Friday, October 21, 2005

Who is Commando Pimpernel?

E. and I had dinner with the gps tonight (that's my teenage brother's term for our grandparents), something I am trying to do more often, as they are 90 and there's just so much that can happen.

This does not mean by any standards that dinner with them is a simple affair. I offered to make dinner this time because usually we end up eating something a la cold cuts and stale bread, or boiled meat with boiled vegetables on the side if we leave it to them. They actually tried to serve gefiltefish as an appetizer even one time in recent memory (it looks like wet catfood, dripping in gelatin, and tastes like fish pudding). Oma, whose memory is in decline, and who is shaky on her feet, still insists on helping in some way or another, which equals standing in the way, making you nervous she's going to fall or cut herself. But you can't get her to sit down; it just doesn't happen. So she's in the way making running commentary, Opa is bustling about also trying to help, when all I want is everyone out of the kitchen so I can cook some simple god damn raviolis.

I love my grandparents, I really do. But they are not easy. I have had a relationship with them all my life, spending summers there as a child and writing long letters with my Opa. But ever since we moved them out here two years ago and I have thus spent more time with them, getting together with them is an exercise in patience. Opa is busy conducting how we should behave.

When I give her my undivided attention and crack jokes with her, since that's about the only way she has left to communicate--he gets angry."Don't make her the center of attention," he commands, as she cracks jokes and gets silly, because she can't hear well or follow conversation and generally feels--and gets--left out. BUT, if you should pull your attention away from her for too long, she begins to get angry and command you to stop your "private" conversations and then starts making up ways to get your attention back. It's a viscious loop.

Tonight she introduced us to "Commando Pimpernel." Who or what is this? Well, I couldn't tell you, but I am amazed that she pulled this out of the reaches of her brain somewhere. The name seems so solid, like it/he must have been someone, perhaps some German character from her childhood. Yet these days she can't keep straight that we are related to her, so how is it possible she could pull this fellow out of the ether? It's confounding. At first I found it funny. I mean, you're just having a normal conversation and this cute little lady who barely speaks a word suddenly wants to talk about Commando Pimpernel? You'd laugh too. But I knew at root there was something not-funny about it. Because this Commando Pimpernel's sole job seemed to be to remind us that we should all be "happy happy happy," which is, I am quite sure, the farthest thing from what she feels.

I'm getting a real feeling for what kinds of trauma she experienced as a child, the only child to be cast out of her family into a children's home, which clearly was a place of suffering for her, then leaving Germany for some promise of happiness in Palestine, marrying, only to have her husband go serve in the Army when the Israeli state was formed and raising a son, then my father when it seemed that she could lose my uncle to the war.

What am I getting at? I don't know. Everytime I am around them I am amazed at how different their lives were from mine, how impossible it seems that I am descended from them, that my fate turned out as it did, and how many moments there were when, had they made one decision differently, I would never have come to be at all.

And the fact is, though they often drive me crazy, though I feel that we are worlds apart, though they can be maddeningly fearful and naive and critical, I love them and will miss them wildly when they're gone.


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