Joan Rivers and the Brutal Honesty of My Jewish Grandma

Lior Zaltzman Illustration

Generally, the passing of celebrities affects me none. My Facebook feed fills up with heartfelt tributes, links to a flood of articles recounting their career and quotes from that particular celebrity’s most famous films, songs or shows. I casually glance, maybe even click, but I never really get absorbed, let alone shed a tear. I mean, I’ve never met this person, how could I mourn his or her loss?

Somehow with Joan Rivers, comedy legend, writer and celebrity fashion pundit, I felt truly and profoundly sad. It was the start of Labor Day weekend 2014 when Joan went into cardiac arrest during a routine throat procedure, and after several days in a medically-induced coma, she died at the age of 81. Maybe it’s that I could recite her scene with Miss Piggy in the Muppets Take Manhattan by heart, or that I watched Fashion Police every week or that she was still enjoying an extremely active professional life far beyond the regular retirement age. Maybe it was her unapologetic, brave comedic style that invited us to laugh at her personal insecurities as she plumbed the depths of our own imperfections.

More likely it’s that she kind of reminded me of my grandma, who had died just a few months earlier and who lived not far from Joan’s Upper East Side neighborhood. I was still emerging from the haze and sorrow of my grandma’s much-longer decline, and I remember thinking this was a tragically unfair bookend to a rather emotional summer.

In looking at their lives, there was something ineffable and endearing about the incredibly quick wit and complete commitment to brutal honesty Joan Rivers and my grandma shared. My grandma possessed a brash sense of humor, not skipping a beat in asking a friend who had recently converted to Judaism, why she’d want to do such a thing since the Jews had already suffered so much.

Both Joan and my grandma chose to handle the inevitable obstacles that 80 years on planet earth throws at a person through ceaseless self-reinvention. When Joan launched the first late night network talk show hosted by a woman in 1986, her mentor and longtime Tonight Show host Johnny Carson refused to speak with her ever again. In the aftermath of the talk show’s failure, Edgar, Joan’s husband of 22 years, committed suicide. Though it took decades, Joan climbed her way back to relevancy and public acceptance, winning Celebrity Apprentice in 2009 and hosting her own show on E as well as a weekly internet talk show called In Bed with Joan.

I’m not sure if Joan or my grandma swore more, though I think Joan threw around the c-word on a more frequent basis. My grandma meanwhile had a predilection for “bullshit.” Last December, she met my then-boyfriend during a stay in the hospital. As she casually tossed out a “fuck,” probably referring to the nurses who didn’t respond to her buzzer quickly enough, both my boyfriend and my grandfather rolled their eyes. They then spent at least five minutes deciding whether my grandma or I was more vulgar and why we felt compelled to use profanity so often. I think we tied.

In many ways, my grandmother was a terrible grandma. I’m pretty sure I only ever saw her cook a food item once or twice. She was blunt to the point of vaguely insulting. Like Joan, but without a microphone or a red carpet, my grandma never hesitated to tell someone she looked horrible in that outfit because did we really need everyone to see our chubby arms. She possessed a finely tuned sense of outrage, exhorting 17-year-old me that I really shouldn’t be so blasé about the war in Kosovo because this is another genocide, Becca, and as Jews we cannot ignore these things, ever. Her legendary impatience surpassed even my own. And yet those characteristics are part of what made her hilarious, memorable and ultimately, lovable.

My grandmother emigrated from Hungary after losing her parents in the Holocaust and had my mom at 20. She never finished high school, but somehow as a young mother in a new country she learned English and raised my mom and her two brothers while living the suburban dream in upstate New York. Despite the early love between her and my grandfather, they divorced and my grandmother reinvented herself again, making a new life in New York City.

She remarried and I grew up reveling in my grandmother’s glamour, her stylish Midtown apartment, her furs (They’re already dead! she insisted whenever we protested their political incorrectness) and her jewelry, which apparently spent the duration of World War II buried under the doghouse in her family’s Budapest backyard.

As the oldest of the grandchildren, it fell to me to indoctrinate her in the ways of American grandparenting. I may have failed. Never one to coddle or coo, the weeks prior to her visits were full of anxiety and lots of cleaning.

One of the legendary stories about my grandma is that first thing every morning, she read the New York Times obituary section. Even as she grew older and her sight failed, she still asked my grandpa to read it to her. Once, I asked her, “Grandma, why do you read the obituaries first?”

To make sure I’m not in them was her constant refrain. One time I asked, “What would happen if you did see yourself in there?”

She said, in her unmistakable Hungarian accent, “I’d go back to bed!”

Just as this spring gave way to summer, less than a month before her 85th birthday, my grandmother died. She had been sick for a while, and in the year leading up to it, most of my family had come to visit. I was lucky to see her on Mother’s Day, just a few weeks prior to her passing. Somehow, the fact of her death was not terribly shocking. In a way, it was almost a relief from the constant anxiety of waiting for that dreaded phone call. What I had not fully grasped was the aftermath of losing my grandma, and what continuing to experience life without her would be like.

I took home the candlesticks she had inherited from a childless aunt that were promised to me when I got married or she died, whichever came first. As I look across the room at the stately silver candlesticks now residing in my apartment, this realization that she never would attend my wedding or see my children, washed over me. I realized there were so many questions I wanted to ask her.

There were the usual questions you might have for an elderly or dying person. Did she have any regrets? What did she see/experience that she never thought she would? What were her wishes for her friends and family?

I also had some questions that were unique to my grandmother and one of these stands out above the others. How did coral become her favorite color? For as long as I can remember, my grandmother’s fingers and toes were glazed with the exact same shade of coral nail polish. Never once the classic French manicure, never red and certainly never something trendy like lavender or taupe. Her obsession with the color extended beyond the tips of her fingers and into her home decor. The living room carpet was hand-woven to include accents of peach. The hand-painted designs on the antique Herend china had an orange glow.

It was in her abandonment of both the nail salon and her weekly hairdresser’s appointment that we knew her health had truly begun to decline. Her hair, always coiffed, reverted to the naturally wavy texture we share. Her nails grew out unpolished.

Joan Rivers never had to suffer any such indignity. Her death came relatively swiftly, the result of a medical error, not years of decompensation and disease. To the end, she oozed the put-togetherness so characteristic of women in that generation. Surely, it’s no coincidence that two weeks prior to Joan’s death, we said goodbye that most glamorous of ladies, Lauren Bacall?

While it still pains me to think of losing these women, who overcame devastating obstacles and who defined themselves by their contributions to the world (however superficially), I take tremendous comfort in knowing they are somewhere together. Just some badass Jewish ladies, throwing shade, getting the best Zabar’s has to offer and asking each other, “Can we talk?”

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