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The Crash

How an accident helped me discover my grandmother’s Jewish soul

Ellen Blum Barish
June 08, 2021
H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images
H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images
H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images
H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images

The house I grew up in wasn’t a go-to. My parents weren’t big social hosts or keen on my brother and I inviting friends over. My father, like so many working fathers of his time, wasn’t around much. He worked long hours, and my mother liked things quiet and clean. She had a deep aversion to blood, dirt, and broken glass.

But by the time I was in seventh grade, my mother had become swept up in the women’s movement and was building a career. Still, she was the primary caretaker of our house, my brother, and me, and needed to keep things in order. Guests were, for the most part, not very welcome.

Adding to all of this was her anxiety around messiness. Whenever a ceramic plate or drinking glass broke in our house or my brother or I would track dirt or mud in from outside, her body would freeze. Once she pulled herself together, she’d put on rubber gloves, send us out of the room, and sweep it up, unless my father was around and she could get him to do it, insisting that we steer clear of the spot until, I don’t know, any remaining particles disintegrated into the floor?

My mother came by her dedication to spotlessness epigenetically. She spent the bulk of her childhood living in a rented hotel room as the only child of an obsessive-compulsive, white-glove-wearing, hospital-corner-making, dirt-averse Jewish mother. A hotel. Though she lived in Pittsburgh rather than at the Plaza, I pictured her as Eloise before Eloise was Eloise—immaculate version—eating her breakfast in the hotel dining room where the kitchen staff made her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to take to school for lunch. It was supposed to be temporary while they looked for a house, but they lived there for almost 10 years. As a result, a tidy, institutionally decorated hotel room was my mother’s idea of home.

Her father, my Grandpa Reuben, was a word-game-loving restaurant supply store wholesaler who was, like my father, rarely home. I saw her parents only a handful of times in my life because their disinclination for driving and flying kept them in Pittsburgh. I still carry around this vision of my Grandma Ruth standing over us during a visit to her apartment, not quite sitting or standing, in a sort of ready position, hovering. As if she was in a constant state of preparing to flee.

Not surprising that with at least two generations of anxiety woven into my family tree, my mother’s worries felt like my own.

There was also great ambivalence, on both of my parents’ part about being Jewish. Both of my parents were Jewish on both sides, going back generations. I am 99.8% Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish—German on my dad’s side and Russian on my mother’s. All four of my grandparents were Jewish, although in a decision that I think of as the seedling of my mother’s disinterest in her heritage, her mother legally changed her own name from Rose to Ruth so it wouldn’t sound “so ethnic.”

If asked, my parents would say they considered themselves Reform Jews, but in the loosest sense of the words. Neither was interested in ritual or tradition or their Jewish roots. There wasn’t a single prayer book or Shabbat candle or anything with a Hebrew letter anywhere in the house I grew up in. We were not synagogue members, Sukkah builders, or hosts for holiday gatherings on Passover, Rosh Hashanah, or Hanukkah. I don’t recall ever walking into a synagogue with either of my parents. The only spiritual book I ever saw in the house was Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.

Their goal, like many Jews who grew up after World War II, was assimilation. The mission was to fit in. For Jews like my father’s father, my Grandpa Kurt who emigrated from Germany just before the war, there were complicated feelings around being Jewish. There was a combination of relief at landing safely in the United States mixed in with some guilt about surviving.

Though she grew up with no siblings or cousins and lived primarily in a grown-up environment, my mother’s childhood was generally happy. She went to overnight camp in the summers, and her parents sent her to a fancy private school for girls. Until the day of the accident, I believe no event in my mother’s lifetime had ever been that chaotic. Her only daughter was in a terrible car wreck. On her way home from school. Driven home by another mother whom she didn’t know. The accident turned her world upside down.

It was different for me. During the crash, I left my body. I was there and not there at the same time, which would become a pattern in my life. Bewildered, but not in any noticeable pain. By the time the police and ambulances arrived, my mind was overcome with worry over how my mother was going to feel.

Because my mother’s worries worried me.

I don’t remember what happened at the hospital, but I do remember that on the drive home that afternoon, we rode in silence. Mom wouldn’t look at me. That was how she was handling this. If she didn’t give it too much thought, it might just go away. It was dinnertime when we got back home, but my mother walked past the kitchen and started up the stairs to the second floor.

“I’m going to check on Adam,” she said to the air as she walked into my younger brother’s room. “Go on to your room, El. Just keep your head upright and try to stay still.”

I didn’t want to go to my bedroom. I was bleeding. What about all this blood? I didn’t want to be alone. How was I going to sleep? I wanted to know what was happening to Jenny and Caroline and their mother. Why wouldn’t Mom tell me anything?

I stood in the hallway and watched as she picked up the dirty clothes in Adam’s room and gently kissed his forehead.

When she reentered the hall, she sighed and walked toward her bedroom.

At her door, she said, without turning around, “You need to rest. Now please go to your room,” and her door closed with a soft click.

I was used to my mother needing her privacy. She spent a lot of time in her bedroom, mostly on her bed, where she wrote checks, turned down the corners on articles in Ms. magazine and filed her nails, painting them with pale pink polish. But she usually left her door open, at least a crack.

I wanted her to hold me, to tell me everything was going to be all right.

Hot tears ran down my cheeks.

In my room, I tried to find a comfortable position. As it soaked up more blood, the gauze that was wedged in between my teeth kept changing shape. I had to rearrange it. It got all gummy and I couldn’t swallow, so I took it out. But when I saw that moist red blob in my fingers, my throat went dry and stiff; I felt like I was going to gag. I slid off the bed and ran to the bathroom just as clumps of vomit exploded from my mouth onto the floor. I found the nearest towel to wipe it up. Lucky, I thought, that none of it got on my blue-and-pink-flowered Marimekko bedspread.

