A couple weeks ago, I received several calls in the middle of the night from various family members. The rule of thumb I divulge to anyone who knows me well enough to know I am not a morning person is a warning against calling before 8 AM, lest I assume the worst. This personal edict takes on new meaning when my mornings correspond with my friends’ and family’s afternoons. As it turns out, a thirteen-hour time difference can impede communication.
When I finally picked up the phone, I learned that my grandmother had suffered a massive stroke. She and my grandfather, who had a 60-year-old love affair, had been eating their morning breakfast. When they finished, my grandfather told her, “You make my day.” My grandmother responded, “I try.” Then they parted, she to put the dishes in the dishwasher, and she collapsed.
As a child, it wasn’t difficult to revel in the love of a grandparent. We spoke the same language of bagel sandwiches cut into little pieces and Nordstrom’s shopping sprees and card games well past the hour my parents would normally allow me to stay up. As an adult, it became more difficult to find common ground. My grandmother escaped Nazi Germany when she was five, to live in Palestine until she was 22. Though she spoke three languages, she never went to college. The first time my grandmother set foot in a supermarket, it so overwhelmed her that she had to turn around and walk out the door. She humored the Beatles, but opera was more her thing. My grandmother was a woman who devoted her every waking hour to her husband, a woman who had superstitions about appropriate footwear in the kitchen, and who called me on my 20th birthday and asked why I had not married my college boyfriend. When I told her I wanted to be a doctor, she dismissed me, saying, in her ever-thick German accent, “Ach, no. You should be a pharmacist. That way, when you get married, you will know something.”
I sometimes wonder, when people say, “Everybody handles grief in their own way,” they are just trying—feebly—to cover up Camus-styled sociopaths who don’t feel anything at all. The other extreme is grief appropriators who want to be bereaved so badly that they attach a personal meaning to the deaths of people they never knew. We try so hard to contain people’s reactions to death into categories of what we assume they should be feeling—we say they’re “numb” or they’re unable to cope with facing their mortality—because it fits a social paradigm. It is amnesty for any unsavory behavior. Even the Rabbi who delivered the eulogy, in the same sentence, declared that we can know nothing about the mysteries of death, and that God is responsible.
Lately, I feel like I’ve been taking my emotional cues based on observations of how others react. Someone laughs, I laugh. Someone cries, I take note and follow suit.
One of the most intimate, serious conversations my grandmother and I had was on a phone call during my commute from Washington to Charlottesville one night. My science policy internship was coming to a close, and I was getting ready to go to Israel. As she had grown up in Haifa, I figured a call to Grandma was in order. She gave me the requisite lecture on dressing for the weather, but she also talked about what it was like to live in Palestine under British rule, and then through Israel’s War of Independence, and she told me about her father, the physician, who was so well-loved in the community. I learned that she held a job after he died. When I landed, I arrived with context, and when I visited Haifa and Jaffa, I imagined that I was walking down the same streets that my grandmother walked to go to school or buy bread or meet her friends.
It is now, situated on the other side of the world, having Skyped into her funeral, that I am reminded of just how much my grandmother and I had in common: when she was 22, she left everything and everyone she knew to come to a place she had never been before. By 1954, my grandfather, who also escaped the holocaust, much to his peril, had established a woodworking business, and gathered the funds to sponsor a young Jewish girl’s trip to America. That girl happened to be my grandmother, and the story goes that my grandfather picked her up from the port—my grandmother was quite literally “fresh off the boat”—and fell in love with her in the two hours it took to drive her to the place she would be staying.
A year later they were married. She never complained of being homesick, if she was. For someone so old-fashioned, so resolutely stuck in gender roles, and so brimming with aphorisms for every occasion, she was pretty courageous.
And that’s something to aspire to. I just wish I could talk to her about it some more.
In memory of Charlotte Simenauer, 1929-2014.