One Sunday morning, I sat with Grandma and Mom at a cafe eating breakfast. It was a warm spring day in Los Angeles, and Mom and Grandma had driven to my neck of the woods so we could eat together -- at a kosher restaurant. As we sat over bagels and coffee, a couple of boys with their peyos (sidelocks) flying behind them ran into the restaurant to buy some ice cream. Grandma turned in her chair and looked at them curiously, the back of her fluffy, just-done white hair facing us.
"Do all of the boys in this area look like that?" she asked me.
I told her yes, for the most part, the boys in my religious community have peyos, tzitzis and wear yarmulkes. Grandma was quiet for a little while, and then we resumed our conversation, discussing what my current dating prospects looked like. This was one of Grandma's favorite topics, and, I have to admit, I also enjoyed talking with her about it. She was eternally patient when listening to my dating sagas, and the one I'd had the previous night had been particularly horrific. She had a straightforward, simple approach to the whole matter. She always insisted, "Don't worry, sweetheart, it will happen. The right one who's meant for you will come along."
After our dating discussion, Grandma said, "You know, sweetheart, I believe in God. And I'm a good person. But I'm not religious."
I smiled, but didn't know what to say. I knew she had a deep faith -- I often thought much deeper than my own, newly acquired version -- even though hers wasn't clothed in skirts and scarves worn by Orthodox women. Grandma was born and raised in the United States, in the early 20th century, when Judaism was being pushed aside for Americanism. But she always emanated a calm, no-nonsense belief in Someone controlling everything, and didn't hesitate to remind me of that when I lamented, now in my late-twenties, about my still-singlehood.
When we got up to leave, Mom asked Grandma where she'd like to go. She said, without a moment's hesitation, "Is there a Jewish store around here? I want to get that mezuzah. Remember you told me about that, Debbie?" A few weeks earlier, when I had been visiting here in her retirement hotel, I noticed that there wasn't a mezuzah on her door. Even though many of the other residents had them, Grandma had said that it never really occurred to her to get a mezuzah. I told her then how a mezuzah, with the verses of the Shema handwritten on its parchment, protects one's home, and she nodded but didn't say anything more about it. I'd forgotten about the whole incident, and thought that she had too.
I eagerly directed my mother to the Judaica store down the block. Once inside, the saleslady led us to a glass display case, and the three of us peered below. There sat gleaming silver holders, modern ceramic ones, and a multitude of brides and grooms standing side by side.
Grandma took a quick look in the case, then shook her head. "I just want something simple," she said. "I was thinking blue, to match my room. But I don't care so much about the case." I noticed that there were some slim, plain wooden cases with the Hebrew letter shin etched on them, painted with various pastel colors. The saleslady took out a light blue one.
"That's fine," said Grandma, clutching her beige pocketbook in front of her pink cardigan sweater, which she hadn't taken off all morning, despite the temperatures climbing to the high-'70s.
Several moments later, the lady reappeared with the mezuzah, and told my grandmother she'd had the highest-quality parchment placed inside. Grandma took it to the counter and didn't balk at the price -- 40 dollars -- but paid the yarmulke-clad teenager and gently placed the plastic bag inside her pocketbook. "I'll wait for your father to come put it up," she told me. "He's supposed to come tomorrow. Ruth," she said to Mom, "make sure he brings a hammer."
"And don't worry, sweetheart. You'll meet him, soon."
We walked out of the air-conditioned store into the warm midday sun and talked for a few moments in the parking lot. I then bid them goodbye and helped Grandma get into the car. She held on tightly to her pocketbook, gingerly swung her legs inside, and I leaned over to give her kiss.
"Thanks for this," she said, patting her purse. "And don't worry, sweetheart. You'll meet him, soon." She put her amber-tinted sunglasses down over her serene, ocean-blue eyes and turned to face the road ahead.
I watched them slowly pull out of the parking lot before beginning the short walk back to my apartment. Suddenly, in the middle of this beautiful Sunday afternoon, a feeling of utter loneliness washed over me. I dreaded opening the door to my quiet apartment and spending the remainder of the day in solitude, catching up on school work. I wished, for the millionth time it seemed, to stroll through a museum or picnic in a park with my future husband, but instead I walked slowly down the bustling Beverly Boulevard toward my quiet, tree-lined street.
