I was twelve at the time, would have chosen to be anywhere but there. I hated visiting her at home, but this took my disgust to a whole new level. We were never close, never would be, she so old, so old world, so unlike anyone I had known, so like the women sitting outside the old hotels on South Beach waiting for a wave or death, whichever first flowed in, life having long ebbed. The room as I remember it was barren, bleached to a lack of any color, the bed a white frame, white sheets, a small white indentation staring up at the ceiling, up at heaven, and everywhere what I imagined were steel bars through which we and the doctors and nurses could pass, but which held her tightly within, serving out what remained of her ever shortening life sentence.
I’d like you to tell me about the village in which you grew up, and how odd it must have been for you to have met my grandfather so far from any village in the heart of Lithuania. I suspect you left with your parents, exhausted by pogroms, exhausted by the Jewishness that to them defined you. I’d love to know about my mother who I never got to meet, the seventh of your eight children, but like you, she is silent and all I have left is a small photo and a volume of imagined memories.
Oddly I have a photo of my grandmother’s grave, but not one of my mothers, either of them actually, and we’ve yet to have a funeral for the one who raised me. I forgive the one who gave me life, for she gave me to one she felt could care for me well and she slipped away into death before I found out her name. I do have a college yearbook photo of her, and that will have to do every day, and especially on Sunday when she will have been lying in the soil of West Virginia for sixteen years, and I will be mourning her passing for four.
It is that moment when the moon is a glaring crescent, slowly engulfed by the impending night — when the few clouds give out their fading glow In the jaundiced light of the sodium arc street lamp.- It nestles the curb — at first a small bird — when touched, a twisted piece of root
I want to walk into the weed-strewn aging cemetery, stand in the shadow of the expressway, peel the uncut grass from around her head- stone. I remember her arthritic hands clutching mine, in her dark, morgueish apartment, smelling of vinyl camphor borsht I saw her last in a hospital bed where they catalog and store those awaiting death, stared at the well-tubed skeleton barely indenting starched white sheets. She smiled wanly and whispershouted my name — I held my ground unable to cross the river of years unwilling to touch her outstretched hand. She had no face then, no face now, only an even fainter smell of age of camphor of lilac of must
Next to the polished headstone lies a small, twisted root. I wish it were a bird, I could place gently on the lowest branch of the old maple that oversees her slow departure.
First appeared in Legal Studies Forum, Vol. 30, No. 1-2, 2006 and in The Right to Depart, Plainview Press, 2008.
My grandmother speaks to me from time to time, in a voice that sounds remarkably like my own, but the dead borrow voices, it is so much easier than exercising their own, and there is so little need for words once they leave. She hasn’t changed all that much, still opinionated, still ready to have at it with my mother, who strangely doesn’t visit, doesn’t speak now in any voice, but that may be because the more recently departed assume we remember what they needed to say, and said repeatedly before they died. My grandmother still tells me to carefully consider my actions, to never confuse right and simple, to remember her and never, ever give another thought to Jack, the bastard third husband and the only one she ever dumped.