When it comes to greeting my 104-year-old grandma, “How are you?” is a question she finds utterly annoying.
“I told you not to ask me that,” she barks about the small talk. This from a woman who converses at length about the weather. I call her nearly daily — from my house in Los Angeles to her home of more than 60 years in Silver Spring, Maryland — and couch such aforementioned greetings with pet names like Sweetcheeks and Candypants.
“Now I'm your Candypants?” she asks. “I thought I was your sistah.” Fair enough. When she preaches from her soapbox, I typically respond with a hallelujah-esque, I hear ya, sistah.
Estelle Celia Levine was born on September 11, 1912. Yet I feel that it was after my grandpa Harry died in July 2001, that my bubbeleh was born. A vibrant, cheeky personality, an opinionated and unfiltered character emerged from her 5-foot-2, zaftig frame. I decided to document our conversations and share them on Facebook. They date all the way back to when she was a youthful 97.
"I didn't love him at first,” she reveals in a conversation about my grandpa, the man she married at the spinster age of 29 and was married to for 61 years. This is her roundabout way to poke at my unmarried status. “I learned to love him. It took me two years. When I married him, I learned his habits that he hid from me because he was on his best behavior. I told him to put the toilet seat down, but he never listened. He did have very nice legs, though, may he rest in peace."
How Facebook made my grandma my friends’ favorite source of wisdom
My Bubbeleh unwittingly has developed a loyal online following through my Facebook and Instagram accounts. On Facebook, out of my 2,300-plus friends — a motley crew of 19- to 75-year-olds representing a range of ethnicities, religions, cultures, personalities, income brackets, political parties, and beliefs — unite when it comes to liking, loving, wowing, HAHA-ing, and commenting on her sassy inadvertent gems.
If we’re going by popular vote, 65 percent of comments on posts about her have proclaimed, “Grandma for president!” Others gush that her wisdom and humor brighten their day, that she reminds them of their own late grandmothers. Facebook friends I barely know, infrequently see, or, never communicate with have messaged me directly with effusive emotion about how much my conversations with my grandmother mean to them.
These fans who’ve never met her IRL have gone to great lengths to help me connect with some of her celebrity heroes. One Facebook friend fan who works for ABC arranged a video of Dr. Oz personally wishing her a happy 100th birthday. As of February 2017, my unofficial let’s make Bubbeleh’s day great again militia are still in reconnaissance mode for connecting Queen Levine with Oprah, Ellen, and the British royal family.
Recently, when she was on the miraculous mend from a scary emergency hospital visit, a friend made a dedication to her church on my Jewish grandma’s behalf — which she doesn’t mind at all. Her neighbor and best friend is a Christian woman born in Trinidad named Gladys.
“We pray together, and when she says something or other about Jesus, I just smile,” Grandma tells me. “We believe in different things, but we want the same for everyone.”
“There's nothing special about me. I just like to give advice.”
My grandma is a voracious reader who is pretty current on the state of the world locally, nationally, internationally, and pop culturally, so she’s aware of her online following to an extent. And she has some understanding of the whole internet and Facebook thing.
"I think you must exaggerate about me on the internet,” she tells me. “There's nothing special about me. I just like to give advice. I should put a little sign on the grass that says ‘free advice.’ They can come line up outside the house — but not too many at a time and not on the grass — and I'll just tell them, plain and simple, how it is."
My grandma is a master in displaying false modesty. Moi?! she will exaggerate, clutching imaginary pearls, her eyes growing bigger. She has had a lot of time to think about her life and how she wishes she had lived it. She is the first to admit (and repeat) that she has her regrets. She openly wishes she’d done what she wanted to do with her life.
“I wanted to be a nurse, but my mother told me, ‘You don’t want to be a nurse. It’s a dirty job.’ I said, ‘I know it is, but I want to help people.’ She talked me out of it. I was a goody-goody girl who listened to her mother, unlike you, Shira. But if I was 40, 50 years old, I would volunteer. I wouldn’t want to get paid. I know what pain is, and when you know what pain is, you give that person more attention. I would give the energy of my hand, just touching their head. That means you care. It goes right through their system.”
Perhaps she still carries many of the insecurities of her 9 1/2-year-old self. A young Estelle Berstein — a girl who was embarrassed by her body, who bound her breasts until the muscles broke, and who got her period far too young for her to feel comfortable, much less embrace her femininity. A woman who always would have liked to lose a few pounds, but exercised her mouth about it more than her body. That’s why she rebuffs the notion that she is special. She simply doesn’t see herself that way.
