For 40 years my grandfather Ben saved a thick ponytail of my grandmother’s beautiful russet hair. He kept it in a small, silver box, wrapped in tissue paper, folded over upon itself like some precious, irreplaceable egg. One of my last visits to my grandparents’ house was a late Friday afternoon right after Thanksgiving. As my sister and I walked beneath bending sycamores and maples, small golden leaves drifted all around us. Sabbath dinners warmed in my neighbors’ houses—the smells of roasting chickens, sweet potatoes, brown loaves of bread filled the streets.
“Does she have any hair left at all?” Lisa asked me as we turned the corner. She was busy with a glamorous East Coast career (which I envied) and she had not seen Grandma Pearl in months.
“She has a few white strands here and there. It’s hard when you see it the first time, but you get used to it.” We could have been going to two different places, my sister and I, given the deliberate way she placed one foot in front of the other and the way I zigzaged and turned. She is forceful; I tend to float and glide.
Lisa and I knocked and banged on Ben and Pearl’s door and front window. They had been almost deaf for a long time, and with each visit the two-bedroom house seemed to stretch longer, loom further from its door frame. It was a channel, a tunnel, a pipeline; they were small receding figures.
Lisa’s head was bent sideways. She peered between the white blinds, scanning for signs of life. “I think I see someone.”
“O.K., O.K.” Pearl’s voice, threadbare, moving toward us.
She opened the door, one hand clutching her unbuttoned pajama top, a thin white T-shirt beneath it. I recognized the pajamas—flannel with tiny pink roses—the same kind my sister and I wore when we were eight and ten. Ben had bought boxes and boxes of them on closeout to sell in his East St. Louis dry goods store, now boarded up and abandoned. Up in their attic I had seen still more boxes full of pajamas—they seemed to multiply with the years. Pearl would never wear them all.
“Grandpa’s in the kitchen. Come on, Ben. Ben,” she called, “look who’s here.” Her powder blue house slippers scuffled and we followed.
Ben sat at the kitchen table tearing a napkin into small square shapes. After he tore each one, he folded it in half, placed it at the top of a pile to his right, and picked up another. He began tearing that one too.
“Stop with that, Ben. The girls are here. They want to talk to you.”
We weren’t used to being in Pearl’s kitchen—before Pearl had cancer we ate in the dining room and they waited on us, slowly, ever so slowly. Throughout my entire childhood and adolescence, we spent almost every Sunday night eating what seemed to be the same chicken dinner at Pearl’s. In later years, we all sighed and groaned, watching the ice cubes melt in our glasses as Ben shuffled out to fetch the soda
Pearl cooked almost everything in orange juice: chicken, sponge cake, jello, everything. “Orange juice,” she would say, leaning forward as if revealing the world in all its mystery. “The secret ingredient.”
She would go on and on about food and recipes, a subject none of the rest of us were interested in. “Put it on my gravestone when I die: ‘Pearl Rothman never missed making a meal for her family,'” she used to say, “Even during the Depression, when I had to hold down two jobs, I still found time to cook dinner.” My sister and I had rolled our eyes at each other, certain we were destined for greater things.
After dinner, Lisa would run off to rummage through Pearl’s dusty-pink satin jewelry box, and I would sit in a stiff, high-backed chair across from Ben, listening as he spoke about Torah and sex, his two favorite subjects. He would give over lessons he had learned at the heder in Belarutka, stories about King Solomon, epic tales of King David and all the women that kept the king’s bed warm in his old age. Pearl’s recipes bored me, but I could sit forever listening to Ben’s stories.
Sometimes Pearl would interrupt him, telling me about her yellow sponge cake, and how I could learn to make one that was “light as a feather.” Or she would draw me away from him, explaining the secrets of a good marriage, how she and Ben played gin rummy every night, and if Ben won, she confided, “I let him take a feel.”
In the last few years, as my grandparents moved into the dusk of their lives, I had begun to cling to every word my grandfather spoke. His was the language of wisdom, absent from my everyday world. And recently, as I became involved in studying and living the traditional Judaism my parents had abandoned, I recognized my grandfather’s lessons in the texts, coming back to me again. He hadn’t made the stuff up, he had been remembering stories he learned when he was a young boy.
I had come to see my grandfather as an ancient version of myself. Pearl and I, however, were like two old goats staring each other down from opposite sides of the mountain. Years passed, but we remained that way. I failed to call her often enough; I refused to attend her Hadassah Eye Bank luncheons; I did not visit as much as she would have liked, and when I did walk into her house, I hated her refrain: “We thought you were never coming.” She loved to wave my sister’s filigreed Hallmark inches from my eyes: “Look what Lisa wrote me for Mother’s Day. Read it aloud.”
I was the one grandchild who had ended up remaining in St. Louis, and I was a great disappointment to her. I mostly tried to avoid her anger, focusing instead on the gifts my grandfather continued to give me.
In their kitchen, the TV sat on the table before us, a long row of pill bottles lined up on top. “It’s so hard,” Pearl said. “It’s bad enough me being sick without your grandpa getting sick too. He’s supposed to be taking care of me. Now I have to take care of him.
“And the lady didn’t show up to give me my bath,” she continued, “She’s supposed to give me a bath on Fridays.”
She said it two more times.
I shifted in my chair. Lisa bit at her cuticle and studied where she just bit. I tried to look anywhere except Pearl’s face.
“I really wish I could have a bath.”
Finally, just when I was about to say it, Lisa said, “Grandma, we’ll give you a bath.”
Pearl’s face lit up. “Oh that would be so good. It would feel so nice to have a bath. Ben,” she said, loudly now, leaning toward his one good ear, “Sarah and Lisa are going to give me a bath.”
We followed her into the the bathroom. “We have to make this fast,” I whispered to Lisa, “All those people are coming over to eat at 5:30.”
The fluorescent bulb flickered and then blinked on. Pearl began gathering her things—robe, towels, bubble bath. She ran the water. There was a heaviness in these small acts, everything shaded by the fact that she was dying. Her balding head with white wisps of hair suggested a world beyond this one.
She took a washcloth from the shelf dropped it into the water and I watched it grow darker, sink, and fold in on itself Her slow, deliberate movements, each singular and compressed in time, made me think: Ritual.
Lisa and I mostly stood and watched. Trying to appear useful, I poured some bubble bath into the stream of running water. The bubbles multiplied, clustering like cells. Lisa placed the towels on the laundry hamper. The room was steaming. I was sweating in my turtleneck.
Pearl undressed at one end of the tiny room. Her breasts were clearly defined beneath a white T-shirt. The T-shirt was ragged, thin, as if it had been laundered to its softest, finest hour.
As she stepped into the tub, slowly lowering herself into the water, I tried to look at her body and look away, all at the same time. I was curious to see what I might look like some day and I was surprised, relieved. She was very beautiful laying in the water with her head resting against the wall. Her skin was a light copper, still tanned from the Miami sun she missed now. Her breasts were full and although they were not firm, the nipples were a wondrous pink, innocent as the pinkish flesh of a cat’s ear. In her slow acts there was much joy. She ran the washcloth over her breasts and down her rounded white belly.
“Does it feel good. Grandma?” Lisa asked, “I love to take a bath.” She was trying to make conversation, to establish a normalcy in this unlikely situation, to make some reason for our being there other than the fact that Pearl had cancer and was dying.
I squirted a glob of shampoo into Lisa’s outstretched palm and Lisa washed Pearl’s hair.
“She’s so soft,” Lisa whispered, leaning toward me. “Her skin and hair are like a baby’s.”
Pearl’s eyes were closed and she was smiling.
After a while, Pearl sat up and slowly rinsed the soap off with her washcloth. When she was ready to get out, Lisa and I moved forward. “I have to get to my knees first,” she said, balancing herself at a metal bar and then rising. I held her under her arms, feeling her weight.
Lisa offered a towel. “Wrap it around my shoulders,” Pearl said. Then she bent her head and as she gathered what was left of her hair into the towel, she said, “I need my lotion.”
I remembered a day, about a month earlier, when my two-year-old, Abigail, and I had visited Pearl in the hospital right after her last radiation treatment. Turning into the parking lot, I was thinking of Grandma and realizing she could be taken from us at any moment. I began to see her differently. In the hospital gift shop, I held a silent conference with myself, trying to decide whether to buy the purple flowering plant I was drawn to or the yellow one I knew Pearl would love. I chose pink— an attempt at blending—a resolution we could never achieve in real life.
At Pearl’s bedside I began to tell her I loved her, and as I said it, for the first time in my life, I meant it. I leaned over the white sheet, holding onto her, and she began to cry.
“I know you always loved your grandpa more than me,” Pearl said, “And that hurt me so much.”
I never knew she knew. I thought she couldn’t tell. I always thought she loved Lisa more and couldn’t see that I preferred Grandpa to her. Pearl and I held onto each other for a long time.
