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My Fancy Grandmother and Me

What cleaning out her closet taught me about the woman whose style I’d always admired.

My grandmother Penny with my grandfather Lenny in 1965.

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Muriel Gurfein — known to most as Penny, known to me as Grandmother — died on November 5th, 2016. I still haven’t fully reckoned with her passing. On the morning of Election Day, a day in which the stunning fall weather stood in stark contrast to both my personal sadness and the shocking national events to come, I found myself standing between her coffin and a small group of family and friends at the Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens. With my sister at my side, I spoke about the two things I’ll remember her most for: the love she shared with my grandfather, Lenny (yes, their names even rhymed), a man she first met at the age of 11, and the impeccable sense of style she developed in her 91 years of life.

Both of these points are pretty much fact to everyone who knew her, though the latter was obviously more evident to the casual observer; even the receptionist at the dental office we both went to has raved to me in her thick French accent about how well my grandmother dressed. But still, I didn’t realize just how closely I’d be examining that signature style myself in the wake of her death.

When my family gathered to clean out her apartment a few blocks north of the Bloomingdale’s flagship in Manhattan, I was tasked with the bedroom closet. I didn’t know where to begin. My whole life, I had built up my grandmother as the quintessential Fancy New York Woman — “fancy” was always the word I associated with her. Part of me was electrified to get an up-close look at the items that contributed to that; but mostly I was crushed about why I was getting this intimate view.

So I started with a good cry. It cleared my mind for what I was about to discover.

I wasn’t going treasure hunting here. Despite the literally dozens of messages from the Bloomingdale’s billing department that we listened to on her answering machine, Penny Gurfein wasn’t a big spender when it came to clothes. Her style didn’t come from a closet full of designer labels. This I already knew. So then where did her aura of fanciness come from, really?

In lieu of asking the woman herself, I turned to her hangers. And surprisingly, what hung off of them isn’t all that different from what hangs off of mine. Grandmother had mastered the minimalistic color palette before any blogger did. I was looking at a closet full of plain black cashmere sweaters from Joe Fresh, simple beige cardigans from Ann Taylor, and crisp black trousers that probably came from Zara. (Her army of white blouses, the piece of clothing I most closely tie to her, hung in a separate closet.) I even found the exact same H&M open-wrap sweater that I have in my own closet that I probably picked up back in college. I wondered when she bought hers. I haven’t been able to put mine on since.

Everything was in pristine condition, and everything was exactly Grandmother-size, which is a little bit smaller than Laura-size, so I didn’t take any clothing to remember her by. I did take a couple of purses, including a black Pierre Cardin crossbody bag with a gold chain; she left a dollar and a Q-tip in its front pocket, and I intend to leave both of those items there forever.

But not much else in her wardrobe was fancy. The non-fanciness extended to her vanity, too, where I found a half-empty bottle of Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue, a fragrance you can buy at Duane Reade.

I too have clothes from fast-fashion labels and fragrances from the drugstore, and I’m nowhere near as fancy as her. Her fanciness came from within (and maybe a little from the Mario Badescu skin care regimen she stuck to so closely) and not from her closet. More than two months out from her passing, I still haven’t figured out how to be fancy like her.

But a couple of weeks ago, my aunt Lois surfaced a video from 1950, when Grandmother would’ve been around my age. I’ve yet to see it, but it depicts her and my grandfather laughing and dancing, and Lois swears that I look exactly like her. I can’t wait to confirm this for myself, because maybe that means she’s not fully gone — and maybe I do have a little bit of her fanciness in me after all.