One of the coolest people I know is my adoptive grandma - who my friend Deb and I call my "lovely grandma". Sylvia.
Sylvia is turning 90 this year. On her 85th birthday she got a computer and figured out how to do email and internet research using the Microsoft manual that came with it. If that isn't sign of genius, I don't know what is.
Sylvia grew up in Stuyvesant Crescent. Her father thought girls didn't need an education but conceded that secretarial training would be okay - Although he refused to give her "car fare" so she had to walk. Her first husband provided her an escape from her family, but was no better than her father had been. During the depression, she left him - in spite of the fact that she had a young daughter. Her secretarial training proved beneficial although work was very scarce.
In the early 1940's, she met Ben. He was in the air force and worked as a meteorologist. When her first husband refused to agree to a divorce, they concocted an elaborate plan, aided by one of the first husband's friends who thought he was a jerk. Sylvia invited her husband over, the friend came along, and a friend of Ben's stood in for him to pose as her lover since Ben was away on duty. Sylvia's husband pitched a fit, but his friend testified to Sylvia's infidelity and the Judge granted the divorce.
Then she married Ben. They didn't have any money so after the wedding, for a honeymoon, they walked over the Brooklyn Bridge.
She worked while he finished his PhD and then went back to school herself and worked for years doing cancer research and as a librarian at a research hospital. In between there was another war, followed by three more children.
She told me a story the last time I was visiting: There was an explosion in the lab she worked in when she was doing research, and an African American woman co-worker was badly burned on her hands and chest. Sylvia went to visit her in the hospital and massaged her feet to give her some comfort. When the lady objected that it was wrong for a white lady to massage a black ladies feet, she replied, "everyone's shit is brown." Sylvia was active in the Civil Rights movement, and when her husband was teaching at NYU, would often adopt his foreign students so that Hanukah was a truly international affair - with Japanese, Nigerian, Bulgarian, and Swedish students in attendance.
One of my favorite memories of Sylvia from when I was a child, was her insistence on teaching me problem solving skills. My parent's frequent response to questions was "go look it up" but I don't remember them ever showing me HOW to look anything up! Sylvia's reply when I asked a question was, "what do you know about it?" I would say what I already knew about it, and then she would say, "well let's see if we can puzzle this out. Based on what we know.... if such and such is this then that might mean that such and such is that. Now lets go look it up and see if we were right."
In 2001 my friend Deb and I went to visit her. Every day when we left to go into Manhattan (Sylvia lives in the Bronx), my Sylvia would give us each an envelope of one dollar bills, "car fare", depite our protests that we had our own dollar bills.
And one of the funniest things I've heard in my life was issued from her lips that same day: Deb and I had been taking the express bus that stopped across the street and took us right down to 22nd and Madison Ave. From there we walked where ever we wanted to go in the Lower East side. Sylvia said, "you should take the subway, you wont have to walk as far." We replied, we *wanted* to walk farther because you see so much more on foot than you do underground. But she insisted. She couldn't comprehend the in-efficiency our method involved. She said, "but then you will be tired by the time you get there. If you take the subway you will have more energy to walk more once you get where you're going!" I said, "I think it's fine, we'll just take the bus again" and in Sylvia shook her head and said. "YOU'RE AFFRAID OF THE SUBWAY!" We both said, laughing, "no we aren't" and she said, "YOU ARE! YOU'RE AFFRAID OF THE SUBWAY! ......
"THE BUS IS THE BUS, THE SUBWAY IS NEW YORK!"
We took the subway that day to make her feel better, even though we had to take another bus to the subway station and got off in Mid-Town anyway so we could walk the rest of the way to Greenwich Village.