My grandmother Nadia passed away a couple of weeks ago at the impressive age of 104, almost 105. And last week I performed the quintessential New York act of pricing a bench in her honor in Central Park. They’re going for $7,500 these days.
“I thought they were $5,000,” I said to Molly Roberts, who runs the bench-dedication program for the Women’s Committee of the Central Park Conservancy. Not that I’m trying to cut corners. My grandmother’s funeral at the Riverside Memorial Chapel cost as much as a new car.
“They were $5,000,” Ms. Roberts explained. “They went up.”
I was asking mostly out of curiosity. Ms. Roberts confirmed that all the benches at Strawberry Fields—where Tanya, my grandmother’s caregiver, took her in her wheelchair every day, weather permitting—were claimed.
“There’s certainly benches near the West 72nd Street entrance,” she went on, trying to be helpful. “Or Cherry Hill, which is further into the park from Strawberry Fields. Or the lake.”
I wasn’t thrilled with any of my choices. I’ve always thought of the benches that line the park’s West 72nd Street entrance as a sort of senior center, a place for alter kockers to sit and gossip. My grandmother was above that.
And Ms. Roberts had to remind me where Cherry Hill was, which isn’t a good sign. It’s that out-of-the-way turnaround, originally meant for horse-drawn carriages, west of Bethesda Fountain. The benches there haven’t been claimed for good reason. Nobody sits on them.
And then there’s the lake. The lake somehow lacks seriousness; it’s a tourist attraction. I doubt my grandmother ever rented a rowboat there, even in her younger days.
The irony, of course, is that she doesn’t care at this moment where her plaque goes, or even if she gets one. I say this with quasi-religious conviction—not because I dropped too much acid in college, but because I felt her spirit as I was walking through Central Park the day after she died.
And not just hers, but legions of others. It wasn’t a Casper the Friendly Ghost type of moment. It was more the realization—the sort that comes when reality, in the form of things like disease and death, punches a hole in the façade of everyday existence—that the park isn’t just filled with the living, but also with the dead.
I don’t mean those whose ashes have been spread there (though I suspect there are lots of those), but folks who loved the park and whose memory lingers on. There was my grandfather Abraham, Nadia’s husband, who died 30 years before her. He used to dress up to take us to the park on Sunday mornings, in impeccable custom-tailored suits and ties from Paris, doling out LifeSavers, one per child.
Then there was my younger brother John, who perished of an asthma attack in 1987, at the age of 30. My earliest childhood memory is of heading through the park on a winter’s evening, a light snow starting to fall, as Marie O’Grady, our nanny, pushed Johnny’s baby carriage while I tagged along beside them.
There’s even John F. Kennedy Jr. I didn’t know him. But I spotted him on his racing bike, speeding through the park early one morning a few years back, dashing in a white button-down shirt and tie, heading toward the East Side. He looked like he would live forever.
Finally, there’s Ken Stevenson, whose memorial service I attended the same week as my grandmother’s funeral. Ken, who I wrote a couple of pieces about in this space, used to sit on a bench opposite the Alice in Wonderland statue. He was perhaps best known for sunbathing in an advanced state of undress while doing the New York Times crossword puzzle.
People used to think Ken was homeless due to his sartorial indifference. In fact, he was a Princeton graduate and retired stock broker who lived on Madison Avenue and 62nd Street.
The story goes that one morning, as Ken was leaving the park, a representative from a homeless-outreach program approached and offered him food and shelter. Pointing across the street at the Knickerbocker Club, where Ken was a member in good standing for half a century, he invited her to lunch instead.
The crowd at Ken’s standing-room-only memorial service—held, appropriately enough, in one of the Knickerbocker Club’s drawing rooms facing the park—included not just his upper-crust family and Princeton classmates, but also a few of us hoodlums from the park.
Ken isn’t going to get his bench, either. All the benches in the area where he sat were long ago claimed by families paying homage to a relative’s passion for nature, or by wealthy investment bankers celebrating their wives’ birthdays.
Molly Roberts said there was still space available on the ” upper upper west side” of the park. “We also have a tree-trust program, where you endow a tree,” she added. “I know there are trees in Strawberry Fields not yet endowed.”
I asked whether they put a plaque on the tree to prove it’s yours. “No,” she admitted. “We engrave a paving stone that gets installed at the southern end of the mall.”
The weird thing is that even having spotted my grandmother’s eternal spirit hovering just above the treetops, mingling with the breeze, I still know that she’d hate the idea of being off in the sticks. She had a lovely apartment, stayed at the best hotels and wore couture Givenchy dresses. In fact, she was buried in one.
But I think I may have come up with a solution: I could purchase one of the benches in front of the Sheep Meadow and opposite the Tavern on the Green. That’s where my friend Aris and I sit on warm summer nights, sipping vodka from an athletic squirt bottle in violation of the open-container law, chewing cashews and admiring young women running by in skimpy running outfits.
My grandmother never joined us, of course. Yet she was something of a party animal in her day, from what I understand. As a matter of fact, well into her 90’s she’d raise a fuss if you were attending a family function at her apartment and wanted to leave before midnight. And up until the last weeks of her life, she could still derive pleasure from a good fruit compote.
I always thought that if I had my own bench, I’d want it to read (quoting that great Western philosopher, Dr. Seuss): “From there to here / from here to there / funny things are everywhere.”
My grandmother might want something different—say the complete lyrics to “Stenka Razin,” her favorite Russian song. According to my mother, she could recall the lyrics up to the very end.
I raised that possibility with Molly Roberts—not of the bench location, but of the lyrics. She cautioned that space on the plaque was limited, but said that she’d be happy to work with me.