Grandma squinted to see better. She examined the earrings in the box meticulously, turning each one from side to side to see it from a different angle. Several times she picked up one of them and placed it against the light, and then returned it to its place in the black tray. After a couple of minutes she turned to me and asked if I would like to have a pair of earrings. I wanted the stud ones, with tiny, iridescent sapphire stones set in gentle gold fittings, their color strong; but since they were so small they looked more like two-dimensional painted decorations than like heavy pieces of jewelry. Grandma held them carefully, examining them, and finally she said they were lovely and she would be glad to purchase them for me.
The earrings were placed in a small box, wrapped with crackling cellophane paper. Grandma paid, and we stepped out to the street. Immediately she began praising my choice, saying that she also would have chosen these earrings, and added that they complement my light, straight hair and my eyes. She loved jewelry. In addition to her wedding ring she had two rather large rings, each one with a different gemstone, one green, the other bluish purple. Circling her neck whenever she went out was a pearl necklace. Her clothes were elegant: straight-lined dresses stitched by an expert dressmaker and made of fine fabric. Her gray hair was perfectly coiffed, tied behind the head in a way that emphasized its gentle soft tone, with a golden hairpin. In black shoes with high heels she walked on the pavement, erect and graceful; she looked like those European women one sees in old films, pacing calmly in wide avenues, watching the passersby with a distant gaze.
And indeed, Grandma was born in Vienna after the First World War. A daughter of a wealthy family of fabric traders, she was sent to a boarding school for well-born girls, where mostly she acquired good manners. But she loathed the other girls, their forced smiles and outbursts of anger, and after endless pleadings her parents consented to take her back home. She was enrolled in a school in the city and immersed herself completely in her studies.
When the Nazis seized power, her parents decided to move to London. The luxurious house was rented out and the family moved to an elegant villa, surrounded by a wide garden. During the war Grandma was a nurse in a hospital treating wounded soldiers. She met Max there, a Jewish soldier who had joined His Majesty’s Infantry. Max was wounded in both legs, but the loving hands of the pretty nurse helped him overcome pain and begin walking. They paced slowly in the hospital garden, he telling her about his life before the war and she supporting him, making sure that he would walk slowly, according to the doctor’s orders.
After a couple of months they got married. But the war mutilated Max’s heart; the walking skeletons he had seen haunted him in his sleep; worst of all were their wide-open eyes, staring at him as if he was a weird, distorted figure that must be watched. A couple of months after their marriage Max suggested that he and his young wife leave their home in London and settle in Palestine. Grandma agreed instantly, and the couple moved to Tel Aviv.
Their pretty home in a neighborhood full of trees made the young couple peaceful. Max completed his engineering studies and Grandma began working at the Jewish Agency as a translator of German documents. After three years my mother, Esther, was born, and two years later they had their younger daughter.
Grandma tried to educate her daughters in the same way she was brought up, but in spite of her immense efforts the daughters rejected the European spirit and began acting like their classmates. She was surprised to see that they shouted at their friends even though they weren’t quarrelling, and she also recognized that they were attached to their friends in ways unfamiliar to her. Esther had a redheaded, freckled friend, a tall, intelligent girl, and the two girls used to speak on the phone for hours. Grandma tried to inquire what they talked about for so long. Esther answered that she was telling her friend anything that bothered her and the friend was telling her everything that happened to her.
Grandma could remember her childhood friends in Vienna, quiet, reserved girls, wearing school uniforms, chuckling as they spoke of teachers and whispering about older brothers of their schoolmates. It never occurred to her that she could tell her friend everything that was happening to her. After school she used to walk home with Isabella, but only rarely did they meet in the afternoon. On the way home they reconstructed the day’s events, complained about homework, and sometimes laughed about fat or silly girls. But when they separated and Grandma went home, the presence of Isabella evaporated and materialized again only the next morning.
Grandma used to think that her daughter’s friendship with the redheaded girl would become oppressive, a burden, like a personal shortcoming. Though she never knew why she felt this way, she tried to distance her daughter from her friend, but in vain. The girls spent many hours together, giggling or immersed in intense conversations which stopped abruptly every time Grandma passed by the room. She once heard Esther tell her friend that her mom didn’t want them to be friends. Grandma was alarmed, but to her surprise the sentence evoked bursts of laughter and some whispering she couldn’t understand.
Much to Grandma’s dismay, her two daughters often mocked their parents’ European upbringing, and they often said that it was preventing Grandma from fully integrating in Israel. Every time she waited patiently in a queue, someone would take advantage of her good manners and get ahead of her. In the loud disputes that erupted once in a while she would have to give up, since she couldn’t scream like the others. The girls saw her limitations and didn’t know whether they felt sorry for her, or angry that she couldn’t defend them and take proper care of their needs.
But her greatest surprise was the teacher-parent conferences at the daughters’ elementary school. Esther’s teacher flipped through her grades, said she was doing well but didn’t study enough, and then went into a long appreciation of her social skills. The teacher said that all the children in the class want to be her friends; Esther was very ‘dominant’, yet didn’t force her wishes and choices on others. Grandma was so taken by surprise that she forgot to ask about her achievements in math, a subject she knew Esther found difficult. She felt that all those compliments were concealing something, but didn’t know exactly what it was. A year later the very same conversation took place but with another teacher, and similar conversations with her younger daughter’s teachers. After that Grandma stopped asking about their intellectual achievements and settled for the report card they brought twice a year.
As the years passed the rift between Grandma and her daughters became wider and deeper. Esther had several boyfriends, but the relationships always ended in despair, a deep pain she shared only with her friends. Grandma’s advice in these matters seemed to her drawn from an ancient long-dead world. Even when she quarreled with the redheaded childhood friend and looked devastated, she refused to talk about it with her mom. Grandma realized she couldn’t comfort her daughter anymore; the opportunity to support her was long gone, and now there was no way to reproach her for mistakes of the past.
Esther met my father, Yaron, at the university. Wearing ragged jeans and an oversized shirt she sat on the grass with friends, and he joined the company and sat by her. During their conversation he drew a dry leaf from her untamed hair and threw it away gracefully. Esther followed the leaf gliding in the air, and as she shifted her gaze she saw the tall student watching her with deep concentration. Yaron smiled, told her that he had invited some friends to his room that evening and he would be glad if she joined them.
As she approached the building, she heard loud laughter coming out of the windows on the second floor along with the scent of cheap food. She hesitated for a moment then decided to enter. Yaron’s friends welcomed her with smiles and jokes, and in a couple of minutes she felt at ease, like a person who has been absent from home due to a long journey and upon whose return suddenly everything seems strange; but she knows that this sensation will soon be replaced by a perfect homey coziness.
Their wedding took place in the backyard of Yaron’s parents’ home. In spite of her joy, Grandma couldn’t help feeling somewhat sour; this was not how she had imagined her daughter’s marriage. The Rabbi made tasteless jokes, the guests were dressed in a way she thought was becoming for a school party and not a wedding, loud giggling was heard everywhere—they almost brought Grandma to tears. She could envisage her own wedding. Even though it took place a short while after the war and her husband-to-be limped to the canopy, she remembered the tense silence in the synagogue as the wedding ceremony took place, and the elegant guests crowded around. Though some still carried the scars of the war, they were, wiping away a tear, all part of the awe encompassing the place as the bride and groom were joined in matrimony.
