I remember the moment I became a terrible granddaughter.
Sometime in the early stages of her Alzheimer’s, my grandmother, who attended a weekly meet-up of Holocaust survivors at the Borough Park YWHA, tried getting her caretaker the free Y lunch by telling the meeting’s organizers that the woman with her was actually her younger sister who had flown in from Israel, and who herself was a survivor. This fib of my Babi, as she was known by everyone under the age of 80, might have been convincing, excluding several inconvenient truths: My grandmother was 91, while her caretaker was 28; my grandmother was a petite Hungarian woman with olive complexion, while her caretaker was a visibly pregnant black woman from the Caribbean.
At the time, my mother told me about this incident while laughing. I, too, saw the humor, but was immediately struck by the stronghold of my grandmother’s illness. Babi, who was notorious for her simplistic and straightforward analysis of all of life’s situations – a woman who never lived in the gray – suddenly no longer saw a distinction between black and white. And it was at this moment that I became a terrible granddaughter. I should clarify: my inability to both respect and remain present throughout my grandmother’s illness did not occur overnight. The process that led to my absence from her life was gradual, denoted by several poignant markers.
Babi and I had always had an especially close and unique bond. After my grandfather’s passing, Babi began to spend many shabbats with her children and grandchildren. Every few weekends, I was fortunate enough to have Babi share my room, an oasis of a powerful ‘girls’ room’ in a sea of four-brothered testosterone, sports equipment, and wrestling matches. Babi was a force to be reckoned with: from the moment she arrived at our house, she overtook all domestic activities – cooking fried chicken and paprikás krumpli, mending pant seams and replacing shirt buttons, washing dishes and sewing doll clothing – all with an ease that seemed inherent in the hardiness of her generation. My grandmother’s competence and strength commanded respect and adherence, and as I matured, I was continuously amazed by her ability to succeed at everything all at once.
Still, Babi’s potency, however, was often as difficult to deal with as it was stupefying. She had strong opinions and was recalcitrant about them, never allowing any room for excuses or delays; everyone was to adhere to her view of the world, which encompassed the proper way to dress, eat, play, look, read, write, study, marry. This opinionatedness translated into rocky relationships with daughters-in-law, granddaughters, and friends (Babi never felt that men were worth arguing with in a meaningful way). Babi proudly told stories of shaming her daughters and granddaughters into losing weight, mocking them and withholding food until they obeyed her diet plan. Babi criticized more clothing choices and hairstyles than does Anna Wintour, famously touching her hand to a garment and casually stating, “Don’t tell your mother I saying this, but for me, this is not nice.” Or, “They let you in school with this hair?” When children were delayed in coming to a dinner table due to overzealous playing, Babi trekked downstairs and kicked over Lego towers, flipped over 3-day-long Risk boards, and confiscated dolls for days, tuning out a chorus of grandchildren, pleading for patience and mercy. Babi insisted that all food be placed at the center of the table, closest to the male head of the home, and scolded anyone who tried to throw out a piece of bread, regardless of how stale or moldy it might be.
It was this intensity in insisting that life was black and white that made Babi so strong a matriarch. She believed firmly in always doing the right thing, without excuse. When I was younger, Babi’s strength made her the best grandmother I could have imagined. She was not affectionate and doting, she did not give her love easily, but when she was proud of me, I knew I had earned it. I kept my room clean and my school notes organized; I sewed clothing for myself and for my dolls; I learned a few phrases and songs in Hungarian and mastered their pronunciation; and I practiced peeling potatoes and apples (always sneaking bites of raw potatoes since she insisted they were good for gum and teeth strength). I strove to be the kind of granddaughter I knew she could be proud of—even if she never quite approved of my hair—and in turn, I always heralded her as the foremost role model in my life; a woman who never took shit from anyone, who took pride in everything she did, who commanded respect from everyone, and who never showed a moment of wavering or weakness when it came to doing the right thing. Babi was the embodiment of a life lived in black and white.And then, my Babi got Alzheimer’s.
For anyone who has watched a loved one suffer with Alzheimer’s, they can understand that it often feels like watching a building fall down, brick by brick, first the outer layers, then the top floors, then the lower ones, until the building is nothing but a visible and exposed foundation. As it turned out, my grandmother’s strength, steadfastness, and straightforwardness had only been edifices she had built up over the years; the process of watching her vulnerable, dependent, and fragile core become revealed was far more than I could handle. And for that, I have deep and longing regret.
