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Essay

DON’T FORGET YOUR TRANSFER,” my grandmother said. From 1989, she said this to me for ten years. It took two buses to get from the West Side, where I studied and lived, to the East Side, where she had lived her entire life, first on its lower end and now, in her eighties, its upper end. The second bus was free with a transfer, but cost a dollar or more without one. Not to know about the transfer was really to be a greenhorn. In fact, Bubbi liked to ask for a transfer whenever she took the bus, even if she had no personal plans for it. Then she would get off the bus and offer it to a surprised, then grateful stranger waiting to pay the fare, in one of the unlikely intimacies of a huge city.

It was Bubbi’s habit to leave her apartment door unlocked. During the day, it tended to be not just unlocked, but a little bit open, as if the city were a small town where you might come and go to borrow a cup of sugar or an egg. When I arrived on Sunday mornings to visit, I was never early enough that Bubbi hadn’t been out already. Her oldest friends owned the neighborhood bakery, Orwasher’s, and the morning was the time she’d go around the back of the shop, bring home a warm roll or two for herself and Poppy, a loaf of the freshest bread, then stop at D’Agostino’s for a bunch of bananas or juice. My mother’s station wagon full of bags and goods had itself been the image of the distance between their city lives and our suburban habits.

Yet one Sunday morning, I found the door locked. When I knocked, Pop opened it while Bubbi sat at the small square table in the kitchen, slumped over in her seat.

“Lanaleh, what can I give you?” she said.

There was no coffee in the glass carafe and her shirt was barely buttoned. She had skipped a few buttons, then connected fabric to fabric wherever she could, so that I could see her endlessly wrinkled skin, skin that had astounded me as a child when we played together at the beach on Long Island. Pop sat down opposite her as if nothing was wrong.

“Bubbi, are you okay?”

“It’s nothing,” she said. Her words were slurred. The smell of urine rose as I leaned over to kiss her cheek.

The idea of the hospital came quickly to mind. I asked her whether we should call her doctor and she shook her head vehemently, no. But when I discovered that she couldn’t hold her own weight, that she was sitting at the table in wet clothing because she couldn’t move, I reached for the phone. My mother was at a conference. A second call to my father confirmed what I was thinking.

“We need to go,” I told my grandfather, “even if she doesn’t want to.”

Bubbi had always set the rules. Named things, decided where to go and when, what was a good bargain and why, held my hand crossing streets. For months now, though, she had seemed confused. She had a hard time, for instance, keeping track of where we all were. She’d forget that Naomi wasn’t in college anymore, though she’d been at her graduation. I’d remind her that Naomi was living just a few blocks away from me on 103rd Street. Jonathan had done a year of college in Wooster before moving back home to Chicago, but now Bubbi seemed to imagine that he was still in Massachusetts. She knew my mother was in Chicago, but became distressed at how often she flew to other cities.

“And your father? Where’s Paul?”

And I’d tell her, “Detroit,” not sure what she really wanted to know.

Yes, she was confused, but at times her confusion seemed to me reasonable. She had lived on the same block for fifty years, been married to the same man for sixty-five years. Why were we all so moveable, so changeable, anyway?

She’d become more repetitive on the phone, asking the same question right after she’d gotten an answer. And then there was Jonathan’s wedding, six months ago. Bubbi and Pop had walked down the aisle in the formal processional, beaming, arm-in-arm. When they parted ways at the front of the synagogue to circle back around to their seats, Pop had gone his way with a big smile on his face, but Bubbi had stopped short at the top of the aisle and looked around, just stood there, as the music played on and on until finally the bride’s much younger grandmother hissed, “Would you come away from there now?”

Afterwards, Mom had blamed the coordinator for not helping Bubbi. I had been shocked that she was so confused, though Mom just said, “How was she supposed to know what to do?” But then one day Pop called in terror—first Mom’s answering machine, then me—because Bubbi had gone out walking. It had been an hour and she still wasn’t home. “What if she forgets the way home?” he said.

What if she forgets the way home? Who would have thought of that?

At the sound of his words, the city map un-drew itself before my eyes. I pictured the transit map, the five boroughs, the five little states which, among them, had housed all my progenitors upon their arrival to this country. And the red and green and bright blue and yellow lines, marking subways and buses and thoroughfares, seemed colorless, as if the blood was being siphoned out of them. The delight of the city was lost in the image of my grandmother wandering from street to street, lost herself.