Grandma, and with her Grandpa, gradually withdrew into their own world. Though my parents kept going to visit them after their marriage, the encounters resembled a ceremony. The same words were always said, the same manners, like a group of people who feel they must maintain a process aimed at preserving itself. My parents asked about Grandpa’s health, about how he occupied his time, about Grandma’s job. She, for her part, inquired about the studies of her daughter and her husband, how they were supporting themselves, and after a while she inquired how the pregnancy was advancing.
I heard that when I was born Grandma lost her temper as she never had before. When my mother took me out of the hospital she placed me in an old braided basket a friend had given her. Grandma was shocked when she saw how the young baby was being carried, and for once in her life she screamed at my mom, shouting that she is irresponsible, this is no way to take care of a newborn baby. Mom was so taken by surprise when she saw her quiet, introverted mother shouting that she quickly removed me from the basket and placed me in the cradle Grandma had prepared in advance. By the way Mom talks about this incident it is clear that Grandma’s harsh words are engraved in her memory, eroding the distance from her mother and pointing to a need she had decided to abandon. She always added that the first days after the delivery, especially of a firstborn child, are very difficult, since everything is ‘oversized’—the mother’s body that still feels it is carrying a fetus, family relatives whose unfamiliar feelings make them lose their temper, and the young baby, which finds it hard to accept its removal from the hot, opaque bubble that surrounded it into the strong light and chilled air.
But after these harsh words Grandma returned to her moderate, restrained way. It was in her that Mom found support, so she says, since she had never expected her to demonstrate excitement about the young baby; in her way she understood that more than anything my mom needed to be the sloppy, garrulous woman she was before I was born.
As a child I met Grandma every week. Already at the age of four or five I observed that she looked entirely different from my mom; in spite of her gray hair she seemed to me younger, more flexible. I thought that perhaps they pretended to be mother and daughter. I loved her elegant dresses, her slim figure, and the restrained way in which she approached me, purposely ignoring my young age and treating me without a touch of humor. When she inquired whether I wish to have animal- or vehicle-shaped cookies she waited patiently as I hesitated, and when I finally made up my mind and said I prefer cars she drew the cookies out of the jar and placed them in front of me on an elegant white plate. She took toasted bread and some cheese, placed them on a similar white plate, and sat beside me to dine together.
I’ve heard people say that even if a person overcomes childhood difficulties, as a parent they will emerge again. Angrily my mother watched me looking intensely at Grandma, examining every part of her appearance and trying to imitate her countenance. Though I was a naughty child, perhaps a bit cheeky, I never dared be forward with Grandma, I was always waiting for her to ask how I was. My mother found it hard to comprehend my fondness for her mother; she had given me a childhood full of freedom, without any manners, without any need to please anyone. She thought it was the most precious gift a mother could give her child. With great contempt she watched mothers setting their children’s clothes right, or cleaning food residue around their mouth with a wrinkled handkerchief. And most of all she detested mothers who would tell their children openly not to be too loud, not to use inappropriate words, not to speak when adults are talking. She used to talk in a loud voice with her friends, almost shouting, and if someone looked at her with surprise, or even rebuke, she would stare back in a provocative and insulting manner.
But my strange development left Mom helpless. When I asked her at the age of five if she could buy me a dress like Grandma’s dress, she looked at her sloppy shirt like a person before a mirror for the first time, seeing the reflection of a strange and distorted figure. She watched me and said nothing. I kept asking her when we would buy the dress, and she said ‘when we get a chance’. But soon she realized that I was determined to look like Grandma and that she wouldn’t be able to erase my childish wish. She tried to ask why I want a dress, saying it is uncomfortable to play in it and when I want to sit on the rug I would have to fold it under my legs. She even hinted that none of my friends have dresses—Grandma wears them because she is an elderly woman. Young girls don’t dress this way. And where will we buy the dress?
Finally she decided to grant my wish. A mixture of restrained anger and clear thinking created a belief that satisfying the wish would make it meaningless. One day she returned home holding a blue dress with white buttons, with a belt zipped behind the back. The dress was too big, stretching under my knees; the belt was placed below the waist. But I put it on immediately and began walking like an elegant lady, taking small measured steps on the tips of my toes to conceal the unbecoming length of the dress.
The kids at the nursery school watched me amazed, as if I was wearing a costume, and touched every part of the dress. And in spite of my young age I could see the hostile look of the teacher, although she quickly concealed it with a forced smile and a loud laugh. She whispered something to her assistant who returned a whisper and a wink. I felt I was transparent and everyone was watching a blue dress with white buttons moving by itself, sometimes leaning against the nursery school walls, exhausted and embarrassed.
When Grandma came for a visit I hastened to put on the dress. She sat on an upright chair, let her hair down and then pulled it back behind her head, and asked for some cold water. The hot summer of Tel Aviv was exhausting: small sweat drops rolled down her high forehead but didn’t melt her light makeup. Instinctively her hand ran through her hair, she straightened her dress and sat erect. I waited for a while and then stepped into the room, tall and festive, walking on the tips of my toes, looking straight at the wall without moving my head.
Grandma looked at me, smiled, and said quietly that the dress was very nice and becoming. But the dry, distant tone revealed utter indifference. I thought she was mocking me. To my surprise she then resumed the conversation with Mom, describing how hard the bus journey was on such a hot day. As she spoke she watched me again, but her gaze was joyless. I escaped to my room to hide my tears, and didn’t come out until I heard she was going home. I didn’t take off the dress; as I was called to say goodbye she stared at me coldly, almost with disappointment, and left.
Grandpa’s death surprised us all. Though he was tall and thin, often working in their small garden, leaning to the ground, planting shrubs and flowers and uprooting weeds, apparently his heart was weak. One Saturday morning Grandma woke up and spoke to him. As he didn’t answer, she touched him and immediately recoiled. His body was cold. Grandma had been a nurse during the war, so she could tell immediately he was dead. She lay in the bed beside him, motionless, absorbed by her heartbeats, which she felt could be heard from every part of her body. Even within her thin legs a huge drum sounded. Emptiness filled the room. Only after a couple of hours did she call an ambulance; and then her two daughters, to tell them that their father was dead.
Grandpa’s friends came to his funeral, all old men dressed in suits, some using walking sticks with decorated heads, some accompanied by a spouse holding their arm, walking slowly in the cemetery, anxious and sad. Grandma walked with them, wearing a straight, black dress, her hair tied behind her head with a golden hairpin; I was afraid she would stumble and collapse. Her back a little bent, her gaze moved from one grave to another. Her mouth was slightly open—it was the loose joint which revealed a weakness she had never known. When we got to the grave she watched the covered body and her face turned gray, adopting the hue of the shroud wrapping Grandpa.
As the body was removed from the cart and cast into the grave my mom began to cry loudly, almost roaring. My aunt also wept, and the grandchildren looked at the two of them with amazement. Mom’s loud wailing resembled an animal’s voice, while her big body rattled with sobs; her sister grabbed her husband’s arm, making a sound like a French horn. The weeping of the sisters continued while the undertakers threw dark brown clods of earth into the fresh grave, doing their job as though they were gardeners covering a new plant in a public park.
Grandma covered her face with a large white handkerchief. The straight nose and the big eyes vanished in the white cloth, looking soft and rounded through it. I thought her body was shivering slightly, but she leaned on no-one, standing both bent and straight. One of Grandpa’s friends stepped forward and stood next to her, but she ignored the gesture, completely absorbed in the separation from Grandpa, which, during the burial process, was as mundane and terrestrial as one could imagine.
