Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Nothing really prepares you for seeing your 96 year old grandmother. My mother and I got off the elevator on the third floor of the retirement center. As soon as the automatic doors crack open and the fluorescent lights reflect off the linoleum floor the stench of old punches you in the face. The smell is sour, sticky and humid, nearly dead.

We walked past a reception area where the elderly, unmoving, almost drooling slumped over bean bags of people stared into space or seemed lost in a perpetual daze. Hanging above them was a sign that read "non-ambulatory."

My mother, having done this every other day since we moved my grandmother up from Florida last summer, was used to it. I, who had only visited my grandmother a few times, had to mentally deflect the surging thoughts of life and the inevitable approaching mortality. "Non-ambulatory" throbbed across my brow. My mother, sensing the onslaught of emotions from her sensitive son, grabbed my arm the only way a mother knows how. Delicate, soft, encouraging and lead me into a big open room with a dot-matrix printed sign above the door. "Rec Room."

The elderly all sat in circle. The wheels of their wheelchairs touching one another. Some rolled back and forth wanting a better angle around the perimeter of the circle. An overweight Hispanic woman with too much make-up and a heavy accent were encouraging the elderly to throw weighted balls on to a target on the floor. It was a game, like darts, where the elderly limp-lobed their balls on to the target gaining a score or hoping for a bulls eye. There my grandmother sat, her back to my mother and I.

"Excuse me," my mother said politely squeezing herself through the wheel chairs trying to get to my grandmother. She placed a hand on the back of my grandmother's shoulder and my grandmother turned to greet the hand with a delayed response. She placed a hand on my mother's, thankful she was there to relieve her of this game she hadn't been paying attention to anyway. My mother backed her wheelchair out of the circle in a k-turn and reminded her I was there to visit. When my grandmother's eyes met mine she smiled, dentures oddly placed, as a child would to a shiny object. She had grown older since the last time I had seen her just three months ago. A little thinner, her hair more disheveled.

"Well hello dahhhh-ling," she said as she had done so throughout my childhood. I bent down smiling to kiss her cheek and as my face met hers my heart cracked sending a surge of emotions to my eyes. My trembling lower lip the only protection against producing real tears. I cleared my thoughts while my mother and I walked her to a nearby table. We pushed her in and I sat very close.

"How are you, Gram" I asked. "Stuck in this place," she said dryly but jovial. My mother rolled her eyes. I pulled myself even closer to her because, for the last 10 years, I always went on the assumption that this might be the last time I would see her. My grandmother, too, for the last 10 years has been telling my family that she's ready to die. Her birthday is next week, March 21st so I wished her a happy 96.

"I never thought I'd live this long," she said aloud to myself and my mother but more so as a reminder to herself. Her brain is completely functional but her body is struggling to keep up. Fearing this might actually be one of the last times I see her I dug in with questions.

Born in 1914 in the Lower East Side of New York City my grandmother, Sarah Papish, was the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Growing up in a tenement on Delancey St. my grandmother was the third of four children. Two boys and two girls. Sarah at the age of 5, like many children her age, was given the responsibility of taking care of her younger sister, a job which she loved having. She went to school but states she mostly hung around and socialized within the Jewish community of the Lower East Side. "We were insular in those days. If you spoke Yiddish, you spent time with those who spoke Yiddish. We went to school together. We went to temple together."

"And how did you have fun," I asked wanting to hear something I haven't heard before hoping I'd peel back an unseen layer, a secret tidbit from within my ancestry. But it's always the same answer, "We didn't have fun like you have fun these days. We were poor. We worked. In those days girls didn't socialize with boys!"

"Yeah but Gram....Did you drink, smoke?"
"Who do you think I am?!"
My mother chuckles.

"Ok fine. Then, tell me about Grandpa." Grandpa Manny, Emanuel Lesser, the man from whom my name derives, died in the summer of 1980. One year before I was born. I never met the man and it stands as one of my mother's greatest sorrows that he was never an influence in my life.

"He was a great guy...a great, great guy," my grandmother remembers through a giant smile. Again my heart slingshots emotions to my eyes. I hold the forming tears back. It's funny how my grandmother has trouble remembering the name of her roommate in the retirement center but the memories of 70 years back are as clear and present as ever. "Oh! He was so handsome," she says reaching across the table and grabbing my mother's forearm. "You have his eyebrows and nose," my mother says to me.

"I met him at a party," my grandmother continues, "he was quite the man at the time because he had his own car. My friend Meryl introduced us and that night he offered to drive me home. He was living in New Jersey, taking care of his father and I was still in the Lower East Side taking care of my mother. I was old for a single girl. I was 30 and unmarried! He was 33 and single! I accepted the ride which was a little...daring. Women.... didn't accept rides from strange men in those days. But I took the ride and pretty soon we were dating. Before too long he was shipped out to the army but refused to marry me because he didn't want to leave me a widow with a kid, which was happening to couples all around us. Our relationship really began when we started writing letters back and forth to one another. He was overseas in god-knows-where and I was in New York taking care of my mother, but every day I would write. When he came back, we were in love. We got married." She quickly offered and aside, "He loved to dance. He loved to tell jokes. He was a great guy," she added once more.