§

When my great-grandmother got old and sick in her eighties, she came to live with her daughter, my grandmother. On her own, Bubbi would take the bus all the way downtown, no transfer necessary, just straight down Second Avenue to the place where it had all begun, the Lower East Side. There, she could find the soft cotton undershirts that her mother, Chayoh Sorah, tolerated best against her skin.

When I heard this from my mother, who remembered it from her childhood, I could see it perfectly. I imagined Bubbi liking the freedom and the solitude of those bus journeys, the purpose and the simplicity of finding a valuable item, needle in a haystack, then returning home successful, having adventured among the familiar. Bubbi and Poppy agreed to buy Chayoh Sorah a hospital bed and set it up in the living room.

In the cab on the way to the hospital, the thought flitted through my mind: who would be the daughter to find the undershirts?

§

Bubbi was released from the hospital within the day; the monitoring revealed nothing and the slur in her speech receded; all the doctor could say was that it might have been a mini-stroke. My mother decided not to come right now all the way from Chicago. But she asked Philma if she could increase her hours.

My mother had found Philma through an agency; she was training to be a home healthcare aide. Philma was Jamaican, in her early fifties. Her daughter lived in the Bronx and Philma lived with her, helping her raise a grandchild; the rest of their family was back in Jamaica. Philma showed me pictures of her grandson, a boy among women.

Two months before Bubbi’s mini-stroke, my mother had hired her as another pair of eyes and hands. A local pair of hands.

“Ma, it can’t go on like this. Someone’s going to get sick.”

“Ma, do you hear me?”

“I hear you,” Bubbi said, “but no one’s coming here.”

The apartment was simply a disaster. Bubbi’s vision was very weak and she had grown tired, too, in recent years. Dishes were not always fully clean though they were rinsed and stacked for clean in the cupboard. Mushy cucumbers hid in the refrigerator along with dried-out half-tomatoes and half-lemons; was the milk still good? How long had the eggs lived on the shelf? You could always count on fresh bread, because Nellie would bring some from the bakery even on the days when Bubbi didn’t get up and out, but lots of staples were missing. Did my grandparents eat?

The rest of the house, too, was in disrepair. Small cockroaches skidded along the bathroom walls. In the bedroom, dust was champion, and in the kitchen, should you turn the light out at night, the bigger cockroaches crawled up out of the sink, announcing their dominion. In the first instant when you’d turn the light on, you could see them preening as if they owned the place. According to my mother, Bubbi had never really seen the apartment, even before her eyes had grown too weak to perceive what needed to be cleaned. To me, though, my grandparents’ apartment had been lovable for its stable disorder, its generous indiscrimination. The house that turned away nothing promised never to turn me away.

Each winter of my childhood, we had come to visit on vacation from school. When we arrived, I would enter the bedroom—not Bub and Pop’s, but my mother’s when she was a girl—to see what had changed from last year. This was marvelous because almost nothing ever changed: not the ancient pink and white bedspread, not the odd assortment of books on the nightstand, not the dusty old dolls with wooden shoes that laced up and eyes that opened and shut. Occasionally, things got added, but I don’t remember anything ever getting subtracted. Bubbi had a penchant for abandoned things of all sorts: stray pieces of beautiful china, especially creamers; books that people threw away or left in the basement by the washer, books of any sort so long as they were free; a set of orange, purple, and green Hawaiian leis, sold on the street when the five-cent store changed its name to the dollar store; board games from a rummage sale. Some things were used, but most were new, just dusty, remainders of some sort. Haphazard acquisitions, small rescues from the streets and yards of New York.

Though I could sense my mother’s distaste for the room, her impatience with it, I loved to go into it each December, to discover it as if it were waiting just for me. My mother’s wedding dress hung in the closet, as if someone might take it out at any moment and wear it; pillbox hats (had my bubbi ever worn those?) sat on the top shelves in the closet; fantastic purses, all glitz, hooks, fasteners, long ropes of gold and silver links; on the dresser, my parents’ wedding album in its faded white cardboard box; boxes of makeup samples from the “good stores” though Bubbi wore almost no makeup, just lipstick; and next to all this, current mail.

When I was a girl, the room had been magic.