When I got back to my bed, I leaned against the wall, put a new square of gauze in my mouth, and propped up a few pillows so I could rest my arm. Mom had said to stay still. I held my position and my breath and heard my heart pound-pound, pound-pound. I could see my chest moving. The house was really quiet. I thought about getting up to see what Adam was doing, but I didn’t want to upset him. It was becoming clear I was going to have to bear this alone.

I looked at the clock. Seven. Why didn’t Mom make dinner? It would have been hard for me to eat, but I was hungry. I wondered what Jenny was doing. And Caroline. And their mom. One minute we were on McCallum Street on our way home from school, and the next our car was on the other side of the street, my mouth bleeding and Jenny’s eyes closed.

After what felt like hours, shifting from half-sitting to half-lying positions on my bed, changing the gauze every few minutes, and my head racing with thoughts, I heard the front door slam. Dad was home. I heard him clomp up the stairs. He wasn’t a big man, but he made his presence known. He had big energy, explosive energy, especially when he was angry, and it frightened me so much that I never wanted to be the cause of it. He knocked on my door and without waiting for a reply, opened it.

After inspecting me from the doorway, he furrowed his bushy, jet-black eyebrows and said, “You’re fine. You’ll be fine.” It sounded more like an order. Then he closed the door and headed across the hall to his bedroom and study. In a few minutes, I could smell the aroma of his sweet pipe tobacco and hear Sarah Vaughan’s voice crooning from the record player in the den.

The emergency room doctor and my parents said I was fine. That I was lucky it was only a tooth. I really wanted to be fine. But I didn’t feel fine.

After what felt like hours with gauze in my mouth and wet cheeks, I heard a knock on my bedroom door. Through the gauze, I mumbled, “Mmmmmm in.” It was Grandma Jane, my father’s mother, the grandma who lived in town, the one I adored. She opened the door, walked over to the bed, and held me with her deep brown eyes.

“Let’s get you into the bath,” she said as she took my hand in hers.

My father’s parents lived 30 minutes away in the city. My mother must have called her. Grandma Jane had learned to drive late in her life. She rarely drove at night, which was why I was surprised to see her. She rarely visited us in the evening and certainly never alone. But that night she jumped into her white Volkswagen Beetle and drove to our house. I didn’t hear the doorbell ring, so she must have let herself into the house with her key.

I was so happy to see her. At just under 5 feet tall, Grandma Jane was our family’s tiny but mighty nurturing heart. She was adoring. Birthday-smothering. A devoted letter writer whose notes to all of her grandchildren at camp, and even at college, frequently included a $10 bill. She remembered that I liked onions on my hamburgers, not mixed in. That I liked my Coca-Cola with ginger ale. That I loved chopped chicken liver with Triscuits or Wheat Thins.

Unlike my mother’s mother, Grandma Jane embraced being Jewish. She was active in her synagogue’s sisterhood, regularly went to High Holy Day services, and had a personal relationship with her rabbi. Hers was the house we gathered in for Passover and Rosh Hashanah.

Grandma Jane led me to the bathroom, where she filled the white porcelain tub with bubble bath up to the rim. She let it run a long time; I had never seen the tub that full. She turned her back while I slid in, and when I turned around to look at her, I saw her kneel on the cold tile floor, fold her skirt under her knees, and run her small fingers through her jet-black hair with the swath of gray in front. I wondered where my mother was, baffled as to why she didn’t come to say hello. But with my grandmother there, sitting quietly with me, I was, finally, able to breathe. I was feeling more settled, the calmest I had felt since the accident. She looked back at me with concern, smiling at me with her eyes. We sat there together quietly while she lightly stroked my back, wordlessly, for the longest and most luxurious bath I’d ever had.

After my finger and toe pads were wrinkled, she dried me off with a warm towel, turned the other way as I got into my nightgown, and then escorted me back to my room. She grabbed another pillow from the hall closet, set it on my bed, and waited until I found a comfortable position. Then she slipped back into the night.

Decades later I would discover that my grandmother had cared for me in a way that closely approximated bikur cholim, the Jewish etiquette for caring for people who are sick or injured. The guidelines include everything from the length of time for a visit, the time of day, one’s body posture to what one wears.

For example, the Talmud states that one should visit during the last three hours of the day when the pain is strongest. My grandmother arrived late in the evening.

The Talmud says that the one who enters to visit the sick should not sit on a bed, nor a bench, nor a chair but should enrobe himself and sit on the ground for the Divine Presence rests above the bed of the patient. Grandma Jane sat on the cold tile bathroom floor at my back and did not hover.

It tells the loved one to dress as if he or she is going to synagogue. Grandma was wearing a dress.

Remain quiet, the Talmud admonishes, as silence is an act of kindness for those who are sick. She didn’t say a word. She just stroked my back and listened to me breathe.

Position oneself at the same level as the sick person, says the Talmud, as it is an indication of empathy. Grandma sat on the floor behind me.

And the Talmud states that a visitor should not overstay.

After the bath, she toweled me dry, returned me to my bed, and headed home.

My grandmother’s instinct to come to my side in the night by herself was her nature. But showing up and knowing what to do are different things. She must have known that she’d be needed, that perhaps I wouldn’t be getting what I needed that dark night of my 12-year-old soul.

She had a Jewish soul. A Jewishly soaked heart.

I didn’t know it then, but that bath and my grandmother’s quiet presence that night constitute the sense memory I carry of what Judaism, and love, look like.

Excerpted from Seven Springs: A Memoir, published by Shanti Arts.

Ellen Blum Barish’s personal essays have appeared in The Chicago Tribune and Brevity, aired on Chicago Public Radio, and been heard in live lit venues around Chicago.

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