I first met Phyllis "Cookie" Kaplan on May 28, 1998-- the day I proposed to Julie. My proposal was a bombshell on the entire family coming at Julie's birthday dinner. I had only met her parents a couple times before that, so needless to say it was a long night. Other than her sister, Julie's grandmother, Phyllis-- or Nana-- was my sole ally that evening. She calmly asked me if I loved Julie and if she loved me. When she got the right answer to both she said, "What's the problem?" I was quickly a fan.
My next meeting was a dinner with her and Julie that was about as unpleasant as the first family dinner. She grilled me over and over on how I was going to support her granddaughter. I was longing for the comfort of a root canal by dessert.
Nana put off having a risky surgery to clear a carotid artery until after we got married in July of 1999 because she didn't want to put a damper on the wedding. When she did have the surgery she had a stroke. She slowly recovered as best she could but with limited use of her hand. Our relationship finally took off shortly after that. It probably had something to do with me getting a decent job at WILX in June of 2000 and the birth of her first great-grandchild the next month. I still remember the tears that came to Nana's eyes when, in the delivery room, we told her we decided to name the baby after her grandmother-- Leah.
By the time I became a full-time news anchor we'd become a regular Abbott and Costello routine. I'd joke around, she'd joke back and then I'd get on her nerves to the point of her shouting. It always included her favorite line though: "Just what this family needed-- another smart ass." We had a lot in common. We were both in the restaurant business-- she and her husband ran one in Chicago before moving to Jackson and I ran my family's restaurant through college.
By the time A.J. was born in 2003, we'd often spend a day at her home in Jackson and go out to eat. When she felt up to it, she'd spend a weekend at our house and it was always a great time. She always tried to update my education of her Jewish faith-- mostly to make sure I was using Yiddish words properly. My one-liner that never failed to make her smile was this:
Nana: (after getting worked up) Oh, Jesus!
Me: It's a little late now.
She loved to buy me new shirts and ties and then critique them when I wore them on the air. It was not unusual for me to answer a phone call moments after a newscast to hear: "Jason? I thought that outfit was just gorgeous." To which I often responded, "It should be, you bought it." "I did?" she'd ask. She eagerly embraced my family and became pretty close with my mom in the short time they knew each other. She was very comforting to me and my grandma when we lost my grandpa unexpectedly in 2004 and my mom in 2006. She has been my only grandparent since last January when my grandma died.
Out enjoying some chinese food: Nana with Julie and my mom, Cathy, and the girls: A.J., cousin Sam, Leah in 2005
Those experiences led to little dinner dates where we'd talk about everything happening in our lives. Between shows I'd sometimes run down to Jackson and meet her at the Taco Bell for a quick bite. We both loved grabbing a few tacos and shooting the breeze. I probably know many of the family secrets I shouldn't. She also never missed a chance to remind a waitress that I was on TV. She just couldn't understand why that was embarrassing. If she had her druthers I'd walk around with a sign that read, "ANCHORMAN/COOKIE KAPLAN'S GRANDSON." Not one holiday went by where she didn't have me ask some of the reporters and anchors if they had a place to go for the holidays. She was quite fond of Todd Klaassen and Beth Shayne, in fact, TK joined us for Thanksgiving in Jackson one year when we both had to work and another time for tacos. He got a kick out of her the same way everyone did. A tough old broad who said it like it was. Not too long ago she cooked up Glumpkes-- stuffed cabbage rolls-- and served it with some mangos. Divine.
She was my number one focus group. Like Tim Russert had his dad "Big Russ" up in Buffalo, I had Nana down in Jackson.
"You need to sit up a little more straight."
"Tell Chris to slow down-- I can't understand him."
"You and Beth are just darling together, but try not to overshadow her."
"I like Andy's hair the old way, but you can tell you two are becoming good friends."
Recently, A.J. scored 6 goals in her soccer game and when we got in the car, I asked her who she'd like to call first. She said, "Nana." I was more than excited to dial and Nana was more than touched when I told her she was number one on the list.
Just a couple weeks ago, we visited Nana in a rehab center after an illness and we took her outside to watch the girls playing in the leaves. Nothing pleased her more.
She passed away this morning after that illness got the best of her. Nana was 81. Sort of 81-- she was between birthdays, if you will. Tomorrow is her actual birthday, but her entire life she celebrated it on the 11th because her parents celebrated an anniversary that day. I think that's the story, although I could be wrong. Julie always called her on both days because she wasn't quite sure about the actual date or the story. I'm writing this because Nana always prodded me to say hi to her on the air. I always refused calling it unprofessional, but she never hesitated to say, "I watched last night and you didn't say, 'Hi Nana.'" So, here's your shout-out, kid.
As sad as I am knowing I won't get another phone call after a newscast from the woman I came to love so much, I'm very happy. Happy that she's reunited with her husband Sonny. Sonny died 30 years ago after a long battle with MS. He fought it for 25 years and Nana told me often about her struggle to care for him in that time. She told me something that will always stick with me. She said people always felt sorry for her the way Sonny died and how long she had to care for him, but she never thought of it as a chore. This was the man she loved and she felt privileged to be the one he had to rely on. That's why she never even thought of remarrying-- she'd had the one true love of her life.
I hope they're hand-in-hand again today and maybe, just maybe, my mom stopped by to say hi, too.