I’d always known my mother saw it differently. She lined it up with Bubbi’s not taking care of herself, refusing to buy herself new clothes or a winter coat. They argued about this sort of thing over the phone as they made dinner together in their respective kitchens in New York and in Chicago. Two generations in small spaces where they had become used to the physical absence of the other. Still, it was a rare night when my mother made dinner without a call to Bubbi and Poppy, twirling around the kitchen with the extra-long cord winding around her.

From the time I was sixteen, my mother had been after Bubbi to get someone in to help clean. My mother would make the suggestion, then wait six months or a year and make it again. More than ten years of refused requests. Perhaps Bubbi left the door to her apartment open not in order to invite in the neighborhood, but because she trusted everyone else’s sense of privacy as much as her own; maybe she knew that this was New York, no one would come in.

“Mom, you can get a one-time service. You don’t have to sign up for life.”

“You remember what happened the last time we had strangers in the house? Yes, you remember: the diamond ring disappeared.”

The ring had been hanging in Bubbi’s secret hiding place, on a hook underneath the toothbrush holder, but unfortunately, the workers had been plumbers, working in the bathroom. The ring disappeared. So now, no cleaning service.

Bubbi liked strangers; she liked to hand out her transfers, to fall into conversation on the bus, in line at the post office, at the public library, on the street; or in the lobby of the building, to stop and admire the new baby of the woman who lived one floor down, to deliver a coupon for dog food to the mailbox of the young neighbor who had a dog; she clipped it for him while clipping her own. She was as friendly a city-dweller as I could imagine. Yet once, when the new mother reciprocated, I’d seen Bubbi throw a tin of cookies wrapped in red ribbon directly down the incinerator.

“But your neighbor just brought you those!”

“Not kosher.”

As if kosher were as much about origin as substance. In the lobby was one thing; in her own home was another. When my parents got divorced, she cut my father out of even the photos that were expensive, that were taken in studios. She’d rather have the ragged edges than an uninvited guest.

Philma was a great affront to Bubbi. Philma’s big pocketbook sitting on the kitchen table, her hands in Bubbi’s freezer once a week, organizing the meals that had begun to come from the Jewish Project for the Elderly. Philma heating the food, setting it out on plates.

“Don’t treyf up my kitchen,” Bubbi muttered under her breath, but it was hard to fight with Philma because she, too, was stubborn and she was intent on doing her job. Philma enlisted Poppy’s help by making a chart for the pills; she knew from his baseball habits and from the way he documented her hours that he was a sucker for logs and records and numbers. She had him ordering the meals, setting them up just so in the freezer, in order by date, ready for use. When Bubbi could, she still cooked, made a salad—she scoffed at any meal that came prepared—but more and more, the delivered meals got eaten.

Philma had taken to scouring part of the house each visit, but it was a slow job. Years of neglect to erase, or repair. Everything I had loved about the rooms, their static, dusty calm, the general, generous peace: Philma undid all this. She washed the old pink bedspreads and they came apart in the machine. Perhaps they’d never seen a machine before, maybe just Bubbi’s hands or Chayoh Sorah’s hands, in a sink or basin. When Philma opened the washer, all she got was shreds.

Philma rearranged things, stacking towels separate from sheets and sheets separate from blankets. She couldn’t understand why there were so many halfsets of things: a pillowcase with no sheets, or a top sheet with no fitted sheet. As Philma cleaned, she talked to herself and to my grandmother: “How many sheets one person need? Birdie, you are hearin’ me. You got too many sheets….”

My grandmother never answered her.

§

After that first stroke, hospital visits became an ordinary thing. Philma had my number and when something happened, as it did every six weeks or so, I would hear her accents on my answering machine and before the message was even done, I’d be grabbing a book—a long book, like Dickens or Trollope, a book I was studying—and heading out the door, MetroCard in hand. It was a strange rush, with its repeating urgency. I wouldn’t stop for anything, not even a coffee, but I always took the train and bus, never a cab.

When Bubbi would wind up in the hospital for more than three days—somehow that was the magic number—my mother would fly in. On the fourth visit, my mother came directly to the hospital with her bags. “Lana, take a break,” she said. She took a five-dollar bill out of her pocketbook, “Go get a Starbucks and then go home for a while, or go to the museum. Do something nice for yourself.”

And so I did. I left Mom to hold Bubbi’s hand and to shush her as she muttered, “Give me back my shoes,” the phrase she’d muttered since her first visit to the hospital. I understood what she meant. It was like saying, “The way out, please?” but letting your hosts know you were not exactly satisfied with the service.

