natraich2
Art by LostControl Collective: Bangor
Dan Chyutin
I only remember the dying part.
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Stories

By Dan Chyutin

She’s disappearing at this moment, as I write these words.

 

It was the meatloaf, probably, that made me endure the horror that was dinner at my grandma’s house. Not that it was a delicacy, mind you. Far from it. If someone unfamiliar with the quaint ways of Eastern European Jewish food were to stumble upon this culinary item, he would probably be appalled, or perhaps just be amazed by the sheer audacity of placing an egg inside a gargantuan piece of meat. For me, however, it was heaven on a plate.

 

I exaggerate perhaps. Maybe it was not the food itself so much as the fact that it was served in such an auspicious setting. There were no half measures with grandma. She pulled out the good china—the ‘service’ china, as she called it. Porcelain white plates with gold rims and jovial flowers in purple and red, standing proudly, ready to defend themselves from any gravy attack to come their way. We never had such formal dinners at my house. We never had any dinners at my house, as a matter of fact. We mostly ate on the go, each on his or her own time. But for grandma, communal eating was a requirement—nay, a commandment. And so we did.

 

Growing up, I didn’t understand why it was so important for grandma to have these dinners. It was clear to me at the time that she hated my mother. Grandma made no effort to hide her disdain for the daughter of a truck driver who married her only son, the prodigy, the great Jewish hope. (I am reminded of that time when she told me, her cheeks rosy with excitement, how I was a product of her bloodline, and not my mother’s.) And mother, poor mother, had to be there, week after week, for the sake of my father, who by this point, was reduced into silence. Amidst all these feuds, I, the only son of an only son, searched for my deliverance in a slab of sizzling meat. Shifting my eyes from the wild flora on the gold rimmed plate to the meatloaf that arrogantly occupied the center of the mahogany dinner table, I carved out my own corridor of safety, and tried never to stray off this beaten path.

 

Achieving deliverance, however, was not without its own challenges. Grandma’s sense of vicious timing could never let her put us out of our misery too quickly. For her, then, the carving of the meatloaf was to be a process, prolonged ad infinitum, in which she can occupy the focus of attention, mistress of the table, with cutlery in hand. She sliced it into very thin slices—’family slices,’ as shtetl Jews used to call the miniscule portions reserved for family members when good hospitality demanded larger portions to be given to guests.

 

Such precise cutting allowed her ample time to recount, in full detail and without resorting to censorship, favorite anecdotes from World War II as she was fighting to keep herself and my father alive. One story in particular stood out. A young woman then, grandma carried her baby, my father, through the Ukrainian woods in an effort to flee the Nazis. It was so cold – freezing, one would expect – and the child was suffering from hypothermia (her term for it – dog cold – is clearly more colorful, but its literal meaning always escaped me). Giving up was not an option, not for grandma. A long period of flight honed her survival instincts. She could not let her child die. She’d die first before that happened. So grandma dug a hole, past the snow, into the warm ground, laid my father inside it, and then covered him with her own body, so that he may receive the warmth he needed.

 

“The warmth!” she exclaimed, as the steam from that hot meatloaf created a gauzy veil that obstructed my full view of her defiant expression. Not being able to fully capture her stare, which was always, in any case, directed downwardly towards my mother and father, I fixed my gaze instead on the egg that found its home inside the meatloaf. It too, was once ‘dog cold,’ but thanks to the thick layer of meat around it, was able to finally enjoy some warmth. But all good things must come to an end, and the egg was being carved before my eyes, ‘home style,’ by my gutsy grandmother – left vulnerable and exposed to the coldness of the air that surrounded our family dinner table.

 

I felt no remorse about the egg as I ate through my slices of meatloaf. ‘This was war,’ I said to the colorful flowers on my plate, ‘and we cannot be held to the same standards of morality as in peacetime.’ On Friday nights, it was every person and egg for himself. Even if my survival instincts would fail me – after all, I was not hardened by combat like my grandmother – I still could not have let ethics deprive me of the pleasure of eating that Eastern European delight. It was worth the wait, the deprivation, the humiliation. Such food was love, I thought (as an overweight boy, I often confused the two). Grandmother loved me, she loved my father, she even loved my mother. She gave us meatloaf, from her sturdy hands did this miracle come ex nihilo, and because of that, the world is somehow safer, and full of grace. Years later I discovered that, in fact, the meatloaf was store bought, the pride and joy of a delicatessen on the corner of Ibn Gvirol and Zeitlin. But by then, I was older, and had developed a taste for other things.

 …

 

My dad called me as I was driving down Reines Street. Perhaps it wasn’t Reines Street, though I wish it were, because the afternoon sun penetrating its thick tree tops always created such a wonderfully dramatic effect. I do recall my father’s voice. These were the very first days of cellphone use, and dad always spoke so formally, as if someone was recording him on the other end. ‘Son,’ he said in an unusually formal tone. ‘Son, your grandmother is dying. If you want to catch her before she passes on, now’s your chance.’

