How I Keep Calm: Gossiping With My Jewish Grandma

I loved talking to my French Jewish grandma weekly, but I knew the anxiety wouldn’t ease until I was able to see her again.

I’ve always been good friends with my grandma Sarah, whom I call “Mamie” and “Sarah” interchangeably. I’ve inherited her full cheeks, her sweet tooth, her forthrightness. Throughout middle school and high school, I lived half of the time with her and my step-grandpa Teddy in their Parisian apartment and the other half of the time with my parents on our houseboat in Paris.

It was at Sarah’s apartment that I got my first period, and she recounted the story of her own: Her mother, Léa, told her that she must have eaten too many tomatoes. It was Sarah’s apartment where I dipped my lips in the Kiddush wine on Friday evenings. And it was there that I, as a 10-year-old, was allowed to engage in bold — if not dubious — interior design efforts. To this day, that bedroom has a blue wall, a pink one, a purple, and a green.

When I moved far from Sarah’s Paris home for university in California, we had to find new ways to spend time together. That looked mostly like family parties — birthdays, bar mitzvahs, my graduation from UCLA — but we also felt the need to spend time just the two of us. A year after graduating, I moved to London and was able to see Sarah on a semi-regular basis. We both love cinema to the point where we will watch one film a week in theaters. Our repertoire spans Mary Poppins Returns and Call Me By Your Name to Rocketman and Paterson, all complete with post-viewing commentary.

Of course, it was out of the question for two Jewish gourmandes (foodies, essentially) to sit for two hours in a dark room on an empty stomach, so we had to have lunch first, during which we would gently judge the boys I’d dated and the people who’d wronged her. I would giggle at her sharp little comments and her turned up nose. Over time, this became our ritual, our moment out of time. I would text my Mamie to inform her that I was back in Paris; when were we going to the cinema?

Whatever was going on in my career, dating life or lack thereof, I knew I could count on Sarah to be on my side. If I broke up with someone, I was right to take charge. If they broke up with me, I could do so much better. If I felt unfulfilled professionally, she had unshakeable faith that I would find my way. Sarah isn’t a hugger, but being around her is like being wrapped in a warm embrace. I know she likes to live vicariously through me, too; she married young (and then divorced, which was brave and unusual at the time) and she didn’t really get to date at my age. Despite modern dating being miserable a solid 90 percent of the time, I think she would have enjoyed it.

When the UK-wide coronavirus lockdown came into effect in March, I had just made it back to London from a visit to Paris for my mother’s birthday. Sarah and I had gone to watch Judy, based on the life of Judy Garland, armed with a bottle of hand sanitizer each, which we dispensed liberally throughout our time together. Our rendez-vous that day wasn’t quite the anxiety-busting exercise it had been in the past. While I was quarantined in England, it was hard to imagine when we would next be able to go on one of our little dates. It felt like it might be years, if ever.

All things considered, self-isolation with my housemate in our London apartment wasn’t too much of a challenge. I was lucky to not lose any of my freelance remote work due to the pandemic and, thanks to my introverted nature, missing out on social events was much easier for me than it was for some of my friends. Give me a book and a cup of tea, and Bob’s your uncle — to use a British phrase that means “there you have it.” Self-isolation meant 12 weeks of writing group Zooms, barre class Zooms, networking Zooms, and really only two or three real crying sessions, at the most.

That said, being away from family, with no end in sight, was difficult enough. The separation became worse when my English grandma Jenny passed away, and only 10 members of our family were able to attend the service. This was a sad moment, and it awoke a new anxiety in me: What if I never saw my French grandparents again? Both are thankfully healthy and full of life, but so many of us have been forced to confront death in a new and terrifying way as the coronavirus pandemic rages on. It has thrown the need to make the most of every moment with our loved ones into sharp relief.

Thus began three uncharacteristic months of talking on the phone to Sarah weekly, which we’d never really done before, and — in what was a spectacular role reversal — telling her off for not calling me more often. (I’ll make a wonderful Jewish grandma, too, someday!)

On FaceTime, I showed her all the lockdown-breakers I could see out of my window, all the cars I saw driving that could not possibly all have been heading to the supermarket or the doctor’s, at which she professed her righteous outrage. She checked that I was taking all the necessary precautions and, on finding out that I was taking those and more, checked that I wasn’t entirely consumed with anxiety. When my other grandma died, Sarah texted to express her condolences, and all I could think about was how thankful I was to still have her, and how scared I was to lose her — even if it was 20 years down the line. I loved talking to her, but I knew the anxiety wouldn’t ease until I was able to see her again.

At one point in April, my great-aunt Irène, Sarah’s sister, emailed us four pages’ worth of Yiddish phrases that their mother Léa used to use, translated into French. This was such a gift at a time when I felt separated from my loved ones by far more than a two-hour train ride across the Channel. It made me feel connected to that side of the family, to my Jewishness, in a way I don’t often feel.

Finally, in June, I was able to travel back to France as COVID-19 cases stabilized and the rules were relaxed. I breathed a sigh of relief when Sarah and I sat down for lunch at a newly reopened American restaurant — where she doesn’t care what she orders, as long as it comes with hash browns. Things weren’t back to normal, of course, as our waitress wore a mask and we sat two tables away from other diners, but it felt like the first step towards a return to normalcy.

I’d spent three months indoors half-heartedly swiping on Hinge, so the gossip wasn’t at its highest standard, but we were back together, and that’s all that mattered. After lunch, we donned our own masks and headed to the cinema — yes, movie theaters are open again here! — to watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Now that I’ve had bastardized huevos rancheros and watched a tastefully raunchy flick with my grandmother, I should be okay for a while.

how I keep calm

How I Keep Calm is our series featuring different ways people manage anxiety. If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail with “How I Keep Calm” in the subject line.

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