As I walked down the hall, I realized I’d forgotten my book. I turned around and as I got near the door, I heard Mom singing softly. She was holding Bubbi’s hand and stroking it. Pop was asleep on the chair. After seeing him hold his post, hour after hour, day after day, a sympathetic nurse had moved in a soft, comfortable chair for him. (“If it’s not a chair, trust me, it’ll be another bed,” she’d said.) Pop was ninety-one, after all. As I came around the corner, I saw their whole family there in the room, the three of them. The light was off and the shades were mostly drawn. The window was open and it might as well have been their apartment at a particularly soothing hour in the city, sunset hour, the cars streaming across the FDR Drive and over the bridge, everyone on their way home, but this family, luckily, already reunited. I left my book and tiptoed away.

§

That was two hospital visits ago and for the last one, Mom hadn’t come though Bubbi was stuck for six days. Mom had been in Israel, supervising a trip of her graduating eighth graders. On an ordinary day, I’d come in time to help Bubbi have lunch around eleven. I’d feed her with a spoon or a straw, small bites or long draughts. The food disgusted me, its bits and color and dog-food texture. It actually wasn’t food at all. Even the coffee whose flavor Bubbi longed for was fake, some Sanka shit. Pop would get in on the act about the eating.

From his chair, he called out, “Birdie, you’ve gotta eat. How’ll ya get ya strength? You gotta eat to get bettuh, ya heah me. Hey, Birdel, dontcha want to get bettuh?” In the hospital, I heard his accent acutely, as if I’d never heard him speak before.

At about noon, I’d take Pop down to the cafeteria for his own sandwich. The walk was not easy for him. He used a cane now. But still, people, women especially, noticed him. “Well, that’s a beautiful smile!” he’d say to a nurse in the elevator or at a desk. And it worked every time. The woman would smile back; they’d start to chat. The nice thing about Pop and his gallantries was that they were never slimy, never smarmy. His delight in beauty was nonpartisan and, fairly unusually, embraced his wife and daughter and grandchildren as it did strangers. He knew the difference between a good haircut on me and a bad one, told me I looked beautiful when I’d gotten specially dressed.

He noticed things like that in the world, while Bubbi didn’t at all. Her compliment after she’d gotten sick was to say, when I sat at her side, holding her hand, “the face of an angel.” The face she saw was a composite of faces: myself as a child, whom she’d taken care of six weeks a year in the summer, at the beach house she’d bought for the family in the late forties, washing my small sandy body and wrapping me up in towels twice my size; myself as an eight-year-old, reading my library books to her; myself as a bat mitzvah, reciting my speech in the sukkah in our backyard; and myself as a girl growing up, doing well in school, publishing articles and poems in kids’ magazines, then school newspapers and the yearbook. When she saw my face, or Jonathan’s or Naomi’s, she saw some unchanging soul, not the day-to-day differences of hair cut or blown dry, the ill or neat fit of a shirt or skirt. Tired bags under the eyes, teenage pimples on the cheeks, even the fresh elastic skin of a long rest—she didn’t notice this temporary, inessential stuff. And now, as weak as her eyesight was, as distracted as she seemed, muttering about shoes—or sometimes now, about being late for school, she was rushing to get to school—there was never a time that she didn’t recognize me, recognize the three of us: Jonathan, Naomi, and myself.

For days, though, she would not acknowledge Pop: Sam, Samele, Sammy, her names for him. Maybe it was because he sat in the corner in his chair and rarely moved closer. Once, when he was talking to her from there, I said, “Pop, come here. Let Bubbi see you.”

I walked him over to the bed, helped him hold on to the hand rail, and said, “It helps when she sees you.” But he gave up quickly. I would twist my face to get under Bubbi’s, force her into eye contact, but he wasn’t interested. He went back to his spot. But from the corner, he called out, “Birdel, I love you. You’ve gotta get bettuh, ya heah?”

We walked back from the cafeteria on the last day of my mother’s two weeks in Israel. Mom had been calling every other day, her voice bright across the distance, bright from the sun of the Mediterranean, the ancient, glinting rocks of buildings, walls, and mountains, the sea in which you only float, its mud and minerals restoring vitality. Pop had been busy telling all the nurses that he was going to be a great-grandfather, that he was getting the cigars ready. Jonathan had called to tell him first, before anyone else, and he was elated. He’d said to Bubbi, “Ya hear that, Birdie? There’s gonna be a little one. Ya wanna smile for that now?”

