My grandmother’s tchotchkes were the parts that made up her world, the dust-collecting bric-a-brac that told her life story. When she finally consented to move into an assisted-living facility, the reality hit her like a tempest, forcing her to take that world apart. She needed me, and I agreed to help.
During one packing-up visit, she surveyed the assemblage on the dining room table and asked me what I wanted to remember her by. Cake stands, dainty saucers, my grandfather’s kiddush cup—all of it stared up at me. I joked that I already inherited her bunions, but had no other answer. I wanted everything and I wanted nothing because I wanted her instead. She chose items for me she knew I would regret not taking and wrapped them in pages from the Post.
It was only when I caught sight of her empty chair, an eerie glimpse into the future without her, that I told her I’d like the afghan at the foot of her bed. She laughed her beautiful croaky laugh, wondering, Of all things? I didn’t tell her its embrace would fill in for hers when she was gone.
Amid the tumult of my childhood, we moved twice and I attended three different elementary schools in as many years. My parents separated, then reunited, picking up their arguments where they left off. The only way to be noticed above the din was to shout, and when that didn’t work, I learned to keep my head down. Though reading helped me drown out some of the noise, it was my grandparents who gave me shelter when it stormed.
Lucky for me, we visited them often. Their apartment was a wonderland filled with interesting things to enchant and distract me, all of it magically curated by my grandmother. Sea-glass hard candies in crystal bowls, a plant forest on the window sill, a porcelain bubbe lighting Shabbos candles, vessels with treasures inside. As a little girl, I loved the collage they formed, but what I cherished most was my grandmother’s reassurance that I was more precious to her than all of it. She saw something in me that no one else did, something I couldn’t see, either, so when she called me her shayna punim and told me I was good, I wanted to believe her.
Even as I got older, the sense of wonder I felt in her presence never dimmed. Our relationship matured, though, giving her leave to share a different sort of love. She instructed me to hold my tongue during my adolescence and to wear lipstick whenever I left the house. She also insisted I never do a man’s laundry before he married me. I, in turn, pursued the stories—the ones about the bric-a-brac and our family and her courtship with my grandfather and how she ached for him after his passing.
A master with yarn who never idled, she knitted and crocheted while she spun her tales. Her handiwork—the sweaters we requested, the baby booties she gave as gifts—left behind scraps of color she whipped into granny squares, the granny squares into afghans. Her fingers moved nimbly, and I marveled as she transformed the humble into the splendid, further proof of her magic powers. To my regret, my grandmother never offered to teach me and I never asked. Instead, I learned to crochet from a girl at summer camp named Leah, who showed me how to make yarmulkes for the boys.
When I lived in the city years ago, my grandmother and I—then two single gals on our own—had the ritual of calling one another every night, and I often took the train to the Bronx to see her. She could no longer wait for me at the elevator as she used to, a small sign she had begun to ebb. I started to count my blessings, to pray for more time.
Still radiant, she danced at my wedding, but by the following spring, she announced that she had rolled her last knaidel. Taking the first steps to distance herself from her belongings, she handed me her Pesach dishes, though, for the time being, my bigger prayers were answered. She remained here long enough to hold my baby boys with a joy to light up the room.
“I wish I could’ve made them something,” she told me, both of us mourning, knowing she had already stitched her last stitch.
More than a decade has passed since my grandmother left for the World to Come. I still reach for the phone to call her sometimes, out of habit, I suppose. What I wouldn’t give to hear her voice, though I catch myself before I lift the cordless from its cradle.
A few weeks ago, right around her birthday, I felt her absence anew. It winded me in a way it had not done in ages. I caught my breath by spending the better part of two days on the couch, crafting a large afghan out of the wool scraps in my stash basket. It gave me comfort to know how much like my grandmother I have become in this: never idling, never letting good wool go to waste.
I thought suddenly of the other afghan, the one I’d selected from her things when I was finally ready to make a choice. It had fallen into such disrepair I had put it away for safekeeping a long time ago, fearful that handling it would unravel it for good. I became gripped, possessed almost, with the need to reassemble it right away, as if I could bring her back, one granny square at a time.
On the second morning of the undertaking, I daydreamed that my grandmother’s belongings were returning to the curios in her apartment, like an ingathering of souls. And I understood what had eluded me all along. Although we had dismantled so much of who she was before she departed this Earth, she remains whole in places—in the stories I tell when I dust her tchotchkes now on my own shelves, and deep inside me, where I guard what I treasure most.
The last time I saw my grandmother she lay in a hospital room, her lungs filling with fluid. I kissed her forehead. She held my hand and whispered, with waning strength, “I like your hat,” a funny thing to say on a deathbed. “It looks pretty on you.” I smiled at her before taking a quick peek in the mirror to see myself once more as she saw me. Only then, as if I were exiting sacred ground, could I back out of the room and say my goodbye.
I felt my grandmother leaving us again on the afternoon I finished restoring her afghan. I will never know for sure, but I like to think she found favor in our mutual handiwork, in our redemption of the blanket from oblivion in the closet. I thanked God for giving me the prescience to choose it, of all things, to remember her by. Then I draped it over the couch behind me, letting it fill in for her embrace while she’s gone.
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Merri Ukraincik is a blogger and essayist who is at work on a memoir. Follow her at merriukraincik.com.