Occasionally, and certainly not often enough, I have dreams where my grandmother, Rose, comes to talk to me. It is often during stressful times or times of illness that she pops into my dreams, offers me comfort with a few words and usually with some kind of contact, like holding my hand. When I wake from these dreams, I can feel her…like a trace of her on my hand and in my heart. It is like fairy dust that is around me for the day if I am lucky, but usually just until I leave my bed. I step onto the floor and she’s gone.
I think of her often. My daughter, Rachel, is named for her. I wanted to name her Rosie but Jeff, my husband, had said that it was an old fashioned name and so, Rachel it was, because that was my grandmother’s Hebrew name. Her maiden name, Rachlin, which, according to the origin of that name, is also really another version of the name Rachel.
The day I started writing this, I had finished an essay by Ann Patchett, about the relationship she had with her grandmother, entitled, Love Sustained, in her collection of essays and memoirs, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. The memoir begins with:
People always went out of their way to tell me how lucky I was for being able to spend so much time with my grandmother. If I mentioned that I had to take her shopping or to the doctor or that she was waiting for me and so I had to rush away, someone would inevitably slip into a long revery on the subject of my good fortune. (p 211)
These people would lament on how they were so far away from their grandmothers and how they would only see her once a year during the holidays. Ann expresses frustration by these comments as she sees these same people leave for what she perceives to be their life of tennis games and lunch dates while she is caring for her aging and ill grandmother. I got her point and yet…I am left with nothing but fairy dust for my grandmother.
My grandmother would always brag to me, and really, anyone who would listen, how she didn’t just raise her own two children but that she also raised forty other children — the children of her many siblings, children of neighbours, her grandchildren.
I think about what Ann Patchett wrote and I wonder if those women who told her, “Enjoy every minute of it. Soak up her wisdom. I only wish I were you.” (p 211) were really holding shame and guilt at not being present to their grandmothers.
When my grandmother died, I was at my boyfriend’s parent’s condo. He had gone off to school and I was waiting for him to return. I didn’t have a key to the condo and so I couldn’t leave without locking the door. There were no cell phones then. This was 1988. I just had to wait instead of hopping on the subway to get to the hospital to be with her. By the time I got there, I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye. Maybe those women knew, like I know, that they didn’t do everything they could.
I am not romanticizing the fact that Ann Patchett had to take care of her aging and ailing grandmother. I know that it is not an easy thing to do — to watch someone you love slowly deteriorate — but at the same time, it is also an opportunity to show that person, who you love so dearly, exactly how important she is to you.
Does anyone love you more than your grandmother? Ann Patchett writes, “I felt certain that this had been one of the greatest loves of my life.” (p 223)
I often hear people speak about people having old souls meaning they have lived another life, wise beyond their years. I think my grandmother was different. She was wise, for certain, but she was also a woman born before her time. She was incredibly creative, dynamic and one of the best storytellers ever but at the same time, I wonder, if she was born 50 years later, what her life might have been.
She learned how to support my grandfather with speech therapy and physical therapy after his strokes and subdural haemorrhage from her volunteer work at Baycrest. She could make her own clothes and I have yet to meet anyone who can bake or cook like she did. I don’t know what she ate all week but on Friday nights she would have all of us over and it was always a feast. She did everything for everyone other than herself. Always.
She would always let us sleepover at her apartment and spend the whole weekend if we wanted. She lived in the apartment across from Bayview Village and would send my grandfather to get us bubbles or crayons or whatever we wanted as long as it was from Kmart.
One of my favourite activites were the tea parties with her fancy china cups. She had miniature ones and my sisters, Carolyn, Judy and I each had our own special cup. She never put a tea bag directly in the cup but would boil the water and put it in the teapot. She would give each of us a fancy sugar cube that had flowers on top and as the sugar melted, the flower would float to the surface. We weren’t to drink our tea without the saucer. I remember her asking, each time she made us tea, if we wanted a cup or a mug but even her mugs were china. Everything was fancy in her house and at the same time, everything was open and kid friendly. There wasn’t anything we weren’t allowed to touch or play with, except for my grandfather’s chair. We were never to sit in his seat. I did once. It was only once and I learned my lesson quickly.
She had a cat sculpture on the floor of her apartment that sat just beside my grandfather’s chair. I would play with it and talk to it and pretend it was real. We never had pets growing up. Our house was too busy with five children and my mother would tell us that she had enough animals in the house but that cat…I am certain it came alive for me. Years later, well after the time my grandmother passed, my Uncle David told me that he left my grandmother’s Royal Dalton sculptures to me and my sisters. I told him I didn’t care for those much and wondered if he even knew what happened to the cat sculpture. He said he had it at his house and that he had bought it at the Exhibition for my grandmother when he was a little boy. He carried it all the way home for her and I am pretty sure it is made out of cast iron. That thing is heavy! He couldn’t believe that was what I loved and he told me it didn’t cost more than 15 cents. Soon after, he gave it to me to keep and it sits on top of my desk now along with other special items.
