We Thought She’d Outlive Us All
OpinionEditor's Notebook

We Thought She’d Outlive Us All

My grandmother made the most of her almost 105 years, most of it in New Orleans.

Michael Jacobs

Atlanta Jewish Times Editor Michael Jacobs is on his second stint leading the AJT's editorial operations. He previously served as managing editor from 2005 to 2008.

GaGa attends her 104th birthday lunch July 28, 2017, at Clancy’s. Her martini is on the table out of the frame.
GaGa attends her 104th birthday lunch July 28, 2017, at Clancy’s. Her martini is on the table out of the frame.

When my paternal grandmother was born July 28, 1913, to Sylvester and Ida Greenwald in Pattison, Miss. — little more than a crossroads in the greater Port Gibson area — Leo Frank had not yet been convicted of killing little Mary Phagan.

Babe Ruth was a year from his major-league debut as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox.

World War I was more than a year away, and the president, Woodrow Wilson, would wait until after his second inauguration in 1917 to break his promise to keep the United States out of the fighting.

The radio wasn’t even a feature of home entertainment, let alone television, cable TV or the Internet.

She was 21 years younger than the synagogue in Port Gibson, where her family worshipped before moving to New Orleans, but she was still going strong more than 30 years after the congregation there closed in 1986.

Elise Greenwald Jacobs — GaGa to my brother and me and then to my children because I failed when trying to pronounce her preferred Gran — was simply a fact of life, as much a part of New Orleans to me as Galatoire’s, the St. Charles streetcar, the French Market and the statue of Gen. Beauregard we could see from the third-floor apartment where she and my grandfather, Bernard (PaPa to us grandchildren), moved in 1975.

GaGa was a toddler when that statue was unveiled in 1915; she was living in the St. Anna’s nursing care facility several miles away when the city of New Orleans took the general down one year ago. Think about that: My grandmother outlived a Confederate statue.

This photo from the 1970s is one of my brother’s favorites of our grandmother. Note the martini in hand.

When Katrina hit in August 2005 when GaGa was 92, the apartment building flooded, and GaGa and the other residents were cut off. We lost contact for most of a week, then learned that she was safe in San Antonio, where she was flown with other evacuees after being rescued by boat.

She spent about five months with my parents in Virginia, and I thought she would stay there. But as soon as her building was ready, she insisted on going home. We were most of the way through Barack Obama’s first term before she gave up the apartment to live in assisted care.

Like the Energizer Bunny, which first appeared on American television when she was 75, GaGa kept going and going and going — until, almost inconceivably, the end came Friday, May 11.

At 104, she naturally wasn’t the woman she used to be — the Newcomb-educated social worker, duplicate bridge master and fabulous, highly unkosher New Orleans cook.

She would eat matzah with margarine for breakfast every morning and have a vodka martini with an olive and a twist every evening. She loved olives enough that she couldn’t believe I, like my father, despised them, and every few years throughout my childhood she would persuade me to try an olive again. It never went well.

She nursed me through the chickenpox during a New Orleans visit when I was 4, and she taught me that it was a horrible Yankee habit to put ketchup on a hot dog.

A member of Temple Sinai on St. Charles Avenue for more than 90 years, GaGa was not the most observant of Jews, but despite being the first in her family to attend college, the academic achievement she seemed most proud of was winning the Virginia Lazarus Medal as the top student in her Sinai confirmation class.

Perhaps my brother, Andrew, and I learned something from that example, given my career is in the Jewish community and Andrew is a religion professor.

When my grandparents visited me in Ireland during my junior year abroad at Trinity College, she strayed from the martini habit to sample the Guinness — they say it’s better the closer you are to the Dublin factory — and loved it, concluding that it tasted like a chocolate milkshake.

I remember her sitting in some pub with her pint and flashing the biggest grin when talking about the Guinness. That grin — the smile of a carefree Mississippi girl from a simpler time — never changed and never faded, even as her body weakened and her short-term memory faded.

She never lost her sharp wits, though, and “Jeopardy!” remained a part of her daily routine.

Of all the amazing things about a life that spanned more than a century, what amazes me the most about GaGa is that her husband died in 1992, nine months before I married. This month Chris and I are celebrating our 25th anniversary, which means my grandmother outlived by more than 25 years the man she had spent half a century with.

I remember how broken she seemed when facing that empty bed alone and how afraid I was that she wouldn’t last long without him. Fortunately, I was wrong, though I can’t imagine what it was like for her to outlive everyone she knew and loved from her own generation.

The family gathered for her centennial celebration at Commander’s Palace in 2013, and it became a tradition: a mini-family reunion in the heat and humidity of New Orleans in late July so we could wish my grandmother another year of health and love. I think only once did she not feel up to the birthday lunch at a top-notch Uptown restaurant.

Now we have a hole in the calendar at the end of July. I have a feeling you’ll still be able to find us at Commander’s or Clancy’s for lunch, perhaps with an extra vodka martini with an olive and a twist in the middle of the table.

read more: