Alena leans forward and adjusts a wisp of her silver hair, placing it behind her ear. My grandmother looks up at me, her eyes heartbreakingly beautiful, deep and brown and filled with meaning. She gazes at me imploringly, as she states the words, “Very pain,” in an exquisitely kind effort to communicate with a granddaughter who does not know her language. I do not let her see my tears; I blink them back quickly, and she continues to look at me with sad eyes, wishing for me to do something to make the pain go away.
Dear grandmother, my darling, exquisite, wonderful grandmother. You seem to me to be so breakable, fragile like a piece of crystal, exquisitely etched over with lines and designs. Or perhaps you are purer than that, a simple piece of glass, sparkling in the light of the sun. I look at you and I see elegance, dignity, enwrapped and enshrouded as you are in darkness. I wonder if there is any way to unloose the grip your disease has on you, to undo what is killing you. Sometimes I wonder whether it is a kindness to pray for you, and whether you would rather I prayed for your death.
The little apartment is decorated beautifully. There are many windows, and Lady Alena (I cannot but think of her as a Lady, so good and kind is she) has opened them in order to allow the light to flood in. They touch down on the hardwood floor, on your bed, covered as it is in warm blankets. I wonder if you can bear the touch of those soft blankets on your skin; if even they cover you in bruises. I step forward and hand you the drawings I hold in my hand.
In my effort to communicate with you, I have drawn pictures that I hope you will enjoy. You can still see the colors, the shapes, the forms my love takes. I have drawn you a picture of a girl, of a rose, of flowers. I am trying to draw my love, to take it down and transform it from words to something purer and more refined, to transform it for you into something tangible. I am so frustrated not to have the words. There are so many things I wish I could say. I want to tell you how incredibly impressive you are to me, the portrait that you paint in my mind. I want to tell you how sad I am that God has seen fit to give you this pain in the last years of your life. I want to paint you the world as I see it, a world you do not know anymore because you barely venture beyond your doorstep. I want my voice to paint for you the colors of that world, and the beauty it contains.
I want to do this, not to make you jealous, but to reveal to you everything that there is, so that you can see it through my eyes and feel it in my touch. When I hold your wrists and chafe them lightly, when I place your thin and brittle hands in mine, I find you birdlike, petite and silver. It is almost as though you will fly away and leave nothing in your place, and so I struggle to hold on to air. It is only now that I understood why my mother made me read The Joy Luck Club, always wanted me to understand Amy Tan’s works. My mother has been preparing me for this all my life. All the books I have read are yours, my grandmother. Everything has been for you.
What my mother would give could she see you healthy and whole! You do not know the way it eats at her, the way she struggles and how it pains her that she cannot be near you. I am near, and yet I cannot speak with you. My mother can speak to you in the lilting tone of her youth, words that drip from her mouth like honey, unless they are tinged with sharpness because her breath has been taken away by the sight of you in pain, the sight of you unhappy. How beautiful you are, my grandmother, and how beloved. I wish that we could take away your tears.
God has done things to you that seem cruel. I do not know why He has done them. You have only ever been pure, and all that you have done is pure. You supported an entire community, raised a family, were strong in a time when there was nothing to grant you strength. You succeeded in ensuring that everyone emigrated from Austria and came here to America. And now that you are here, what do you have? This little apartment, and a view that barely satisfies? And the disease that feeds off of your flesh and causes you pain, so that it catches in your eyes; there, a flicker; I can see it. And what can I do, my grandmother, except blink back the tears in my eyes as I struggle not to cry…
And then there is Alena. My Lady Alena, I call her in my mind, as she appears that way to me, with her grace and beauty. Once upon a time, she was an absolute queen, with long russet curls that reached her back and a smile that charmed and invited. Her teeth were white and straight, like little pearls glimmering in the light of a hidden moon, and her lips curved sensually. But all of this has been forgotten in her care for her mother. Alena has put aside her life, her work, and everything else that mattered to her in order to care for my grandmother. She prepares food for her, makes sure to give her her medication, to tend to her, to help her with everything she may need help with, such as bathing her, and throughout all of this, treats her with perfect dignity. Alena is human and there are moments where she snaps or wonders why this was destined to be her lot in life, why it was that she has been asked to give so much, and to sacrifice everything. She too is kept within this apartment as though it were her prison, as she cannot leave my grandmother alone lest she hurt herself. She may go out very briefly to purchase food and perhaps the newspaper, but in truth these four walls enclose her. And for such a one as Alena, that is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all. Alena is consumed by an urge to seek beauty, to find it in all its many forms. She adores the sunlight, nature, the designs in Macy’s storefront, shows and musicals. If she were one who was inured to all this, hardened, it might be easier to bear. But she is a gentle soul, sweet and intelligent, and it is the fact that such a one has been made prisoner of her surroundings that is at times unbearable.
