A friend of mine wanted us both to write a bit about why he supported Donald Trump and I did not, I told him I couldn't really do it, the issue is too personal, for me, too close for me to argue it in a thoughtful or reasoned way. Or to kid about it.
I think my grandmother Minnie is the reason why, and this week, just days after the birth of my first granddaughter, I am thinking about grandmother love, and whether or not there is guidance for me in my extraordinary relationship with Mindel Cohen.
A cousin sent me a photo of my grandmother that I had never seen before, she is on the left next to her cousin Rose.
My grandmother's Yiddish name was Mindel, her American name was Minnie. Our barn cat, Minnie, is named after her.
I loved my grandmother very much, she fled the persecution of Jews in Russia, along with the fortunate members of her family. Everyone there, she told me, wanted to come to America, because they knew they might be free and safe. Life was harder here, the streets were not lined with gold.
My grandmother was a proud and very strong woman, she raised three daughters in a small flat in Providence, R.I. and worked brutish hours in a small Mom and Pop store in the Jewish neighborhood there. My grandfather and she took turns running the store, she seemed to overpower him.
On Saturdays, she walked me a mile or so into downtown to the spectacular and gilded RKO Theater to see the latest comedy film. She loved Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields, but her favorite was Jerry Lewis.
Minnie Cohen did not understand ten words of English, but she howled and clapped all through every Jerry Lewis movie, opening her purse to pass out an inexhaustible supply of tootsie rolls, red dots, licorice and chocolate coins. And guffawing in her throaty Yiddish.
I can still hear her shrieks of laughter and the crackling of the chocolates and tootsie rolls.
Every time a police car passed by on our walk to or from the theater, she would push me into a doorway and throw herself in front of me. If the police came for me, it was clear they would have to get through her first. I never could convince her the police were not going to come for me, she never stopped throwing herself in front of me whenever a police car came by.
My grandmother was a first-generation immigrant, but she was a tough and determined woman, she guarded her family fiercely, she understood the horrors that sometimes lurked in the world. You could come to America, but you could never leave the other world. She could not bear to speak of it.
America was the promised land, she said, but sooner or later, she warned, they would come for the Jews, they always did. That was the history she lived and was taught. Once in awhile, we would watch TV and she loved to laugh at Lucky and Ricky and spit at the set if Richard Nixon appeared. She thought he was an evil spirit, a dybbuk.
She thought America was a miracle, you could actually come her and make a life for yourself and your family.
When I was sick, I was dropped off at my grandmothers, she would take me to a spare bedroom, turn up her clanky radiator, swatch me in blankets and mustard plaster, hot water bottles and boiled towels and sweat the poisons out of me. I could hardly breathe in there, but I could feel the fevers boiling right out of me.
When I was permitted to stagger out of the room, soaked in sweet and red as an apple, there was always milk and pie and candy, to reward me for surviving.
My grandmother, who called me "My Johnny," loved me as much or more than any human being has ever loved me, and her love sustained and nourished me through some of the darkest days of my life. This week, I've received hundreds of messages from mothers, daughters, grandkids, and grandmothers, talking about what it means to be a grandparent, responding to what I wrote about it.
Only two of the letters came from men. And lots of men send me messages.
The archetype, the stereotype, the mythic figure of grandparent love seems to be a woman, even though I know many men make wonderful grandparents and love their grandchildren completely. My granddaughter is only a few days old, and I am going to see her on Thursday, and I wonder if my grandmother is a role model for me.
Is that what I should be to Robin?
I think not.
The world has changed so much since I went to the movies with her. My own culture was limited to a squeaky transistor radio and some comic books. I had plenty of time to wander and spend with her, our trips to the movies were the most exciting things I was ever permitted to do for many years. And I spent hours sitting with her and watching the primitive TV of the time. I can't imagine sitting in her kitchen and trolling through an Iphone while she cooked.
I was freer to wander along on afternoons and weekends, nobody knew or cared that I often took the bus to grandma's house and sat with her while she cooked lunch or dinner, or went to help out in her store. I doubt my granddaughter will ever wander around Brooklyn by herself, or hop a bus to spend time on my farm.
My grandfather was a small, sweet man who lived very much in Mindel's shadow, he did as he was told and stayed quiet. There was no question who was boss, he often secretly turned his hearing aid off to spare himself her scoldings.
When I wanted to run away from home, it was easy enough to make my way to my grandmother's house, I don't think my granddaughter will have a life anything like that. I could stay as long as I wished and eat whatever I wanted. No one cared. And then there was the fact that Mindel spoke little or no English. I couldn't talk to her, she couldn't talk to me, not in words but that made her love and my trust all the more intense and obvious.
We always found a way to communicate with each other, and because I had to pay close attention, it seemed to mean more.
We talked in hugs, smiles, laughter, in the munching together on the sweets that were hidden all over her small apartment. Our dialogue was our great affection for one another. Whenever she saw me, she handed me a paper bag filled with the shiniest pennies – sometimes a silver dollar – that she had saved for me in her store. Each penny was hard-earned but she saved the best ones for me.
My granddaughter Robin's life will be nothing like mine, not in New York City, not in 2016 or beyond. Children have powerful new devices to amuse and distract them, they have little time to wander around a city and find their grandparents so they can hang out with them.
Minnie would be utterly astonished and bewildered at the modern life of a child, the ways in which they are supervised, their phones and pads, the fearful and claustrophobic ways in which they are raised. The helicopter moms and dads, the pressure they are under.
I think I learned more wandering around Providence by myself and hanging out with my grandmother than I did in all the years I went to school.
My grandmother did teach me about the power of love, I remember almost nothing of my childhood and rarely speak of it, but I remember every detail of her proud and expressive face and her cramped and stuffed apartment, and her funky old TV with its rabbit ears, and our walks to the movies and our time sitting at the TV and spitting at Nixon.
How she would have hated Donald Trump. His hair alone.
How sad that he has made the glory of immigration into such a nasty and fearful thing. My grandmother never raped anyone or took anybody's job away, she worked like a demon every day to make her own life, and to encourage me in mine.
I always understood that if it weren't for America, my grandmother would almost surely be dead, they eventually all did come for the Jews, and killed millions of them. I suppose that's what make it all personal.
I never quite understood what she said to me, and cannot remember many of her words, but she spoke in the universal language of love, I knew she thought I was special, and so, in many ways, I thought it might be true. In the photo, I see her eyes, they said everything that needed to be said.
She gave me permission to be special, she taught me not to care what others think.
I think there is magic in love, it is a universal language, and I know that children understand it, and that it alone can mean the world to then. They need it. I don't need to take Robin places or fly her to Disney World or make her the centerpiece of my emotional life or visit her every month.
I just need to communicate the idea of love to her. And trust. I hope to create some lasting memories of me in her consciousness.
If I can convey to her that she too is special, I will give her the same gift my grandmother gave me. The rest will have to follow and reveal itself. The donkeys will help. I imagine someone growing up in Brooklyn might see this farm as a mystical space. Or maybe it can't compete with an IPad. We'll see.
Our world has changed, and grandparent love will evolve, it will come to mean something relevant to its own time. Minnie's spirit will always hover over me, inspiring me to be loving and open. She will be sitting proudly in her chair, looking the camera in the eye.
I will be sitting in my big stuffed movie chair with Mindel watching all of this unfold, the crinkling of the paper around our tootsie rolls rising above our laughter.