As a teenager I loved wandering through various neighborhoods of Tel Aviv. I often sneaked out of school and walked in shaded streets. Sometimes I would turn to the market in the southern part of the city, sometimes I walked along the seashore; eventually I found myself in the northern parts of Tel Aviv. And so one day, after a brisk walk of two hours, I was walking in the street where Grandma lived. I hesitated, unsure whether I should knock on her door. First I told myself that perhaps she is not home at this morning hour; but then I felt there was another reason for my hesitation. I was afraid that I would find Grandma neglected, shabby, lacking the straight posture and the sharp look, that if I surprised her I might find another figure, old and bent. Shamefully, I thought my mom would have liked me to see her that way. Curious and anxious, I stepped towards the door and rang the bell.
A gentle tone came through the door, and then the sharp feminine sound of approaching heels. Grandma opened the door, and with amazement and joy invited me in. She hugged me, but suddenly her face turned sober—is something wrong? I assured her everything was fine, and told her about my long walks during school hours. Grandma laughed and suggested I have something to eat. She brought a sweet-smelling cake and two cups of coffee, in the same white, bright plates of my childhood memories. After the excitement was over I examined her and realized she was as elegant as ever. Only her gray hair, now not pulled behind her head but flowing on her neck, emphasized the deep wrinkles set at the sides of her eyes and mouth. First we sat facing one another, sipping coffee and smiling. Grandma offered cake again and again, attempting to conceal the distance between us with motherly habits. She inquired about Mom, Dad, my sister, but in spite of my detailed report on each one of them the conversation was soon over, and it seemed there was nothing more to say.
She was silent for a while, and then she looked at me with concentration and asked: what is your favorite subject in school? The question took me by surprise because it was articulated simply and naturally, without pretense, with an almost childish desire to hear the answer. There was nothing didactic in her tone; she honestly wished to find out which subject I like. I answered: geography, I really like geography. At that very moment I realized how fond I was of this subject. Though I almost never prepared my homework and only rarely did well in the exams, my knowledge in this field exceeded that of all my classmates. My answer seemed to surprise her and she was wondering out loud why geography? I began with an apology: I am not a good student and my grades are pretty mediocre. Grandma moved her hand in a gesture of dismissal, and her face revealed total contempt; the grades are of no importance, the question is what it is that I find interesting. I commenced an explanation on the magic of maps, on hints of a different and enchanted world one could find in the brown spots with thin blue lines next to them, slitting continents their width and length. So are the green, coin-size stains, immense grazing areas, or those round points, lacking spatial features, denoting Rome, Paris, London.
Grandma was surprised by my detailed answer. She envisaged maps she had not seen since high school, a topographic map, a political map, a population map, a vegetation map: the entire world spread before her, and a touch of a hidden longing created a film of softness over her eyes. After a couple of minutes she moved her head from side to side, as if she had woken up, her hand ran through her hair and she pulled it behind her head, and then she asked me how exactly does one study geography.
I smiled and said that the most important tool is, of course, the atlas. I often review it. I also told her that on transparent papers I copied maps of states without writing their names, and then tested myself to see if I could tell where each one of them is. Grandma seemed a bit amused, but the touch of humor didn’t stop her admiration: do I know where every country is? Even in Africa? Of course, I replied with pride, in each continent. She thought for a moment and then got up and announced that not far from her place there is an excellent bookstore; we would go there immediately and buy a grand atlas, brand new, with all the various types of maps.
After this I often visited Grandma. When I told my mom about it she seemed disturbed and gloomy. She sat on the swinging chair on the porch, a large woman wearing a man’s shirt and huge cotton pants, her feet dark and coarse, looking at me as though I carried a riddle she couldn’t solve. She inquired what we talk about, but I hesitated to describe our conversations. Grandma was willing to drift anywhere, to hear anything; she took an interest in stories of distant, remote places, but also in my daily life, my friends and classmates.
One day I arrived at her house upset and agitated. My best friend, whom I had known since elementary school, had begun dating my ex-boyfriend. Even though I left him because he was inclined to elaborate on events that took place a long time ago and immerse himself in details I couldn’t understand, I was infuriated by their relationship. I got to Grandma’s place angry and insulted. She was glad to see me, but immediately noticed my sullen look and my forced smile that vanished quickly. She inquired why I was angry. I told her at length and in detail about their dates, how I found out by chance, how my friends told me nothing about it, how she betrayed our friendship; and I told her of my immense anger, which I didn’t know how to ease or contain.
Grandma looked at me almost in wonder. For a moment I thought she was concealing a smile, but I examined her carefully and found no hint of amusement. Her face seemed somewhat wrinkled, the skin of the neck reddish, the vivid eyes focusing on me and wishing to understand something, struggling to overcome an obstacle but failing to do so. Why does it make you so mad, she asked, you say you have no interest in this boy, you admit that if they had known each other before he met you, you would have thought them suitable for each other.
Overwhelming fury filled me, a wrath that could be overcome only with an immense effort. Why doesn’t she understand? Once again, my admiration of Grandma turned into a sour disappointment. I came to her believing she would support me, but I was wrong. I recalled mom’s anger as she spoke of Grandma, and now I fully comprehended it. Despair at her answers, distant and rational, blurred the boundaries. Against my better judgment I accused her, you don’t understand, she has been my best friend ever since I was a kid, we shared everything, it is a terrible betrayal, I don’t know what to do, I want to call her and cry until I remember that I can’t. And then, in a muffled voice that crept from within me, I heard myself saying ‘I understand why mom doesn’t discuss anything with you, you understand nothing’. Already then, in spite of the shouting and accusations, I couldn’t help observing that the intense look in her eyes transformed into pain. She looked at me and said nothing; I felt her face was melting away. Immediately I was sorry for what I had said. Grandma stretched out a bony hand and removed the plates from the table, walking erectly to the kitchen. I got up and went towards the door. As I turned around to say goodbye she stood at the entrance of the kitchen and looked at me. For a moment I was certain that tears filled her eyes and that her chin was jerking strangely. But she stifled everything, I could almost hear her self-reproach; she said goodbye and turned to her room.
I decided to walk home and not to take the bus. Walking conquers any outburst, tones down every fear; the monotonous pace overcomes any emotion and adapts it to a constant, unchanging rhythm. Even though I knew I would have to walk for an hour and a half, I simply couldn’t stand or sit down. At first I thought it was a mistake to expect someone of her age to sympathize with a girl of my age. But then I had to admit I was mistaken, in other matters Grandma understood me very well. Again I envisaged the relationship between my friend and the ex-boyfriend; it brought back the blinding and enervating anger. I imagined them together, wishing to deepen the pain, to prove to myself how profound was the betrayal. Yet after long minutes of walking the anger turned somewhat bothersome. The need to be loyal to a justified emotion became harder, their combined figures gradually became blurred, the contours were left but the colors faded and the facial features disappeared.
Again I thought about Grandma. Her penetrating eyes, filled with tears, were now more vivid than the figures of my friend and her boyfriend. Why can’t she understand? All the way I thought about her reaction, breaking it into words and then reconstructing the sentences, which seemed obscure and strange. Even when the anger had subsided I couldn’t comprehend them. I found it hard to believe that she was disregarding my emotions, but I couldn’t understand her aloof and remote stand.
