My grandfather, Sol, would have been 102 this month, had he not died several years ago at 94. I feel like I need to acknowledge that it would have been his birthday because when he was alive I forgot it all the time. I feel terrible admitting that but it’s true. Honestly, I don’t remember the birthdays of any of my grandparents and I also don’t remember the dates of their deaths. I remember that I wore a winter coat at Grandma’s service and that Nana died in December right before her 75th birthday but that’s about it. How terrible that these details have never been absorbed by my brain.
Then again, isn’t it more important to have a mind filled with snapshots of real memories? Like the time Nana put her purse on top of her car and drove off with it teetering on the roof until the honking of passing drivers got her to pull over. I thought it was hilarious but she was frantic. Or when I had a sleep-over at my paternal grandparents’ place and Grandma’s attempt to get me ready for school involved braiding my hair in such a tight, weird way that I looked like an exchange student from Eastern Europe, circa 1935. And the Sunday afternoon I found a Playboy in Grandpa Jules’ bathroom and was sure that meant a divorce from Grandma was imminent. I was nine.
Grandpa Sol was my mother’s father and he looked like the actor Robert Mitchum. He was 6’2” and a fantastic athlete. He grew up in New York City in a section of town filled with German and Irish and his boyhood pals were named Lefty, Flugey and One-Eye. I love the idea of him playing stick ball (according to him he was almost recruited by minor league baseball) in the streets while his mother yelled for him from their tenement window. I’ve made that image up but it seems right. In fact he was such a baseball fan that the day my mother was born he celebrated by going to a Giants game at the Polo Grounds and was heart-broken when his team moved out West.
When I was little he still lived in New York and basically my interactions with him involved being taken to various events—The Ice Capades, the circus, the Nutcracker. And he’d always buy me a special program or whatever souvenir he noticed me eying. That was how he showed he cared, by buying me things, whether a new winter coat or a hot fudge sundae. Emotional intimacy didn’t come naturally to him.
Years later, when he was living in Florida and I was in college, he used to leave me messages on my answering machine as if he were writing a letter. “Hello deah (that’s how he pronounced “dear”), I hope you are feeling good. Is it very cold there? The weather here is beautiful. Mother tells me you are enjoying your classes. Speak to you soon. Love, Grandpa.”
But the times we did speak it was like he had a timer next to the phone allotting a certain number of seconds per response.
“Hello Deah! How’s work going?” he’d ask.
“Oh, it’s okay but you know my boss is away and there is so much …”
“You still working in the Fisk Building? I used to have customers there.”
“No Grandpa, I never worked in the Fisk Building. I work diagonally across the street at…”
“How’s your apartment? You getting along with your roommate Amy?”
“Her name is Wendy, Grandpa and yes, she’s….”
“Your sister still dating that Chinese boy?”
“He’s not Chinese, and he’s really nice. I’m sure you’ll…”
“I’ll see you next month when we’re in town. I hope you have time to have lunch, Doll.”
“Sure, I’ll pick a…”
“Okay Deah. Love.”
It was pretty funny but also a little sad, as if he was so afraid I’d deliver a piece of serious news that he had to cut me off before he got upset. But when I think of his young life I can’t say I blame him. Stick-ball to one side he grew up so poor he told me he wore his shoes down until they had holes in the soles and would sneak rides on the trolley car because he couldn’t afford the fare. He adored his mother but he never mentioned his father to me at all, if he knew him or even had one. His world was populated by strong women. One funny thing was that the most important ones were named either Sylvia (sister, wife I and wife III) or Ethel (wife II, sister-in-law with wife I, housekeeper with wives I and II, and secretary of wife III.) But the most poignant thing of all was that, although he was naturally left-handed, he was forced to write with his right hand as was the practice in schools at the time. His hand writing literally looked like pain, awkward and slanting oddly. I can only imagine what that would do to a child’s brain.
But he was so proud of his daughter and grandchildren and was always ready with a corny joke, a terrible pun and an easy laugh. Somehow my siblings figured out if you punched "70514" into a calculator and turned it upside down it read, “hi sol.” This trick reliably cracked him up--which was slightly ironic since he also had this Rainman-like ability to multiply three digits by three digits in his head. Sometimes we’d catch his lips moving and he’d tap his forehead and say, “gotta keep the old noggin working.”I always think about Grandpa whenever I make a pie. When we were kids he would slip us $5.00 and say, with a wink, “have your pie a la mode,” at once so basic and so meaningful. It may have taken his death for me to remember his birth but to celebrate what would have been Grandpa’s 102nd birthday I made this lovely simple tart—lemony blueberries piled high in a sweet buttery crust—and shared it with my family. And of course, we had it a la mode.
Grandpa's Blueberry Tart
From Martha Stewart Everyday Food July/August 2005
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1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled), plus more for dusting
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
6 cups fresh blueberries, rinsed and dried
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
3 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2/3 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a food processor, combine flour, sugar, salt, and butter; process until large moist crumbs form (dough should hold together when squeezed).
Transfer dough to a 9-inch round tart pan with a removable bottom; with floured fingers, press evenly into bottom and up sides. Freeze until firm, about 15 minutes; prick bottom of dough all over with a fork. Bake until golden, 20 to 25 minutes; cool completely.
Meanwhile, reserve 1 cup of the prettiest berries for topping.
In a medium saucepan, bring 1/4 cup water and 1 1/2 cups berries to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat; simmer, stirring occasionally, until berries begin to break down, 3 to 4 minutes.
In a small bowl, mix cornstarch with 2 tablespoons water; stir into berries in pan. Add lemon zest and juice, sugar, and salt. Bring to a boil; reduce heat. Simmer, stirring, just until mixture begins to thicken, 30 to 60 seconds. Remove from heat. Stir in remaining 3 1/2 cups fresh berries. Immediately pour hot berry mixture into cooled tart shell, and smooth with a spatula.
Scatter reserved berries on top, pressing down lightly to help them adhere. Refrigerate until cool, about 30 minutes and up to overnight.
Yield: 8-10 slices