A boy bounced up a pebbled path between a wall and hedge as tall as he was. During the day, he enjoyed skipping up the path, but at night it scared him. He always ran through it at night.
Skipping joyfully, he turned sharply to the left and ran to the door of the bottom-rear apartment in the multi-unit–but homely–building at 47 Sokolov in Nahariya, grabbing the brushed metal handle that always left his hand feeling a little gritty, and turning it until the bolt clicked in a satisfying way and the door swung open.
The hallway–it could hardly be called that, he recalls–was tight, with doors on the left and right leading to the bathroom and bedroom respectively. A few feet in front, a large wooden armoire of sorts served as an all-purpose desk, holding the phone, pens and paper, and all manner of knick knacks that may have been important but remain obfuscated, being memories from a child’s mind. The wood was dark and heavy, and it shone with a polish that must have come from many years of meticulous maintenance. To the right was the kitchen, and a table often used for unstructured meals and light snacking. Above the table on the wall hung a wicker board, whereupon many photos, notes, small crafts, and memories hung.
She sat at the table, her wrinkled face breaking into a smile as the blond boy bounced through the hall, his bowl-cut hair following his bounds in a slight delay. Her bright blue eyes sparkled, and she dipped her fork into the cottage cheese and sliced apples on the plate before her as the boy went to his favorite spot in the house.
A footstool with rubber black feet capping chrome legs and a grayish veneer top, the middle of which housed a black rubber pad, sat in its designated spot in the kitchen. The boy went to it and sat as he had every summer since his birth, when the family visited Grandma and Israel. PVC jellies encased his feet, a pair of blue shorts his legs, and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shirt his chest. His blue eyes stared back at hers intently.
“Grandma,” I asked in a lilting child’s cadence, “when you die, can I have this chair?”
“What, the footstool?” She asked, with her head cocked slightly to one side, the oddity of the request confusing her.
“Well, I use it as a chair,” I said. “And I love it. It is my favorite thing in your house.”
“I don’t see why not,” she replied, finishing her cottage cheese and standing to take the plate to the sink. “You must be hungry. Naknik?”
I was hungry, so I accepted the offer for a hot dog. She put a pot of water on the stove and set it to boil. Retrieving a hot dog from a package in the refrigerator, she unceremoniously dropped it onto a plate as we waited for the water to boil.
“Why do you like it so much?” She asked.
“The chair?” I replied, “it’s comfortable and it reminds me of you, Grandma.”
She came over and pinched my cheek–slightly harder than gently, as usual–and with a trademark “schnooks,” the conversation ended.
My Grandmother, Lisa Samuel, had many of these “trademarks”; little idiosyncratic behaviors that were so her that as I recall them now, in the middle seat in the rear of a Southwest flight to Seattle, I’m welling up and trying to maintain control. It was her time, without a doubt, but I’ve discovered that it doesn’t make it any easier. Every early morning phone call from my parents for the last few years I’ve been expecting the news I received this morning, yet it still shocked me. I stayed in bed, unable to process the news and unable to talk. Spaced out as I was, I began browsing ticketing sites for flight prices, just out of curiosity, to see the price of making it to the funeral. I was already running late for work when I got in the shower, but I just stood there, letting the water run, as more and more memories of Grandma poured over me like the water, soaking me in their humor, their vividness, their love.
After I got dressed, my phone rang. My brother and I sat on opposite ends of the west coast, silent on each end of the line, incapable of expressing the raw emotion that pumped through us. I had returned from a trip in Europe to make it to Grandpa’s funeral, he knew, and wanted to know if it was worth it to be there. It was.
Grandma was a very particular woman; her German genetics punctuated with English propriety made for a fascinating set of childhood experiences. Those summer visits to Israel, staying at her place in Nahariya, were some of the best memories of my early childhood. We weren’t allowed to touch much of the stuff in the house, and I was reminded constantly of that fact. If there was a stack of newspapers or books on the scratchy couch, it couldn’t be moved or modified in any way. A magnificent wooden table in the shape of an elephant just begging to be the object of my youthful imagination had to remain untapped, in glory taunting me, beckoning me to at least see if it was as smooth as the armoire–which also couldn’t be touched unless necessary. It wasn’t all about staying in line with Grandma, though. She had many wonderful trademarks, as well. Every morning, she would come to my bed (or the couch) and sing a little song to wake me up:
“Good morning, good morning, a happy good morning, a happy good morning to you. Fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers, a happy good morning to you, bum, bum.”