A couple of weeks later I called Grandma to say hello and she proclaimed, "It's really unbelievable, sweetheart!" Her usual quiet, reserved demeanor was replaced by palpable excitement.
"This mezuzah! Ever since your father put it up, it's changed everything. It makes me feel totally different. My apartment feels completely different, too!"
I beamed to myself but acted nonchalant. "That's great, Grandma."
"It's just incredible. And it's hearing my prayers, sweetheart, all day long."
As we hung up, I marveled yet again at her belief. How often did I just stride out the door and not even notice my mezuzah, let alone say prayers the whole day to God? I often found myself mouthing my morning prayers without any real feeling, worried I'd be late for work, and then uttering blessings over food while thinking about what I'd do that afternoon. But Grandma's faith was real and heartfelt, and gave me pause.
That was in the springtime. Just five months later, in mid-August, my parents called at 7 a.m. to say Grandma had died. She'd suffered from various complications after a mild stroke, and had passed away in her sleep. She was 87 years old.
I couldn't believe Grandma was no longer just a 30-minute drive away, in her two small rooms in Woodland Hills. Even though we spoke maybe every two weeks, and I saw her less than that, I knew she was always there for me, in a very deep way, and that she was particularly concerned about me. When I completed my master's degree just two months prior, she was already ill and unable to get out of bed, and was so disappointed that she couldn't attend my graduation ceremony.
As my last grandparent alive, she was that final, precious link to the distant past, and I held onto it dearly, especially after becoming a religious Jew. As I struggled to grow in my own observance, I wanted desperately to connect to the place from which I'd come, and I looked to my Grandma as the link to my ancestors, to the little Russian shtetls I'd imagined, and to the stories she'd told about her grandmother, Lena, my great-great grandmother, who made cholent for Shabbat and took her to the kosher butcher every Friday morning in Albany, New York. She was the last person on my father's side who was Torah-observant.
When my parents were clearing out Grandma's apartment, they asked me if I would like her candlesticks. She had two tall, shapely brass candlesticks that sat side by side on a small table in her entryway. They had belonged to Lena, and I lovingly accepted them and was thrilled to use them every Friday night -- the very same candlesticks that my great-great grandmother had lit each week to bring in Shabbat over 100 years ago.
Three months later, I drove reluctantly to an LA restaurant for yet another blind date. To my pleasant surprise, we really hit it off, and that date was the first of many in a whirlwind courtship, until he proposed seven weeks later as we overlooked the Pacific Ocean on a breezy Sunday afternoon. It all happened very fast and seemed so right; there were none of the daunting questions and plaguing "issues" that had always been there with the other dates. I was filled with gratitude and joy as we planned our wedding.
One rainy day, a month before our wedding day, I hurried into the local Judaica store to pick out a Kiddush cup for my fiance. It was then that I remembered the last time I'd been in the store -- when Grandma, Mom and I had selected her mezuzah. I walked over to the case and looked inside, searching not for shining silver or delicate filigree, but for the simple, wooden cases that characterized her pure, straightforward faith.
Grandma's prayers had been, all along, prayers for me. And finally, not until she had left this world, I had met him.
When I saw them, my eyes filled with tears and a realization shook me with a sudden chill: Grandma's prayers had been, all along, prayers for me. And finally, not until she had left this world, I had met him. I'd heard of this idea before, that loved ones can be Divine advocates for their friends and family members once they die; that in some inexplicable way they can influence what happens to those still living.
Grandma had been deeply involved in my entire dating process, both here and, it seemed to me, from her place in the next world. So many times I had mourned the fact that she could not see me get married. But now I knew she must be aware of all that was happening to me. I let out a deep, contented sigh -- a sigh of relief, a sigh of comfort, and a sigh of recognition of the unfathomable ways of God.
I don't know what happened to Grandma's mezuzah. Perhaps, as I like to imagine, it's still there on the doorpost, listening to the prayers of the next person who moved into Room 303. And maybe Grandma's prayers are still there too, echoing throughout the room, reverberating down the corridor, flying out the front door, and filling the Los Angeles air with a sweet, precious melody that was written as she stared at her simple, blue mezuzah.
This was written as an illuey nishmas for Hanna Mendel.