(Originally published in The Jewish Writing Project, January 2009)
Granny, who was my mother’s mother, stayed with us every year when the High Holidays rolled around because we lived within walking distance of a synagogue, and, as a traditional Jew, she would not drive on the holiest days of the year. Each time she came to visit, I had to share my bedroom with her.
Her name was Rose Bennett. Born in Russia, she had come to Detroit, Michigan when she was eighteen to marry Louis Solovich, the brother of her sister’s husband. The two families lived next door to each other. Her sister had ten children; Granny had six. Along with Granny’s other sisters and brothers and their progeny, I used to think I was related to the entire city.
As a young girl I pretended to be asleep while Granny prepared for bed and would peek as she undressed, releasing her pendulous breasts from the confines of her corset and undoing the pins from the bun in her snow white hair. As interesting as these observations were, however, they didn’t make up for the loss of privacy I felt forced to endure. And the stray gray hairpins that remained scattered on my dresser after she left were an irritating reminder of that sacrifice.
Whenever Granny was with us, she took it upon herself to try to get the snarls out of my hair, which was blond and a feature my strong-minded mother called my “crowning glory.” Despite my complaints, I was not allowed a haircut from the ages of three to twelve. Instead, I wore my hair, which otherwise would have hung down to my waist, in fat, ugly, and unfashionable braids. Not only did I hate those braids, but I despised the unpleasant pinches on the cheek that they prompted and the comparisons to “pretty little Dutch girls.”
The Gray Hairpin
These visits came to a jolting halt for me when I was a sixteen years old. Though she had looked like an old lady from an early age with her white hair and flowered dresses, her corsets and matronly bosom, her old-lady tie-shoes with the thick black heels, Granny suffered from nothing more than hypertension and arthritis, and otherwise had the energy of a girl. Yet one night, in her seventy-second year, she announced to my aunt and uncle, with whom she lived, that she didn’t feel well, lay down on her bed, closed her eyes, and quietly died.
I was devastated. The minute I heard Granny was gone, I knew I had thrown away a priceless opportunity to understand my grandmother and to know more about my heritage. What was it like for Granny to have come to America when she was only eighteen to marry a stranger? How did she manage when she was left a widow with six children? (My mother, the youngest of six, was only eight month’s old.) How far did Uncle Max, the only boy in a fatherless household, actually get when he ran away from his home in Detroit to find his grandfather in Russia? Was he punished or hugged when he was finally found? Why didn’t anyone talk about Grandpa Louis, the handsome man in the picture and the hinted at “brains of the family”? And why did she stick to her traditional ways? Nobody but Granny could really answer those questions, and now it was too late for me to ask them.
The minute it was too late, I knew how much love and patience Granny had bestowed upon me, despite my lack of deservedness. I knew then with painful clarity that Granny would always be one of my greatest teachers, not only by her example as a woman who had taken the challenges of life with grace, but by the lesson of her death. I promised myself that I would never again take anyone or any situation quite so for granted. I would ever after be instructed by the inevitability of endings in life.
For years I regretted my failings in relation to Granny. I found my heart warmed by anyone who pronounced my name with a foreign lilt. I gravitated to other people’s stories. And then in a writing class twenty years after her death, I wrote about Granny in a character sketch, starting and ending with the memory of those gray hair pins, how real they remained to me, how much I still loved my very special grandmother, and how much I would have liked to thank her.
I read the piece later to a group of other writers. Just as I got to the last line in which I said I hadn’t seen a gray hairpin in twenty years, the woman sitting next to me spied something on the floor and leaned down to pick it up. Incredibly, it was a gray hairpin.
Ever since then I like to think that I have redeemed myself in Granny eyes and have been forgiven.
In an attempt to distract me from the pain of the hairbrush working through my knotted hair, Granny tried to tell me stories about the Old Country. But I whined and carried on so much she was never able to get to an ending. How was I to know until years later that Granny had collected rain water to wash her own hair? In her own gentle way, she had tried to teach me to take pride in myself and value my gifts.
When I turned twelve, my oldest cousin Ginny convinced my mother to allow me to have my hair cut short. Without my braids and those awful snarls, Granny’s reason for story-telling stopped. It never occurred to me to ask her to finish her stories. I simply assumed she would be around forever and I could hear them later.
My mother used to say that while Granny kept kosher, at least she wasn’t “crazy kosher,” and didn’t inflict her ways on her children, all of whom became Reform or liberal in the practice of religion. When she was with us, Granny performed her rituals in quiet corners, lighting Sabbath and holiday candles while we went about our worldly ways unaware of the richness we might be missing. And every year I continued to share my room with her, finding forgotten gray hairpins on my dresser as reassuringly annoying souvenirs of her visits.