After about two months I came to visit her again. I knocked lightly on the door, and facing her radiating and inviting eyes I stepped in hesitantly, on the tips of my toes, as if I was hoping that my presence wouldn’t become a burden. Once again the elegant plates and the decorated mugs were drawn out, an odor of steaming coffee filled the kitchen, and on the table Grandma put fresh cookies, as if they were kept there especially for me. She asked how all the family members were doing; it was as though I had never lost my temper and said such biting words.
After a couple of minutes we were silent. Grandma cleaned the table, putting away the plates and pushing the chairs into their places. I was appalled by the thought I would leave as a stranger, as if we had never talked about so many things. I kept sitting, ignoring how everything around me was turning clean, and finally I said quietly ‘I am sorry’. Grandma seemed surprised, apparently she thought I wouldn’t mention our quarrel. She put down the cloth and sat down beside me, looking at me but absorbed in her thoughts. Her fingers, sliding back and forth on the table, seemed almost deformed. I was wondering how they would look without the rings; they had become part of her body, it was impossible to imagine her without them.
Grandma opened with an apology—she was sorry she had offended me, in no way had she meant to belittle my feelings. She always respected me and took care not to insult me. She doesn’t understand why I was so angry. She remembers my mom used to be angry with her exactly like that when she was my age. And regarding the friend who betrayed me, she finds it impossible to comprehend the deep emotional turmoil this relationship provokes. Not that she can’t understand how profound love can be almost enslaving, but this is not the case here. This is a relationship she finds hard to define—reliant on friendship, a dependency, perceiving the friend as part of oneself and not as a separate entity. She is very sorry, she can’t find the right words, but something about this friendship exceeds the realm of a relationship between two people and is really about perceiving oneself. She finds it difficult to grasp why this betrayal is so insulting if I don’t like this boy at all. It seems to her that what I find distressing is the disengagement from the friend; I find the independent stand uncomfortable. The dependency on this friend blurs my vision, prevents me from seeing the distorted nature of this friendship. And by the way, this is not the first time she has seen this since she came to Israel. And as a matter of fact, what exactly am I mad at? What did my friend betray? The loyalty of two young girls, hiding in the deep forest and swearing that forever-forever they would be friends? She is sorry, she says it with pain, but what was offended here is a part of me that doesn’t want to exist independently, but desperately needs to rely on others.
I was speechless. I had never heard her speak so bluntly; even her voice, which was always quiet, turned harsh. I thought she was shivering a bit. I looked at her and saw a touch of bitterness. The seclusion within the small community of immigrants from England, the habits that seemed so detached, the abyss between herself and her daughters, they all created a grudge she concealed well. But now she seemed determined to ignore all inhibitions or barriers. One could imagine that the things she told me had been voiced earlier in the room, even though there was no one there but herself, in a whisper or out loud. We stood a couple of minutes facing one another, upset and silent. Finally I kissed her and left.
When I got home I decided to talk to my friend. I felt something was impaired, but I didn’t know what it was. Clearly the chance that her words would restore our friendship was slim, but more than anything I was driven by curiosity to find out where exactly was the rupture that I was so eager to heal. I called to say that I would like to speak to her, and she invited me to her house home. As I got there she was waiting at the door, smiling as if I were a relative returning from a long journey who should be greeted in a way that demonstrated how she was missed. Refusing food and drink, I was invited to her room, so familiar yet now tidy and clean: the clothes which had always been scattered on the floor were gone, the bed was covered with a nice bedspread, and even the desk was shining. My friend sat smiling on the bed and began to explain how happy she was that we can be friends again, and that her relationship with this boy won’t stand between us. Anyway I didn’t want him, so why do I care if they are dating now? I am her best friend, she can’t speak with anyone the way she does with me, we could spend time together —and she heard some very interesting gossip she wished to share with me.
I looked at her, swinging her bare feet and running a long finger through her curls, her eyes inviting and enigmatic, her smile sweet, and wondered what had gone wrong. Grandma was right, I was entirely indifferent to this boy; thinking about the both of them suddenly seemed ridiculous and senseless. My friend began talking about another girl, trying to make her story funny and engaging. I smiled at her, but besides a couple of familiar names I heard nothing. It was as if a huge, heavy door was slammed in my face: I am shocked by the loud slam shaking the entire house, there is no way to reopen it, I comprehend it in a flash, but since I am eager to remove any doubt I keep pushing it, but it is massive and can’t be moved. I said goodbye to my friend—I promised I would come again—and hastily left her house.
Everything came loose, nothing was properly fastened. Of course the friendship ended, there was no room for so many words in a years-long intimacy. My visits to other friends were rushed, and I often left abruptly, almost without saying goodbye. I walked for long hours along the shore, from the south of the city northward, and then back to the south. The sea was almost always completely flat, the coast shallow and transparent. But sometimes I saw steep waves, breaking far from the shore and drifting back into deep, invisible undercurrents.
Geography studies at the university turned out to be a total disappointment. Already from the first class I was immersed in endless technical terms, describing natural phenomena in a quantitative way entirely alien to windy summits, wide rivers crossing old cities, and broad oceans. At first I told myself there is no way of reaching these places without knowing them in detail, each fact evaluated and related to other facts. But soon I felt it was a limited path, with no prospect of transcending heat-struck, sweaty Tel Aviv, where even in the fall the sun is blazing until a late evening hour.
I decided to ask Grandma for advice. Though I met her only once every couple of months, I could talk to her in a language comprehensible to both of us. One afternoon when I went to her, Grandma stood before me erect and thin, but looking somewhat fatigued; her face seemed to sag, and suddenly I saw the resemblance between her and my mom. Once again the elegant plates were drawn out and the smell of freshly-ground coffee filled the kitchen. She served brown, glossy cookies, and asked how everyone was. After all her questions were answered, she waited patiently to hear in what matter her advice was needed.
I began with a description of the Geography studies; I tried to describe them as accurately as possible, like a person asking for an expert’s advice, portraying the circumstances in a way that wouldn’t affect an impartial judgment. The professors teach the material very well, the students are pleasant; I don’t know why but I was expecting something else, I thought the courses would focus on different issues. Grandma looked at me in deep concentration, absorbed by every word as if it was being said in a foreign language which she had just begun to study. Finally, with a clear effort, she asked what exactly was I expecting? I blushed, I couldn’t conceal my embarrassment, and said I don’t really know. I looked down and added very quietly that I am eager to go beyond my world, to move from life in Israel to other places, or rather, to other realms. I don’t know why but I feel there is something confining about my daily routine and I had hoped—I can see how strange it sounded—that geography studies would be liberating, would unbind me, granting me—well, a free life.
Grandma smiled softly, without any ridicule. She thinks she understands me, but she is not sure. She wasn’t sure what she would study, but her life circumstances made her give up education altogether. Though she was a nurse during the war she had no formal education, and she didn’t want to take care of others all her life. Grandpa was an engineer, but she had to admit that in spite of the intimacy between them, when it came to professional matters they were completely estranged. She could never figure out the sketches he made, yet he thought they were extremely beautiful. When she came to Israel she was hoping to study at the university but the need to adapt quickly to an unfamiliar language and the strange environment discouraged her. She often wondered what would have happened had she stayed in England; she thinks she would have acquired a professional degree, perhaps she would have been a lawyer. And by the way, when I say ‘free life’—what exactly do I mean? Somehow, when she looks at me, she also feels that my life is affected by so many constraints and she has to admit she fails to understand most of them.