Alena has a strength which others do not grasp. Her strength has been tried and tested and still she has not abandoned her post; she retains the tenacity of a man at arms, a captain who refuses to leave his ship when she is in distress. Her face is careworn, her hair is badly cut. There are bags under her eyes; she has forgotten herself in her solicitude for her mother. She wears sensible shoes and clothes, black pants and sturdy shirts, and no longer dresses in the silks and frippery of her youth. The femininity that was emphasized in her every aspect, that dazzled her many admirers, is completely gone, consumed in the cares that she bears. Yet she bears it in silence; she bears it without complaint. Her complaints are infrequent. She has resigned herself to her fate; it belongs wholly to her. It is not the lot she would have chosen, but she is a true daughter. Americans would have placed their mother in a nursing home. Alena would never do that. A daughter serves the mother throughout her life, the mother who cared for her, granted her life, brought her into this world. One’s mother is owed a debt that can never fully be repaid.
And so here I sit at the table, having placed my sketches upon it, as my grandmother looks up at me with sad eyes and Alena works in the kitchen, busily preparing for me. She insists upon making everything into a feast so that whenever I come, I must eat chicken and pilaf and cakes and every manner of treat or delicacy. In the meantime, I try to talk without words, try to make myself understood to my grandmother. I place my hand against hers, note the contrast between our fingers. Look at my hand, so youthful. The skin is young, the flesh is firm; my nails are painted a brilliant red hue. Look at her hand, perfectly petite and small but covered over in flesh which is thin, delicate. Her nails are carefully trimmed and they are very clean; she is beautiful to me. This is what I see when I look at her, her effervescent beauty, which she emits like a candle giving off light. I look at her and I see the moonlight caught within her. Her soul sparkles like the moon in the sky; it is a light that is a reflection rather than the source itself. She reflects the light of my grandfather, who has left her to this.
He did not do it intentionally. Were he alive, he would fight the angels of hell to care for her, to place her little slipper on her feet. He was mad about her, loved her with a love so fierce that the angels do not speak of it, because it is reverenced, seen with an awe that has left our world. If he were alive, he would tend to her every need and make her understand the ways in which he cared for her. But he is not here, and what is left instead are her memories, both the bitter and the sweet. And I believe that most everything must be bitter for her now, tinged as they are with the sadness of their not actually taking place in the present, not being true in the here and now. My moonlit grandmother exudes a shining white light; it is utterly pure. But she shines within the confines of a dark world, a dark realm, a dark night.
I wish there were a way to show you how I love you, my grandmother. I wish there were a way to ease your pain. That is the only thing that occurs to me, and I do everything to please you, to bring you joy. I dance for you- do you remember? How I danced when I was little, my hair swirling as I turned! I would sing for you if the words would mean anything. Anything to drown out the sound of those two words, murmured in a quiet voice, but in such agony, in such darkness, “Very pain.” It is the fact that you say them so quietly that make them such a killing thing.
Where is your anger? Why do you not fight? It is because it is exhausting to do so, and you are so tired, my grandmother, that you cannot even if you wished to. How can you lift a finger in anger, when to lift that finger tires you so? This aside from the fact that you are a Jew in the way that no one has been a Jew since Abraham, who followed God on the strength of His word. You are a Jew who understands what it means to believe. You do not doubt and cannot doubt. Alena explained it to me once, the way in which your community was structured. “There was fear of God in those days,” she said to me, and looked at me with an intensity that burned, coming as it did from those weary eyes. “Do you know what it means to fear God?” And I have to admit that I do not, not in the way that they understood it, not in the way that they have learned that fear.
There is a fear of God that comes from true belief rather than words or texts. None of them were instructed in the laws and codices that comprise our religion today. None of them knew who Rashi was, the Ramban, Ibn Ezra, any of the commentators whom I take for granted as I peruse my books. No, that knowledge was reserved for the men, who were learned in these areas; the women were the ones who had practical knowledge of halakha and of God. The wisdom of the women, their lore and sayings, their folklore and their ideas; all this has been forgotten in pursuit of the new, the young, and the youthful, in pursuit of glittering tin and aluminum. America is a shiny place, a toy with its glittering youthful enthusiasm. Here, one may live forever, with their Botox treatments and cosmetic surgeries, their creams and lotions and unguents. Here, the young are respected and the old are placed in nursing homes that smell like antiseptic, put away like so much rubbish. To grow old with dignity has been forgotten. To die with dignity is unknown. But in my grandmother I see it, in her fragility and her beauty I know what it means again. And I am human, wholly human, and it is a raw feeling that sets my heart afire, because I know now, although it is only a fraction of what she knows, with a surety that I did not have before, what it means to know God.
