone happy. I wanted my grandmother to laugh, and I wanted my grandfather to smile, too --- and sing along. “I want to sing musicals,” I said.
My grandmother grinned and clapped. “That’s my boy,” she said. “You’ll be famous if you keep practicing. You could probably bring back the whole musical genre!”
Famous! If that were true, I reasoned, if that could really happen, then my grandfather wouldn’t care that I was keeping this secret. So, after I belted out a number that would make Streisand proud, I kept my mouth shut.
Boarding school is only a hop, skip, and a donation away.” It was a threat my grandmother had made for years, but I never took her seriously. Then one afternoon, just after I started my freshman year in high school, I came home from a walk in Central Park to find my suitcases packed and sitting at the foot of the staircase. When I asked my grandmother why, she let out a heavy sigh and mouthed the words Boarding school.
A popular kid in my English class, Johnny Byatt, who honestly had the face of a mouse, found a tube of Super Glue next to his father’s stash of porn. So what does he do? He brings the glue to school and whips it out while our teacher, Mrs. Wolff, is walking around during silent reading. “What does Super Glue have to do with porn?” he asked. “I just don’t get it.”
A few of us sitting near Johnny looked at the Super Glue skeptically, as if it unlocked the secrets of adult sexual desire, but I was the only one who had something to say. “It means your dad’s a perv, is what it means,” I whispered, glancing back to see Mrs. Wolff in her stocking feet helping another kid a couple rows back. “Put it away before she busts you for talking about your perv dad and his pornos.”
I nodded appreciatively. She was forever taking off her shoes and massaging her bunions. She’d walk around barefoot, stinking up the classroom. Every math class was a show starring the ten corn kernels she called toenails. As the bell rang, he threw the tube of glue over to Johnny and then flung the shoes on my desk.
“I’ll take these,” Mrs. Wolff said, snatching them out of my hands. I was about to say something, but when she tried to drop the shoes to the floor, they wouldn’t budge. She shook her hands, and the shoes wobbled but wouldn’t fall. They were stuck to her hand. Johnny and Mike ran into the hall, laughing wildly as they escaped. I couldn’t move; I could only watch my teacher’s face graduate from mild curiosity to panic to anger.
“Matthew!” she screamed. That was my cue to run. By the time the principal found me in third period, I had a whole story worked out in my head. It involved a science experiment and a new kind of bunion cream. I was still polishing the finer points, but he wasn’t interested. I had been expelled.
“What something?” my grandmother asked. “You and a box of grapefruit? You can’t glue people to their shoes and expect a thank-you. Now I have to go and buy your teacher a pair of shoes so her kids or her cats or whatever the hell she has won’t go hungry.”
I tried in vain to explain that it wasn’t me, but they wouldn’t listen. My grandfather was mortified. The only thing he could say was “expelled” followed by “the shame,” and I couldn’t tell if he meant me or the actual expulsion. I assumed if I waited long enough, he’d run out of steam, as usual. He would come around and realize this wasn’t such a big deal. It was high school --- didn’t people pull pranks all the time in high school? The only thing that kept nagging me was that this prank hadn’t even been my idea!
But I expected that kind of reaction from my grandfather. It was my grandmother’s take on the expulsion that surprised me. “This is so disappointing,” she said, shaking her head. “You go from one school to another: I don’t know what to do anymore.”
“It’s nothing personal,” she said, attempting a joke, but I didn’t think being thrown out of my house was very funny. Was she seriously looking me in the eye and telling me to leave? If there was something wrong with me, surely she was to blame! I had watched her throw tremendous fits in department stores all my life. She encoded whatever genetic defect I was programmed with that kept getting me expelled from Manhattan’s finest schools. Yet I was the one being sent away.
So my grandfather had been pulling these strings. That didn’t really surprise me, but it still stung. What had happened to him and me? I wondered. We used to be so close, and now we fought all the time over nothing. Okay, so being expelled from school isn’t nothing, but did it really warrant sending me away?
“He’s not feeling well. In a few days, he’ll call you, and you’ll make peace. You know he can’t stay mad at you. Maybe you can work out a deal. If you show him you’re improving, he can try to get you back in a school here. As it is, no school in the city wants you. You’d think there was some kind of list.”
The next day, as we were driving out to the school, I learned that I hadn’t already been accepted. My grandmother was taking it on faith that I would be, and so she had packed my bags prematurely. I was hopeful the school might still reject me, allowing me to return home, but my grandmother laughed at that. “Matthew, these schools are run by businessmen. It’ll cost me, but there’s no way they’ll say no. They’re too greedy.”
