All Things Good
It has been more than fifteen years since my grandmother passed away following a long battle with Alzheimer’s. While I think of her often, this week, for no particular reason, my Grandma Nat has been on my mind more than usual.
My grandma was not your typical Jewish grandmother. Unlike many Jewish grandmothers, mine was not known for her culinary abilities. I have no memories of my Grandma Natalie frying latkes in the kitchen or making matzobrei. I never saw her bake or cook anything, though I did once hear a story that she broke a pot while trying to reheat soup. The only food I remember my Grandmother preparing for me is tuna salad- which happened to be one of her favorites.
My grandma also differed from other Jewish grandmothers in her love for Christmas. Each holiday season, my grandmother turned her front room into what could have been a department store window display. A glittery white felt and cotton carpet was topped with a red cardboard chimney and an inflatable Santa Claus. Placed carefully around the chimney were everyone’s “Chanukah” presents which we opened together during our annual holiday get together (which was catered, I assume).
My grandmother had four grandchildren: three grandsons, and me, the only granddaughter. She was proud of all of her grandchildren; of this I am sure, but being the only girl I always felt that we had a special relationship. This was especially true once I reached middle school and would sometimes spend the weekend with my grandmother at her apartment. My grandmother was a volunteer in the gift shop at Long Island Jewish Hospital. Part of what she did was decide which items the gift shop should stock. During my weekends with Grandma Nat, she would bring me with her to volunteer. We would go through the catalogs together and she would ask my opinion on items that kids would want to see in the shop. She would take me to lunch in the hospital cafeteria where we would both eat, what else, tuna fish.
During these weekends, my grandmother taught me how to play various kinds of solitaire (then called it beginners luck when I won the first three hands I played). We talked about the books I was reading and she took me to “the club” where she introduced me to her friends, let me order sodas on her tab, and I swam in the pool while she sat and kibitzed with the other ladies. These weekends that I had with my grandmother are some of my best memories of her.
By the time we celebrated her 80th birthday in 1990 Grandma Nat was already showing signs of Alzheimer’s. She experienced a slow and steady decline between then and her passing in 1997 but there is one more visit with her that I remember very clearly and will always treasure. During one of my visits home to NY while away at college, I stopped by my grandmother’s apartment to have lunch with her. She was still having some lucid moments, but got confused easily and couldn’t always differentiate fantasy from reality. She required a daily nurse to manage her medications, and to make sure that all of her day to day needs were being met.
Luckily, that particular day she was especially lucid. She knew who I was and was excited to see me. We had our traditional lunch of tuna fish on rye and pickles and sat and talked on the couch for a long time. My grandmother told me that she knew she was nearing the end of her life but that she was not afraid of death. She was afraid, she said, that after she was gone nobody would remember her. I did my best to assure her that this was not the case- that her memory would live on through our oddly Christmas like Chanukah celebrations, our book discussions, our card games, and our tuna fish lunches, not to mention the countless family gatherings we shared for Thanksgiving, Passover, Mothers and Father’s Day, and other important family events. I hope I was able to put her mind at ease that day. When I left her apartment that day, she left me with the same parting words she always said when we said goodbye, “All things good.”
When I got back to college, my creative writing professor assigned our class to write a poem. I don’t remember what the specification of the assignment was but this is the poem I wrote:
All Things Good
The black door swings open.
She stands smiling
With painted face,
Flowery house dress,
“Hello Stranger,” she says and holds me in a maternal embrace.
I hold her frail body to mine
Kiss a soft, wrinkled cheek.
In the kitchen we eat
On a table of Formica.
Tuna on rye,
“How did you know tuna was my favorite?” she asks.
I smile at her contentment
And help her clear the table.
We move to the living room
Sit side by side
Stories from long ago,
“I’m not afraid of dying,” she says. “My fear is of being forgotten.”
I take a velvet hand in mine
And promise eternal life.
The black door swings open
She stands smiling with painted face,
Flowery house dress,
“All things good,” she says.
My hands smell like tuna
As I wipe away salty tears.
I have one other memory of my grandmother. The very last time I saw her was several weeks before she passed away. I was a graduate student at that point, living in Michigan and it was harder to get home for visits. Her condition had deteriorated terribly. She lay in a hospital bed murmuring, “why, why, why, why” over and over again. She looked distressed and confused and it was unclear if she knew who was there with her. My parents and I stood at her bedside and I took her hand in mine. My mother, in an attempt to engage my grandma said to her, “Natalie, did you know that Meryl has a boyfriend?” My mother held out a picture of the man who two years later would become my husband. My grandmother looked at the picture, looked right at me and asked in a feeble voice, “is he Jewish?” I guess my grandmother was a typical Jewish grandmother after all.