The first crack in the edifice came on a regular Shabbat, when my grandmother and I were sharing our girls’ room. In the middle of the night, a wrong number called the house, and in her disoriented state, my grandmother answered the phone. “Babi,” I said, “It’s shabbos and the middle of the night. You can go back to sleep.” But the ringing had disturbed her equilibrium. She turned on the light in my room and began getting dressed for the day. I explained to her again what was happening, and somehow, she finally understood and went back to sleep. But the entire event had been traumatizing for me. Babi had always been a deeply observant woman, proud and self-righteous in her religiosity, and had never understood the grays of religious questioning and agnosticism. And yet, her illness had allowed for a crack in her outward devoutness, wherein she became a woman that was religious, except when confused. I felt guilty and distraught that I had allowed this to happen on my watch, and I vowed to be more careful during her next visit.
Unfortunately, the next visits were no better. As her illness progressed, Babi often awoke in the middle of the night babbling and disoriented, needing help to go to the bathroom or attempting to go downstairs and eat breakfast. And again, more cracks to her surface strength. She became the grandmother that was independent and sharp, except when awakened in the middle of the night.
Before long, I moved out of my room when Babi came to visit. I pretended that I simply did not want to lose out on the sleep, but in truth, I could not deal with seeing my grandmother as anything but strong and sound-of-mind. I began to resent her visits, and I admit that I was even relieved when she moved into a nursing home near our house. I vowed to visit her as often as I could, and promised my mother that I’d join her on her weekly 4-mile roundtrip walks to the home. Of course, I failed in fulfilling my promise, and was unable to visit my grandmother regularly after my first visit. It was on this first visit that I watched the outer edifice of her unremitting strength crack and come crumbling down.
Babi always had an incredibly strong grip; if she caught a grandchild’s hand in hers, there was no way to break free unless she let go, snickering and giggling while she watched the ensnared hand wiggle and attempt to break free. Her grip was truly a symbol of her internal strength, and even until her last moments, my grandmother’s grip remained strong. But on my first visit to her, Babi could not stop staring at her hands. My siblings and I were talking to her, trying to be upbeat and entertaining, and she never stopped staring at her hands. Finally, after a near catatonic state, Babi turned to me, distraught, and asked, “My hands, why they have so many wrinkles? Why they are so old?” I stared back at her, not knowing what to say. She asked again, “How my hands are so old?” Fear and sadness overtook her expression. Finally, my sister-in-law spoke up, showing Babi that her hands, too, had visible veins and some lines, and this seemed to comfort Babi for the time being. But for me, the damage had been done. For the rest of her life, I would never be able to erase that incident from my mind. My grandmother, my paradigm for unwavering strength and simplistic muscle, had confronted and succumb to the weakness and uncertainty of aging and illness- all before my eyes. At that moment, I decided it was all right to be a deadbeat granddaughter to one of the biggest heroines in my life. I justified that I was feeling frustrated with her all the time and that I didn’t need to be present throughout the last five years of her life. Babi was no longer the strong matriarch I needed, and accordingly, I would no longer be the granddaughter she could be proud of. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable exchange.
It is only with time and maturity that I have come realize the grave mistake that I can never undo. When I think back on her life, I realize that my grandmother was never quite as black and white as she had seemed. Despite her desire for all her grandchildren to marry at age 20, we gleaned from reviewing photos and snippets of information that my grandmother didn’t marry until she was in her mid to late-twenties. And despite her religious zealousness, my grandmother had been religiously modern in her youth, and had often mirrored the religious practices of whatever community she was living in, despite the sometime contradictions with strict observance. Babi was never quite as tough as she always led on; when she felt she had gone too far, she apologized – it took her time and she did it somewhat begrudgingly – but she acknowledged that she did not always hold a monopoly on right and wrong. And despite her toughness toward her grandchildren, she always lied in bed with us at night and told us Cinderella stories. When she fell asleep while reading, and I quietly removed her glasses and magazine from her face, she smiled and kissed my hand while I did this. Her illness only confirmed that Babi was not all force and no vulnerability. When all the layers and walls she had built throughout her impossibly hard life had come down, her revealed foundation was sweet, quick-to-laugh and a child-at-heart. She said “please” and “thank you” to everyone that helped her, and she was kind and thoughtful toward everyone around her in the nursing home.
When I finally returned to the nursing home to visit Babi, only several weeks before her passing, I decided for the day to stop viewing her with resentment. For whatever reason, and perhaps I suspected it would be the last time I’d be seeing her, I decided that at that moment, I had developed enough inner strength to grant her the relief of weakness. When mealtime came, I lifted her spoon and fed her lunch. Though each bite was difficult for me to watch, I knew it was important to allow her vulnerability, and to carry on the strength she had always shown to me. And just then, when I had made up my mind that black had become white and white had become black, Babi lifted the spoon and offered me a bite of her food, and laughed. Suddenly, the world was gray again, and for the first time, I took comfort in it
Sara is a corporate litigation attorney in New York. She is a proud former White House intern, music-enthusiast, and amateur seamstress. Sara has traveled to 40 states and enjoys singing Hungarian songs in her free time.
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