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Naomi Narrative: My last day with grandma

Published: December 5, 2008
Section: Opinions


I used to have this toy monkey. It was highlighter green and made of shiny plastic. At face value it was nothing more than a tchotchke, cluttering my room like all my other pointless nicknacks. A self-avowed pack rat, my desk had spelling quizes from the first grade sitting next to prized jewelry, which shared a ledge with a defunct cell phone. I never meant to keep them all, but purging my room of possessions felt more like purging my life of memories. If I didn’t have that certificate marking my fifth grade graduation it never happened. Letting go was never my thing.

It’s still not my thing. That little toy monkey that I had never bothered to name became my last link to my grandmother. She died when I was 10, on my baby sister’s first birthday. My memories of her are anecdotes, adding brief flavor to my life. I remember her chocolate bundt cake, used to mark birthdays. I remember her affinity for sunflower seeds, and her Middle Eastern ability to crack them with her teeth. I remember her tanned, capable arms, used to embrace her 11 grandchildren.

But that’s it. I heard stories of course. Of her generosity, her wit, her sensitivity. Her phenomenal skills as a mother. Her cooking. Her ability to keep my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, on the right track and one with humanity. Relayed to me time and time again, these have become my distant memories. Almost like my brain knows they happened, but my heart is clueless, and so remains emotionally numb.

I look at the toy monkey and hazy images of our last day together saunter into my memory. My sister Talya and I had spent Shabbat at my grandparents’ apartment in the Bronx. It was a Sunday and we went to play paddleball with Grandma. She was short and quick, and I remember being impressed by her skills. Afterward we stumbled upon this huge outdoor carnival. It was a hodgepodge event, sprawling and disorganized. There were used books for sale, and entire worlds made out of blow up plastic castles, slides, jumping booths. It was a wonderworld of helium and leaving my shoes behind ensured a passport to the land of high jumps and somersaults.

My memory then turns faulty. I remember the loud music that hurt my ears. I remember the non-kosher food that Grandma refused to buy for us, even though we whined so loudly you would have thought we were asking for candy, not hotdogs. I remember a funny African American man trying to sell used white hightops.

And then there was the toy monkey. Did I win it, in a coin toss or ring game? Did I find it on the coarse grass, waddling under a table with my eyes on the prize? Did Grandma buy it, out of guilt from refusing our request for food? All are equally likely scenarios. My consumer-driven 10 year old self only remembers the shiny toy and not the process by which I procured it.

And then Grandma was gone. Her hair loss because of the chemo, her frail body propping itself up to see her grandchildren, her vomit appointments with the bedpan. All gone. The stuffed monkey we hopeful and naïve grandchildren gave her sat in my grandparents’ apartment taunting me. “I’m here and she’s not,” the immobile bastard of a monkey sing songed, in a high falsetto.

But life continued. I had other concerns, like navigating the fourth grade with my glasses, retainers, and new haircut that made me look like Corey from Boy Meets World.

I often thought of Grandma, but mostly about how her not being around anymore affected me. Now I didn’t have a grandmother to bring in for show and tell on Grandparent’s Day. No one would brush my hair and let me try on her clip-on earrings. No one would sew us fancy dresses for our birthdays. I felt robbed about not having her in my life.

I didn’t quite know what it meant that she had died. She was in the ground on a far off mountain in Israel. Wasn’t she lonely in the ground with no one to play with and no one to talk to? But she was also up in heaven, playing cards with God on a wispy cloud. God liked to play casino and he and my Grandma were pretty evenly matched. How could she be in two places at once? Was it like magic?

I thought she would come back. I knew her death didn’t mean that I could never see her again. I always imagined that we’d pay 1 million dollars- an exorbitant sum- and she’d have one day to spend with us, her entire family. What would we do for that one day? My mind always went to the zoo. A sunny summer day at the zoo. Hot enough to be comfortable in shorts and short sleeves.

We would stroll around the zoo for a few hours, me and my siblings scrambling ahead, picking the flowers we weren’t allowed to touch and shrieking excitedly at the animals. My Grandma and father would stay behind and talk. Nothing intense, just talk. There were no tears anywhere, no sadness. We just played and my dad and Grandma talked and we got to see Grandma smile and laugh again. It was so simple.

Of course this day never happened. I’ve been to the zoo since then, but always with a heavy heart. Unfortunately, my day at the fair remains my final day with Grandma. Fogged by mis-memory, this sad fact makes me pine for the zoo, the memory clearer than my true last day with Grandma. I don’t remember if Grandma really was good at paddle ball, which siblings came with us that day, or if there actually were helium filled activities. I sketched the day with my pen of fantasy, my instrument of illusion.

All I have is vague uncertainty, a curse to a budding writer. The toy monkey magically appeared in my hands and consciousness, with no inkling as to its origin. The nameless monkey is a figment, a connection to a day that is more dreamlike than true. Just like Grandma herself.