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The Deal We Made for the Good Life


The Harrison home in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  

We can’t live here and have Nana there,” I told my wife, Kathy, meaning her 89-year-old grandmother who lived in Los Angeles. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

We were walking through our leafy brownstone neighborhood in Brooklyn after dinner, trying to figure out what to do with Nana, who was making our lives increasingly difficult. Voice cracking with fear, some of it ginned up for dramatic effect, Nana called my wife whenever she had a problem, which was every day: She couldn’t get beef heart at the butcher shop to grind up for “the girls,” her Persian cats, or the garden tools were disappearing from her garage, or, more ominously, she had scraped the pump in the gas station with her Mercury Grand Marquis.

Earlier that day, Kathy had received a frantic phone call in her office in Manhattan when Nana had stumbled to the floor in her kitchen in California. Kathy had sat in her office listening to her grandmother crawl back and forth across the floor alternately wailing for help as if she were going down in the Titanic and muttering to herself about needing to feed “the girls.” Eventually Nana had pulled her diminutive self up on a chair and returned to the phone, but by then my wife was a wreck, tearful with worry and frustration.

“We can’t move to L.A.,” I said, just in case anyone might think such a thing were possible.

“That’d kill me,” Kathy agreed.

We had moved to Brooklyn in our mid-twenties, and the problem of Nana was a dilemma we’d conveniently subordinated to the excitement of getting married, starting new jobs, and forging an existence in New York. Kathy’s mother, an only child long divorced, was dead, as was my wife’s grandfather, and thus Kathy was Nana’s only living relative but for a couple of cousins twice removed. They could not be the “responsible party,” nor could any of Nana’s friends, who ranged from the aging hairdresser who gave her a rinse each week to the kindly and yet increasingly ineffectual housekeeper, herself no spring chicken, to the various doctors Nana saw, including the “toe man,” a wizard with the arthritic knobs and bunions of Nana’s feet. To put it plainly, the people Nana communed with on a regular basis usually expected a check for their services.

Moreover, Nana was by any measure difficult, by virtue of her age, her temperament, and her upbringing. She had lived long enough that the circumstances of her birth were of another era. She was born in Shanghai in 1899, the second daughter of a wealthy Jewish family who lived in the British Concession; their mansion was so large as to require the assistance of 40 Chinese servants. And this was just the beginning: She’d ridden the Orient Express across Russia before the Russian Revolution; she’d seen death, suffering, and pestilence as a girl in pre-Communist China; she had rebuffed some of the richest young men in Asia (“I could not possibly marry a man who calculated sums on the cuff of his shirt! Can you imagine?”); she’d driven huge motorcars and conducted love affairs in Nice in the twenties and thirties; and then, aware that the Nazis were coming, she’d moved to London. For reasons that remain mysterious, she left London for Southern California, of all places, and found herself a strapping widower who had no money but was a gentleman in every respect, and then had her first and only child at the age of 42.

Nana had been wealthy and intrepid on three continents, and no small measure of her sense of entitlement remained, even a generation after the money was mostly gone. She was still razor-tongued, never hesitating to tell anyone of her mistreatment at the hands of fate. She felt sorry for herself, having outlived her husband and only child. I’d met her just a few times. She fascinated me, but I didn’t exactly like her.

“There’s no sort of assisted-living situation . . . ?” I began again, euphemistically.

“Nana won’t go into a nursing home.” My wife shook her head at the horror of the idea. “And I don’t want to put her into one.”

We walked farther, passing one grand four-story Victorian home after the next. Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods had appreciated nicely during the boom, and it would be many years, if ever, before we could afford to buy one. Around us, we saw people coming home late from work, couples with babies, folks going out to dinner.

“Suppose we moved Nana here?” I said, scarcely believing what I was saying.

“You must be insane,” my wife sputtered.

“It will only get worse out there,” I told her. “You’ll be flying to L.A. constantly. She’s going to blow up the gas station one of these days.”

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