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My 93-Year-Old Grandmother and Me

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My grandmother, Carol Levitan, who I call “Gagy,” is the sharpest, funniest woman I know. And she’s turning 94 years old this month. Yes, 94 years old. I challenge anyone to get in her way. Her mind just hasn’t aged. I don’t even know how that’s possible.

Her body is in pretty good shape too: she still golfs 9 holes and plays bridge. She’s usually so busy on various dinner dates that I can’t even get her on the phone. Everyone loves Gagy from the mailman, whom she asks to help with her emails, to all my close friends. And of course, our family.

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Doesn't Gagy look beautiful? This was in June! Credit: Julie Skarratt

Gagy and I have always had a special relationship. When I was little, my brother and I used to go down to visit her and my grandfather in Florida many times a year. Where were my parents, come to think of it? My mom just put us on the plane at LaGuardia and waved as we flew off. My brother and I got so used to flying unaccompanied that we just chucked those little, plastic airline wings in the seat pockets in front of us, forgotten. (Now as a mother of four kids, ages 10 and under, I’m filled with anxiety even thinking about my brood flying anywhere alone!)

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That's me with Gagy and Papa Kal in 1978.

Gagy has always made me laugh. When my parents would go out late at night and I couldn’t fall asleep, I’d call her collect. Her nickname for me was “pussy-cat,” which over the years got shortened to “pussy.” I’m too embarrassed at this point to stop her. One time when I called collect, the operator mispronounced my name so badly that Gagy wouldn’t accept the charges. Crying, I called back and said, “Collect call from Pussy-cat.” She laughed and laughed.

“I can’t fall asleep,” I’d tell her, the long curls of the phone cord wrapped around my tiny fingers in the dark.

“Eh!” she said as if shrugging her shoulders. “So? You’ll be tired. There are worse things.”

It always made me feel better — no big deal! — and I’d curl up and fall asleep.

Gagy is the one I called from my mother’s car phone (remember car phones?) when my parents were going through a contentious divorce and my mom wouldn’t stop crying in a parking lot in Connecticut. I didn’t know what else to do.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she said. “Put your mother on the phone. Enough of this nonsense.”

Gagy used to smoke. A lot. When she finally quit, she still continued to sneak one a day saying, “Oh, just one never killed anybody.”

When she’d see another woman about her size or larger walking in front of her, she’d say loudly to whoever she was with, “Am I as fat as she is?”

Always preoccupied with weight, Gagy would come down hard on me, either by writing me a handwritten note to document my increasing or decreasing size or by playfully saying, “So pussy, when are you going to go on a diet?” She only stopped going to Curves herself last year.

Gagy was there for me when my best friend was killed on 9/11. She was there for me months later when I still couldn’t get over my grief. She listened and listened. She knew just what to say. Although I must say, I could’ve skipped a few letters she wrote telling me what she thought of a few boyfriends of mine.

Gagy likes to stir the pot. She has written countless “letters to the editor” and mini articles that she occasionally publishes in her housing newsletter. Her most recent piece was about how it felt to be asked out on a date by a 90-year-old man. She said no.

At holiday meals, when everyone starts fighting, she’ll say, “Oh for goodness' sake, cut that out.” Then she’ll ask for some more Scotch and butter up the waiter saying, “I’m an old lady. How about another drink?”

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This was us in 1990!

Even now when I call her and ask how she’s feeling, she quips, “I’m 93 years old. How good could I feel?” All she wants to hear about is me. How I’m doing. How I’m feeling. Can she do anything for me?

Last year when my husband and I went to visit her, we all walked down to the car in her building’s parking lot to go to dinner.

“You’re going to drive, right?” My husband whispered to me.

“No, Gagy is,” I answered.

He stopped in his tracks. I could barely get him in the car.

“Yeah, I’m driving,” Gagy said. “What are you, scared?”

A few weeks ago, she called me and I didn’t have time to call her back right away like usual. We typically speak at least once a week. Time got away from me in the midst of kid-related choas and before I knew it, I’d let almost a week go by without returning her call. When I finally called her back, I couldn’t believe it: Gagy was crying.

“You’re the person I love most in the entire world and I didn’t hear from you. For days! Are you mad at me? Are you okay?”

Oh Gagy. It broke my heart. I realized then that throughout my entire life, 40-plus years, I’d never seen or heard her cry. Not even when my grandfather died. Or her sister. Or almost all her close friends. She could always find the positive, make a joke, laugh it off.

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During one of my visits to Florida.

But now she sounded scared.

“You know, I had to go to the hospital last week,” she said. “The doctors don’t know anything. Did I tell you my doctor has Alzheimer’s? But he’s been my doctor for so long. How could I switch?”

“Gagy!” I said. “Let me find you a new doctor.”

But I knew that wasn’t it. She was afraid. Losing a bit of her unwavering optimism. Her hip might be broken, she said. Her stomach was acting up again. Did I know she’d lost almost 20 pounds without even trying?

Like many other times, I offered for her to come live with my husband, my kids and me, but she “wouldn’t think of it.”

I’m going down to visit her with my husband. No airline wings for our unaccompanied flight from New York this time. I hope she’ll tuck me in again and say “bless you.” I hope she’ll comment on my weight. I hope she’ll ask me if I’m writing again. If I’m happy. If I know that I’m her favorite person in the world.

I hope we’ll celebrate her 94th birthday together with her trademark optimism, humor and a big dose of chocolate cake. Because without Gagy’s sense of humor to get me through life, I don’t know what I’d do.

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I love you, Gagy.

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