I have two vivid memories of my paternal grandmother. In the first, I am 8 years old, and we are sitting on the carpet in the basement of my parents’ old house, where I grew up. We are playing a game that I completely made up, using a combination of dominoes and chess pieces. The game is rigged. I always win. I call it, “Beat Grandma Game,” and think this is hilarious.
In the second memory, we are 15 years older. We are standing in my parents’ new house, four days before my wedding. (Was she at my brothers’ weddings the previous two years? I have no recollection, except there was evidence of her preserved in the family photos.) My grandma is hysterical. “No! No! No!” she’s yelling, tears flying from her face as she bends her body down as though she’s about to prostrate herself, and then whips her body up and around. She has no bearing. I see her for the first time without her wig, and her hair is short and thin and white, and she looks 10 years older than she is; I think it’s the first time it occurs to me that she wears a wig at all.
Her hands are now in the air, and she’s yelling, “Oh God, no!” My grandfather, too frail to make the trip from Israel for my wedding, has died, and she is stuck in America for the wedding of a granddaughter she barely knows, so very far away from the man she married when she was only 17 years old. I was 17 when I started dating the man I would marry in four days, and for some reason, this connection seems important in the moment, between wails.
Accompanied by my father, she would fly back to Israel on the next possible plane, just in time for the funeral. My father would turn around and fly back to America, alone, for my wedding. I won’t see her again for four years.
She and my grandpa, who made aliyah just five years after I was born, flew back to the states for a visit once a year during my childhood, but I have almost no memories of these visits. My whole life, there has been an ocean between us. There were no birthday cards in the mail, no emails in my inbox, no phone calls received in an attempt to breach the divide. She may have loved me deeply, but she did so from afar. She lived there. I lived here. And that was that.
When I turned 33, my husband bought me a single ticket to Israel. I would be on my own for nearly two weeks, visiting family and touring Jerusalem and the north as research for a novel. I would also see my grandma for the first time since I was last in Israel, six years earlier.
“She’s not what you remember,” my dad warned me. But what did I remember? I had only two memories to guide me. “She’s medicated and often seems out of it,” he explained. “She probably won’t remember who you are.” How could she? I barely knew who she was, and I didn’t have any of her illnesses. I always blamed her for not being the grandma I wanted her to be, but, to be fair, I hadn’t sent her birthday cards or emails, or picked up the phone to call her, either. I never really tried to meet my grandma. Now, she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and it was too late.
I walked into her apartment in Jerusalem. My Israeli aunts and uncles and cousins were already filling her apartment with decorations in celebration of her 90th birthday. The table was covered in food, and chairs lined the walls. In front of me, at the center of it all, sat my grandma, without a wig. A third memory came to mind, of when I introduced her to my husband in this very same spot. “He’s sexy, isn’t he?” she had said, with a wink.
I smiled at the recollection. Across from me, Grandma smiled back. She opened her arms wide, “Talia!” she exclaimed. And for a moment, I wondered if it wasn’t too late after all.