My grandmother, Helene Kupferman Greene, lived to the age of 88, and is survived by her husband, Ernest Charles Greene (my grandfather); her two sons, Ernest Charles Greene, Jr. (my uncle Chuck) and Andrew William Greene (my dad); her two grandsons, Daniel James Greene (me) and Benjamin Furman Greene (my cousin); her dog, Whiskey II, and close friends and family members, most notably Elaine Patterson, who has cared for my grandparents ever since my grandfather’s stroke in 1985. Elaine became like an adopted daughter, and her two daughters, Michelle and Marta, became like granddaughters. Granny was so happy to finally have some girls in her family!
My grandparents would have been married 65 years this February 2000. In addition to being a superb wife to her husband, and mother to her two boys, Helene Greene was a model, saleswoman, real estate agent, award-winning painter and interior designer. She was a woman of great passion, creative talent and patriotism. She loved her country, family, pets and friends dearly. She had a soft spot in her heart for animals and contributed generously of her time and money to organizations such as The Humane Society and many others.
Granny had an uncanny memory for the lyrics of songs. She wasn’t the best singer in the world, but when she half-spoke/half-sang a tune, her face lit up, her outstretched hands swept the air, and her enthusiasm for the song filled the room with “razzle-dazzle.” I remember when I was a small child she would tuck me into bed and sing to me, “Sweetest little fella / everybody knows / ain’t no use in telling you / he’s mighty like a rose.” I will always remember Granny’s love for me. Believe it or not, I have a few vivid memories of my infancy, and I recall how she doted on me from day one. When I was very little, Granny used to bathe me in the deep brown porcelain laundry sink in her house on Kensington Court. I also remember the interest she took in encouraging my artistic development. When I was about 5 or 6, she enrolled me at the Arts Academy in Kensington, where I learned acting, movement, and creative arts. Granny also helped me financially when I first went to UCLA right out of high school. When I was young, Granny took me shopping for clothing when she knew my mother couldn’t afford to get me new clothes, and she sent me to summer camp in the Adirondacks when I was 8 and again when I was 10.
Granny didn’t have to take to me the way she did. When my mother met my father (adoptive father, technically), she had given birth to me a few months prior, as Granny would say, “out of wedlock.” My biological father had disappeared. Granny didn’t feel my mom would be right for her son. As she put it in her own words, “we did everything we could to fight the marriage, but once our son decided to marry, we did everything we could to support it.” I believe this is true. I remember how gracious she and Grandpa were, and have always been, to my mother. Granny was passionate about either approving or disapproving of what anyone did. I remember when I was about 4 years old, my mom and Granny had a fight on the phone, and Granny got angry with my mom and shouted, “Well then you’re a bad mother!” But it wasn’t 30 seconds later she called back and said, “I shouldn’t have said that. You’re not a bad mother at all.” My mother has her faults, but has been a marvelous mother to me. Granny and Grandpa were probably right about the marriage, though. My mom and dad used to fight so much, I remember (and Granny remembered too) that, when I was about 3 or 4, I asked Granny, “If Mommy and Daddy keep fighting, can I come live with you?” Luckily, my parents divorced when I was five. I went off to live with my mother, but my dad, along with Granny and Grandpa, remained true to me as ever.
Skipping ahead several years, I came out to my grandparents when I was 16. Within a year or two of receiving the news, Granny started going to the Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays group at the Unitarian Universalist church. She eventually brought Grandpa and helped to bring him around to accepting me as well. I am eternally grateful to Granny for this. I’m also grateful that, soon after I told her I was gay, she showed a bold and loving interest in my health. One day, as we were out for a ride in the golf cart in Sun City, where Granny spent the last 19 years of her life, she said, “you know there are kinds of sex that are safe and kinds that aren’t, right?” I said yes, and she just took my hand in hers and said, “Good. I just want to make sure you’re having the safe kind.” For several years now, Granny’s farewell to me has been, “Be good! And if you can’t be good, be careful!” I’m happy that, with my family’s love and concern, and my own self-protection, I have indeed been careful and have not only been blessed to have a grandmother at the age of 32, but also—thank God!—to be able to bury her, rather than vice versa as happens too often these days.
