As a child, I was enchanted by my grandmother's loveliness, her black hair, sapphire eyes and milky white skin. No makeup for her. I remember her only vanity: dyed eyelashes and a manicure to cover the nicotine stains on her fingers. "A lady should look like a lady," she said. But her goodness and her no-nonsense demeanor were the most real things about her. She brushed away her beauty like crumbs.
Important things were important. She knew who she was. Her father had been a great Rabbi in Europe – a holy man, revered by his followers, honored by the archbishop, given a pass to freedom by the Nazis. "The shepherd doesn't leave his flock when the wolf comes," he said, and his whole family went to Auschwitz. My grandmother was no- nonsense about that too.
Afterward, when the ashes settled, she married quickly and not well. They were two survivors desperate to fill an impossible void. Their marriage could not endure under such weight. It ended and she came to America, alone again.
Daughter of a scholar, she worked two jobs to feed her two small children, taking up smoking to help her stay awake. On weekends she went to classes to learn English. Once, she had dreamed of being a doctor. Now, she read the Reader's Digest to build her vocabulary and learned to sleep standing up.
Somehow they had each held onto their belief in goodness. Now they could hold on to each other.
Then she met my grandfather. He was tall and strong, with a big smile and a quick laugh. Somehow they had each held onto their belief in goodness. Now they could hold on to each other. He called her "Mamala" in his deep, rich voice. Their house was warm, filled with the smells of chicken soup and sugar cookies. The numbers on their arms were covered by their sleeves. The stories were in Yiddish, the secrets in Hungarian. There was an endless stream of guests and grandchildren.
In that Boro Park apartment with the plush blue carpet, they built a new legacy. A cut salad stood ready in the fridge next to the finest smoked meats and olives. The vase with calla lilies rested on the window sill. Best of all, sweet, soft taffies waited for me in the enamel candy jar. I reached inside too many times, but that candy jar never emptied, and she never said, "Enough!"
I knew she loved me. The bag from Woolworths was filled with gifts, patterned socks and story books and small silver earrings. She told me the old stories again and again, about the brave general and the simple tallis maker and how we would dance at my wedding. I looked up at her. She wore pearls, and soft blue sweaters, her shaitel always neatly styled. In the shelter of her lap, I was sated and lulled. It did not seem that bad things could happen there.
She was matter of fact about the cancer, of course. And I, her oldest granddaughter, spent weekends with her in the hospital. At first, just visiting, telling stories, smiling awkwardly. Later, I changed her bedpan, washed her and lied. "I'm not really looking," I told her as I bathed her in the bed, the only time I saw her cry, "I'm thinking of other things." The room was airless and tepid water pooled in a green plastic pitcher. The corridor reeked of bleach and despair. Too old for the comfort of my grandmother's lap, I told stories to her now. Somehow, I found it impossible to believe that she might actually die. I waited faithfully, fervently, for a happy ending. I had read too many fairy tales.
She offered the doctors Belgian cookies with almonds, as they spoke in solemn voices. She heard the words they wouldn't say, and she accepted. What use to lay blame, to waste time on lamenting? But I was enraged, at these doctors, at this cancer. Did they not know who she was? Why didn't they fix her? From under her turban, stray wisps of hair escaped and floated aimlessly, landing unwanted on shoulders and blankets.
Outside the window, the summer went on without us. I closed my eyes for a moment and dreamed of the time before this time. Afterward, I cried a little in the cold, small bathroom. Looking in the mirror, I saw that the soft down of childhood had fallen away, and I recognized my new self.
I watched her, closely. The skin of her hands was thin and bruised. At the edges of the gauze pad were rust-colored flecks of dried blood. I remembered those hands baking cookies, holding babies. Times change. Only the most essential things remain. She offered me her jello and her orange. I meant to say "I love you" but it sounded too much like goodbye. Instead, I ate the orange.
The cancer crept through her bones. It ate her from the inside out. A line of pain was etched into her forehead, a deep crack in the fine porcelain of her face. I sat beside her, guarding, afraid that some dark thing would steal her away. She slept fitfully, moaning in her dreams, and I crooned, "Stay with me. Stay with me."
"Did you ever want revenge?" She answered, "You are my revenge."
Sometimes she spoke about the camps, about the hunger and the friendships. She was fifteen when they got on the trains. Just fifteen, my age! How did she live? "We did what must be done to survive." Wordlessly, I willed her, Do it again. Whatever you did, do it again.
Her mother and her sister went directly to the gas. She worked as an airplane mechanic. The women in the barracks were kind, she said. Bitter coffee, thin, dry bread, the endless fear. I asked her, "Did you ever want revenge?" She answered, "You are my revenge."
In her sickness and her pain, she recalled her father's last words to her, his only will and testament. "Be strong, my child." It seemed to me that she had spent a lifetime following that advice. I never heard a word of complaint. "The ways of Hashem are always good, you know Yaely. About this we do not question." I did not know. I did too question. She had suffered enough, she was only 62. Where was His mercy? How was this justice? I screamed silently. Lying in the bed she had no questions. Sitting at her side I had no answers. She laid her hand on my cheek, cold against the heat of my skin. "You are part of a good, strong chain, you know." I took what she offered me, the sure, solid chain and held tightly. She said she was sorry that she had nothing left to give me. I told her she had given me enough.
Then her words grew fewer and farther apart, forced out through parched, cracked lips. I strained even harder to hear her. At the end, the beautiful blue eyes rolled back and forth in her head like grotesque, unseeing marbles. And I was frightened of her and her bloated face and the smell of decay. This thing was not my grandmother. But I stayed there as long as they let me, wishing and hoping.
We ran out of time. Recipes and memories, a lifetime of wisdom vanished with her last gasp. I was heavy with sorrow. I knew that I would see her only in my dreams and it wouldn't be the same and it wouldn't be enough.
It rained on the morning of her funeral. Outside on lampposts and bus stops someone had taped up white signs. In thick black marker, in Hebrew letters they read: "She has died. The good woman, Mrs. Lia Waldman, daughter of the Nagybaner Rav. May her soul be entwined in the bouquet of life." So this was the end of a life well lived. A paper on a lamppost, words blurring in the rain.
In her absence I grew up. Angry and confused I lost her. But slowly, softly I remembered. That I was part of the chain. That I was her darling. My baby daughter has her bright eyes.
All these years have passed without her. And still. How I wish I could go back to the warmth of her kitchen, where yeasty things rose in the oven, and there in her chair, she knit long complicated sweaters and told long complicated stories in her smoker's voice. Even then, I knew I was in the presence of a great woman and I hoped maybe I would be one too. Then she died. And when I, the oldest granddaughter, my hands still wet from the sponge bath, was offered anything I wanted of hers, I took the candy jar.
This article appears in the new anthology "Everyone's Got a Story – 41 short stories from a new generation of Jewish writers," edited and compiled by Ruchama Feuerman, now available for purchase. The stories are drawn from her students who have taken her workshops over the years. The anthology also includes Mrs. Feuerman's writing essays and creative exercises to unlock the story within everyone. Click here to order.