Grandpa Willy moved to New York City when he was 19 years old from a small town in Russia near the Romanian border. He used to do face exercises in the morning (he claimed they were invigorating), walk to every grocery in Oakland and Berkeley to compare the price of lemons (and gloat about how he found the best deal), and challenge me and my older brother to foot races (he always won). Grandpa Willy was hail, quirky, and stubborn as hell.
When he was 88 years old, he had a stroke. And survived it.
I was in my early twenties, starting graduate school, barely paying attention to what was going on. With his oldest son–my father–in Boston and his two other adult children busy taking care of their own families and working full time, Grandpa Willy ended up spending the last year of his life in a nursing home.
I never went to visit him.
Grandpa Willy, I’m so sorry. If I could turn back time I would be there visiting you in that nursing home every day. I would be kissing your high liver-spotted brow, holding your hand, and wheeling your chair outside so we could sit in the sun together and talk. It is unfathomable to who I am now that I wasn’t there for you then at the end of your life. You can never forgive me and you shouldn’t. I will never forgive myself.
My friend Debra Zaslow’s grandmother was also in a nursing home at the end of her life. Bubbe was 103 years old. Debra was a young mom with two kids and a rabbi husband, trying to juggle an already busy life. But instead of turning away from her mom’s complicated and difficult mother, Debra converted the downstairs of her house in Ashland, Oregon into a comfortable bedroom and brought her Bubbe home to die.
Debra wrote a gorgeous memoir about the experience. I bought three copies when it first came out. It’s a beautiful book, haunting and heartbreaking and full of love. She has generously agreed to let me publish an excerpt today and answer questions about the book and her writing process, which I’ll be publishing on Thursday.
This scene takes place on the first day her grandmother is living with her, on the morning after taking Bubbe out of the nursing home, after a month of preparation.
Bringing Bubbe Home: Chapter Six
November 20, 1996
by Debra Zaslow
Inside my dream I hear voices rising from under the floorboards. I force myself awake and head downstairs where Bubbe sits up in bed, her eyes darting around, as if searching for enemy fire.
She zeroes in on me as I walk over, take her hand, and kiss her cheek. “How are you this morning, Bubbe?” I ask.
She grips my hand, then sighs as she leans her head back on the pillow. “Vell, I’m here,” she says.
Shayla has taken Marilyn’s place and together we clean Bubbe, dress her, and change the sheets. This takes nearly two hours and exhausts all three of us. Her bones seem gargantuan, fairly clanking under her thin, papery skin. She doesn’t want to be washed or shuffled around and she grows heavier with every move. Her mouth is pinched tight and her eyes track me around the room, making me feel vaguely guilty, as if I’ve committed a secret crime.
As we dress her, I look at her long, slack breasts and the wide hipbones jutting out below her rib cage. I remember my seventh-grade homemaking teacher measuring me for the A-line shift I was struggling with in sewing class. Tape encircling me, pins in mouth, she declared, “You have high hips.” I was as ashamed as if she had announced it over the school P.A. system. Now, years later, I face the source of those hips. My grandmother, while her flesh crumbles toward the earth, still carries a pelvis wide and strong enough to spring forth generations of powerful, but unfashionably high, hips.
Once we have Bubbe out of bed and washed, we decide to try a first trip outside in the wheelchair. Again I’m reminded of the first weeks with a baby, when each outing is filled with special, new equipment and layers of clothing. Bubbe can hold her head up better than a new baby, but her feet are another matter. Swollen stiff and stuffed into red fuzzy slippers, they slide off the wheelchair footrests, seeming to operate independently of the rest of her. We wedge the feet with towels, then wheel her outside.
Bubbe scowls at the scenery, her eyes bulging every time we roll over a bump. I take a breath of the sharp, clear air, and savor it. “Look at the mountains, see the beautiful trees!” I shout to her.
She nods grimly as her eyes fix on me, narrowing into hard slits. “Vere’s your jecket?”
“I’m not cold, Bubbe.”
She repeats, like a mantra, “Put on your jecket, you’ll get sick! Put on your jecket, you’ll get sick!” until I duck behind the wheelchair so she can’t see me.
I feel a quick, familiar heat of resentment rising in my chest, and I’m instantly ashamed. She’s a weak, feeble old lady. How could anyone resent her? I brought her here to offer her love and comfort, but despite the good intentions, we both hold on to our personalities, the patterns playing like grooves in a worn record.
Once we settle her back into her room, Shayla fixes Bubbe’s lunch while I run upstairs to eat alone. When I come back down, she looks at her food, then at me, and squints. “You’re not eating anyting!” Another flash from the pit of my stomach—how I hated it when she said that while I was growing up! I tell her as firmly as I can, “I already ate, Bubbe.” This time she doesn’t pursue it. She’s as tired as I am. She likes her food, though, and eats a lot of macaroni and cheese, gumming it loudly, tapping her spoon.
When she’s eating, she has a focus. Otherwise, her hands tap at nothing, wave in the air. I stroke her hand and marvel at her stiff, bulbous fingers, like enormous feelers. We pull out her photo albums, and lean shoulder-to-shoulder as we gaze at the old photographs. Her hands travel over surfaces of the faces as if she’s sensing their beings, calling them forth. She peers at her wedding picture, sees herself standing stiff and formal at seventeen, then slowly names the entire poker-faced wedding party. She hesitates at two young women at the end. “Dora Tankenoff and Sarah Pill,” she pronounces carefully with a look of faint surprise, as if they showed up today to visit. “Dese ver my chums.”
We look at a photo of her with her husband and children, posing ramrod straight, pale as ghosts. “Dat’s my old man, Morris … dat’s me.” She gives me a wry smile. Then she names her children: “Dere’s Sol, Minnie, Merwin, Derril…” She stops for a minute, fingers the face of my mother, Bernice, and says, “Dat’s Debbie.”
“What about Bernice?” I point to the picture of my mother at about four years old. She wrinkles her brow, glancing back and forth between me and the photo.
She begins again, as if to straighten out the memory, taking it from the top, “Minnie, Sol, Merwin, Derril … Debbie.” Apparently that’s final. I feel a little shaken, as if my mother has reached her hand out from the photo, or the grave, and I am simply here doing something for Bubbe that she could not do.
Buy Bringing Bubbe Home on Amazon.
Buy Bringing Bubbe Home at White Cloud Press.
Check back on Thursday to read a Q & A with the author.
Debra Gordon Zaslow travels nationwide leading writing workshops and performing storytelling programs. She has an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, teaches storytelling at Southern Oregon University, leads memoir–writing courses in the community, and is a private writing coach and editor. Her memoir, Bringing Bubbe Home, A Memoir of Letting Go Through Love and Death chronicles the life-changing experience of caring for her grandmother in the last months of her life, and her CD, Return Again, features inspirational Jewish stories.