Granny was up front and demonstrative with people, for better or worse. She could be a terror with waiters! I do recall, however, that she made friends everywhere she went. Whenever she took me with her on her errands, the shopkeepers who knew her would light up and shout, “Mrs. Greene!” The ones she didn’t know, she got to know. Speaking of errands, Granny used to keep her entire household in mint condition. The moment a button fell off, or a bit of yarn became unraveled, or she realized a lamp needed a new finial (I never even knew what a finial was until Granny showed me)—off she would go on her errands. Whether it was a chestnut brown leather button to match the buttons on a cashmere cardigan she had bought in London or a piece of lavender wool thread to patch up a needlepoint pillow she had made, she was one of the most resourceful and optimistic people I’ve ever known. She would either find it, find out where to order it from overseas, or she would invent a brilliant alternative. The words “shy” or “quitter” never, ever applied to Granny! In terms of her love, she was always demonstrative of that with me. I can’t count the times she took my hand in hers, and looked me straight in the eye, locking in on my gaze, and smiled, saying, “You know I love you very, very much. You know that, don’t you?” I’d always say, “Yes, Granny, I know. I love you too!” Because of these many expressions of love, I feel complete about Granny’s death. I spoke with her on the phone a few weeks before she died, and we once again expressed our love for each other. We had our share of “bones to pick” over the years, but we always picked them clean. I have no regrets.
I have Granny to thank for instilling in me a love for foreign languages and a respect for the proper use of my own language. Granny and Grandpa traveled all over the world, and they studied the languages of the places they went before they went there. One time, when Granny and Grandpa had traveled from France to Italy, Granny ordered a piece of cake after dinner in a fine restaurant. The only problem was that she used the French word for cake, “ gateau”, which sounds just like the Italian word for cat, “gato”! I wish I’d been there to see the horrified look on the face of that waiter! Granny once told me a joke about cats and dogs: a mother cat is walking down an alley with her three little kittens. Suddenly, from around the corner bounds a bulldog, baring its teeth and growling at the cat and her kittens. The mother cat, wise as she was, opened her mouth and bellowed, “Woof! Woof!” The bulldog put its tail between its legs and went running away, yelping. The mother cat turned to her kittens and said, “Now, children, you see the advantage of learning a second language!” Not only did Granny love foreign languages; she loved her own. Hardly a soul in her midst could escape her grammatical corrections. If anyone were unsure as to whether to use I or me, he would be sure to find out the right way when Granny intoned, in a dignified and certain voice, “them and me,” or “they and I.”
Last but certainly not least; I must mention that Granny was very patriotic. She lived through the depression and both World Wars. In her last years, she had extreme difficulty moving around, sitting down, and getting up. She also lost a lot of her short-term memory and her ability to discern the past from the present. The last time I was over for a visit, we were watching a videotape of songs from the WWII days, and one of the clips showed an announcer introducing Kate Smith, “singing a new song!” Granny beamed with glee, watching the black-and-white television screen, and exclaimed, “Oh! A new song!” The song was “God Bless America.” Before Kate Smith could finish belting out the third word—America—Granny stood bolt upright with her hand over her heart, matching Kate word for word! This is my last vivid memory of seeing my grandmother in person, and it is one I will cherish forever.
Those who would like to make a donation in my grandmother’s name should send a check to their local chapter of The Humane Society. Or volunteer!
Here is a list of some of Granny’s favorite things:
- Scottish Terriers (she had four in a row: Meg, Tammy, Whiskey, and Whiskey II)
- Frogs (she had an extensive collection of figurines, including the Lalique frog and the Waterford frog)
- Tab and Cheez-Its (a favorite afternoon snack)
- Bagels and cream cheese with Nova Scotia smoked salmon, capers, lemon juice, and freshly ground pepper
- Tanqueray and Tonic (in a restaurant, she would order a shot of Tanqueray gin, a small bottle of tonic water, a tall glass with ice, and “lotsalime.”)
- Häagen Dazs coffee ice cream
- Show tunes and pop songs
- Navy blue
(These are some of my favorite things too, only I’m not partial to Scotties, and I don’t drink cola.)