My grandmother was also a dressmaker. She made most of her clothes and some of ours as well — like our party dresses and crocheted tank tops all with the the label, “Lovingly Made by Grammy” sewn into the corner. She also made our Barbie doll clothes. I still have a disco dress she made for me. Judy had a gold one with white flowers on the slit and mine was silver with green sequines. She made us sweaters and blankets and let us rip apart her old beaded gowns so we could make more crafts with the parts we ripped off. She had these two wooden chests as we walked into her apartment and they were filled with scraps of wool and fabric and we were allowed to do and make whatever we wanted. She also had a cupboard where she kept the after eight chocolates and the turtles…my personal favourite. The cupboard would make a clicking sound each time you opened and closed it so it wasn’t easy to take a turtle without her knowing.
The best were the days that were warm when we could go down to her apartment swimming pool or workout room. We had towel ponchos that we would wear down to the pool and then we could come back and have lunch on the balcony which was often turkey salad sandwiches on challah from the leftovers the night before.
She hated her apartment. She had lived on Briar Hill in Toronto with my grandfather, her parents and children and the house, which had belonged to her parents, eventually became her own. She sold it in 1973 for a ridiculous amount and moved into this apartment that she always regretted moving into but for me…it was the best place on Earth.
It was where we had adventures, made stuff, got to be creative, ate delicious food and were loved more than I can begin to describe. As I write this I feel my heart speeding up at the memory of it all.
She would tell us that she was rich because of us. Our love made her the richest woman in the world. She would brag to strangers at the Exhibition that she could bring all five us on her own and we were always well behaved and never littered. She loved each of us so dearly. She was dynamic. She was talented. She was witty.
One of my favourite stories of her, though morbid, was one my mother tells. My mom was driving both of my grandmother’s (Bubie Bessie Donsky and Grammy Rose Nimon) to see my paternal grandfather (Zaida David Donsky) at Mt Sinai hospital. He was dying. On the way down, my Bubie, Bessie Donsky, says, in her finest Yiddish Old World accent, “Rose, you gat a colt?” to which my grandmother, Grammy Rose Nimon said, “Don’t worry Bessie. It isn’t contagious. It’s terminal.” My grandmother Rose and my grandfather, David, died the same year. She died in February and he died later that year in August though he was ill and had dementia for years before.
My grandmother would go from home to home checking on anyone who needed her. She never missed a funeral or shiva and it is only now, as an adult that I recognize the importance of being present to people when loved ones pass. It is one of the traditions in Jewish culture that I most value — the support for 8 days following death and the ongoing connection through the year following when we say prayers and through that prayer, connect with community. We mocked her though, calling her Mrs Shiva, a name that was used in the play, Little Shop of Horrors. Despite all she did for people throughout her life, she had an odd sense of who she truly was. She would tell us that wherever she went, she knew she would be warm and her cigarettes would light on her own.
As she got sicker, she would marvel at the beauty of her nails. Having worked hard all her life, she always had split nails but when she was dying, her nails began to grow. I don’t know if it was the medication she was on or something to do with her lungs slowly hardening and killing her but she had beautiful nails. She would always tell us that she was a vain woman. Her hair and nails were always done. She told me repeatedly that there was nothing more disgusting than nail polish that is half off. Although her clothes were mostly homemade, she ensured she was always well dressed. She would ask my mother to put her lipstick on but the doctors wouldn’t allow nail polish because they had to watch her nails to determine if she was cyanotic as she lay in bed at the hospital with her fancy lace nighties. She never wore a hospital gown. She would pump morphine into her dying body and we would only find out after her passing, that there was cancer throughout her entire body. She never lost her lucidity.
One day, before she passed, I went to visit her. When I got to her room she was sitting on the toilet with the door open. This was out of character for her. I asked her if she was okay and she snapped at me, “Of course I’m not okay! I shit in the bed!” This was it. A woman who, no matter what her struggles were, would always be proud and hold herself up, was now crumpled over a toilet seat holding her head in her hands and she didn’t look up at me. She must have known the end was near. I don’t remember thinking that but I knew this was significant. I knew she had changed.
My grandmother, never wanted to burden anyone, drove herself to the hospital for her outpatient treatments for pulmonary fibrosis and never left the hospital again. One week later, she was gone. She died when I was eighteen years old. My mom and uncle had only a few days to get rid of everything before her lease was up. I don’t even remember going to her apartment again to help my mom. I was eighteen. I don’t think I got it.
I had a dream once that she was still alive. I was apologizing profusely, telling her that if I had only known she was alive, I would have called and come by to visit. I felt terribly that somehow I thought she was gone but she wasn’t. She, of course, forgave me. We talked and laughed and told stories. I told her about my children and my husband and that I finally got to be a teacher and now I was a school principal. I told her all the things that I wanted her to know and that I never gave up and became what I was meant to be. I told her that I do art with my own children and my students and that I make sure that any space that I have control over is a space for children to learn and experiment and create. But then, I woke up. And she was gone again. And I wasn’t mistaken. She really did die when I was eighteen and I was more afraid of making my boyfriend angry than being there for her and my mom when she was dying.
So even though I only had her in my life for eighteen years, I carry her with me every day of my life. My daughter bears her name and her spirit. I try to honour her in the way that I live and care for people and, like Ann Patchett, I can truly say that, “I felt certain that this had been one of the greatest loves of my life.”
I love you Grammy.
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