My Grandmother Between Life and Death

By Andrew R. Heinze

Published December 31, 2004, issue of December 31, 2004.
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Here is how the Talmud describes the life span of a man:

At five years the age is reached for the study of Bible, at ten for the study of Mishnah, at thirteen for the fulfillment of the commandments, at fifteen for the study of Talmud, at eighteen for marriage, at twenty for seeking a livelihood, at thirty for full strength, at forty for understanding, at fifty for giving counsel, at sixty a man attains old age, at seventy white old age, at eighty rare old age, at ninety he is bending over the grave, at a hundred he is as if he were already dead and had passed away from the world.

I encountered this passage around the time my grandmother died, at age 101, and it is because of her — in her honor, perhaps — that I remember its stunning finale describing one who is alive but “as if he were already dead and had passed away from the world.” I suppose one might interpret that as referring to a catatonic state, but I understand it differently. I understand it to mean a rare and wondrous suspension between two worlds, which is exactly what I witnessed the last time I saw my grandmother.

My last visit was on an afternoon near the end of her life. We had lived on opposite coasts for two decades and saw each other maybe once a year, twice sometimes. I had left the East Coast in my early 20s to live in California and, like many westbound migrants, never managed to return, though I always thought I would. On the day I walked for the last time down the corridor to the visiting room of the rest home in which she’d been living since she turned 98, I knew the end was near.

I had seen her the year before, just after her 100th birthday, and then she seemed the same as always, flamboyant as ever, still black haired, still stylish, the only fully (and impeccably) dressed person in the large room of ancient people in bathrobes caning their way around an obstacle course of easy chairs, sofas and card tables. There she sat, my little grandmother (unable any longer to dissemble her 5-foot stature with spike heels), percolating the same old energy that had kept her house spotless and her family nervous for the better part of the 20th century.

“Darling!!! Hello!!! How are you, dear?” she chirped when I came into her line of vision. She laughed the same delighted laugh as I amused her with the same family anecdotes I had recited when she was 99, 98, 97, 96 — ever since her 88th year, when she became a widow. She remembered everybody’s name even though she had seen my California children only a few times, and she exulted with the exact same precision over the milestones of my life — the career, the marriage, the kids. All these vindicated her understanding of how things ought to be for her loved ones: perfect.

My grandmother personified — and not a whit less than Teddy Roosevelt — the creed of 100% Americanism that marked her age. Born in 1898, one of eight children of an affluent, self-made Polish Jew (“Yes, dear, my father provided coal to the entire town of Passaic”), she never lost the dramatic self-confidence of a delightful childhood. “We are 100% Americans, dear, always remember that!” she liked to exclaim from her piano bench before returning her gaze to the keyboard, on which she entertained the entire family at every get-together, banging out the wonders of Tin Pan Alley as she sang in a strange vibrating soprano that jumped on- and off-key with the maniacal quality of a curbside skateboarder. Hers was the patriotic fervor of George M. Cohan, jampacked with corny, irresistible enthusiasm — if she hadn’t been a Jewish woman from Passaic, New Jersey, she would have been a born-again, singing Baptist.

And for my grandmother, being 100% American required not only the energy of the Energizer Bunny (“it keeps going, and going, and going…”), but also a proper attention to appearance. A joyous insomniac — or so she appeared to me — she kept herself as spotless and shining as she kept her glass coffee table. I’m sure she sat down, but I cannot remember her doing so. In my memory, she scurried. Scurried and fixed — she was ever fixing the cushions, fixing the snacks, fixing our collars, fixing her hair. Never, not a single time for a single instant, did she appear publicly — which meant anywhere outside her bedroom — without being absolutely put together. As a result of her scurrying and fixing, and of her having passed on a scurrying, fixing gene, and of her insistence on everyone having scurried and fixed, everyone in the family was stunning. All the females were beautiful, as she herself was beautiful, and all the males handsome as her husband, my grandfather, was handsome. And they were — my grandparents, beautiful and handsome, respectively — the Aphrodite and Apollo of our American family.

For many years, I regarded my grandmother’s vanity simply as vanity. But as I entered middle age, and she ripe old age, I realized that there was more to it than that. I began to appreciate the organic, life-sustaining quality that fueled her fastidiousness. I watched how, after her husband of 60 years died, she kept on going, honestly confessing her loneliness but unflaggingly maintaining her enthusiasm for life and for us. I noted the conversation in which she started to complain about today’s music being like noise, until I suggested to her that the jazzy music she loved struck her parents as noise; instantly she changed her tone and responded: “You know, dear, you’re right. The young people aren’t so different, are they? I was young too, once, you know!” I saw that, after several years as a widow, she allowed herself to be courted by a gentleman 15 years her junior (she never told him her age). But most of all, I stood in awe of the grace with which she gave up nearly everything she had — not least, her piano — and moved like a trooper from her attractive little apartment into that lackluster rest home, with its barely maintained carpets, its unadorned dormlike bedrooms and its ailing, afflicted, aged souls who had stopped getting dressed in the morning.

And so, when I saw her for the last time (and for the first time with her hair undyed), and she looked at me and struggled for a few seconds to remember who I was, and asked me to remind her if I lived in California or New Jersey, and spoke of my father as if he were still a little boy, I felt, along with the deep twinge of sadness, an unexpected, tranquil kind of happiness. In her gray-haired limbo, she looked and sounded content — finally and really — freed from a mind that, for 100 years, had allowed her no rest. Her hereness, that incessant attention to every detail of her very American life, had lapsed into a state of betweenness, which, I think, is not often observed and rarely reported. This is the report of my grandmother when she was as if she were already dead and had passed away from the world.

Andrew Heinze’s most recent book, “Jews and the American Soul” (Princeton University Press), was named one of the “Best Books of 2004” by Publishers Weekly. He is now at work on a novel, “The Manhood of Arminius Hirsch.”

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