On the wall above my grandparent’s bed is a painting of girl sitting. She has long brown wavy hair, bright blue eyes, and her lips are parted into a smile. She is wearing a blue v-neck dress and her legs are crossed. The painting is my young grandmother, at 22, done by my grandfather. At Passover one year when my grandfather had already passed, I lay in the adjoining twin bed next to my grandmother.Together, of course the beds made a double. I was sleeping in my grandma’s room because the house was crowded with my dad and other family members in other rooms in the household.
I stared at that painting a lot trying to place my gandmother. The one I knew: big-rimmed glasses and done-up hair who scolded me when I didn’t hold her hand when we crossed Ocean Avenue, or would cluck her tongue and nod her head when a family member (a child) wouldn’t sit still. As I grew older and scolding was no longer needed, I tried to place her in that picture when she regaled stories of she and my grandfather. I so badly wanted to see the stories that she told.
My grandfather was Polish World War II veteran and survivor of the Holocaust. I liked to imagine that as he rang the doorbell he wiped his feet, took off his hat, and when he looked up set his eyes on a beautiful young woman, that was my grandmother. That’s the picture I see.
The call came at 8:00 on Tuesday night. I knew before I answered. “Is Grandma okay?” I said rushed and stupidly. “No,” he said. “She passed away today. Peacefully, it seems…”
Born in the 1920’s, she lived in the same neigborhood her whole life, moving around the corner when she and my grandfather were married. Her love, from my child’s point of view came at first, in the form of matzoh ball soup and gefilte fish. She was a supportive audience member of many theatre productions and graduations, and the generous benefactress of college tuition and other endeavors that my cousins and I pursued. She was “tough,” and more than wanting approval from my adoring parents who “bravoed!” my every move I craved it from grandma.
My grandmother was driven by intellect and practicality. I, a spirited storyteller propelled forward by the force of the moment and the direction of the wind. I learned, in high school after a firm scolding and then a heartfelt forgiveness (“I love you” she said afterwards- in only the way a Jewish Grandmother from Brooklyn could say) the importance of hand-written thank you cards and calling on birthdays. I was sometimes tight-lipped at the dinner table concerned about the interrogation of my latest adventure or worse yet in my pretentious intellectual college years curled my hands into fists ready to defend, contradict, or patronize whatever “out-of-date” ideas I thought were about to be presented.
And so….it took awhile for her and I to find our groove. When I decided on Sarah Lawrence, located on the outskirts of New York City she told my father worriedly, “Sarah just thinks that New York City is her oyster.” Laughing when I heard this and shaking my head I thought and said aloud, “Well…yes! How else should an eighteen year old experience New York City?” I was relatively cautious and not reckless but still, I imagine that as she nodded her head, clucked her tongue and said to my aunt, “That girl..” What kind of future would provide for such a “crazy adventurer” who viewed New York City as her oyster?
As I navigated my way as post-college adult I started to see my grandmother as a loving force who had supported all of us in our quirky ways. I sat with her more in New York, grateful to have such a loving presence. Sitting on the couch one Passover, watching her great grandchildren play, she remarked, looking at my three year old second cousin, “He’s scared of me.” I looked at her abruptly. “He is.”
It was hard to imagine anyone being scared of my grandma at that moment But then again to a three year old perhaps she looked old and frail; also, my grandma did not have the greatest tolerance for young children’s antics. Or perhaps he sensed her toughness…what I had also experienced as a child. My grandma had seen me grow. I knew now that her her “toughness” was a shell for fear and loneliness. A three year old can’t know that!
Grandma Claire had a wickedly funny dry sense of humor and welcomed my friends into her home with an open heart and always asked after them.
. This past summer, on my way through New York, I stopped in at my grandma’s for lunch. Her hair, no longer done-up in curls fell thinly by her ears. She still wore her big-rimmed glasses and we sat in the living room and after I asked my usual questions about grandpa and other aspects of her life, still thinking if I squinted hard enough it would bring me back in time. After awhile she said, “You know, Sarah. You’re a real fresh of breath air and you’ve really done something with your life. I know it’s not perfect, but I’m proud of you and I love you.” Although she had said it before, I teared up. The “it’s not perfect,” although can be left for interpretation, was her way of saying, “It’s not worth the worry….” or so my optimistic storytelling self likes to think.
The doorbell rang for pizza and we sat around stuffing ourselves with the best New York pizza from around the corner. Before I left the house I kissed her softly on the cheek and said, “Good bye, grandma. I love you.”
Good-bye, Grandma. I love you. Thank you for your generosity, your love, and your presence. What a gift to know you.