Outside the window of grandparents’ apartment on Coney Island Avenue, the subway zipped past. I watched it as it sped away, wishing it was taking me to the bus station and back to our home 300 miles north on the Canadian border.
I was fifteen years old, and my mother Fran, my sister Bobbie, and I were in the middle of our annual summer visit to our maternal grandparents. Grandma Ethel and Grandpa Joe were in their mid 80’s, old by my teenage standards. They were Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, and they had both had hard lives. They conversed with each other and my mother, their “Fradel,” in Yiddish, their English passable but unmistakably foreign to American ears. Grandma Ethel was short and soft and wore baggy house dresses and support hose rolled down to her orthopedic shoes. Grandpa Joe was just as short, with stooped shoulders and a scratchy beard. He smelled like a combination of pickled herring, old clothes, and dried urine.
I had just gotten off the phone with a girlfriend, who told me she was having a party that Saturday. Would I be home?
We were scheduled to leave on Sunday, but I begged my mother to leave two days early. A typical teenager, I loved my friends more than my family.
At first my mother refused to change her plans. Grandpa Joe had been increasingly more disoriented and forgetful, showing the first signs of dementia. Grandma Ethel, who had a history of heart problems, seemed particularly frail. In the end, my mother acquiesced to my selfish demands, and the three of us left early Friday morning.
We got back to the North Country in plenty of time for the party. But plans had fallen through, and it had been cancelled. “I guess we could have stayed longer,” I told my mom. Mom only shrugged her shoulders.
Late one evening three weeks after we returned. Mom got the phone call she had been dreading. Grandma Ethel had prepared a Shabbos dinner, put the covered challah on the table, lit the two candles in their silver holders, and then sat down for a minute to take a short nap. She never woke up.
My mother flew down to New York the next morning, her first plane ride. When she got there, Grandpa was bereft. “The paramedics hadn’t tried hard enough to save her, Fradel!” he cried bitterly. All my mother’s attempts to explain that any effort to revive her 83-year-old damaged heart would fail did not heal my grandfather’s pain.
Right after the funeral, my parents packed up the remnants of my grandparents’ life into the trunk of our station wagon: Grandma Ethel’s good china, the Sabbath candlesticks, some photos, and Grandpa’s personal belongings. Everything else was given to relatives and friends. We then drove the back to the North Country.
With my two older siblings in college, my mother moved Grandpa into my brother Jay’s room. Consumed with grief, Grandpa Joe was a sad figure. He spent most of the day sitting on our living room couch, weeping. His only two forms of solace were the car rides on which my mother took him several times a week and my playing Yiddish songs for him on our piano.
For the most part, however, I resented my grandfather’s presence. He was old, sad, frequently unshaven, and “smelled funny.” One of my most regrettable memories: He was walking around the block to my father’s store, and I intentionally walked on the other side of the street as I did not want to be associated with him.
Within a year after Grandma Ethel’s death, Grandpa Joe’s cognitive abilities had further declined. We had to keep the front door locked after he walked out of the house in the middle of a cold winter’s night in his pajamas.His continuing physical decline also made it difficult for my mother to continue as caregiver. Grandpa Joe was moved into a nursing home less than a half mile from our home, where his grief and unhappiness only increased. A few months later, he passed away, I am sure happy to be reunited with the love of his life.
As I write this story, my husband Larry and I am in California meeting my six week old granddaughter, who is named after my beloved mother. and reuniting with our son Adam, daughter-in-law Sarah, and our two year-old grandson. We soon will be flying out to Colorado to spend time with our daughter Julie, son-in-law Sam, and seven-year old granddaughter. All three of our beautiful grandchildren are young—too young to be more interested in friends than in family. They are hopefully years away from being teenagers who are embarrassed by grandparents who will at that point be not that much younger than Grandma Ethel and Grandpa Joe.
Larry and I pride ourselves in being “young” septuagenarian. We can still walk around with our infant granddaughter on our shoulders to help her burp, play on the floor with our San Francisco Kid as he pushes his multiple trucks, and hike with our Mountain Girl up trails close to their Rocky Mountain home. But will they ever look at us in the same way I saw my own grandparents?
Recently, I had a conversation with one of our Special Olympic athletes.
“I am THIRTEEN,” he said proudly.
“That’s wonderful,” I said, “I am a little older than you. I am 71.”
“That is SO sad,” he replied. “Don’t you wish you were young again?”
“No,” I told him. “I love this age. I have children and grandchildren. I have a lifetime of good memories with plans to make many more.”
This brief conversation brought home to me the fact that in the eyes of my grandchildren and yes, even children, we are old. At least six years ago, my niece shared with me her and her husband’s concerns regarding the future of “taking care of” her recently widowed mother-in-law as well as her own parents, who are a few years older than us. I told her how glad I was that my own children did not need to have this conversation. “Don’t kid yourself, Aunt Marilyn,” she told me. “All of us first cousins worry about all of you older people.” Ouch!
I have already made Larry promise me that no matter where life takes us, he will make sure that the long hairs that grow my chin are plucked and I never smell like urine. Meanwhile, I hope that our three grandchildren love us despite how we look or smell or talk. And no matter what, I will love them and their parents to the moon and back.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.