She lives without pretension. She never learned to drive. Her furniture is easily 40 years old, if not older. My parents live less than a mile from her. Her TV has basic cable. Since the Oprah and Tyra shows ended, she's been vibing with Wendy Williams and Harry Connick Jr. Judge Judy is still her queen. She never adds salt. Her beverage of choice is hot water and lemon.
She likes Caribbean-style yellow rice, thanks to her live-in Trinidadian caretaker, Muriel. Together they pray every night that she awakens the next morning. And when she rises each day, she’s thankful she’s still here to express her opinions and learn more about the human condition from her connections to the outside world: the newspaper, TV, and by telephone via my family and me. She’s invested 104 years and five months into the business of living, so when she’s told she’s special, her dismissal is genuine.
“I’m not special, I’m a FREAK! A F-R-E-A-K! People come up to me just to look at me. When I go to the doctor, all the nurses have to come in to see what an old biddy my age looks and acts like.”
I dismiss that self-deprecating behavior of not accepting a compliment or acknowledging her value. Apparently, it’s not something we just age out of. It takes work to get out of your own way. Recognizing my grandma’s strengths and weaknesses, knowing how she feels about herself still to this day, has impressed upon me the ongoing work I need to do on myself to ensure I live my life with wholeness in order to flourish and live more deeply.
ME: Do you have any advice for me and my friends today?
GRANDMA: Stop drinking alcohol. I think instead of drinking champagne, you should all drink a nice cup of hot cocoa with lots of whipped cream and put one of those really big marshmallows in it. That's all you need.
“Do you know, at the synagogue, people also come up to me just to look at me?”
GRANDMA: Do you know, at the synagogue, people also come up to me just to look at me?
GRANDMA: They say they can't believe how old I am and want to see what someone my age looks like.
ME: How old do you think you look?
GRANDMA: I don't know. I know I at least look over 40.
ME: Yeah, I think you probably look a bit over 40.
GRANDMA: I guess I'd say I could pass for 60 or 70.
Early September of every year for the past five years, I marvel at how my bubbeleh is with us for yet another year. My cousin Jesse believes it's because she's still curious, hungry to learn and know what's going on in the world. That’s why she devours the Washington Post and Washington Jewish Week (between sips of hot water and mouthfuls of cookies and peppermints). It’s the latter two, along with moderation, that she claims are her secrets to living long.
Are you excited about your 104th birthday and all of us coming to visit you next week? I asked back in September 2016.
GRANDMA: No. I'm not really excited.
ME: You don't want us to come? You get to meet your newest great-grandson, finally.
GRANDMA: Yes, I want everyone to come, but I can't really explain why I'm not excited. He will probably be scared of me anyway, an old hag.
ME: You are old, but not an old hag. Explain to me why you aren't excited.
GRANDMA: I can't. I don't feel like I'll have another one after this one.
ME: You say that every year, so who knows? But that's a good reason to live life to its fullest, right?
GRANDMA: Yes and no. That's easier said than done for me.
ME: I think if you could give it a dedicated try and just decide to do it, to say each and every day and every moment matters and that you're going to have a really, really, really good time with your family and not complain and worry about the things you can't change, then you will really enjoy yourself.
GRANDMA: Well, I guess it depends on your definition of enjoyment. In my opinion, you enjoy yourself too much.
ME: You prefer suffering, I suppose.
GRANDMA: When I see you, I'm going to kick you in the A-S-S.
ME: If you don't cut it out and have fun, I'm going to kick you in the A-S-S.
GRANDMA: (giggling, finally) Okay, fine.
ME: Maybe you should talk to a psychiatrist. I bet you would enjoy talking to her.
GRANDMA: You know, psychiatrists need psychiatrists themselves.
ME: Yeah, so what's your point?
GRANDMA: My point is that whatever I'm feeling, I prefer to keep deep inside of me.
How it feels to know my grandma brags about me
Today, independence is the most precious quality and commodity in her life. The more she feels dependent on Muriel, or her family, the more upset and disappointed she is in herself. I should be able to walk without a walker, she maintains, blaming herself for not doing her exercises more a few years ago.
I ask her why can’t she just enjoy being cared for and be grateful she’s alive and with this sharp, witty mind. But it’s not so black and white for her. Of course she never liked having to clean the house and prepare meals, but not being capable of doing it on her own feels a lot different from having someone do it for you because you’re too busy or have simply chosen to pay someone else. It might take an agonizingly long seven extra minutes for her to get up out of her rocking chair with her walker when she does it on her own, but these are the big little things that matter to her. They make her feel in charge, alive, and well.
She’s consistent with these convictions. She’s professed these sentiments likely her whole life. Looking back on the time I asked her what 102 years felt like, she responded similarly.
GRANDMA: It feels like nothing. I feel nothing.
