You never mentioned whether the Spanish Flu reached your village of Akkerman in the Ukraine. You would have been eighteen years old, but perhaps that memory was subsumed by the crush of other events: your town under occupation by Romania after WWI with militia billeted in your home; sailing to the U.S. aboard the Rochambeau, arriving at Ellis Island in 1921; learning English, although maintaining your Russian accent for the next 74 years; and starting a new life in Portland, Oregon.
I will never know whether you experienced a pandemic. Did you wear a mask? Did your family have to isolate? Were you worried about the future? For me, life right now is unlike anything I have experienced. Last January, we traveled to Israel for the wedding of my nephew, Naftali (the youngest of your nine great-grandchildren), and anticipated slipping comfortably back into our established routines on return. Our calendar was filled with social gatherings, Shabbat dinners with friends, lectures at the university, and theatre subscriptions. Just days after we returned, life turned upside down. None of our planned activities are possible, and our comfortable daily routines are upended. We feel unsafe going to the grocery store, the plays and lectures are cancelled, shul is closed, gatherings with friends are forbidden. Our family members can’t travel here and we can’t go to them.
I think about how you revelled in hosting family and friends around your cherrywood dining table. Festive meals with chicken soup, chopped liver, gefilte fish, roasted chicken, apple pie. Friends routinely dropped in without notice, and when you opened the door, you always exclaimed, “It’s a party!” and went directly to the kitchen to plate your famous sesame seed cookies. Now, we are legally prohibited from letting extended family, neighbours, or friends into our homes. Instead, we communicate electronically, using devices you never would have imagined. Even though the pandemic requires us to stay physically distant, it is easier to communicate now than in your lifetime. Each Wednesday evening, we have Zoom dinner with our daughter, Hannah (she remembers you lovingly) and son-in-law, Sasha. We sit in Seattle and read books to our four-year-old grandson (your great-great) in Brooklyn, orienting our iPhone so that we see him, while he sees the illustrated pages of the books we are holding. He loves the same stories you read to us, Peter Cottontail, Madeline, Curious George. We bless the kids via smart phone on Friday afternoons. We “attend” minyan at shul and so that we can say “amen” to someone else’s Kaddish. It is Papa’s yarhzeit in a few weeks, and I’ll be able to say Kaddish for him, while davening with others who are also at home. We will sit around your dining room table that we inherited, near a framed photo of you holding a tea cup, so we will feel that you are joining us.
One of my fondest memories of our time together is the semester that you attended college with me. My Middle East History class at Portland State was so engaging, and I knew you would love the lectures, so I asked the professor if you could sit in. He agreed. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, you bussed to campus. At 10:00 a.m., Professor Cox would enter the room and say, “Good morning class, good morning Grandma,” and proceed to write his outline on the chalkboard. Now while the pandemic rages, we never take public transportation, and university classes are taught virtually.
The adjustment to these times would have hit you hard. Everyone remembers how much you loved being with other people and how they loved being with you. I can’t imagine how you would have felt, alone in the two-bedroom apartment you moved into after Papa died, isolated from any physical human contact. I remember your calling our children, Noah and Hannah, your “little mezuzahs” because you kissed them each time they entered or left the room. Now, grandparents are told that it endangers us to hug or kiss our grandchildren. We can’t hold our grandson or read a book with him snuggled on our laps. We see him only outside, weather permitting. We set up a little table in the yard with his Legos, distanced six feet from where we sit. Even then, we wear masks, sadly concealing our smiles.
I remember how, when you were in your 80s, you drove to the Robison Jewish Home every day to lovingly hand-feed lunch to Uncle Kiva, your oldest brother. He had lived in the U.S., and spoke English, for over 50 years, but now suddenly spoke only Russian and became anxious around strangers. He was so comforted by your presence. It has been ten months since our loved ones in care facilities have been allowed visitors. Being forbidden to continue caring for your brother would have been unbearably painful.
It is time for me to go, but you know one thing I really miss? Those Sunday nights when I would come over to your apartment and sit on that uncomfortable hide-a-bed sofa in your living room, you in your gold and green polyester bathrobe and fluffy mule slippers, the two of us ritually watching Murder She Wrote. We waited to watch it once a week, at 8 p.m. Now, on Netflix, I can watch it anytime I want.
What I would give to be sitting and watching it with you.