Who is God to a community who does not know his texts? My grandmother cannot speak Hebrew; the words were never taught to her. My Lady Alena cannot speak it either. They were taught a mixture of stories and lore, words that dripped from my grandfather’s lips. He instructed them and they obeyed, understanding their task and not protesting it. They were wise in the ways of the women, knowledgeable in all things that had to do with the women. They understood what was necessary, and it was this that they acted upon. “But what about asking why?” I inquire. “What if you wanted to know why something was done?” I ask her about kashrut and keeping the laws of kashrut. “But why?” And my Lady Alena answers me by explaining that the way my grandmother explained it to her was that the soul of the animal resides in its blood and we are forbidden to eat the soul or the essence of a living thing. That is pure and belongs to God; it is not for us. And thus we must salt the meat and remove the blood from it so that we may benefit from it, and it may be permitted to us.
How I envy them, in my way! I live in a world where all may question, and there is much that is pure in the intent of those who question. But I live in a world which has also forgotten the meaning of fear, in the way that these women knew it, the meaning of respect and awe for God. I wonder what commitment they felt; they who knew nothing of the actual texts, they who spoke no Hebrew! They would gather in shul and observe the men, saying the prayers in the language they knew, a dialect of Farsi, Persian words that arose from their lips and rose before God, burning with a savage purity. How ugly must my words seem in comparison, who cannot pray as they did, and who does not know Him as they must have known Him! It is only in these moments, in these rare glimpses, when Lady Alena tells me, that I know Him a little.
There is the soul of the matter, the essence of a thing, something which penetrates beyond the externals, beyond the text, beyond the wrappings. This is something that they have and that I do not, much as I may strive for it. There is an authenticity in their beliefs that dwarfs me and humbles me; there is something holy in it, and it is the holiness that I strive to capture, but it is elusive, hiding from me. I want to put my hands around it and take a little of that light for myself, but I cannot. It too is hidden. It has been granted only to the holy ones, and that is not me. Alas that I do not fall into that category…but I know women who do.
These women are not learned; indeed, they know very little. What they can lay before God is their service, their devotion, their love and their awe. Their fear is tangible; their love is real. How I wish that I were so suffused with love, who looks upon them and wonders why God has seen fit to strike them with so much suffering? And yet, despite it all, they persist and continue in their way, simple people who know the true meaning of the term. There are many who claim to be simple Jews. My relatives make no such claim; they simply live it, act it, with their every breath, in their every move. It is reflected in their faces. There is a core to them that you cannot echo; it is the last song of a forgotten generation. And the song is of such haunting beauty that I cannot bear to let it go…instead I stand before it and beg it to cover me, surround me, encapsulate me, create me. Take me and make me pure, I beg, take me and let me understand. Let me see what you see; let me stand in your place. I want to know your God; I want your faith. Bless me that I should attain it.
But I do not say these things. I do not say these things because it is better that they not know how much they differ, the purity that is theirs. I let them live their lives as anyone else would, within the small apartment, going about their daily activities. I do not tell them of their praises because it is God who will reveal it to them, when they meet Him. When they encounter God, He shall smile at them and tell them, “Welcome, my children.” They will be His beloved ones, and sit at His feet, or by His throne, their eyes awed and expressive as they look at him. They have not lost the eyes of children, the sad, haunted eyes of children that truly comprehend the pain of a broken world. When I look at them, I see those eyes, and I wish with all my heart that I might be worthy of attaining that one day.