Later, I went down to the hospital gift shop again and bought Pearl a pack of lifesavers, the one thing she wanted. Back in the room, I unwrapped a cherry candy and fed it to her. She sucked on it, rolling it around in her mouth, her eyes closed.
Now, in the steaming bathroom, as the mist climbed along the windowpane and edged its way up the silver mirror, I held the cool, white lotion in my palm. A child of divorce, as Pearl also was, I suddenly realized Pearl’s Sunday night dinners had been one of the few constants in my ever-shifting childhood. It was Pearl who had been behind some of the most enduring moments of my childhood. It was her harping and nagging and determination that had made it possible for all of us to come together, Sunday night after Sunday night, at her dining room table. And that table, imperfect as it was, with the ice melting in the glasses and the chicken and the jello both tasting of orange juice, was one of the places where I learned about love and what it means to be a family.
There had been years of conflict, years of demands I could not fulfill, years when Pearl had held my sister’s greeting cards inches from my eyes. In these past few months, though, both the difficult years and the cards had begun to dissolve. They had been diluted by my grandmother’s pain, by the shrinking of her body. It was as if, in shedding parts of herself over these past few months, my grievances were being shed, too. I wanted to do something helpful, to be kind. I began rubbing the lotion onto Pearl’s curved back. Her freckled skin was soft, and warm.
I placed Pearl’s robe around her shoulders. Lisa wiped at the water soaking the floor and handed me the crumpled wet towel to put into the hamper. She ran water into the tub and I swept my hand around, chasing bubbles down the drain.
In the kitchen, Ben was hunched over his cards, studying them, his eyes squinting to make out a jack from a queen. His yellowed fingernail pushed one card out of the way so he could see another.
Ben used to entertain us with games of gin rummy when we were children. Or Pearl built complicated palaces of cards: spades and hearts leaning in upon each other, mushrooming out from the center. Hush, she used to tell us, one breath and they’re down.
Ben looked at his watch. “It’s 5:30,” he said. “Isn’t it getting dark out? It’s almost time to bentch licht.” He wanted us to light the Sabbath candles. The man had barely been out of the house in weeks—the only time he left was to get a haircut or visit the doctor. He was cut off from everyday things and yet in that fogged and floating Chagall-like world of his—remembering Belarutka, a forgotten train, a game of gin rummy, a bottle of medicine, a Reader’s Digest in large print—he knew the Sabbath had come.
Pearl placed the candles in the holders, bending over the stove. She lit the Sabbath lights. Her head was lowered, her eyes closed. Her hands winged the air silently, once, twice, again, drawing in all the broken parts. As if light could make us whole again.
She turned from the stove and wished us a gut Shabbos. I went over and kissed her.
I could feel the splendor of the Sabbath Queen in the small kitchen with its television set and rows of medicine bottles, its two bowls waiting on the counter, ready for soup
“We have to go,” Lisa whispered.
I remembered there were people, probably gathering now at my house, to eat leftovers from Thanksgiving dinner.
“We’re really late,” Lisa said, but we lingered.
Finally we said our goodbyes and stepped outside into the blackness. It was as if we had entered the house from one world, but came out into another.
Lisa and I started walking, the scrape of our feet now in harmony but the sound somehow naked, as if that one sound were all that was left.
“Grandma’s different,” Lisa said. “You know what she told me? She said, ‘You know, Lisa, my hair used to be the most important tiling to me, but now I don’t even care that it’s gone. It doesn’t even matter anymore.'”
The branches of the sycamores were silver at their edges, reaching out to each other across the dark night.
“I was so scared,” I said.
“Me too,” added Lisa.
Our eyes met in recognition—for an instant.
As we approached my house, I could see the cars lined up. Inside, my mother and aunts were rushing around, carrying the half-carved turkey, dishing out purple jello flecked with pineapple bits and cherries. I moved past the noise and movement, scooping Abigail up into my arms. I went over to light my Sabbath candles.
I held Abigail on my hip and circled my other arm across the flames, just as I had seen my grandmother do. I closed my eyes and I could see another kitchen layering itself onto mine. I recalled the quality of the light there, and how it had grown impossibly luminous when Pearl kindled the Sabbath candles. I thought of all of us—my sister and I, two different versions of something that was the same, and my grandfather and grandmother, mother’s arms sweeping out in wide arcs, and I thought about forgiveness. Forgiveness most of all.
Shelly R. Fredman is a writer of fiction and essays who lives in St. Louis.