I looked at Grandma, her huge eyes squinting with effort and concentration; she brought her head close to mine, as if I was about to reveal a secret, to whisper it in her ear, and she didn’t want to miss a single word. Now I see her face is full of wrinkles, the hair behind the head is all white. She stretched a twisted hand, held my hand softly, caressed it gently as if it was fragile, and waited. Her anticipation that I would say something was distressing, so I tried to explain again: I am not sure how to describe it, I also find it strange, but she, Grandma, seems freer than me. Her experiences seem to me so different from my own, almost remote. What does it mean ‘remote’ she asks. I don’t know, sometimes I feel as if I am caught in a whirlpool while she is managing her life. Everything about her life is so different from mine—the clothing, the jewelry, the friends, the house, the beautiful plates, it all adds up to a whole fully distinct from its surroundings, whereas my life is too interwoven with my environment. She squints even harder, she seems too alert, a bit nervous, and then she asks me: does my mom feel the same? I am confused, I don’t understand what she has to do with it, but I answer anyway: no, mom likes to spend time with friends more than anything, she detests any seclusion, she thinks it is a defect that must be fixed. Grandma taps on the table with her fingers—I have never seen her so tense—and wonders aloud: but isn’t it good to be part of your environment? Why does it bother you? No, Grandma, I answer, not like this, not when you can’t see the distance between yourself and the others anymore, and every inner space is conquered through an exhaustive and discouraging struggle.
Dori approached me with a question about a book he was looking for; I was the senior librarian during the evening hours. From the very start there was something unclear about him—a tall, thin man, with large, amber-colored eyes, dressed in a somewhat old-fashioned manner, there was no knowing whether his gaze was shy or cunning. He addressed me in a practical tone, almost complaining: perhaps I could help him find books on the development of urbanization in Israel and in Europe? He has been wandering around the library for almost an hour and can’t find the right bookshelf. But after I began searching the catalog and looking for books on this subject, he started to apologize, saying he is a journalist for a respectable newspaper and is preparing an article on the development of cities in Israel, and needs assistance finding material. He is sorry, he had already asked the advice of two librarians and had almost given up. The first directed him to the wrong bookshelf and the other one asked since when journalists are interested in books?
Dori began coming to the library often and finally he dared to invite me for dinner at his place. He lived in the southern part of Tel Aviv, on the second floor of a shabby apartment building, facing a tall eucalyptus tree. The walls of his apartment were covered with dark brown bookshelves, dusted and gloomy, filled with old books. However, the décor looked like a young student’s place, with printed fabrics covering the walls, a Chinese umbrella hanging down from the ceiling; at the center of the room stood a red sofa, heavily stained. For dinner the dining table was covered with an oversized tablecloth that almost touched the floor on both sides. Dori served the food excitedly. His old-fashioned clothes were stained from cooking, but he didn’t notice it since he was completely absorbed by the sights and sounds emerging from the oven. I recalled that my mother used to cook this way—splattering drops of oil and food all over the kitchen, but fully focused on the ingredients losing their shape and texture and slowly turning into a prepared dish.
After we were done eating Dori expected compliments on his cooking and I hastened to praise the various dishes. Exactly like my mother, after the meal he sank into the big armchair, took off his shoes and stretched his feet forward. First he closed his eyes, then he opened them and stared at me; it was unclear whether he was looking at me like a young boy in love or as a mature man seducing yet one more girl. I smiled at him but he remained grave. Finally he said, in an almost blunt tone, that he wished I would stay for the night.
Nothing is more distressing than a daily routine created between lovers. After the accelerated heartbeats, the scent of an unfamiliar body, adopting strange memories, comes a morning in which one has to hurry to work and quickly take care of overdue tasks.
Dori leaped out of bed as the alarm went off, paced nervously between the bathroom and the kitchen, and after a couple of minutes I heard the door slammed. I was left alone in the wide bed. I lay motionless, and after long minutes I decided to visit Grandma.
When she opened the door I realized I had woken her up. She wore a shining gray robe and fleecy slippers; her eyes were struggling with the bright daylight as she attempted to conceal her late morning sleep. Her half-closed eyes and the gray, disheveled hair made her look strange and I thought that it was impossible from her face to tell whether it was a man or a woman. Grandpa’s face surfaced from her eyes: Grandma looked at me exactly as he would have, with skeptical curiosity, and invited me in. She walked slowly to the kitchen and turned on the coffee machine, which began to gurgle and steam. Finally the machine spat hot coffee, Grandma put toasted bread and butter on a plate, and invited me to join her for breakfast.
I am not sure why but I found her negligent look upsetting. A kind of anger took over. I was sorry I came to visit her but I didn’t want to leave immediately, so as not to offend her. She seemed to feel nothing and as usual began inquiring about my parents, my sister, my job. After I reported everything in detail I said quietly, almost in a whisper, that I have a boyfriend.
A young, mischievous gaze popped out of the old face. Grandma straightened, tied her hair behind her head, and fastened the robe’s belt, as if she was facing a wonderful adventure. She smiled, waited for a while, and then asked me to tell her about him. I tried to describe Dori accurately, without complimenting him too much or stressing his faults. Grandma was so attentive I felt she could hardly breathe. And as I completed the description she looked at me softly, almost in a way one would look at a newborn baby, with both adoration and deep anxiety.
She got up and announced she would get dressed immediately and we would go shopping, she would buy me a present, perhaps a garment. After a couple of minutes I heard the tapping of her heels approaching. She appeared, elegant as ever, her white hair shining; it matched perfectly with the grey dress, decorated in red and orange. With a determined expression she held my arm, suggesting that I follow her. We went outside, walked in narrow, shaded alleys until we got to a small dress shop, almost invisible, at the old shopping center. Grandma opened the door and was welcomed warmly. Apparently both the dressmaker and her assistant knew her well.
The assistant stared at me with utter bewilderment, gazing at my faded jeans and black Tee shirt and then looking puzzled at Grandma. Am I accompanying her? Grandma smiled and said I am her granddaughter and she wishes to buy me a dress. With a forced smile the dressmaker hinted something with a glance to the assistant and said something in a foreign language; they spoke about me like a doctor and nurse examining a patient, not wanting to reveal the gravity of her condition, attempting to conceal the small but oppressive details of her disease.
The dressmaker got up from her chair behind the sewing machine, walked towards me and stared at me for a couple of moments as if I was naked—calculating my body measurements, walking around me to see me from the front, from behind, from the side, estimating my height and weight, lingering on every flaw. Finally she turned to Grandma and said she has a couple of dresses that might fit me. She drew a curtain covering one wall—behind it a door was revealed—disappeared and returned with a pile of clothes.
The dresses were spread out in the small room; the abundance of shapes and colors filled the little store completely. Small red and blue squares were covered with large green circles, black triangles and squares on a white fabric spilled over tiny, purple summer flowers, a glossy pink cloth poured on a slightly wrinkled Indian fabric, which fell on endless violet orange and red stripes set against a pale background. But the charm was abruptly disrupted when I heard the sour voice of the assistant asking Grandma which cut would best suit me. Grandma drew out one dress, white with thin blue lines, and asked me to try it on.