Located in the heart of Connecticut, this boarding school had been my grandmother’s choice because of its reputation for taking in “talented youths,” which was code for bad seeds and morons, and assisting them in making “fine choices.”
As we waited outside the headmaster’s office, I looked around the walnut-paneled anteroom. An American flag stood in the corner next to a picture of President Bush. “I heard that teachers beat kids in places like this,” I said.
“It’s not that we... doubt your grandson’s academic ability. I can see by his test scores that he’s a gifted student.” He put down a thin folder and picked up another, this one at least an inch thick. “But his disciplinary record, Mrs. Rothschild, is also very impressive.”
“That’s why in my house we rarely watch television. If we do, it’s the occasional PBS special. However, when Matthew started attending his last school, he made some dangerous friends. That’s what led to all these shenanigans. I know that this is the best place for him now. It worked wonders with my son when I brought him here in 1968. He’s very successful now.”
I could not believe my ears. She was lying --- totally bullshitting this man --- and he sat back and nodded, as if they had some secret understanding about “troubled” children like me. I was enraged, but I knew better than to speak out against my grandmother, so I stood up and walked to the window, where I surveyed the new lawns on the quad. They were quite green, and it was still warm enough for kids to be sitting under trees, reading. Some of the leaves were already changing color in anticipation of fall.
The headmaster folded his hands underneath his chin, framing his face like a cherub who’s seen holier days. He licked his lips. “When I was last in New York attending a conference, I had the opportunity to take in some of the museums.”
This is exactly what he wanted, a glorified insurance policy. But he couldn’t say it out loud, so instead he laughed. “No, I want you to loan it to our museum here at the school. I know that our admissions committee would look favorably upon your application if they understood your deep commitment to the school.”
My grandmother closed her checkbook and stood to shake the headmaster’s hand. The headmaster said he’d take care of the committee --- I could start classes the next day. My grandmother and I walked outside to her limousine.
“Three hundred years your grandfather’s family had to toil in the ghettos to afford that painting. All so that you could bribe your way into this goyishe high school.” She threw her hands up and laughed. “I don’t even want to think what college will cost.”
She smiled. “Try this time. Please,” she said, and adjusted my collar. “It’s hard to keep bragging about my grandson when he gets kicked out of every school he attends. Not everyone considers that an accomplishment. And if you straighten out, I can probably talk your grandfather into letting you live at home again.”
After my grandfather died, I had been living at home and attending the same school in the city for about two years when my grandmother suddenly announced I was going back to boarding school. The topic seemed to appear out of nowhere, and I was more surprised than hurt. One minute we were watching reruns of Designing Women in the living room, and the next she was telling me to vacate the premises. I waited for further explanation, but none came.
I asked what these things were. She studied the carpet, as if the weave contained a list of hidden passions and she was taking her time to choose the most exciting item. “I don’t know. Swing on the chandeliers. Slide down the banister. Lots of things.”
My grandmother was not the kind of woman who spared anyone’s feelings, so I figured she meant it. The last time I was sent away, I was hurt, though I grew to appreciate my grandparents’ position. I had been a terrible nuisance, always in trouble --- but I wasn’t anymore, at least not publicly.
And I had to admit I wasn’t broken up about leaving this time. I’d never say this out loud, but I was growing restless in New York. Almost the only person whose company I shared was my grandmother, and while I enjoyed it, and loved her, I also wanted to be around kids my own age without feeling guilty. Occasionally people from school would invite me out to parties or movies or skating in the park, but did I go? No. Instead I sat around watching The Nanny with my grandmother, Atse, and Gloria. I knew that my grandmother wasn’t technically alone with our staff all around, but I felt like I had to be there.
Of course, that was my fault, not my grandmother’s, but since she hadn’t objected, I assumed that things were going well. That she liked having me around. Maybe I’d misjudged the situation? Involuntarily my mind drifted back to my former roommate, Steve, and my face went all hot.
I wondered when she became such an authority on boarding schools around the world, but I let it drop. Instead I imagined life at a new school, where nobody knew me. I could join the swim team again or play tennis. I had been using a personal trainer at the gym in our building, and I was in the best shape I’d ever been in. I had no love life and no idea how to fix this, but that was nothing new. At least away at school, I could finally have a social life. So, after winter break, I packed my bags and went off to a new school just outside Boston. I took new classes. I met a whole new group of kids. I actually made friends.
