The first Passover after my grandfather died, my family knew that our grandmother would need us all to be together for the holiday, but we also knew she wouldn’t be able to host everyone. So Grandma, Mommy, and my 7-year-old brother squeezed into the two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles where I lived with my husband, whom I’d married just one year earlier. My sister, who lived nearby, came over for the Seder and other meals throughout the holiday, and several other friends joined us as well. It was crowded but festive, like the crush at a happening party.
And then, on the sixth night of Passover, we got an unexpected visitor.
After kissing my mother and grandmother goodnight, I headed to the bedroom I shared with my husband, carefully stepping over my brother’s open suitcase and circumnavigating the sharp corner of the sleeper-sofa. My husband already lay in bed, curled on his side, breathing deeply. I lay down beside him with a book, drifting off after reading just a page or two.
As I slept, my grandfather, dressed entirely in white, entered my bedroom. He glowed with peace and holiness. Eyes twinkling, he beamed his usual vivacious smile. The vigor he’d possessed during my childhood had returned.
Grandpa’s presence was palpable, as if I could reach out and touch him, and—strangely—the sensation lingered even after I awoke with a start. Electricity charged the atmosphere in my room. Enthralled, I felt Grandpa’s benevolent but alarming manifestation emanating from a specific corner of the room.
Certainly, I would not be going back to sleep.
I crept from the room to go get a drink of water. When I entered the living room, I discovered Mommy sitting at the foot of the sleeper-sofa where Grandma was lying, speaking animatedly. She kept her voice was low to avoid waking my brother, still sleeping nearby. Grandma, who appeared agitated, listened intently.
“What are you doing awake?” I whispered.
“I had a dream,” my mother told me. “Of Grandpa. He came to comfort us.”
“And I had one, too,” Grandma added.
I flopped down into a chair. “Whoa.”
My mother turned to me, her eyebrow arched. “What’s wrong, honey?”
Before I had a chance to explain, my husband emerged from our bedroom. “I dreamed that Grandpa came to visit,” I said. “And it feels like he’s still in there.”
“In where?” my mother asked. I gestured over my husband’s shoulder into our bedroom.
“In that corner?” he asked, pointing to a specific area of our bedroom.
“How—how did you know?” I stuttered.
“I just felt something, something there,” he said.
The blood draining from my face, I nodded silently. Mommy and Grandma rushed over. But as everyone approached, the presence dissipated.
Grandpa had been more than a grandfather to me. He had acted as a substitute father after my parents divorced when I was 5 years old.
In my eyes, he’d been tougher than Muhammad Ali. He regularly lifted my sister and me high into the air when we were little, one in each arm. Every summer, Grandpa schlepped my sister and me from our home in Columbia, Md., to the beach in Ocean City and bought us frosty Popsicles on hot days. When Lee’s Ice Cream in Baltimore introduced cookies-and-cream ice cream, Grandpa mixed his own version for us at home with kosher Hydrox cookies instead of treyf Oreos. Grandpa fried crispy latkes at school with me at Hannukah and celebrated all my triumphs, large and small, with his booming voice and contagious grin.
When my sister and I grew up and left for college, Grandpa wrote us long letters in an almost indecipherable scrawl. He battled cancer during my first year at college, but triumphed. When we returned home, he pulled us close and said, “Are you still growing? So tall! So beautiful!”
Life was unpredictable, but Grandpa’s love never was.
On a Shabbat evening the February before he died, I had worried about Grandpa. The doctors had concluded that they could no longer fend off his cancer, which returned from remission shortly after my wedding. A hospital visit in January had left us with little hope—Grandpa, who’d once been so strong, had withered to a specter of his former self. My husband had held one of Grandpa’s hands while I had held the other. It had become unimaginably soft, his calluses faded from months lying in bed. Like the hand of newborn.
Now Grandpa had returned home, awaiting the inevitable.
In a dream that Friday night, I entered a wedding hall draped in white tulle and festooned with flowers. A groom approached the chuppah, the Jewish wedding canopy. Grandpa sat across the aisle from me. We stood as the bride entered, radiating joy and light. Just as my eye caught Grandpa’s, I awoke and sat up.
Grandpa had told me as a child, “My mother believed that if you dream of a birth or a wedding, it foretells death.” Shaken, I noticed the time—a few minutes past midnight. I knew with great certainty that my grandfather had passed to the next world.
In the morning, I quietly confided my dream to my husband. Not wanting to dampen the joy of the Sabbath, I said no more about my secret knowledge, but I walked around all day with a lead weight on my heart.
Our phone rang immediately after havdalah, the service that marks the end of Shabbat. Grandpa had died at home, surrounded by his wife and children, a few minutes past midnight.
As Passover approached just a couple months later, I wondered what the holiday would be like. Grandpa’s Seders had always opened a door to a magical reality, completely distinct from the quotidian world I inhabited the rest of the year.
We had always read the service all the way through from my grandparents’ art deco Union Haggadahs. With a booming voice, Grandpa had told the story of the slaves in Egypt as though it were his own personal drama. My young mind never once questioned the miracles of the Exodus—their reality had been handed down to me by my grandfather, who’d received it from his, and so on for more than 3,000 years.
Year after year, Grandpa had hidden the afikomen, undetected. His sleight of hand was worthy of Doug Henning. By the time the gefilte fish arrived on its china plate, Grandpa would have me on the edge of my seat, wondering where he’d hidden the matzoh.
In our youth, my sister and I balked when we were sent to the front door late in the Seder to invite in Elijah the Prophet. To us, Elijah the Prophet could be no one but the Boogey Man. After all, hadn’t Grandpa told us that the Boogey Man lingered by the front door at night?
As a child, I was greatly relieved when Elijah would fail to appear. Now, as an adult, I grieve.
Twelve years have passed since Grandpa died. My husband and I still live in the same tiny apartment, now (thank G-d) crammed with kids. When I begin to prepare for Passover, I inevitably think of my grandfather, who never met my children and would have taken such pleasure in them. Nevertheless, my husband and I try to make our Seders as magical as possible for them. I don’t think we have quite the same flair as Grandpa, but the kids look forward to Passover with as much anticipation as I did.
I don’t expect Grandpa to visit us again this year. When he appeared to us that first Passover, he knew we needed him. Today, we still miss him. We still wish he were here. But we no longer need reassurances of his unconditional love. His one final visit gave that to us.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Rebecca Klempner is a wife, mother, and writer in Los Angeles.
Rebecca Klempner is a wife, mother, and writer in Los Angeles.