A strange woman is looking at me from the mirror: young, with light hair, her eyes wide open, her rounded body visible through the dress, which fits her figure well; she is looking at me skeptically, but a light twitch on her face resembles a smile; her body seems somewhat tight, almost strained, though she is standing still. After a couple of moments in which she stands motionless, she finally begins to move, examining the feminine body from different angles and then she sees that another figure is reflected in the mirror. Her grandmother is looking at her with a resolute gaze, her eyes dark, almost black, and she is waiting quietly and patiently for the spark of a smile to transform into full, clear satisfaction.
I want the dress—I heard my voice loud and determined. Again the dressmaker and her assistant exchanged words in a foreign language, and then turned to Grandma and asked if I wished to purchase another dress. She shook her head, so they picked up all the other dresses and disappeared with them through the secret door. When they returned, the assistant suggested she would wrap the dress, but I declared I had no intention of taking it off. With apparent disgust, they put my jeans and black tee shirt in a shopping bag and placed it at the entrance of the store.
When I met Dori in the evening I tried to look casual. I came to his place late at night, climbed the dark stairway, and rang the doorbell. Dori opened the door and leaned on it, his face pale and exhausted. After a long day of hard work he had come home tired, and more than anything he wanted to lie down on the red sofa and fall asleep. Once in a long while he would wake after a couple of hours and move to the bed, but usually he would relax on the sofa and sleep until morning. And indeed, the sofa had adopted the contour of his body: a long valley crossed it, ending in a crushed pillow. But despite his tired countenance, a glint of light flashed in his eyes when he saw me wearing the new dress. He examined me openly, as if I was a stranger. I was expecting a smile, some compliments, but he seemed distant, gazing at me covetously but unfriendly, his eyes following the dress’s curves as though they were a knight’s armor that had to be ripped apart in order to conquer him. I am a bit frightened, Dori suddenly looks so different, the pleasant manners are gone, along with the soft, polite language; he is not trying to make it easy for me, to avoid the embarrassment—on the contrary, he is not leaning on the door anymore but standing erect, pulling me towards him, and behind my shoulder I feel heavy, strained breathing.
Dori and I are sitting on a balcony facing the sea. At this late evening hour the sun can’t be seen, but the red gleam is still there beyond the horizon, spreading golden dust in the sky. The sea is dark blue, almost black, reflecting nothing but darkness. We both look down at the table. I fold my arms firmly and Dori’s hands clasp the corners of the table. My teeth are biting my lips and Dori is swallowing an invisible drink. I am wondering whether I can manage not to cry until I leave. Should I go now? I will never return here, perhaps I should linger for a while. But the tears, still held back, will soon slide onto my cheeks, so I decide to go. As I walk towards the door Dori sits motionless, avoids looking at me, his gaze is focused on the cracked plastic table.
The stairway is dirty and musty. I find it hard to breathe the foul odor, and hasten to get out to the street. Perhaps he sees me from the balcony but I don’t turn my head upwards. I stop a taxi and asked to be taken home. The taxi begins to drive and I sit stunned, trying to reconstruct the words, Dori’s face, but everything appears as if behind a screen of smoke. Suddenly I feel weak. I find it hard to sit—perhaps I will lie down in the back seat—I don’t know how I will manage to get out of the cab and walk home. My head is so heavy, I must rest it against the window. The taxi is driving northward along the shore and then turns east. But as it approaches my place, I realize I won’t be able to stay alone for one single moment. I have been living with Dori for several months now, and my apartment was left almost empty. When the taxi comes to a stop, I ask the driver to take me to Grandma’s address.
She opens the door and her face reveals alarm: why am I so pale? I look as if I am about to faint. Am I sick? She will call the doctor immediately. I make an effort to reach the sofa, take off my shoes, and lie on it. I sprawl on my back, my limbs spread, one foot on the floor, the other on the armrest, my head drops behind the seat and my hands are placed at my side. Grandma is in a panic; I watch her rushing to the phone, dialing and waiting for an answer. But then the tears burst and can’t be halted, I feel their warmth on my face but I am too weak to wipe them. Grandma looks at me, puts down the receiver and rushes towards me. She crouches on the floor and embraces me, her kisses on my cheeks washing away the tears.
I’ve been staying with Grandma for a couple of days now. In Grandpa’s room there is a comfortable bed on which he used to rest in the afternoon after long hours of sketching plans. Grandma put on new, shining white bedspreads with a pleasant lavender smell. I don’t know whether the nice odor eases my pain or deepens it. I am awake at night, turning in bed, struggling with a void that fills me. I spend the days with Grandma, sharing her daily routine: a walk to the nearby grocery store, from there to the pharmacy, and back home. I never knew she had so many acquaintances. Almost all of them speak English or German, they are always happy to see her and she introduces me with obvious pride. During lunch we listen to the BBC World Service news broadcast, and then rest for a while. In the afternoon I go with Grandma to the public library. She exchanges books and meets friends—I see she has beaus. An elderly man in an elegant suit escorts her, telling bad, boring jokes, and making her put on an amused expression. And there is also a nice English-speaking gentleman who kisses her hand every time he meets her. She treats them kindly but doesn’t stop to chat.
I borrowed two books from the library, but I can’t read. After a couple of paragraphs my thoughts wander and I put down the book; I don’t even put the bookmark in the right place. Though I constantly think of Dori’s words about love that is detached from daily life, I know they are empty and hollow and that it is pointless to keep thinking about them. But the hope that a new insight might remove the despair makes me remember every word, every expression. I have turned into a young, deserted child: like a toddler exiled from her home, she is standing outside the house and watching the closed gate expectantly, torn between a desire to bear the insult with pride and disappear and the need to scream in panic and fear and beg to be allowed in. But the two wishes are perfectly counterbalanced—she is crying in front of the gate, refusing to leave but not asking to return home.
Grandma is watching me without saying anything. I know she is following my gestures and expressions, but I prefer to ignore this. There is no point in asking her to stop, at most she will try to conceal her inquisitiveness. At first she suggested we have coffee somewhere or go to a movie, but I refused. Afterwards she asked if I could help her with the house maintenance. I know there is no need for that, Grandma always managed the household wisely and efficiently. I replied without hesitation that when I have time I will help. She smiled and nodded. Once in a while I hear her speaking with mom on the phone, telling her about my daily routine. She has an apologetic tone, I don’t know why. Perhaps mom is angry that I am staying with Grandma and not with her, or perhaps she dislikes the way Grandma treats me.
A couple of days ago mom came for a visit. She sank into the huge armchair, breathing heavily from walking and also from her rapid speaking. In spite of her anecdotes about family members, it is clear she is embarrassed and a bit scared. She sees my pain but doesn’t know what to say. She has been used to sharing life’s upheavals with friends, the long conversations providing some comfort. She is wondering why I don’t do the same, but she knows she can’t force a dialogue. She is eager to talk about me and Dori, why we were attracted to each other and why we broke up, but she dares say nothing. The worry makes her look contemplative, almost sad. In spite of her big body and sloppy clothes she seems to me younger, somehow girlish. They both watch me, Grandma with a distant sadness and mom with obvious pain and embarrassment, their faces revealing helplessness and despair.