And if I wondered constantly about my grandmother, too --- what she was doing with all her free time, her Matthew-free life --- I didn’t have to wait long to find out. She had been sneaking out of the house and driving. When my mother called me at school to report this, I had to laugh. “It’s not funny,” she said, but I ignored her. I had this vision of my grandmother dressed as a cross between a race-car driver and 1930s stunt pilot. I could see her in the classic convertible Jaguar my grandfather kept in the garage, flying down Fifth Avenue, weaving in and out of traffic with Static buckled into the passenger seat. Her scarf was blowing in the wind and maybe she even had on some goggles, too. Oh, yes, I thought it was mighty funny.
My grandmother’s bad driving was notorious. It was so bad that the only living person who remembered her as a driver --- her sister, my Great-Aunt Beatrice --- would shudder whenever you asked her about it. We joked that if she hadn’t been such a bad driver, she wouldn’t have met my grandfather.
After my grandmother had totaled three cars by her sixteenth birthday, her father made her a deal: “You can always use the family chauffeur,” he told her, “so long as you find a husband who can drive by your twenty-first birthday.” At that point, my great-grandfather believed, her inability to drive would be her husband’s problem. My grandmother admitted to me shortly before I went back to boarding school that this had put a serious crimp in her style. “I didn’t want to get married. I thought married people were like wallpaper. Boring.”
My great-grandfather had noticed my grandfather’s late-model Packard parked on (where else?) Park Avenue before he even learned his name --- and when he found the owner in a nearby restaurant, he dragged the boy home and set him up with his daughter on a blind date. “Just don’t take my car” was his only rule. Things must have gone well, because they were married a few months later --- on my grandmother’s twenty-first birthday --- and she would not drive for another sixty years, until after my grandfather’s death.
It was our maid, Gloria, who called my mother to tell her that my grandmother was sneaking out to drive, and my mother immediately made my grandmother promise she would stop. “She crossed her heart!” my mother told me over the phone. “What else could I ask for?”
“I don’t know,” I said. Sophie Rothschild crossing her heart? That was a promise less binding than Rabin and Arafat’s handshake. “Maybe honesty? I once saw her promise a doctor that she’d go on a diet. To his face! Then she went outside and bought us extra-long chili cheese dogs from a street vendor. We ate them right in front of the doctor’s window and waved at him.”
My grandmother was a pathological breaker of promises. She knew she wouldn’t follow any diet just as surely as she knew she’d take the car keys again one day. So, not wanting to waste energy fighting, she made promises. Promises were easier than arguments. As I listened to my mother, I couldn’t understand why I was the only one who understood this.
“I don’t know how you let her talk you back into boarding school,” my mother complained. “Now there’s nobody to watch her.” That wasn’t true. Atse was there, and so was Gloria, who was almost as devoted to my grandmother as Static was. But my mother liked to have something to complain about, and besides, I liked it when she called. Since I had gone back to school, she called every week from her London town house. She updated me on my grandmother’s antics from across the Atlantic, as if I weren’t talking to my grandmother every night. I wasn’t sure why my mother was doing all this. It wasn’t like we ever spoke regularly before; why was she suddenly so chummy? When had my mother actually turned into ...a mother?
Don’t get me wrong, I was elated. Her phone calls made me feel special, like I was her confidant. She needed someone to talk to, and I was that someone. We were finally starting to have a real relationship. I just didn’t know how it had started. And if I didn’t know how she’d started to care about me, how could I stop her from getting bored with me again?
After we hung up, I sat at my desk, staring at the wall. I heard some guys at the door, which was ajar. One of them opened his coat and revealed a bottle. He pointed down the hall, to his room. The other guys motioned for me to come and then hurried along, anxious to get the party started. I got up to join them, but then I thought about my grandmother at home, alone and bruised.
“‘Let’s hear it’?” I said. There were more guys walking down the hall. I was going to miss the fun again. I sighed. “I’m not the one with anything to tell. I haven’t been out joyriding all night long like some people.”
“I don’t want any of your fake promises, old lady. I don’t want to be sitting up here worrying about you all the time. That’s what I want. I’ll have you know I’m missing a perfectly good drinking party right now because of this.”
I knew this wouldn’t be the last I heard about my grandmother driving, so I got up and went down the hall and played drinking games until I was buzzed and laughing and unable to worry about it anymore. I wasn’t in New York. What could I do?