Today I am reposting this piece I wrote 10 years ago, l’ilui nishmas my grandmother, Masha Riva bas Aharon Yosef haKohen. May her neshama have an aliyah.
I never met you. Forever a woman in sepia tones, dark eyes gazing soft-sharp from a face that may have smiled if smiling for photographs had been in fashion, you are a stranger to me. I wonder what you thought, what you felt, how you lived your life. I wonder what your voice sounded like, if you sang to yourself, if you constantly misplaced your keys. I wonder how your challos tasted and whether you would be the kind of grandmother who urged me to take just one more bite. Would you have bought me gifts? Visited me in the hospital when I gave birth? Offered to do my sewing? Would we have lived close by, or oceans apart?
I never met you. You gave me my father and then you were taken, never to see the glowing light of the next generation. Never to know the second tier, the branches, of your flimsily rooted tree. You missed my first tooth, my first step, my piano recitals, my broken arm. You missed my birthdays. All thirty-three of them. I never felt the caress of your hand on my hair. Would you have caressed me? Kissed me? Would you be like those grandmothers who love from afar? Who scold?
What were your aspirations? Did you have secret dreams? Did you fantasize, sometimes, about becoming a grandmother? Did you feel like you were too young to be that old? Did you ever lie awake at night imagining your son, my father, holding his own child, with you beside him, watching? I’ll never know.
I have no name for you. You are not Bubby or Savta or Oma to me because you never reached up to take a title. You are a lone photograph. You are a skeletal string of stories my father tells when he is asked. You are a memory to those who knew you long ago.
Would you have told us stories, about growing up in Europe, about your childhood? Would you be fashionable, or quaint? Plump or thin? Would you complain about your aches and pains or be vivacious and healthy? Would you be here now, to embrace my children, your third generation? Would you crochet blankets for them? Show me how to put them to sleep? From that picture, it’s hard to tell.
I never met you. That’s why, when I fumbled my way through the muddy paths of the cemetery, I hardly expected to feel your presence in the cold grayness. And when I came across your gravestone, I imagined I would stand, silent and respectful, yet distant. The stranger I am to the stranger you are to me.
So when the tears, thick as rain only warmer, came unbidden, I wondered.
I never met you. Why do I cry?
I think I know. I think I cry because I never met you. I cry because there are so many questions left unanswered. I cry because I grieve a loss I cannot even explain, a love I never tasted, a caress I never felt. I cry for you, plucked like an unripe fruit from a tree that went on to bear fruit that might have been yours to savor. I mourn you now, in this barren place where death and life mingle mysteriously, wading through a sea of emotion I never before glimpsed on the map of my heart.
When I finally bid you good-bye, I think I have discovered I am wrong. About your being a stranger, about your absence from the landscape of my life.
I never met you, but you gave me your name. And clearly, my soul knows yours.