It’s been a couple of months since I moved in with Grandma. This morning I acceded to her requests to stay at home and spend some time with her. I slept late, and then we decided to have breakfast at a nearby café. In spite of the thin rain we left home; just as we got there the rain began pouring on the pavement. We sat at a small table next to the window and watched the drops splashing everywhere. As coffee and cakes were served, Grandma began talking. She asked me about my job at the library, inquired about my friends, told me about encounters with writers, and, very much unlike her usual way, expressed some fierce political opinions. It was the twisted development of the conversation, the fluent shift from one subject to another, which made me think she was aiming for something. In a casual manner she said that she had met someone she knew a long time ago, Grandpa’s friend from London; they hardly recognized each other since they hadn’t seen each other for so many years. He told her he came to Israel about ten years after her and that for many years now he has been the Middle East correspondent for a well-known British newspaper. Even now, at his advanced age, he writes almost every day, but he is looking for young people to assist him and eventually to take his place.
Watching me carefully, Grandma says she thinks I am suitable for the job, and if I want it I would be accepted immediately. I am surprised, speechless. Me? The insult is overpowering. I give a short laugh. Grandma thinks my condition is so poor that she is driven to suggest preposterous things. I look at her with hostility, but she doesn’t let go. She grasps my hand with her bony hands decorated with rings, stares at me and says I need to start something new, to discover a new aspect of life. I had always written well and this would be a chance to get into a new field with many opportunities. I remind her that I am a librarian but her face remains unchanged, as if I had said nothing. I have no words, the offer is ridiculous, insulting, Grandma doesn’t acknowledge my talents but my failure, and this attempt is like giving ballerina shoes to an invalid woman.
She lets go of my hand and silence falls on us. I crumble what is left of the cake, looking down at the table. I would have liked to get up and walk away but I sit hunched over, moving the crumbs back and forth on the table. Finally I begin to feel uncomfortable; I dare to look at Grandma. The palms of her hands on the table are dark and spotted, her neck sags, her makeup no longer manages to conceal her age. Then I look at her eyes and see they are filled with tears. Transparent drops drip on her cheek, and she takes a white, fragrant handkerchief to wipe them off.
I stretch out my hand towards her. Grandma is indifferent to the panic her tears create. She holds me with a slightly shivering hand. The makeup that melted around her eyes makes her look somewhat clownish, for a moment I think she is wearing a white mask with black and blue eyes. But her solemn expression and the strained look overshadow the blending colors, she lowers her voice and says, enough, let go of the insult, you are wearing it as if it was a long warm coat and you are unwilling to take it off even on hot summer days. Let it go, it doesn’t protect you but only makes you a heavy, clumsy woman. I answer that it is not easy to ignore an insult that is born of love; I can’t take Dori’s words, his reservation, our break-up. Skeptically she looks at me for a moment, her eyes are roaming the room, and then she says again you are looking for support, but this time you are clinging to pain. Again you are leaning on love and friendship, only here it is about the lack of them. Time and again another person becomes part of you and not a separate entity; here it is the absence of Dori. If you had stayed his partner you would have become his shadow, a mirror reflecting his life. Dori is sinking into you, you are looking at yourself through his eyes, examining yourself and finding so many faults. Get rid of him, you don’t need him. When will you finally see yourself through your own eyes? Believe me, you will see many shapes and colors you never knew existed, and you will see yourself like you never did before.
I am weak, a dreadful weariness overtakes me I would like to answer Grandma but I don’t have enough strength. I want to go home but I feel I wouldn’t be able to walk. A kind of sadness is developing slowly, first only a hint, more like a light gloom, but gradually it transforms into emptiness mixed with despair. I drop a sugar bag and it falls on the floor; I don’t stretch my hand to pick it up. Grandma arches her eyebrows and twists her mouth in reproach, and says, I understand the sense of loss, relying on others is very comfortable, and sometimes very satisfying. But be careful, because it is so tempting one doesn’t see the trap.
Suddenly a slashing rain came down on the roof of the café, so noisy that everyone fell silent and looked up. It felt as if the ceiling would collapse from the sudden weight of water running on it. Grandma and I did not speak. She held a handkerchief and turned it over and over in her hand, immersed in her thoughts and looking at no one, absorbed by what seemed a bitter disappointment. I found the silence embarrassing: conversation with Grandma was usually so fluent, but today, uncharacteristically she said nothing; as though she was alone. After a couple of minutes of uneasiness I mustered some courage and asked her how come she finds no support in other people.
She looked like a person awaking from a deep sleep. First she watched the rain beyond the window and didn’t respond. Then she turned to me, paused for a while, and said she was born and raised in a different place, in another world; she didn’t know how different it was until she came to Israel. And no, she doesn’t mean the landscape, though Tel Aviv was once arid, but the unclear relations between people. In fact, no, this is not the issue. She can’t find the exact words but the core of it is the way people perceive themselves. Yes, she knows these are vague, obscure words, but these notions had always been part of her, ever since she came to Israel. She is not sure what the problem is exactly, she has been trying to articulate it in full for many years but never quite succeeded. Did she talk to anyone about it? Yes, with Grandpa. He understood exactly what she meant, implicitly, without spelling it out. She once asked him what he thought about it. He burst into laughter and said that native Israelis remind him of puppies detached from their mother, they have to try and guess how she would have raised them; but the absence of the mother makes them try to find support in each other, though this intimacy is not helpful at all. But we left our home in Europe, she tried to object, yes, he answered smiling, but we grew up in the bosom of a mother who shaped us, even if we left her.
The waitress approached and began clearing the table. She placed the mugs on the plates, and then removed them. The tablecloth was a little stained and Grandma kept looking at the stain. She was silent again, and I was thinking about what she had said. Though her words were obscure, they had a familiar echo. Something about the constant need to guess how one should behave, the lack of solid posts supporting everyday life made sense, though it was not fully intelligible. I couldn’t come up with an example, but still the lack of a well-defined pattern seemed to describe my life very well.
The rain became heavier and again the sound of water falling on the glass ceiling filled the café. Dusky clouds covered the sky, darkening the early afternoon light. Thick drops dripped on the window, transforming into long streams falling on the pavement. Outside, a woman carrying bags ran clumsily, looking for shelter from the rain soaking her coat. A bus passing in the street left a water trail splattering on the pavement.
Grandma looked at the heavy rain, and I thought she was drowning in her memories. Perhaps she was thinking of the light English rain? Her foreignness was so obvious, so touching. I don’t know why tears came into my eyes; I forced myself not to embrace her, to bring her close to me. A woman who had lived most of her life in a strange place, spending time only with European friends, and after Grandpa died being left so lonely. I am sure some people looked at her with ridicule, perhaps even made fun of her openly. Even her own daughters conducted themselves so differently from her. I held her hand softly and said,
‘I am sorry.’
I was expecting a light smile admitting the difficulties, a sad look, perhaps even a hug of closeness. But to my utter surprise Grandma burst into a loud, almost vulgar, laugh, and then, immediately, feeling it was an extreme exhibition of emotions, she began to speak quietly. Sorry? Why? It is the other way around. Throughout the years she lived in Israel she felt her character better fits life here than that of native Israelis. As a matter of fact she thinks that had she grown up here she would have found it hard to lead a proper life. The distance embedded in her, a sense of self-value that doesn’t derive from her place in society, is what makes her life more free and happy. Though she loves Israel dearly and she and Grandpa made it their home, their life was essentially that of a man and a woman, somewhat detached from their environment. Not that she hadn’t experienced many insults, she had heard them clearly, since native Israelis, men in particular, think it possible to giggle at a woman’s face without her taking notice. And the endless insinuations regarding her being a foreigner, about her lack of understanding, the underestimation of her, it was all evident and clear, but still it was better this way. There is no place where a structured lifestyle is needed more, with well-defined habits that are never questioned. She is looking at the people closest to her, even her beloved daughters, and sometimes she feels their life is conditioned, they constantly shape their daily routine, and she thinks it is an exhausting effort; growing into a pattern of life bestows much stability and peace, like a pathway whose length and width are predetermined, and you can either leap through it joyfully or walk head bent forward, absorbed in contemplation.