Sometimes I wished Pop were different, that he would tell me what he was thinking, tell me he was sad or scared or tired. But no, day after day, he got up and shaved and took a careful, slow walk to the hospital as if he were going to work. He didn’t cry or moan. That day, though, as we walked back from the cafeteria and turned the corner to Bubbi’s room, Pop looked at me. He paused. He stopped walking and touched the wall. “How she loved a tuna fish sandwich!” he said, and we both burst into tears. After the tuna sandwich remark, after I knew that Pop knew, that it was all in the past—that everything from birthdays to great-grandchildren to tuna sandwiches and steaming hot cups of coffee with two cubes of sugar—that it was all in the past or would never happen meaningfully in the future, after that, I felt quieter and calmer. Bubbi would die and Pop knew it. And his knowing it comforted me. It made it a part of what happens in this world, the world of new haircuts and an amazing dress and sexy high heels. Bubbi would die in the world of time as well as the world of angels.

§

Mom got home from Israel and I punished her on the phone for her absence.

“Yeah, everything’s fine. She’s home. I took her home with Millicent in the Access-a-Ride.” Millicent was the woman who relieved Philma.

“No, the insurance got it.”

“Pop’s fine.”

“Yes, he’s eating.”

An aside that wasn’t an aside: “I think Philma bought treyf soup and now the pots are probably totally treyf.”

“I couldn’t do anything about it. I saw the can in the recycling bin.”

Treyf pots. The opposite of kosher, of home, of things in order and rightly arranged. I took strange pleasure in telling this to my mother, as if this weren’t my grandmother’s house too; a house I needed to eat in, a house I had grown up in.

But I relented. “Yeah, I’ll tell her. OU. Manischewitz. K doesn’t really mean kosher. I’ll show her.”

Philma knew, but she liked her brand. Like my grandmother, she paid attention not just to dollars but to cents, too. Progresso was always on sale and she thought it would nourish Bub and Pop. Who could really argue with the woman who was changing the diapers?

And yet despite what I’d said to my mother, I’d immediately told Philma the soup wasn’t kosher, convinced her to take the rest home to her family, a gift of nourishment from me and Pop, or maybe Bub and Pop—it was their money after all. From my grandparents’ bank account into the mouth of Philma’s grandson at home with his mother in Queens. Finally something substantial going in the opposite direction.

§

The night my sister and I were called to the hospital, Philma was with Bubbi. It was a Saturday night, late, and I stood outside my apartment building on West 106th waiting for a car I’d never seen before. I hadn’t had time to call Mom or Jonathan and now I stood on the street corner watching city life late at night. A man sat on my building stoop, holding his dog by the leash, and another couple sat there, too, looking at the early Sunday edition of the Times on Saturday night, an urban privilege. Across the street, a homeless man pushed a cart full of bottles and cans covered with blankets and under the fluorescent light of the building he was passing, his clothes shone. Cars went by, but this part of the city was quiet, sympathetic.

I was waiting for Nick. He was as non-Jewish as they came. Polite in some different way, some American way that was noncommittal and withheld something even as it offered. When Naomi had moved ten blocks uptown with the UHaul she’d rented, he and I danced around each other moving boxes, carrying lamps, tying ropes; we’d sweated buckets together and he’d never once called me by name. Now Nick was on his way to pick me up and bring Naomi and me across the park to Lenox Hill. To Bubbi.

My mother had never met Nick. After the third week that Mom had called my sister late at night to get the machine instead of her daughter, Naomi had told her about him. That he lived in Brooklyn, was a student at Pratt, an aspiring sculptor; he came from Texas, his father was a doctor and his mother was a spiritual healer in Washington State. They were divorced, like my mother herself. My mother couldn’t have cared less about the details: spiritual healing would have been okay if it was Jewish. Pratt would have been fine. Sculpture, too. But the details shrank beside the significant fact of his non-Jewishness. What did it mean? It meant that he might harm Naomi. It meant that in a past decade, in a removed land, he might have sold us all for some bread or a few kopecks, given us up to our deaths with only the slightest pang of conscience. Underneath his tall, decent, blond, American self, was a heart we could never anticipate, not its beating nor its skipping of a beat. His baby self, his old man self, none of it was human or universal or familiar. His sweatiness, his crying, his stomachaches, none of it was the same as ours. And more, we couldn’t care for his life. We were too busy with our own, learning its rules and demands. My mother had simply refused to meet him, was still refusing a year later.