"Maybe that's where you get it from, Eric," my mother suggested to me, knowing I love to tell jokes and love to dance. "Maybe," I responded knowing I'll never know the answer to that question.

Being around my grandmother and in the center of all this old made me think about life. How we go from infancy to adulthood to only return back to infancy. Again and again this cycle replayed itself in my head. Slumped over, old, achy with everything we did, and everyone we know, dead.

My grandmother's entire family is dead. At 96 she is the only one left alive. Her children now bear the responsibility of carrying the memories of her life. It seems impossible, unimaginable that I'll be there too one day. A place in life where all your artifacts, friends and family are gone. Memories become the only thing that validate your existence. My grandmother was incredibly well liked during her life, she knew so many people, but at her funeral there will only be a handful. My grandfather died nearly 30 years ago. More years than I'm alive now. This person, this love of hers, has been gone for nearly a lifetime.

This immediately made me think of my own life. What I have, don't have, what I've done, what I haven't. My heart suddenly grasped at the desire for a boyfriend, a husband. My confident independence no longer seemed like an asset. I craved somebody. Somebody to share this existence with, someone whose existence will be shared by mine. It's what we do now that matters because in the end we're all liable to be sitting in wheel chairs, throwing weighted balls at a target on the floor, just as a means to pass the time until our heart stops beating and our eyes no longer open. I thought about the stories I haven't written. The video projects I've left incomplete. The loves I've had and had not. I thought about the stresses in our lives, the achievements and for a moment it all seemed worthless and pathetic.

It's not like we have any other option. We must live. We must complete this cycle. Having a boyfriend or a husband isn't the benchmark of our lives, it is neither a success nor failure whether we fulfill that societal norm or not. The same goes for completing that project or getting to that level of success but to try is to live, and to play the game is to experience and when all is said and done and the decades of my life flash by like chapters in a book, I'll know what is written on those pages and those pages will be what I know of life.


JawnBC said...

This is lovely. :)

My grandmother died a couple of years ago. She lived to 101, 100 of which were awesome. She bore 8 kids (outlived half of them), was married for over 50 years (Pop died at 88 about 15 years before), had 18 grandkids (17 survive) and over 30 great-grandkids. She arrived in NYC from Ireland in her early 20s, already a strong-willed, rebelious girl by Irish standards. She waited until she was in love to get married. And though she started late (25) she still produced her own village.

The Irish say love skips a generation when it comes to grandparenting. All the joy, none of the culpability, none of the worries of being a first-time parent. I left the hospital in Nanny's arms (Ma nearly died having me, her 4th in 4 years) and we were like glue ever after. Even my being gay didn't derail that, though I never told her directly (yay for family gossip, srsly).

So happy birthday to your gran: she sounds awesome!

Tony said...

hi eric, just started reading your blog, and getting ready to start mine. you are a good writer, and i loved loved this post. great questions about life and death. my mother had alzheimers for three years and died last year at 86 years of age and i had a similar experience visiting her in the home. i could not believe that this is what her life had come to. and i was afraid that i would be there some day too. vowed that i would not let it happen, but so did my mother. the thing is that by the time she was admitted she had lost her ability to make a choice. i can deal with losing anything but my mind. anyway, thanks for the post, and the heartfelt sharing. made me feel a lot. --tony

Spouse Walker said...

Impermanence. Seems to me like you are getting older Eric. I hope you find that special someone.

Jim said...

Eric, thank you for sharing your story. You are such a good writer and I love reading your stories.

My grandmother would have celebrated her birthday just a few weeks ago as well if she would be still alive. She too lived an amazing life and I had a very special bond with her. I will never be able to tell my stories as well as you are. I'm just not as gifted to put my thoughts into words. But in a way you're telling the story for me. So thank you for expressing my feelings which I never seem to find the right words for.

I hope you'll find your man soon, Eric. Don't worry, it'll happen. Usually when it's least expected. That's what happened to me. Someone as sensetive and cute like you, it's just bound to happen.

I know, I know, it all sounds corny. So be it then. We need a little more cornyness in our lives. All the best to you and big hugs :)

Tony Adams said...

We get only one brief season for which there is only one good reason.

Jim said...

Just found your blog today and it is very timely for me as well. My father is 94 years old and still lives on his own....for now. Like your grandmother my father's mind is very alert and intact....while his body is failing him daily.
Thanks so much for sharing your story. It was very moving.

