What my grandmother taught me about connection.
There was a brief period of time when I lived with my grandmother, one of my favourite people in the world. I was between student apartments, and my grandmother wasn’t doing too well. In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, her memory was fading, she was often uncharacteristically angry and often confused.
Arrangements were being made to get her into a nursing home—something she resisted vehemently—but the time hadn’t come yet, and the family, myself included, decided it would be a good idea if I stayed with her for a couple of months.
It was a difficult and precious time. I was in a fragile state, filled with a pervading sense of not-knowing. And my grandmother had come to the end of her so-called productive years, very difficult for a woman who had spent her life consumed by productivity, nurturing and care-giving.
My future was a hazy blank, and her past was now taking on this same quality. In the middle, we found the perfect meeting point.
We had always gotten along seamlessly, and now we shared a calm and quiet space together. I tried to help her decide what to pack for the next step of her journey and she fought me every step of the way.
We cried together and consoled each other. We often didn’t need words. Love pervaded this frayed reality we were sharing.
And she told me a story that blew me away.
Circa 1930s, a love story begins with my grandmother as a little girl who went to a local dance in a blue dress. Her mother thought she was too young to go but she insisted—a rare thing for her. She was shy and didn’t talk a lot.
She was so excited about the dress. Her father, a respected businessman in their hometown of Budapest, travelled a lot and brought it back for her one day. Her mother disapproved: it was shiny and elaborate, and where was Elsbeth going to wear it?
As my grandmother described it to me in her broken English, she did her hair “just so” (she beamed and looked somewhere far away as she touched her now thin, grey hair). And she went to the dance.
She met a boy. They danced, and had their first magic moments. I can picture him looking into her eyes for the first time, those eyes with a peculiar green and gold-inflected colour I inherited despite the odds (my mother has the usually-dominant brown eyes).
My grandmother was too young to go on dates, so he would come over and bring books for her to read. They would talk about literature and small things, sitting on benches in the garden.
The sun is always shining in my grandmother’s youth, over the pastures outlying exotic Budapest with its smoky cafes I feel so at home thinking about. This is how I see it, anyway.
These long, languid days, in the telling of her story, stretch into long moments, weeks into months. A relationship without word of a kiss, but with every promise of a future.
There was talk of marriage in living room chambers. My grandmother was the second oldest of three daughters. The eldest (of the faded, soft-focused portrait I saw often on my grandmother’s wall), was married and had two baby daughters.
One night news reached the family that my grandmother’s sister was ill. And then, news of a terrible headache, she was being taken to hospital. By morning, she was gone. Headaches one reads about in Victorian novels. The cancer of those times, unnamed, unknown.
According to custom, my grandmother was to marry her sister’s husband but for her the priority was to care for the two baby girls (she still called my elderly aunts “the children” as she talked to me now). She didn’t want to marry, and neither did my grandfather, who loved his wife and was for a time inconsolable. My grandmother cared for the children while he suffered, and worked.
The look in her eyes changed, became softer.
“I can still remember that blue dress …” my grandmother said.
“Bubby, what about your boyfriend? What happened to him?” He had left town, and they never saw each other again.
I was almost afraid to ask. This whole story was new to me.
“Did you ever fall in love with Zayde?”
She looked surprised.
“Of course I did. He was a beautiful man, such a good man. We made your father together.”
“Love … “ She struggled with her words. “Love is big … it is what you make.”
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photos: Courtesy of the Author