Nick pulled up in his old Ford Escort. It was a doubtful car altogether and I thought how awful it would be if we got stuck in the park, in a tunnel, in the forest, in the dark, in between East and West and night and day and Bubbi’s life and her possible death. But we got there. We got, silently, across the park, though we hit every red light. We had come to the hospital so many times, Naomi and I. And this was the first time I’d come crosstown in a car, not a train and bus. I had been afraid to rush too much. As if it might have created the thing that required rushing.

The night Nick picked me up, Naomi turned around from the front seat, “Do you think she’s going to be okay?”

Naomi was nearly in tears. She always looked so small next to Nick. “I don’t know. It doesn’t sound good.”

“Well, what’d they say exactly?”

“They said she’s having trouble breathing.”

“Oh, God,” Naomi said.

Just a month earlier, Pop had signed the DNR on the line underneath Mom’s finger. Mom had asked a rabbinic authority in Chicago if this was a problem in Jewish law, and after hearing the details of her mother’s condition, the rabbi had said that it was permissible, that the dignity of human life trumped its sanctity. And now Bubbi was having trouble breathing.

Nick was silent. “Do you want me to stick around?” he asked Naomi when we reached the corner of Park and Seventy-seventh.

“No,” she said, “I don’t know how long we’ll be.”

We walked into the hospital holding hands and when I heard the unearthly silence of the place at midnight, I couldn’t breathe for a moment. A guard I’d never seen before stopped us because it was too late for visitors and I said the magic words, “We think she’s dying.”

He made us special tags and we went up to the second floor. The ward was silent like the entryway had been and when we got to Bubbi’s doorway, Philma was standing there in her wide, cuffed jeans and a red headscarf.

“She gone.”

The words shocked. Naomi and I wept, holding each other. It had happened, this thing that had been waiting to happen, that could never happen again. This was the only moment of it. I was entirely out of myself, not thinking at all, and for that, I am extraordinarily grateful. The thing happened.

Philma hugged the two of us as if we were her own daughters. She said, in her now familiar cadences, “She better now”; “It was time for she to go”; “It be okay”; “Birdie love her girls.”

We entered the room, Naomi and I, and saw the dead body that was no longer Bubbi. I was thirty years old and she was twenty-four, and neither of us had ever seen a dead body. I covered Bubbi’s face with the sheet and then sat at her side because of the Jewish law that prohibits leaving a dead body unaccompanied. I touched her hand even though I wasn’t sure if I should. Naomi had gone to sit outside. I heard Philma say to her, “She could no die if you here. It good you not be here.”

We were late, Philma was saying.

That was true. We had been late for the decisive moment. But Philma was right about Bubbi, too. She had never been willing to tell us when she had a cold, “not to worry the children.” How would she ever have died in front of the kinderlach? She would only have died in front of us if she could have made us dinner and wiped our tears afterward.

I called Mom on Philma’s cell phone. Somehow, I assumed she knew. The hospital had called her too, to tell her about the breathing. And Philma had called her to say she was there with Bubbi. But when I said, “The hevra kadisha, the burial society, is coming,” Mom cried, like a biblical cry. A cry that tore the air. A cry of mourning.

“She’s gone?”

Already, that was a fact with me. A fact that went without saying.

“Yes, she died.”

Mom cried on the phone and Naomi stood next to me, holding onto my skirt.

Immediately, there were things to consider, people to call. Pop.

“Lana, do you think we can tell Pop in the morning?”

I was silent.

“He needs to sleep. He needs the rest. What’ll he do all night if he knows?”

“Mom, he’s her husband.”

She didn’t say anything.

“How can we know and not tell him?”

“We’ll sleep over. We won’t leave. But he deserves to know.”

In the end, we left Philma with the body, waiting for the hevra kadisha, the volunteers who would come from the funeral home to guard the body so that it would not be alone, disgraced, for a single moment. When I was studying for my bat mitzvah, I’d learned that this was called hesed shel emet, a kindness one did with no possibility of repayment, and so, the truest sort of generosity.

When we got to Pop, he already knew. What I’d imagined with my mother was true with my grandfather.

