Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

The night my grandmother died

Marta Herz, my grandma.
Marta Herz, my grandma.

Fourteen years ago this month, my grandmother died in her bed.

Grandma was 86; a German immigrant who came to New York in the early 1940s with her husband, Curt. She worked a series of blue-collar, make-it-here jobs (sweeping a movie theatre floor is one that stands out) before ultimately landing a gig as a clerk at Macy’s—which she probably held for 20-something years.

Through the decades, as I rose from tyke to boy to man, Grandma became one of my best friends. She was old and wrinkly and outdated, spoke with a pronounced accent, lived in an apartment at 801 West 181st Street in Washington Heights, couldn’t ride a bike, always brought us chocolate bars, enjoyed classical music, told the same stories repeatedly, dug Ed Koch, refused to consider moving to assistant living. I was also living in the city in the mid-to-late 1990s, so we’d see one another, oh, every two or three weeks. A movie. A diner. Whatever.

On a day in November, 1999, I visited my grandma for a lunch date. She wanted to go to the Riverdale Diner, I believe, which was a bit of a hike from her apartment. I was in a rush … didn’t really wanna invest the time. So we ate at the Hilltop, a shithole dump across the street. She had eggplant. I don’t recall what I was served. It almost certainly was gross. A night or two later, Grandma went out to eat, then to a concert, with her friend.

My phone rang at, oh, 9 pm. I was sitting in the kitchen of my tiny apartment, rolling around on a black office chair. It was my mom. “Hi Jeff,” she said. “I have something very sad to tell you …”

I hopped into a taxi and rushed to Grandma’s apartment. The door was open, and there were a couple of cops in the kitchen. I told them who I was, and they offered condolences. I peeked into the bedroom, and there was Grandma, dead on the bed, her mouth slightly ajar, as if she were merely sleeping. I took comfort in the sight—a woman who escaped Nazi Germany, who never fully moved past the passing of her husband … now, at peace.

I also, however, felt terrible guilt. That last meal; the one I rushed to get through. Why didn’t I make the time to eat somewhere nice? Why didn’t I better consider her needs?

It sticks with me. It also inspires me.