The only time I break this rule is to give comfort to Lady Alena. Alena struggles, this I know, and her struggle is one that would break many others. People speak of honoring their father and mother, but they do not know it until they have seen my Alena. She has truly given herself; she has offered her life upon an altar to God, exchanged it to care for her mother, to help her in every way. And so I try to offer sweet words to Alena, to explain to her how beautiful her actions are in the eyes of God. I hope she can hear me; I worry sometimes that she cannot. If I did not believe in God, I would have to, if only for the sake of Lady Alena. I believe she has castles in the sky dripping with gems and jewels, symphonies and orchestras and everything she does not have on earth. At the moment when she encounters God, I believe that he will pull aside a curtain, as it were, and introduce her to her domain. And there, she will be light and surefooted again; she will be beautiful and radiant, for all will be restored to her, and she will dance through meadows of neverending grass, delight in the rivers around her. I have imagined a Paradise for her so as to content me with the woman I see right now. I have never seen so pure a love as the love I see in her, the love of a daughter for a mother, in addition to duty, which enables her to do this, to give her life in place of her mother’s. It is easy to sacrifice one’s life once- kill me instead, we cry, and this is the cry we hear in the movies- but how many could live that sacrifice? Can you live each day and offer your life instead of your mother’s, offer your life instead of another’s whom you love? Only those of us who love most deeply and truly can do such a thing, and Alena is one of those rare few who has the ability to offer herself again and again, an Isaac on the altar every day.
What am I to do beyond bearing witness to this? I feel so inept, useless, incapable. My hands are small; they cannot stop the oppressive pain that weighs in on that house. My lips do not speak the words in the language that I wish. It is my look, then, on which I must rely; it is my aspect in which I must try to communicate. The look in my eye, my lips against my grandmother’s cheek, my hand caressing hers. This must be the means that I must use, poor tools indeed! I am like Edmund Dantes and his Abbe, trying to chisel my way through rock with makeshift tools. How frustrating it is, when there is so much I would say! Alena acts as my translator, but even through her, I cannot say all the things I wish I could. I cannot express my thoughts in a manner which is truthful, which conveys everything I wish I could say.
My beloved grandmother, how beautiful you are! They have shown me pictures of you, in silks and satins, decorated and dignified, always elegant, always exquisitely poised. Your scent is pure; when I lean down to kiss you, you smell of the wind, of the sky, of everything that is outdoor and open and free. I long so much to make you well. God has not given me the power, but I desire it, believe me that I do. Voiceless, dumb and mute, without a tongue to tell you how I love you, it is the heart that beats in my body, the blood that pulses through my veins, that sings for you to be well and healthy once more. I desire to soothe you, to calm you, to make you happy. I cannot bear your pain.
And yet who am I to flee your pain when Alena must live with it day by day, must watch her lovely mother degenerate before her eyes, suffering the double burden of caring for you and wishing that she had her life back, desiring to see you well and yet desiring to live? I wonder what thoughts flit through her mind, my Alena, and whether she ever reproaches herself for her desire to live differently. I imagine that she does. But I can vouch for her, my grandmother, that she loves you, too, with a deep and undying love, and those traitorous thoughts are there only for a moment. She dispels them as though she swept them away with a broom, tidying up the room and doing away with cobwebs.
Dear my grandmother, I wonder whether you can take joy in me, who is so foreign to you? Does my differentness alienate me from you, or does it make you see me more clearly? I wish I could set before you accomplishments that you could value, that were not written in words that you cannot understand. What does it mean to you that I write, who does not know this language? Can it mean anything at all? I wish you knew me, dear my grandmother, and what is more, I wish I knew you. I wish that the blood that sings in my veins, your blood, could connect me to you with bonds even stronger than the ones that are now forged. I want to sing you to sleep, comfort you, make you a lullaby that would magically help you. I want to take your pain away, and I want Alena’s strength, so that I could bear it. It is your eyes that make me hurt, my beloved grandmother, those sad eyes that are so beautifully human, that reveal your confusion and wonder and innocence in the face of this. Why has God done this to you, you must wonder? I do not know, and I wish I could answer.
To me you are the woman at moonlight, walking in the distance. I see your silver hair, and it is long, and flows around you; perhaps it even turns brown as you change back, shifting into your girlhood. You are in silks, adorned and beloved, and you are pure, so pure. There is a silver brooch with gemstone flowers that you wear on a necklace; you tell me that you will give it to me on my wedding day. You are wearing it now, my grandmother, and you are dancing, in the light of a moon that pours down on you, illuminating your every aspect, demonstrating your childlike grace. So delicate are you, so finely made, your every movement makes you seem more like a swan. The curve of your wrist, your finely wrought features, the delicacy inherent therein; all this shines beneath the moon. But what is more, you exude light, a silver light which depicts your essence. You are mine, my grandmother, mine to love forever, and your soul is made of quicksilver light that is sparkling and white and pure. You are my moonlight; in your path, may I walk.
Credits: Itzhak Perlman’s rendition of the Theme to Schindler’s List