Standing on the worn, white linoleum tile of Grandma’s kitchen, I wonder, Who has an all-white kitchen? White formica counter top with little gold flecks in it, white cabinets, a white Frigidaire, and an ancient white stove top. Despite the age of this kitchen, everything is spotless, hospital-room clean.
When Grandma says with pride that you could eat off her floor, it is the God’s honest truth.
There is a glass next to the sink, containing a sad group of used tea bags commiserating together, their yellow Lipton tags hanging over the side like tiny flags on a day with no wind. I put up some water, and stick two pieces of bread into the pop-up toaster. We will have lunch together – for Grandma, that means a cup of tea (“use one of the bags from the glass by the sink!” she instructs) and maybe a half-piece of toast.
She hardly eats, these days. When I hug her, her bony shoulder blades are like a fragile, delicate bird. Her frailty worries me. She shuffles slowly, slowly to the table with her detested walker, and eases down into the chair with a resigned sigh.
I kiss the top of her silvery head, and inhale her fragrance deeply. My Grandma smells like a mix of coffee, chicken soup, mandel bread, and Yiddish lullabies. She has always smelled like this, from my earliest childhood until today, when I have near-grown children of my own. She takes my hands between her wrinkled, spotted ones, and squeezes. Looking up at me with her wise, warm brown eyes, I think she is about to tell me how much she loves me.
“Nu Tarale, you’re still pretty … what do you have to wear that shmattah on your head?” Grandma says.
This is classic Grandma. No filter, tell it like it is.
Once, years ago on a rainy winter break when the kids were cooped up indoors for days, she called. I said in desperation, “The boys have run out of things to play, they’re bored out of their minds! What can I give them to do?!” Tell them to “geh hoch der kup un vant,” she said in Yiddish—”go knock your head against a wall.” Hers was not a generation of entertaining the children, of television and video games, baseball practice and trips to Toys R Us. At age 12, with her mother already buried, she was the one responsible for running the home, cooking and cleaning for her father and her two siblings. There was no play. I doubt if my grandmother ever owned a doll.
She lived in a Polish shtetl, a tenement on the Lower East Side, a house on Long Island, a Miami Beach apartment, and finally, an assisted-living center in Queens. How I wish the last stop could have been Jerusalem, near us. How hard it is to fly to NY to see her, always thinking, this could be the last time …
Grandma has been gone for four years now. I think of her frequently, and sometimes I can still smell her next to me. When I’m shaping the matzo balls and dropping them into the soup, she is there – “Use seltzer next time”, she says, “they’ll be fluffier.” When I chop the walnuts, I think to myself, no one makes mandel bread as good as Grandma did. “No, yours is just as good as mine,” she tells me. I get a whiff of cinnamon, of almond extract, and it is her perfume wafting out of the bottle.
When I light my Shabbos candles, I think of her. Of how lucky I am, to be standing here in this white stone house, in these Judean hills covered in rows of grapevines and olive trees. How close I came to missing it all. I remember the conversation from so many years ago … “I love you with all my heart,” Grandma said, her voice wavering as she held my face between her hands, “but I will not come to your wedding if you marry that boy.”
My extended family have all assimilated. I nearly did, too. My cousins have multiple Ivy League degrees. They are well-travelled, they ski, they have beautiful homes and beach houses that could grace the pages of glossy magazines … but none of their children are Jews.
What was it about our branch of the tree, that made us seek out our heritage? Summer trips to Israel – first to kibbutzim, then to seminaries and yeshivas. Today, there are over twenty great-grandchildren of hers – all of them Jewish, most of whom live in Israel. It is Grandma’s zechut, I believe, that brought about that incredible accomplishment. Her sacrifice, her suffering, her stubborn clinging to tradition despite all the hardships.
Every Friday night, in the golden glow of the Shabbat candles, I circle my hands three times, cover my eyes, and pray. I send a special prayer for Grandma. Though we aren’t supposed to cry on Shabbat, sometimes I just miss her so much my heart cracks. Sometimes, as I’m about to open my eyes, I catch a scent of the chicken soup from the kitchen, a trace of cinnamon. A snip of a Yiddish lullaby from a time gone by, floating through the window on a Jerusalem evening breeze.
A teabag steeps, the flavor is used up – but there is always a little more there, renewing itself yet again.