Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Shades of Grief

People expect to be wracked with grief right now, and I feel funny telling them that I am okay, even though my Oma (grandmother in German) has just died. My father says he is experiencing a similar thing. So I think maybe it warrants an explanation so that I don't just seem like some kind of unfeeling person. I AM sad. I AM disoriented. I feel that something in the world is different, off-kilter. But she has been leaving this world for years now, and has been quite miserable in her body for the last year especially. Her death was easy, peaceful even--so how can I be sad that she has left, when she is free?

The truth is, I did a lot of grieving for her (well, for myself, really) in the last four years as her memory declined. One day she went from being my quirky grandmother to being a woman who knew me, and my name, but couldn't believe for the life of her that she bore any genetic relationship to me, or to my father. She thought she knew me from the Kibbutz. She thought I had lived in NY with her. She didn't seem to even notice the 59 year age difference between us, because I think she was flickering in and out of different times.

That was hard. That was tragic. I cried then. I wrote a novel about a character much like her and her effect on her family. I felt like I'd lost a significant part of my childhood--those summers spent on Shelter Island, nearly wordless, making crafts.

In light of this, I am pasting in the text of two things I've written about Oma. One was published in The St. Petersburg Times--their Sunday journal. The second is an informal piece I wrote during my writing group. The published piece feels truncated to me now, like it only just begins, but it's an interesting snapshot of her four years ago.

*I feel a slight hesitation to put them here only because they also reveal things about my relationship to my father, and I don't know how I feel about that, if only because there are two sides to every story.

The leaching of memory (original title: Borne)
Published August 1, 2004

I left Oma and Opa with relief and dread and headed for the slate, spare ice of Vermont in January. My first time in the snow and it was record cold, where you could feel your body make preparations to shut down if you stood too long in one place. I was not the only one fighting to keep myself alive.

My grandparents spent 45 years in New York. After that despair-filled visit, I saw them again in California, no longer on the verge of death, but abutting a new verge, one in which all that came before them - the Orthodox Jewish parents, the children's homes in Germany, the kibbutz in Palestine, surviving the war that birthed the state of Israel, the immigration to New York - was scattered in chipped mosaic about them like the tchotchkes left in boxes too long.

In a period of a few months she had stopped eating or sleeping much back home. A stroke? Loneliness? She began to fall out of bed at night. She needed, suddenly, a cane to walk with. She wanted to throw herself into traffic. She forgot where she was. Who she was. She asked, "What do I have to live for?" It was move or die, though she fought us every step of the way. My father, who had left them more than 30 years before (fled them really, as if they were a war) now closed the 3,000-mile gap to move them next door to him at my urging.

Somewhere between getting on and off the plane, my Oma forgot that my father was her son.
He has since become "a nice man." "The manager" of their house. He shares a name with her own lost son, Ilan - changed to the spelling "Elon" for American eyes and tongues - but he is not that golden-haired child she used to tell me about, the one with the beautiful curls that were cut off by a babysitter when he smeared them in rationed jelly. She lamented those curls to me throughout languid, hot summers I spent with her and Opa in their muggy New York home.
This "Elon," my father, is not the swift smart kid who learned English so well and fast when they came to the states in 1956. She remembers only her eldest, my uncle Joe (Joaf), who has trekked the states himself, now in Florida, moved perhaps by some reawakened immigrant spirit, trying to find a place of peace and home.

"You don't forget who you have borne!" she cries when we try to explain the family matrix. "How can you forget such a thing?"

"It was just a bundle, barely a person, perhaps you have just forgotten," my Opa counters, always pained, always in disbelief that a brain can betray such an intrinsic reality.

"A baby is not a bundle!" she cries. "Only a woman can know this."

It does seem impossible, even at 88 years old, that you can forget your son. But clearly, sometimes you do. Not only sons are forgotten, and not only by mothers. What about when you are a father, with a daughter? You did not carry the child in your tissue or feed her with your blood. She grows up to be 20, then 30, and you let her drift away and out of your life, trust her to continue to bear her burdens silently. You don't feel the need to reconcile the past, your own '60s-inspired wanderings and damage inflicted by neglect. You have a second family, and then, watching your mother forget you, do not realize that your daughter has begun to wonder (this grown woman who doesn't need you anymore), "How long before you forget me, too?"

Writing Prompt: Silence

My Oma is is 90 years old with the softest skin and the same generous forehead and lips you’ll find in my face.

For a moment I thought that I had drawn a blank, but then I remembered with Oma we didn’t talk so much, we worked with our hands: origami, macramé, needlepoint, rugmaking, bead-stringing. We had a special language of fingers, hers strong and well-knuckled; hands that could just as easily have plucked a child out of the face of danger as fold a delicate origami crane. There is so much she did not talk about that she never needed to suggest a subject should be avoided; with a particular frown or pursing of her lips, entire continents seemed silenced.

We never spoke of her childhood yet somehow I learned that she was the chosen child of three, the only girl, sent to a children’s home after her father died and her mother went broke.

We never talked about the way my father made a living, but somehow I always knew that she knew.

We didn’t talk about her brother’s family in France but when I was 23 I tracked them down and visited.

And yet my Oma could surprise me, always asking strange, unanswerable questions as if I were an oracle, not her grandchild:

“Why is there always this fighting in the Middle East? Why do the young ones listen to this music so loud? Why do you think your parents divorced?”

Perhaps I was too young to understand the power of the rhetorical question—questions meant to be spoken with a raised fist to God. But her childhood erased any faith in God. Instead, she gave it to my Opa, a man she would repeatedly refer to as “so very clever” as if to say she was not and never could be.

Still, her demure silences and shying away from topics of emotional intensity did not prevent her from asking the single most shocking question ever posed by a family member. I was 21 and visiting NY for the summer. Absolutely without any preamble she stopped me on our way to the car, out of Opa’s earshot and asked, “The boys, if they say they do not want to wear a condom, how do you answer them?”

First there was shock, then humor. Awkward as it was, I respected her curiosity. I doubt she had many lovers or any opportunity to use a condom.

Now that dementia has stolen all the bonds of memory that tell her how it is that she and I know each other, now that all those silent summers where we worked at a craft side by side, I regret all the questions I never asked her and their answers, which are simply gone.


At 4:20 AM, Blogger Ellen said...

Oh, Jordan, I'm so sorry for your loss. Your writing about your grandmother has touched me deeply.

Wishing you peace ...

Love, Ellen

At 11:18 AM, Blogger SusanD said...

I'm sorry for your loss, Jordan.

At 11:21 AM, Blogger Jordan E. Rosenfeld said...

Thanks for your thoughts, ladies. They mean a lot.

At 5:17 PM, Blogger Maryanne Stahl said...

this is absolutely beautiful. rest in peace, Oma.

At 11:14 AM, Blogger tracer said...

Thanks for sharing these. It IS disorienting. The relief mixed with sorrow and always those unanswered questions. No one could ever accuse you of being unfeeling. Love you, T.

At 7:56 AM, Blogger Josi said...

Sorry for your loss, but very much enjoyed your piece about it. My grandmother lived in numerous phases of her own life those last five years as well, it was a sad comfort when she was freed of her confusion.


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