Gussie, my grandma & inspiration

BY CAROL RINZLER   |  The first thing my grandfather Sam did when he left Vienna and landed at Ellis Island in 1895 was to change his name from his father’s Dreier to his mother’s Rinzler.

Then he made his way across town to 124 Ludlow St. where he slept “three in a bed” until he could afford his own room, which happened right around the time he met my grandmother, Gussie Schnitzer, the belle of “Rivington / corner Essex.”

Unlike the sophisticated Sam, Gussie came from an unnamed village in Poland and a life so traumatic that she would never discuss it. Once in the land of the free, her natural personality emerged. She was, in the vernacular of the day, a firecracker, hardly five feet tall except when she stood on her ego, which was often. 

When she and Sam were engaged, his mother invited her to a family lunch, but somehow missed having a piece of watermelon for Gussie, who walked to the foot of the table, grabbed the tablecloth, and pulled. Never one to miss an opportunity to diss her long-dead but still detested mother-in-law, Gussie told the story over and over, including the first time she met my about-to-be husband, after which, whenever I held a grudge, he would say, “Still pulling the tablecloth?”

Sam, who believed that in America anybody could do anything, joined his father-in-law in the nascent movie business, eventually ending up owner of a chain of theaters in Brooklyn. By that time he and Gussie had long ago left Essex St. for an apartment on the 39th floor of the Essex House overlooking Central Park. Counting the streets on a map, it was only three miles; but factor in the distance from Vienna and that unnamed Polish hamlet, and it is the quintessential American journey, measured not in miles but in mind.

Living on top of the world, so high that I, a country mouse from Long Island, got the shakes every time I rode up in the elevator, didn’t change Gussie. She had “my son the doctor” (my uncle) and “my other son” (my father), and the absolute belief that having a doctor in the family entitled her to free visits to her own doctors, leaving my father and her other son to pay the bills. 

And she was still combustible. My uncle had gone into the Army Medical Corps, off to war in Europe, leaving Gussie to wait anxiously at home. His mother-in-law, Essie, another short-but-fiery person, learned he was on his way home, but didn’t tell Gussie. The result wasn’t pretty.

Having made her own journey to the Essex House, Essie lived on one side of the building, Gussie on the other. The two sides had separate elevators, and the operators had learned to warn each other when one of the ladies was coming down to the lobby. Once, when they missed, there was an epic meeting said to have ended with the ladies slugging each other. I wasn’t there, so I can’t testify to its truth, but it certainly sounds like my grandmother.

Gussie knew who she was, in ways large and small. Like her hair. When it turned snow white, perfectly curled, she refused to color it. In my twenties, with bottle-blonde streaks, I swore that when my turn came, I would do the same. 

After Sam died, Gussie was left alone at the top of the world. Soon, my mother — now caring for my father, who was ill — moved her out to Long Island, a trip Gussie viewed the way Napoleon viewed being shipped to Elba.

Eventually, as Gussie declined, my mother moved her once more, this time to a nursing home. My husband and I went to see her. The room was clean and neat and so was she. But her white hair was no longer perfectly curled. Then she told us the story of the tablecloth again, and the world slid back into place.   

Five years ago, when my own husband died, I learned that widows are expected to stay — or at least look — young, which definitely means coloring your hair. I hate being fussed over; the only way I even manage to get my hair cut is to chop it off at home and then surrender to the professional. So I did blonding myself, but the dye made my head itch, and because it was temporary, it faded with repeated washing.

I never actually knew what color my hair was at any given moment. But it must have been not-blonde, because one day on the subway,  a younger woman offered me a seat, and all I could think of was, “I am going right home to make my hair dark brown.”

When I told that to the nice young shrink who had shepherded me through the multiple stages of grief following my husband’s death, he said, “You are the last woman in the world I’d think would color her hair.”

I thought about that all the way home. I decided it was a compliment. I decided my husband would have agreed. Gussie, too.

Now my hair is white. But in New York, if 60 is the new 40, white seems to be the new blonde.

And when I catch my reflection in a store window, I don’t see me. I see Gussie. And we’re both fine.

Carol Rinzler is the author of more than 20 books on health, including “Nutrition for Dummies” (sixth edition due in 2015)

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