I have this thing against buying new socks. I’ll wear them until my toes point out or my heel rubs against the sole of my shoe. I just can’t seem to justify buying a new pair.
“Do you really like those?” my great-grandmother asked me last December at my family’s Hanukkah celebration, placing on the table a batch of freshly fried latkes — the same recipe I have had on this holiday for the last 19 years. She was pointing at my sock, or more specifically, my fully-exposed big toe.
“If you want to keep them that badly, I’ll patch the hole for you.”
My Grandma Ruth, who turned 99 last summer, is somewhat of a local celebrity. She worked as a sewing instructor at the Henry Street Settlement — a social service organization in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where she has lived since 1923 — for over 50 years. She was New Yorker of the Week in 2015 and was featured on an episode on the Cooking Channel’s “My Grandmother’s Ravioli” (on which I made my first and only television appearance).
Only at the age of 97 did she decide it was a reasonable time to retire, but she still helps out my grandmother, her daughter, with her tag sale business, manning rooms of forsaken jewelry and clothing, bartering with the locals who’ve come to snag a deal.
She has lived in the same neighborhood her whole life. She once inhabited a crowded and grimy tenement of Eastern European Jewish immigrants.
Now, she watches hipster millennial types line up outside the bars and coffee shops that have multiplied throughout the streets surrounding her apartment. That neighborhood was the subject of my AP U.S. History final research paper, and Grandma Ruth served as my main source, colorfully narrating the evolution of her city streets, which have changed drastically during the 99 years that she has lived there.
I often marvel at how it must feel to move throughout the world with such lived experience — how a person can bear witness to so much history and still take to the streets every day in a plush faux-mink coat with the fervent zeal of a person eager to inhale the equally familiar and foreign sights, smells, and sounds of New York City. As I walk to Trader Joe’s for my weekly grocery run, I can only hope to embody her and borrow from her celebrity attitude, the result of occasionally being recognized for her various media appearances and awards.
Growing up in the Lower East Side with Yiddish as her only language, Grandma Ruth’s employment prospects were limited. She took up sewing with masterful ease; she replicated an exact model (truthfully, a better one) of the wedding dress she saw in the window of Bergdorf Goodman which was worth more than her apartment.
As the matriarch of my family, we have always relied on her not only for our garment-based needs, but also her unwavering leadership as the quintessential Jewish grandmother. My entire conception of my religion is based on the values of hard work, kindness, and individuality that she has maintained throughout the last century along with her steadfast devotion to our family. Every holiday or birthday dinner, all she wishes is to be well until the next occasion that we’re together and for her never to be a burden for the family (as if we would ever consider her one).
It sounds strange to say that I look up to someone who’s a foot and a half shorter than me, but Grandma Ruth has always been my muse: I can only hope to be able to live like her in my 90s. She takes the subway from the Lower East Side to Grand Central, and then takes the train to the suburbs, all while hauling a host of hemmed and tailored garments and a jar of matzo ball soup to seven great-grandchildren.
On one of those visits, I asked her to teach me her signature recipe. Over time, Grandma Ruth has mastered the art, reliably producing the 30 matzo balls to be scarfed down by my extended family at each holiday. This was the signature dish that, along with her killer backstory and my Grandma Hesta’s brisket, earned her a spot on the Cooking Channel.
The first time Grandma Ruth taught me to make matzo balls I was 12. The process was snappy and graceful — no recipe required. She grabbed a bowl, added water from the faucet, dropped in some eggs, poured some oil, then mixed in about a box matzo meal. No measurements needed. She added more of one ingredient or another until the soggy mixture coalesced under her fingertips. The matzo balls came out perfectly: chewy but light, perfectly salty, packed with flavor.
When I tried to eyeball them myself a week later, the matzo balls fell apart and crumbled before I could take them out of the boiling water. I haven’t tried to make them since. I’d rather just wait until Rosh Hashanah.
As she enters her 100th year and I enter my 20th, I have been reflecting more on the time we’ve spent together. It has shaped my whole life and a fifth of hers. I can measure my time in memories of Grandma Ruth: the endless hours of Go Fish we played when she babysat for my parents, the coffee cakes she brought with her, the pounds of matzo balls I’ve eaten at every family holiday (now shipped to me in college), the suits I’ve worn that have been relentlessly hemmed to keep up with my adolescent growth spurts, her Lower East Side apartment which has not been updated since its purchase in 1960, the used tea bags saved at the side of the sink that elicit raised eyebrows from visitors, the kenahorah-poo-poo-poos uttered to keep the evil eye away. Sewn together, these memories create the patchwork of my life that has always relied on the presence of my great-grandmother.
I’ll never go to a tailor. Bringing Grandma Ruth my ripped, stained, and ill-fitting clothing is its own ritual — even for a pair of socks that could be replaced with much less hassle.
I can’t make my own matzo balls to save my life, let alone grasp what it was like for her to raise a daughter after her husband came home from World War II decimated by post-traumatic stress disorder and passed away a few years later.
Grandma Ruth, however, spares no pity for herself. During her guest appearance on “My Grandmother’s Ravioli,” Grandma Ruth tells the show’s host about her neighbor who told her she was sorry that she had to live alone without a husband.
“Feel sorry for me?” she retorts. “You should rejoice for me!”
Grandma Ruth relishes her apartment life, the self-sustained wardrobe she has tailored to her exact preference, and the bragging rights that come with maintaining her independence at 99. With her at the forefront of my family, I have never feared the prospect of aging either.
I’m not immune to aging, but I will strive to emulate Grandma Ruth’s mentality of proud independence for the rest of my life. Or at least, as I enter my 20s.
— Magazine writer Kyle L. Mandell can be reached at email@example.com