Tony said...

one more thing i was thinking about. i totally get the thing about feeling like you need a bf. i get that at times when i see certain movies or read certain stories, and then at other times i don't think about it at all. i love my single like, and i am not lonely, and like many people in relationships, and in marriages, i am not miserable. your grandmother lived in a time that does not exist anymore, and so did her marriage. that is rarely how these things happen these days--one person for life, wait to fall in love, courting, etc. for better or worse, the world of love and sex has gotten much much bigger, and we don't have to go for the first person we feel attraction or the first person who is nice to us anymore. we have options. but like all choices, there are pros and cons. sounds like, eric, you were feeling the cons of that after you visit with your grandmother. dunno. wonder how you will feel about it once the weekend hits...guess we will read about it.

Mark said...

Really, really lovely, Eric.

You made me miss my Grandma, who died 41 years ago, this month.

Unknown said...

A very thoughful and moving piece.

I once read an essay about a similar visit in which the writer described himself as "being surrounded by those who were not yet aware that they had died."

In your time in Los Angeles, were you acquainted with Phranc, the Jewish Lesbian Surfing Folksinger? She wrote a very touching song for her grandmothers called "Myriam and Esther". You might check it out on iTunes.

Homer said...

One of the reasons I do family history and work as an archaeologist is to make sure the people who are gone are not forgotten.

Chris said...

A short time ago, I was at a party and someone asked 'if you could interview anyone in history, who would it be?' I was the only one to answer my grandmother. (Seriously, what do I care what Lincoln thinks of Obama?)

You're so lucky to be able to talk to your grandmother!

Clem said...

Hi There. Stumbled upon you through my BF who is in the Big Apple Dodgeball and is aquainted with you.
I agree with 'lesson' so much!! WELL PUT.
I also agree with'chris'. You are so lucky to have shared that moment and those stories with your grandmother. My grandmother is quite young at 79 and, sadly, is losing her mind to alzheimers and dementia. Really great post. Really nice writing. I urge you to post more often.

dpaste said...

I spent an awful lot of time in nursing homes during the 90's when both my grandmothers were in their 90s. Grandma Eve slipped into Alzheimers but Florence had her wits nearly to the end, although she was a rather bitter person, so it was not necessarily a blessing. Both died around their 98th year.

I later volunteered as an elderly companion for a few years in the early 00's. I'm quite used to the nursing home deal.

I don't worry about growing old, and I don't worry about whether I will be remembered when I am gone, but I do worry about how long I will linger at the end. Not looking forward to it.

Daniel said...

No need to tell you are good writer. You know that. I'm not sure what is so good about your stuff! Right now, I think its a mix of good writing and real feeling (clichet, sorry!).
I would love to have some beers with you and just listen to your stories!!!

Anonymous said...

So, I haven't caught up with your blog in a while, but this post just hit me between the eyes. Just before I walked my dog about 20 minutes ago I looked down at him and said "grandma would have loved you." Needless to say I had to stop after each paragraph because the screen was starting to blur.

I hope you don't mind if I share. You don't have to read it, but I kind of feel like writing it.

My grandma was born in 1923, the youngest in her Jewish-Polish family, and was the only one of four sisters to be born in the United States. She was also the second one to pass away. When we told her sister that she had died, she tearfully referred to her as "the baby." She was 84.

When I came out to her, she asked if I thought she'd "been living under a rock for all these years?" and hugged me. I would later find out that she only cried about it in secret and only because "she worried for [my] safety." When I introduced her to Mark, she only asked if I was in love, then fed us both until we couldn't breathe.

We pierced our ears together, cracked up when the guy behind the counter at the DMV turned out to be part of a drag troupe (she asked him to perform at her retirement village), shared secrets that I still haven't told anyone, and sang Betty Hutton songs together even after I had graduated college. She managed to wake up from a chemo-induced, day long nap to comment on the fact that Fergie (Black Eyed Peas, not The Dutchess) is "Built like a brick house." She came to my art show at the "GLBCC" here in Orlando, and immediately entertained the thought of moving here.

I wish I could say she was deleriously happy and content when she passed away, but relationships with my father (her son-in-law) were horrific, at best. We remained close, however, and I got to be with her and care for her in the months leading up to her passing from cancer (what else?). She was sad, in the end, but I'm so proud when I think about every amazing, inspiring, forward-thinking, unknowingly feminist and progressive ideal by which she lived. She embraced change, forward thinking, and intelligence. It's like the best possible version of America lived in her. It's the one in which I want my first grade students to grow up.

I think of my grandmother and her sisters and our relatives who narrowly escaped the Polish death camps (many did not, and some survived and are still with us) and replay the opening scene of "Angels in America" in my mind.

"You do not live in America - no such a place exists. Your clay is the clay of some litvak shtetl, and your air is the air of the steppes, because she carried that Old World on her back, across the ocean, in a boat! And she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue... on Flatbush. You can never make that crossing that she made, for such great voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives, the miles - that voyage from that place to this one - you cross. Every day! You understand me? In you, that journey... is."

You honor those who pass by living the best way that you know how and loving your life.

Wow I really apologize for the ridiculously long response.

Spencer Lord said...

superb post. very thoughtful. glad i found your blog.