I’ll never be anything special.
I grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, a small town in Westchester County not far from Manhattan, but far enough away from the city that Manhattan always seemed like an exotic and magical place. We were the classic 1970s family of four. My father, Barry, worked as a pharmacist; my mother, Jill, was a stay-at-home mom; I was their firstborn; and my sister, Jennifer, came along just fourteen months after I did.
A few years ago, an interviewer for a parenting magazine asked me, “What’s the best trick your mother ever taught you?”
“How to heat up a Hungry Man for dinner!” was my reply.
The person from whom I did get unconditional love was my father’s mother, my Grandma Sylvia Lake. Doesn’t the name sound as if it should belong to a famous person? It just belongs in lights:
“AND INTRODUCING . . . THE EFFERVESCENT SYLVIA LAKE!”
Grandma Sylvia was nothing short of a movie star to me. She looked like a cross between Patricia Neal and Gena Rowlands—all rosy cheeks and lipstick and glasses—the ultimate glamorous matriarch. Her hair was always “done,” her jewelry always big. She seemed to give off some otherworldly light, since she positively glowed with energy and vibrance. Even though I was short and rotund, and the details of my everyday life were often gray and average, Grandma Sylvia taught me to look at the world through a rainbow-colored prism. (To a big thinker like Grandma Sylvia, rose-colored glasses are for amateur optimists.) Grandma Sylvia was always telling me that I was the smartest, the funniest, the prettiest. She called me “the most talented girl in the world,” even when all I could do was half a cartwheel.
Grandma Sylvia shared her love of the arts with my sister, Jennifer, and me, taking us to the theater in Manhattan almost every weekend. I can still recall every spectacle I ever witnessed with her—from the opera to the ballet, Annie to Pirates of Penzance. I remember the way my heartbeat quickened as the house lights began to dim, the pit orchestra weaved together the first phrases of the overture, and the burgundy velvet curtain started to twitch, then glide its way open to reveal the magic behind it.
I can still conjure up the cozy feeling of grasping my grandmother’s elegant, well-manicured hand with my squishy, miniature mitt as I settled into the seat. Going to the theater offered all the magic of my imagination except I didn’t have to close my eyes. And though Grandma Sylvia and I were part of the audience, she always made me believe I was the star of the show.
My friends often tease me that I see the world through the eyes of a Disney princess, that I open my curtains each morning to savor the sweet smell of citrus trees and the music of songbirds. They’re right—I kind of do.
No disrespect to Mr. Disney, but I inherited my sunny outlook from Grandma Sylvia, not some storybook princess. It was probably her positivity, both genetic and learned, that got me through her death from breast cancer in 1978, when she was only fifty-eight years old, and I was nine.
I still think of her every day because she was the person who enabled me to see the beauty in myself.