My grandmother kept a photograph near her bed. The photo didn’t make much sense to me when I was very young, when she lived a couple of blocks away in a corner house that, in my memory, had a pantry full of cookies and an apple tree in the backyard.
The photo was of my grandmother when she was very young herself. She was at some sort of summer camp in Poland surrounded by other girls. She would bring it out sometimes (along with cookies, of course) when I stopped over during my paper route. I used to think it was to show me that she had been young herself.
Only later, when I grew old enough to hear the truth, did she explain the meaning of the photograph.
Every other child but one in the photograph had been killed in the Holocaust.
Miriam Perel would have been killed too had it not been for a strange bit of fate. She was vacationing at her grandmother’s house when the Nazis invaded Poland in September, 1939. My grandfather, Usher, was there in the middle of it all, and he always had two strong memories of the invasion. The first was of a flying toilet seat. The other was of seeing a man’s head blown off. It seemed strange to me as a boy that those memories seemed equally vivid for him.
My great grandmother didn’t think it was safe to send Miriam back home. She was right: Everyone in my grandmother’s family — her father, mother, brother, and sister — was killed just like all those children in the photograph. She never found out the details.
Miriam, her grandmother and her aunt escaped to the farthest reaches of Siberia. She was 14 years old. She called herself older to avoid being sent to a children’s labor camp. To the end, her medical records showed her to be older than she was.
She met my grandfather during the war and they both scraped by to survive. Some of my mother’s earliest memories are of Grandmother begging to make ends meets.
We always called her Grandmother. Never grandma or granny or Nana or babcia or Bubbe or anything like that. She was all three syllables. She was a small woman but fierce; her life had been about survival. When the war ended, she and my grandfather moved the family to a Polish city named Swidnica — it has been a German city during the war. They moved into a home where a Nazi had lived. Not long after, the building collapsed and they had to move again.
In 1956, after years of trying to get out, they were able to leave Poland and get to Israel. Miriam would clean hotel rooms to make ends meet. In time, my grandfather was able to open a tailor shop, and my grandmother would bring his lunch every day, usually soup. Grandmother was a wizard at soup. In time, she became a tailor herself.
Grandmother’s life was food. In every memory I have of her, there is food somewhere in the picture — cookies or ice cream or fruit or chocolate-covered something. She had a knack for finding candies that I have never seen before or since, I have no idea where she found them. But she always wanted me, then my wife, then my daughters to eat. It was important to her. She always wanted to give something. “Take, take!” she used to say whenever one of us complimented her on something in her house.
She loved her car, I remember that too. “It’s my jewel,” she used to say, first of the Mercury Sable that my grandfather once parked horizontally in their 1 1/2 car garage — it was an astonishing geometric feat with each bumper mere inches from the garage walls — and later of her Toyota Corolla. Grandmother drove until she was 90 and missed driving every year after that. She always insisted on taking care of herself.
Grandmother and my mother would speak every single day. They spoke in a mishmash of languages and generally talked about the most common daily things such as the television shows they were watching. Grandmother’s favorite show was “Everybody Loves Raymond,” but in her last years, she couldn’t justify getting cable and so didn’t have access to them. Instead, she would watch local television through an antenna and she lived for “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza” and “The Rifleman” reruns.
She never explained to my mother why those shows spoke to her. She would complain, though, about how the women on those shows didn’t take care of themselves.
A week ago, Grandmother fell and was taken to the hospital, where it was found that she has a fever and trouble breathing. They took her to the COVID-19 wing; she tested negative. She had contracted pneumonia instead. She was taken to a different part of the hospital, and my uncle Lawrence was allowed in just once to see her. He connected my mother and Grandmother via video call. My mother said, “I love you.”
Grandmother could not speak. But she mouthed, “I love you,” in return.
She died Saturday night alone in hospice. She was 95 years old. Her records say she was 96.
But I will not remember her that way. Grandmother was a happy person despite the pain she endured in her life. She loved to laugh. More than that, she loved to see other people laugh. The memory that endures for me comes from a time when we brought our daughters to see her. She said, “Oh, I have something,” and she brought out a couple of old dolls that she had probably picked up at a yard sale — she and my grandfather had loved yard sales.
Then, she gave the dolls to the girls and sat in a chair. On the table was a plate of cookies, a bowl of grapes, a chocolate cake and a few strawberries. “Eat, eat!” she said, like she always said, but what stands out most was the way she glowed with happiness as she watched the girls play with those dolls.