Grandma drew out the handkerchief and began wiping her face. She completely removed the remains of her makeup and her face was now utterly clear. Though her age was fully visible, her face had a fresh brightness, like a luster outshining the thin wrinkles. She let her hair down and then tied it behind her head with the golden pin, straightened her dress, sat erect on the chair, and ordered another cup of coffee. After putting the handkerchief back in her purse she gave a small smile and said quietly that she thought that I, more than any of our family members, would understand what she was saying. Why? Isn’t this the reason why I was visiting her for years, examining every detail of her life as if it was a chapter in a textbook that has to be memorized, wondering how I could adopt her way of life? Ever since I was small she saw an exploring look on my face, but childish naiveté made me think that it was the dresses that I should imitate. But once I grew up, it became clear that I really wanted to resemble her, at least in certain respects. She loves me dearly, I know this very well, yet she sees me clearly: I am looking for a way out of what seems to her like a labyrinth, curved roads that criss-cross each other.
I was surprised by her candor; she had never spoken about our friendship. Now a certain shell had cracked, and something new emerged. Grandma deserted her motherly tone and spoke to me in a different, more direct manner. I also sat erect, straightened my hair and looked outside. The rain had stopped and the clouds were lighter and brighter. Gentle sunlight filtered in once in a while, and the street seemed perfectly clean, the pavements dark and wet and the trees slowly shedding water from their leaves. I may have been alarmed by her words but I also felt somewhat pleased. They had a friendly tone, a new melody, like an accordion playing a popular tune. The sentences came one after the other, almost neutrally, with neither ridicule nor extra softness.
Grandma crossed her hands and smiled slightly. Her face had a soft orange tone of sunrays emerging from behind a cloud after the rain. She waited a bit to see if I was about to answer her, but as she saw I was steeped in thoughts she turned to me in a low voice and asked me to reconsider the job offer. I should think about it seriously, she said, since she believes it would be a golden opportunity, and that it carried benefits beyond professional life. The job at the library is far from exciting, I have to admit that. She understands that I find the closeness to books comfortable, and studious people come to the library. But I don’t fulfill my potential there, just sink into a comfortable routine. She feels this comfort is a huge obstacle, a block that must be bypassed. And since Dori and I had broken up, even the routine had become irksome, so I should get rid of it, start something new. She thinks writing would have many benefits, it would make me articulate my thoughts clearly, remove the eyes of others which emerge every time I describe something, and an independent perspective would take their place. And further, it is the foreign press, not Israeli, and the need to describe Israeli reality to readers who are unfamiliar with it might well refine the perception, enhance the personal tone. She is hoping that I would avoid any clichés; in any case they persuade no one. The description must be as rich as possible, illustrating how complex life is here, but still pointing to the main facts. She is absolutely sure I will be an excellent journalist, if fact she finds it surprising that I have never taken any interest in this occupation. I don’t have the right personality for this? She doesn’t understand what I mean. The job will be mine if I want it, her childhood friend would prefer me to anyone else. And regarding the work itself, she thinks what is needed most is talent. Embarrassing details are unnecessary; the point is an extensive portrayal of daily life here. And by the way, she had already told the friend about me, and he was expecting my call.
Grandma fears I will be angry since she approached him without asking me first, but I don’t care. I don’t know why but I feel a deep urge to satisfy myself. Perhaps I will purchase a new set of earrings. A childish spirit overtakes me—I almost order sweet cocoa and a chocolate cake with cream. Grandma looks at me somewhat amazed, for she is talking about work and I am indifferent and smiling slightly. Do I suddenly look cheerful? True, I feel this way, though I’m not sure why. Maybe because of the clean wind after the heavy rain or perhaps because once again I have plans, even if only for the next few hours. What plans? To buy a couple of things. No thanks, Grandma, I want to buy them by myself. Why? I am not sure, I think there is a special pleasure in satisfying your own desires, ignoring everyone else. You will approve of anything I choose? I am sure, Grandma, you are the best person to shop with, but this time I will go alone. Maybe I want to try myself to see if I can pick the thing you would have bought.
We pick our way carefully between the crowded tables and leave the café. Grandma is in front of me, erect as always but she is finding it a bit hard to walk, pausing before every step. I am careful not to rush her, although I want to say goodbye and leave. When we are finally outside the coffee shop she looks at me questioningly. I smile, run my hand through my hair and straighten my shirt—it is a little wrinkled. No, Grandma, this time I will go by myself. I don’t know why but I feel like walking alone. Don’t worry, I am not sad, a long-forgotten emotion is awakening. First I will go to the jewelry store and buy myself a pair of earrings, then perhaps a new dress at the small fabric store. The clear air is so pleasant, I want to meander slowly in the shopping center, casually look at the window shops, to examine everything without any hurry. You worry that I will get lost? Why? I know my way here pretty well. Don’t worry, Grandma, I am not driven by despair but by a desire to surrender fully to the feminine urge to adorn oneself. The need to beautify is awakened again. Wait for me? No, thank, Grandma, I don’t know how long I will be here, and in fact I am not sure I will return to your place later. I was thinking of visiting my apartment, perhaps I will move in there again soon. I thought of the beautiful geranium pots on the small balcony: I forgot to water them, I hope they didn’t wither.
Grandma is looking at me, her eyes are glowing; there is no knowing if from pain or joy. She is standing facing me and doesn’t know whether to part or to insist on joining me. Out of habit she straightens the hair behind her head. I see she is hesitating whether to say something. To avoid the embarrassment I kiss her on her cheek. Because I am close to her, I smell the scent of perfume blended with a sour odor. She hugs me warmly, coughs a bit, and it seems she has decided to say one more thing. About the job? I don’t know, Grandma, I think it is too soon. I promise to consider the offer. I find it hard to imagine myself as a journalist. Yes, I understand you think it has benefits way beyond the professional realm, a path which, even if it is in the public realm, will lead to personal space. But I still can’t write.
Grandma is staring at me, her features are softening and her eyes seem enigmatic. She caresses my arm lightly, like a feather touching bare skin. Am I cold? No, I am dressed well. I am on my way now, but I will come to visit you soon. Perhaps I could embrace your way of living even further. I wish I could adopt your past, but it is impossible. Still, I am grateful, Grandma. In your small apartment wide horizons, which I didn’t even know existed, were spread out before me. Mom thinks they are useless: without you I would have thought exploring them was a fault, a distortion that should be corrected. Now I want to explore them, even though there may be no turning back.
We leaned one towards the other, head to head, my forehead touching hers, and stood still for a couple of moments. Then I kissed her and left.
‘Earrings’ is a story from Five Selves by Emanuela Barasch Rubinstein (Holland House Books, 2015).
The cover photo: Fragment of a terracotta statuette of an old woman4th–3rd century B.C. Courtesy of the MET