(Author on the left, with her grandmother and younger sister.)
“When there’s no one left in the living world who remembers you, you disappear… “ Coco
I visit my grandma’s grave rarely. Now I’ve admitted it. This is something a good Jewish granddaughter is not supposed to divulge. I thought I would visit a lot, marking her birthdays, the day of her death and other special anniversaries by sitting by her gravestone, wiping it down, placing new little stones on it, as is customary for Jews. Yet, I show up at the cemetery maybe once a year, never remembering quite how to get there, heavily relying on the GPS. When I do visit, I’m always a bit ashamed, though there’s no one there to scold me. I’m alone, with just a bit of a light breeze ruffling the grass around. I drop on the lawn next to grandma’s grave, eyes burrowing into her photograph on the headstone. I take in her name, her years of birth and death, a quote from a poem she wrote that my father selected so carefully to be engraved at her final stop. I sit. I close my eyes and open them again. Is she there? Is she here?
I visit grandma’s grave so rarely mostly because I don’t need to come. I feel no urge to go to some geographical location where her body found a final resting place 14 years ago. For me, grandma is not really there. Instead, she is with me all the time, hovering around my kitchen, drinking tea at my table, asking for more sugar. She’s helping me get dressed, poking around my closet, commenting on the fact that I’ve always looked better in blue. I see her, small and frail in her final years, marveling at my kids – the great-granddaughters she never knew – amazed at how precocious they are. I feel her presence constantly, powerfully infused into my life, as if she’s insisting to stick around, to watch out for her elder granddaughter. I like having her around.
I sense grandma when I talk, when I read, when I write, when I eat cottage cheese with jam, when I play Scrabble with my kids. More than anything else, she has instilled in me her love of words, her adoration of language, her passion for poetry. Nothing punctuated my childhood and adolescence as much as the poems grandma wrote for every single birthday, anniversary, graduation, and holiday for everyone in our family. Those poems, written out in her smooth, gorgeous penmanship on large white poster boards, became a chronicle of our family, a record of our lives through which we could mark the passing of time – a poem for my first birthday, a poem for when I started school, a poem for my sister’s birth, a poem for my mom’s 30th, a poem for my dad’s 35th. Over the years, the poems came to be expected, a known part of any family celebration or gathering, grandma’s inner-most thoughts offered up while we ate beef stroganoff. A tradition that became habit – or maybe that’s all a tradition is? What did she feel while she read us her poetry, verse after verse, year after year, while we ate and smiled and maybe sighed a bit… here goes grandma with another predictable poem for yet another birthday…? How many ways are there to rhyme “happy birthday” anyways? How many ways can there be to say “you mean the world to me” or “you give my life meaning” or “this family is my life”? While we ate beef stroganoff and blintzes and fried potatoes, grandma was finding meaning in her life, in her family, in and through her poetry. She documented our life in a way only she could – lovingly and in rhyme.
In addition to poetry, I remember her fingers. It strikes me as an odd thing to remember, but her hands and fingers surrounded me in my childhood, tying my shoes, signing my school agendas, zipping up my zippers, tightening my ponytails, doing a thousand more trifling things that fingers do. Those were the fingers that made my life. Her fingers could play the piano – a skill she sadly never passed on. But she knew the piano, felt it, caressed it respectfully, with or without sheet music, able to derive from it anything from classical to popular melodies. I’d sit and listen as she played songs from her youth, songs from the war, songs she remembered, songs she made me remember even if I never knew them, songs that made up her life. Her fingers taught me how to have memories. Music poured through those small, dry fingers, out of the piano, and into my being. Fourteen years later, that music is still within me.
The war. Volumes have been written and will continue to be written about the impact, about the generation, about the trauma. Grandma lived through it all; she was 21, in college, when the Germans bombed Kiev and World War II officially exploded in the Soviet Union, where she lived. It was 1941. She was dating a young man at the time, who was called to the front immediately, with thousands of other young Soviet men, eager to defend, brave, full of enthusiasm that only youth offers. This young man – my future grandfather – wrote her letters, beautiful letters from the front that my generation of emails and texts will never know. Letters on scraps of paper, letters with running ink, letters full of desperation and fear, letters beaming with hope and promise. Was this when her love affair with words began, I wonder? Was it then that she fell in love with writing, as it was the only way to keep in touch with the man who later became her husband?
My grandfather received a leave from the front for three days in 1942. He returned home and proposed. My grandparents got married the next day in the city hall. They spent their wedding night in the college dorm, as grandma was still a student, on a tiny bed with a thin mattress. Although as she got older, grandma often couldn’t remember what she had for breakfast, she could vividly recall, down to the last detail, the specifics of that day and night; those moments were forever etched in her mind. These are the memories she passed on to me; I became the guardian and keeper of her life’s most cherished moments.
I took my children to see the movie “Coco” a few years ago – an animated success centered on family and reminiscences. Grandma would have liked this film. A line in this movie struck my heart, resonated, sending ripples down through my memories. “When there’s no one left in the living world who remembers you, you disappear…“ I rolled this line around my mouth, tasting it on my tongue. When there’s no one left who remembers you, when there’s no one left who remembers you… It was a revelation, yet felt like something I already instinctively knew. The way the dead stay alive is if someone remembers them. The truth is always simple and obvious.
My grandma is alive. She’s been alive for 14 years, although she passed away in 2007. I know she passed; I was at her funeral, pregnant and wailing. My daughter was born two months later, having just missed grandma by about 60 days. Did they pass each other on the eternal highway? I wonder if their souls flew by each other at some point, one coming and one going, yet recognizing each other instantly. I hope they did. I feel they did.
Yet grandma is alive. She’s alive in all the ways a person can be alive. She’s alive in the word games I play with my daughters. She’s alive in the music I listen to. She’s alive in the poetry I read (rarely, write). She’s alive through all her stories I tell and retell, being repetitive, quoting her at family gatherings, remembering her at birthdays, starting sentences with “As grandma used to say…”. Is there any better way to stay alive than by being constantly, adoringly remembered by the granddaughter to whom she dedicated her life?
I am the keeper of grandma’s stories now, the protector of her memories. I take this role seriously, knowing that my most important work is making sure that grandma continues to live on, that my kids – who never knew her, what a loss! – will continue to take her with them into a future I will never know.
“Don’t worry about visiting cemeteries,” I tell them. “Just bring her along wherever you go. Play her games. Listen to her songs. Enjoy the piano. Wear blue! Eat cottage cheese with jam! Close your eyes and sit with her on the lawn, any lawn. She’s there. She’s here. That’s how she stays alive.”