The hospital had called to tell him she was struggling to breathe and he had wanted to go there, but Philma had said no, she would go. So Pop was at home on the couch, in front of a ballgame, when we arrived. Millicent was with him. Naomi and I sat on either side of his big armchair, the chair we had always known him in. When we told him, he didn’t say anything. And now I remembered a time I had come to visit a few years earlier, while Bubbi was still well. I had been in the bedroom when the phone rang. I heard lowered voices, voices that I associated with “protecting the children,” but finally I detected the truth. Pop’s brother Irving had died in Florida. Pop didn’t cry then either. He walked back into the living room and sat down in front of the television while Bubbi sat in the kitchen at the table, sat in her seat and just stared at the table.

Pop’s brother. As if Naomi or Jonathan had died. I couldn’t imagine that being seventy years older than we were now would make such a difference, would erase the meanings of death that way. An emptiness on the other end of the phone, a hole in the circle of family, memories now private rather than shared; you might as well have made them up. The loss of a sibling was incomprehensible. It seemed to me the worst thing that could happen.

Tonight, too, Pop said nothing. The long vigil was over. Maybe it didn’t mean anything yet. Or maybe news at a distance, of something that happened there—with Irving, in Florida; with Bubbi, in the hospital—was simply not news. It hadn’t happened. Wasn’t fully believable. Maybe it just skipped you, an event like that. If you hadn’t been there to see it with your own eyes—a piece of news that took you out of yourself and made you nothing but its recipient—maybe you lost that moment and would never get it back. A mercy of withholding and a cruelty of unending illusion all in one.

§

In the morning, my mother and brother flew in. Following Jewish law, the funeral was held that day, as close to the death as possible. It was a terribly snowy day, freezing, white, soft, and delicate. Riverside Chapel on Amsterdam Avenue, two pm. I spoke, the rabbi spoke, my grandfather was there, Aunt Nettie was there, our friends and some relatives, Philma. She sat in the back wearing a church hat, and after the funeral my mother clung to her as if clinging to the last thing of her own mother.

We buried Bubbi in the plot she and Pop had bought years earlier, decades, nearly half a century earlier, in the practice common to their generation. Like buying a house. My mother held on to my grandfather, helping him in the ice and snow he should never have been out in, and they lowered the casket into the ground. Now Pop moaned that she would be cold there and I knew he was picturing Bubbi like herself, her living self, and not the cold corpse, the dead clay that had taken her place in the world, her mass, but nothing else. Now I wished he’d been at the hospital. All protecting is bad, I wanted to say. Let people face the truths of things so that they are at least still living in the world. Let them know what surrounds them and what they’ve lost. The ragged edges of our family portraits made sense to me. Bubbi had known something deep.

At the funeral, the rabbi misspoke. He spoke without knowing anything important about my grandmother. And around the empty circle of his speech, my grandfather’s pride and unshatterability stayed intact.

The rabbi had arrived late and had had only a few moments of coaching by my mother. She had only had time to tell him of the things she thought he might also remember, not the things we remembered. And so the rabbi reported the way that Bubbi would always volunteer to take the children on field trips when my mother was young, the way she volunteered for everything. He said how important Jewish education was to her, how two of her granddaughters had taught now in Jewish schools. I knew he was repeating my mother’s words because he neglected to mention that my mother herself was an outstanding Jewish educator and had been for twenty years.

And then, he tried to make sense of the cipher that was Jonathan, who works in arbitrage. And he couldn’t.

“And, a grandson who works with money, well…. Well, who knows how that fits in?” As if without a large enough audience, this rabbi couldn’t muster it up, couldn’t put on the show of eloquence that funerals of the powerful and public synagogue services demanded. The truth was that this grandson had been the apple of Birdie’s eye, as Bubbi’s sister Nettie liked to say. Jonathan had called every single day she was sick, first to say hi to her when she was still well enough to give and take on the phone. Then, when she had given that up, he had called to be near Pop, to evoke that sound in Pop’s voice, the sound of pleasure. Jonathan was every day, like the newspaper, the weather, the mail, the regularity of bills, of finishing the milk carton and going out to get a new one, replacing a light bulb. Without it, darkness.

