Stuffing, Pastrami, and Chopped Liver

by Smiley Poswolsky

Thanksgiving makes me think of my grandmother — when my sister and I were kids, my family would make the four-hour drive down from Boston to New York City to see her the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, waking up at dawn (we had to leave by 6:45 a.m.), so my father could beat the traffic on the Merritt.

For 50 years, Gran lived alone in a small, rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment, with a bathroom faucet that leaked, in a beautiful prewar building on East 10th St. in Greenwich Village. When the historic apartment building, built in 1928, was turned into modern luxury condos, selling for $1.1 to $5.2 million, and the regal wooden floors in the lobby were replaced by slick black-and-white checkered tiling like you’d find in a Johnny Rockets, Gran said, “They want someone to spend a million dollars for that shit?”

Gran’s apartment could best be described as prewar elegance meets flea market tchotchke heaven. Above the stove, which was never used except to boil water for coffee, Gran kept her collection of antique matchboxes and a basket of plastic fruit.

A gorgeous stained glass lamp hung over the kitchen table — it might have been from Tiffany’s, or maybe she just said it was — and wooden picture frames adorned the walls; one held an embroidered “No Place Like Home” placard, another a replica of Picasso’s “The Dance of Youth,” and another a piece of chocolate cake with a fork and knife cut out from an old magazine. Other frames were just empty.

On Thanksgiving, the five of us would cram around that tiny table, some sitting on stools, Gran in her green nightgown, the rest of us wearing t-shirts and shorts, sweating because the heat was always turned up to 80, regardless of the temperature outside.

We weren’t big on turkey, and Gran didn’t cook, so we’d order take-out from 2nd Avenue Deli for Thanksgiving, and the best part was always lunch the next day: hot pastrami, corned beef, rye bread, brown mustard, potato salad, cole slaw, sour tomatoes, half-sour pickles, chopped liver, and cinnamon raisin rugelach. This was our family tradition. “Who needs stuffing when you have chopped liver?” Gran would say.

A few years before she passed away, Gran was hit by a taxicab while she was crossing the street near Union Square. After the accident, she told the ambulance driver, who was headed uptown, that there was no way in hell she was going to a hospital above 14th Street, and to take her to St. Vincent’s. The accident didn’t stop her — she worked full-time until well past the age of 80, learning how to use a computer, and eating bacon cheeseburgers with me when we’d meet at Silver Spurs every Friday for work lunches while I lived in the city (“Don’t tell your father”) — but it kept her off her feet for awhile.

Toward the end, when Gran got really sick, as much as she still loved eating corned beef sandwiches and bacon cheeseburgers, reading The New York Times, and watching television during dinner (“If they ever take Jeopardy and Seinfeld off the air, I won’t have a reason to eat”), the pain became too much, and she said it was no longer pleasant for her to be alive. When I’d ask her if I could get her anything, she’d joke, “A knife.”

When my sister and I were young, we’d play “restaurant,” Gran in her nightgown and slippers, sitting on her favorite red armchair while she pretended to order food from me (the waiter), and my sister (the chef), who’d serve her plastic food.

I loved when she told me stories about spending her Sundays lying on the beach at Coney Island — sipping Cokes that were five cents, or having dinner at Ye Waverly Inn for $2.95, or how she paid $70 a month (“Which we split three ways!”) for an apartment on Bank St. in the West Village. “I had a boss who used to say ‘good morning’ to me every day,” Gran told me one of the last times we were together, “and I would say to him, ‘Must you scream at me?’”

This is my family’s third Thanksgiving without Gran, but when I celebrate tomorrow with friends in San Francisco, I’ll bring some chopped liver. If I can find it.

Smiley Poswolsky is also on Twitter.