That bum, bum is very important, mind. Grandma hummed like you’d imagine someone in a black-and-white film would, all in ta tums and ba dums and bum de dums. When she would have classical music playing on the radio at her little kitchen table, she would close her eyes, wrinkle her forehead slightly and begin to conduct and hum, her thumb and forefinger tracing time in the air, while behind her eyelids a full symphony would follow her movements as she guided them through Bach or Mozart. She loved classical music, and met with a group of friends–all of of whom found one another in Israel after leaving Germany in the 1920s and 30s–regularly for listening parties. I was invited to one of these events by her, as they were planning to watch Disney’s Fantasia, and she thought I would enjoy it. As part of the event, she taught me (what at the time felt like) a monologue in German, thanking the kind hostess for the food, music, and company. I am ashamed to admit I hardly remember it. I think it started with felin danke fur die einladung, or something like that. She had me practice for almost a week before she felt confident that I would satisfactorily repeat the words to her friends. They loved it, and when I finished the performance they actually clapped, and Grandma graced me with one of her slightly-harder-than-you-expected slaps of affection, almost indistinguishable from an actual slap but for the context and intention with which it was given.
When we moved to Israel in 1994 we stayed with her at 47 Sokolov while we looked for our first place to live. I slept on the scratchy couch under the window, from which you could see a part of the yard, Sokolov street, and the mediterranean ocean. She would stay with us during the subsequent years when Mom would head back to the states to visit Dad, and once over a month-or-so period of time during which she stayed with us in Shavei Zion, I started calling her “mom” out of habit. She told me in no uncertain terms to cut it out and remember the rules about no TV in the evenings. She cared deeply for us, and we for her.
As the years went by, she continued referring to the little footstool as “your favorite chair,” or “your footstool,” and I remember sitting on it even when my size made it ridiculous to do so. After we returned to the US, she would visit and I would ask her about my favorite chair. She would smile and tell me it was right where it belonged, in its designated spot by the door to the dining room, between the jamb and cabinetry. After this exchange a pinched cheek or slapped shoulder would follow, and I would know that all was right in our little world in the moment.
Some years ago her health began to waver, but she clung to living, not life, and continued volunteering at the hospital until she absolutely could not. After she could no longer care for herself, she moved to a “founder’s home” in Shavei Zion, where she lived among friends and was well taken care of, partaking in whatever activities the home had planned for her.
I visited her twice in the home. The first time she was still relatively lucid, but the reality was that the woman that was my grandmother was in many ways gone. We sat together, ate together, and read Winnie The Pooh together. She told me about Llanharan, the Welsh village where she and Grandpa Ben lived. She told me of their risqué relationship as doctor and nurse, and how improper it was for them to steal kisses whenever possible. It was a side of her I had never seen, and it was a beautifully moving experience. The last time I saw her was bittersweet. She couldn’t speak because it exhausted her, and she only stayed awake for a few hours during the day, but during those hours we would sit together in silence, her gnarled hand in mine, and she would breathe gently, occasionally making tiny noises or asking for my Dad or his siblings. The three days I spent with her, holding her hand, were incredibly powerful and emotionally draining. I knew it would be the last time I’d see her. She only said one thing to me over the course of those three days:
“I’m so glad you’re here.”
My brother and I leave for Israel tomorrow to attend the funeral, and between tearful and laughter-filled conversations with my sister and the spaciness that has consumed us all in the face of this monumental moment, the first memory that came to me was that footstool. It has stayed with me this long, the promise of that footstool, but now it comes to it, I would take another too-hard slap or pinch on the cheek over that footstool, even if it was a great place to sit.