The rabbi missed it all. He missed the dull drama of the last four years of Bubbi’s life, and the decades-long rhythm of Bubbi in the kitchen, Pop in the living room, the radio and the television. The phone calls across the country around dinner time when my mother had first moved away to get married and make her own family. The packages Bubbi sent us on our birthdays, but also everyday: the Star Wars figures that Jonathan had wanted so badly. When Mom and Dad had put him off, he’d gone straight to Bubbi. “Han Solo,” he’d said, and she went right down to the Lower East Side where she’d bought Mama the cotton undershirts in her day. “Consuelo,” she’d requested at one place after another, “Yes, I’m sure it’s Consuelo, yes, Star Wars,” and then she’d called Jonathan that night and they’d laughed and laughed and she’d gone back down, and the package had arrived safe a week later. She’d gotten him Air Jordans, too, when they were the rage.

I remembered the car trips to the airport to pick them up and then sitting beside Bubbi as she unpacked her suitcase which was full of bread. Her neighbors were bakers, what did you want? I remembered Dad either pretending to like the alreadystale bread or really liking it, because it had come from New York, had come in a suitcase that was the size of his desire. My grandmother always took care to bring his favorite—pumpernickel-rye—while his own parents probably hadn’t even known his favorite. They’d fed him canned peas and carrots and never spoken on the phone about what was in the oven or on the flame or in the ice box. I thought of now, of yesterday, when Jonathan would pick up his office phone in Chicago to divert the conversation from the decades of what Mom and Bubbi were making for dinner to what he and Pop were seeing in their world.

The rabbi missed the darkness of my Sunday visits and the brightness of Naomi’s more irregular appearances, visits shining with the freedom and pluck of the younger daughter. And he missed the scene an hour earlier at the funeral home: Naomi, my mother, Jonathan, Pop, Nettie, and I in the office there, the business of death landing on us harder than we’d anticipated.

“Ten thousand dollars,” the man had said, “for a ceremony that isn’t graveside.”

My mother looked at Pop and knew he couldn’t do a funeral in the snow and ice, and knew that he wanted people to sit and honor the memory of his wife indoors. Pop hadn’t heard the number the man named. He sat numb and Nettie was talking to Naomi. My mother gasped and I knew it wasn’t a sum she could manage. Jonathan glanced at Pop, took out his checkbook and signed. The rabbi missed that, too, and all the years leading up to it.

My friend and college roommate Amy was at the funeral. When Bubbi had found out that Amy loved pumpkin bread, she’d taken care always to have an extra loaf from the bakery to send back across town with me when I came over. Amy’s mom came to the funeral too, because she was in New York visiting that week, and she sat respectfully and signed the guest book and wished my family and me her sympathies. Seeing her, a woman who had met my grandmother maybe once, certainly never knew her, I felt close to tears. I wanted her to give the eulogy, for all of us, for all people who didn’t know each other but knew by analogy the bitterness and sweetness of parents, children, apartments, houses, and their treasures and their garbage.

My father was not at the funeral. He was at work, an ordinary day, though the woman who had given birth to the woman who had borne him three children was lying dead in a casket, time for her honoring. He was absent though it was for him that Bubbi had loaded her suitcase full of bread; seeds would fall out of her clothes or shoes at unexpected moments, and that had been for him. He was the very man cut out of photos in her home, the very man standing at my mother’s side in the wedding album that Bubbi had left intact.

My father was missing and Naomi’s boyfriend was missing. He was waiting in a car around the corner, the car that had driven us to the hospital to see her in her death.

Philma was there. Jonathan’s wife was at home, waiting for their baby.

My mother had wanted to bury Bubbi in Israel, but we buried her in Queens, alongside the empty plot waiting for Pop. Did Pop think of himself when he saw, for the first time, the land they’d paid for all these years? Where would my mother be buried, when the time came? If Mom wanted Israel, and her parents wanted Queens; and Dad lived in Detroit, and Nick’s family was from Ireland, and Philma’s split between Jamaica and New York, where would we all wind up? Where would the keening songs be sung and the limbs watched over and the eyes shut and the white garments worn?

§

At shiva, my mother sat in the center of the apartment on a low stool and Pop sat in his big chair. Jonathan stayed for one day and he sat next to Pop in the same spot he had sat in the photo of his fifth birthday, January 1, 1978. We were always in New York on his birthday. On the way back across the country in the green station wagon, Jonathan had asked me a five-year-old’s riddle. “What’s the opposite of a birthday?” he’d asked, and I’d said, “I don’t know.” I’d been seven. He said, “A day-day.”

 

The seven days of shiva passed and a day-day began.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

  • Tyler McCabe

    I love this article.

    • Image Journal Staff

      Glad you liked it!

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