 

It had been seven years since I last saw my grandmother. Our last encounter was extremely unpleasant, though typical in kind. It was the day she moved to the retirement home. For her, I would imagine, that was a moment of personal defeat. She was feisty, my grandmother, and would not be licked. But she also felt the decline, saw the recurrent injuries, the loss of memory, the fading. I, of course, was oblivious to all of that, suffering through my last high school year and what I feared would be my permanent and incurable virginity. Grandma, quite understandably, could not help me with such things. So I tacitly decided not to help her with hers.

 

We drove in silence, father, grandmother and myself, to the Home, and as we arrived at that monument of tortured architecture, with its sense-defying combination of orange stone and purple fixtures, the tension was unbearable. Grandma stepped out, and so did my father, but I stayed. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was my way of taking what little control she once had away from her. It was a cheap move, a sweep of the knee, but I enjoyed the vicious elegance of it, as opposed to the heavy-handedness of grandma’s old guilt-making tricks. I remember her staying there for a second, waiting for me to step outside. I don’t really know what she expected would happen. Perhaps I would hug her? Though we had never hugged, maybe this was the right occasion. In any case, if she ever had that hope, it quickly dissipated, and at the end of that longest moment, grandma bent down, looked at me through the car window, and spat the word ‘cholera’- which, in old Polish woman speak, means ‘may the plague fall on your head you sorry excuse for a grandson.’

 

They didn’t change the purple fixtures. I couldn’t shake that thought as I passed through the doors of the retirement home for the first time. That seemed like a gross miscalculation on their part, and I couldn’t understand why they chose to pursue it nonetheless. The effect of the décor was still on my mind even as I entered my grandmother’s room. She was on the bed, donning a hospital-issued nighty. My god she’s become so small. Like going through one of those contraptions that vacuum packs your clothes by extracting all the unnecessary air. Grandma was lying on her side, her right knee propped up, and was wheezing ceaselessly.

 

The orderly said it was a matter of hours, and that at this point she’s non-responsive. I wanted to say that she’s always been non-responsive, but feared my sarcasm would be understood for what it truly was. I couldn’t look at her for too long. I focused my gaze at her last supper—chicken soup and fruit compote, both barely touched. I couldn’t stop staring at the food, even as grandma’s wheezing become louder and louder. ‘She has trouble with breathing. End is near.’ I finally was able to detach my eyes from the plate long enough to get a look at the orderly. He was Russian born, rather heavyset, with an unaffectionate tone. Grandmother probably loved him. I wonder if they ever talked. They could have swapped gulag stories, and talked about who had it worse. No matter if they didn’t. There are no winners at that game anyway. I took one final glance at my grandmother, wanting some sign from the ether telling me that it was time for me to leave. But none arrived, and grandma’s painful wheezing continued, in an excruciating staccato pace.

 

She died during the night, and had to be buried the next morning. Dad didn’t want to have anyone there outside of my mother and myself. We paid a few beggars who were lurking outside of the cemetery to complete a minyan quorum, and went to identify the body before burial. As I walked in, accompanied by a disheveled chevra kadisha employee, I quickly came to realize two important facts: first, that my grandmother was indeed dead, and second, that someone forgot to straighten her leg before rigor mortis set in, and now it is propped up for good. Dad was so emotionally detached that he did not notice this bizarre turn of events. But how could he not? Wrapped in a shroud, she now looked like an Alpine ridge. Perhaps he just chose to ignore it. My grandma had taught him well.

 

We were escorting her mummified corpse to the gravesite – the same plot she once bought with the reparations money from Germany, whose price was jacked up by adding a few fictitious victims to the list of family dead. The grave was already dug, and there was a concrete slab that was then to be placed over the dead body for aesthetic reasons. We recited the prayers without much fervor, and the undertakers lowered grandma into the grave. Then one of them – a somewhat burly individual, with a shriveled face that gave him an air of contempt – went about setting the concrete slab over the corpse. I had foreseen his predicament even before he did, which allowed me the pleasure of capturing his expression as he realized that grandma’s propped-up knee made it impossible for him to place the slab properly. Yet I didn’t expect his solution to the crisis. In a swiftness that one does not expect from such a hefty individual, he placed the slab over grandma’s knee, and then proceeded to jump on it three times until flattening her out completely. Everyone there was shocked, not so much by the act, but by the matter-of-fact manner in which it was performed. For me, however, it made perfect sense. Less than twenty-four hours after her demise, it was indeed time for my grandmother’s unyielding spirit to finally be broken.

 

 

I’ve told stories about my grandma for a while now. At restaurants, in living rooms, on leisurely walks. Each time they become more embellished – more ornate. The words seem to flow more swiftly, the rhetorical effects become easier to accomplish. And with every retelling, I seem to lose another piece of her. She was always a bit abstract, so far removed. But now she’s become translucent, invisible. She vanishes like a flame under a floodlight. She’s disappearing at this moment, as I write these words. Maybe this will be the last time I tell stories about her. Perhaps now I can finally wait for my grandmother to reappear.

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