ME: How does the mind feel? How does the body feel?
GRANDMA: Well, I put on an old blouse today that was too tight, so apparently I need to watch my weight again. And, well, the mind is dormant.
ME: What? Dormant?
GRANDMA: Yes. (clearly spelling out the word) I didn't use my brain the way I could have for much of my life. I could have done a lot more. That is why I am proud of you. When you use your brain to do big things, people notice.
To hear her say that she’s proud of me makes me emotional. She was critical of my leaving Silver Spring to live in Washington, DC, then Manhattan, and now Los Angeles. It’s her nature to discourage me from traveling and exercising — hiking in particular — all of which she finds dangerous, reckless gallivanting. Conveniently, however, after the fact, she’s always interested in getting the scoop about wherever I’ve been and what the people are like.
When she’s in these contrarian moods of anti-travel and fitness, I cheekily argue back at her, challenging her closed-mindedness. When I’m back in Silver Spring and I see her longtime caretaker, or meet a new substitute caretaker, nurse, social worker, and the like, they all immediately tell me how much they know about me. My grandma brags about me and shares how impressed and proud of me she is, of all I’ve accomplished and experienced. Hearing that, of course, I all but burst out crying. She might not be able to say it to me, but she’s made her impressions of me known.
Grandma on Donald Trump: “It’s not normal, but it's what we have to bear with”
Two months ago, as the end of 2016 approached, the last weeks of President Obama’s term neared, and emotionally charged headlines taunted me, I was flooded with feelings of uncertainty about 2017. I knew my beloved bubbeleh would cut through the BS. Indeed, she calmed my presidential and media-provoked hysteria with a very typical-of-her comment.
GRANDMA: Listen, he's an unhappy man. Maybe it's how he is, but I think, he, whatchamacallit? Whatshisface? The Donald! He was raised different than most of us. He was raised probably to be bossy. That's not normal, but it's what we have to bear with.
Then she offered some bigger-picture wisdom.
GRANDMA: I want you and your friends to all remember the best thing you can do for yourself is to be yourself. Also, let other people talk more to show them you're listening, but if they talk too much about themselves, have sympathy for them, because they are people who really don't know themselves.
ME: That's good advice, but it can be exhausting because a lot of people can go on and on about themselves.
GRANDMA: Well, that's why we're all actors and the world is our stage, whether we live in Los Angeles or New York or here in Maryland. And I'll say it again, but you won't listen to me — stay away from the bars. It's not the way to meet quality people, and it's the kind of place where people make wrong decisions.
ME: I love your wisdom. Everyone loves your wisdom.
GRANDMA: That's what the hospice nurse who I call Sweetcheeks because she actually has these great big high, sweet cheekbones, who doesn't come visit me anymore, said to me — that I'm sooo wise. You know, I think I get my wisdom from remembering the past. It's all the same crap again and again. No one does that: think about the past. They just look to the future and make the same mistakes.
They're focused on trips to the moon and buying land, and meanwhile, everything is happening the same as always. People are hurt, and these people are wanderers. You're a wanderer, Shira, but you have a home. We have to give a lift to all the world's wanderers and give them a home. It's the same with fashion. I see on TV the girls wear boots that come just up to the ankles. I had those. Now they have them again, and they probably cost something like 40 bucks.
ME: 40 bucks would be cheap for shoes now.
GRANDMA: Don't upset me with that. You waste your money on crap. I'm going to eat my breakfast now. I'll have my bagel with a fancy cream cheese with onions mixed in. You know, they even have ones with pineapple and with strawberries now. But you probably don't eat bagels — just grass. Go now and eat your grass.
After every call I have with her, I feel good that I got to have another conversation with her. That maybe I made her day a little less lonely. That she doesn’t feel like that old biddy. Maybe this, besides good genes, is the secret to living long. Well, along with staying inside, reading the paper, and watching countless hours of TV.
“You've got to either like it or lump it,” she preaches daily, as if it’s the first time she’s bestowed such wisdom. It’s her go-to conversation ender to sum up the reality that “que sera sera”: that no matter what, we all might as well be positive, that we’ve got to like it or deal with it.
That, and her dinner recommendation to try an Amy’s bean burrito. Per her direction, you can just pop it into the microwave and have ready to eat in less than three minutes.
Shira Levine is a storyteller who divides her time between Los Angeles and New York. She mostly tells travel, small business, and popular culture stories. She has a monthly real estate column with Modern Luxury's Manhattan magazine, and a culinary destination column in Accent and Forum magazines. Shira also consults as a communications expert and project manager for the United Nations, where she specializes in dignity, human rights, and sustainable development with a focus on youth and aging populations. She is developing a half-hour comedy about some of the above.