Last Week, I Brought An Anti-Semitic Dessert to My Jewish Aunt's House
Last Saturday, I was in Boca eating dinner at my Great Aunt Barbara’s. She's 89.
Seven years ago, her husband passed away. A few years later, Barbara had a stroke that limited her ability to use her right arm. It also messed up her speech. “Yesses” and “Nos,” she’s now mastered, but anything else sounds like nonsense to the untrained ear.
Besides that, she’s doing fine. It’s not like she has dementia. Or at least, it’s not like she has dementia, according to me.
But her children and her children’s children disagree.
“Don’t let her eat that!” says her son Michael, as he rips the Ben and Jerry’s away from my hand while I’m in the middle of scooping ice cream onto her plate. “She would be furious if she knew she was eating that!”
“I wa ah,” my Great Aunt mumbles, as she reaches for the ice cream, which I interpret to mean “I want it.”
Mike ignores her.
“I think she wants it,” I say.
“She doesn’t know what she wants!” he yells back as if it hurts him to miss the cognitively adept mother he used to know — a mother who, I believe, to be sitting right next to him. “If she only knew that Ben and Jerry’s was boycotting Israel, she’d be furious that you brought it into her home.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize,” I say.
My aunt taps my hand which I interpret as “don’t worry about it.”
My cousin Ashley jumps in, “that ice cream might as well have the blood of the Jews, Grandma!”
Aunt Barbara rolls her eyes and laughs. Still, no one hands her the Ben and Jerry’s.
Earlier that day, before dinner, I walked into the living room. It was my first time seeing Aunt Barbara in a while, and as I saw her sitting on the couch, sipping a glass of water, I wondered how bad the stroke and alleged dementia had actually gotten.
We hugged, and then I began,
“I haven’t seen you in nine years,” I said, starting with an opener I hoped she could handle.
“Yes,” she said quickly. Before nodding to tell me she was done speaking. Ah, I remember, it’s just Yesses and Nos.
I continued. “It’s great that you have a pool in the community so that the twins can go swimming.”
“Yes,” she said even faster, like an archer with an arrow, almost as if to show me that although the pronunciation range might not be intact, her mental processing still was.
“Er a le?” she asked.
I have no idea. “What?” I asked back.
“Er A Le!” she said louder.
I looked to Granddaughter Ashley, who was standing on the other side of the room.
“She’s asking about Emily,” Ashley said.
“Ohhh. Yes, my sister is great,” I said. “She’s dating a nice Jewish boy who you’d love.”
My aunt smiled. “Yar mahr?”
“Um,” I thought about it, “Oh! My mom is great!” I said, hoping to have nailed that. “I’m seeing her next week actually! I’ll tell her you say hi.”
“Yes,” she said.
Cousin Ashley looked bored. She walked away.
I imagine it’s hard for Ashley, as Barbara’s granddaughter, not to be able to effectively communicate with the woman who used to be so much more engaging and opinionated and interested.
But after four minutes, I no longer blamed Ashley.
I was out of one-sided statements that could be fulfilled with binary responses. I had covered work, relationships, health, and politics and had even crushed it by pointing to a painting that was clearly meant for a much bigger wall and asking “was that beach portrait in your old home?”.
But then I was done, and I stared at Barbara in silence and then felt uncomfortable for doing so before feeling the urge to leave.
“Do you want me to turn on the TV?” I asked her.
She hesitated. “Yes,” but her eyes said differently. They said that she wanted something else. Something like the ability to say, “No, please don’t. I’d much rather you stay and catch up. I haven’t seen you in almost a decade. God, you look just like your mother. I hope she’s doing alright. How’s her new husband? I hope she’s happy. She deserves it. She was always so good to me. I haven’t heard from her in forever. I get why she doesn’t call. It’s not like I’m very fun to talk to anymore. But. Well…you know, I just…I miss her. Please tell her that.”
I turned on the TV, but her eyes stayed on me. She just stared. I didn’t know what else to do. And so I broke from her gaze and left.
I imagine she’s used to this by now.
The people in her life, all sick of sitting in conversations with her that lack closure. People, like me, who have decided, even momentarily that her inability to communicate well makes it not worth communicating with her at all.
I remember a couple of months ago I was in Palm Springs for a wedding. During the day, my cousins and I went with my Uncle Mike to the hotel pool. He FaceTimed Barbara, and he spent a minute updating her on the wedding. She didn’t have much to say, but then again, he wasn’t really asking Yes or No questions.
My sister asked if she could say hi to her, but my uncle said,
“Honestly Emily, it’s not worth it. She has no idea what’s going on. She probably thinks I’m at a fraternity party.” And then he turned to the camera. “Bye, mom. Love you.”
I don’t know if that hurts Barbara, but I imagine that it does. To be treated as if you’re not there. Being seen by the people in your life who you love the most as just a shell of a person who you once were, rather than what you really are, which is a person trapped in a shell of someone who you don’t think yourself to be.
Back at her house in Boca, the dinner ends, and Ashley asks if I can help her put Barbara to bed. Barbara motions for us to get her walker and waves her hand up and down near the handles, showing me that it first needs to be locked.
We walk her to her bed, and Ashley tells me to help her take off Barbara’s dinner dress, which Barbara is wearing over her nightgown. As we lift up the dress, Barbara, self-conscious and always proud, uses her working right hand to make sure her nightgown doesn’t lift up as well. As I lean in, I smell the scent of powder mixed with women’s perfume.
“Grandma, did you already go to the bathroom?” Ashley asks.
“Yes,” Barbara says.
“Oh, that’s good. And look! We’ve walked you to your bed. So cute. Like our little puppy, peed and walked.” And then she laughs and kisses Barbara on the cheek, smiling.
And though that probably stings a bit, I see that Barbara smiles too.
We lay Barbara down, and as we do so, she motions for her pills.
“These are pretty fun,” says Ashley, picking the pills off the nightstand. “Grandma, if you love me you’ll let me have one.”
Barbara laughs. “No.”
Ashely hands her a pill and some water, gives her another kiss, and then walks out of the room and so I’m now left with Barbara, alone.
She grabs my hand and brushes the top of my hand with her thumb.
Standing above her bed, looking down at this once loud and vibrant woman who is now stuck, on the bottom floor of a two-story duplex, lying alone in a king bed, in a soon-to-be dark room, I feel a sense of sadness.
“Do you need me to do anything else?” I ask.
“Um. Okay. And let me get you the TV remote.” I look around the floral duvet and find the remote at the foot of the bed. I place it by her side. “Hey. Um. Also, thanks for having me over tonight. It was really good seeing you,” I say, in a way that sounds like, “I don’t know what else to say.”
“Yes.” She says with a closed-lip smile.
I bend over to give her a hug. I put my arms around her and then hold her for thirty seconds or so, much longer than I normally do to anyone, as if to say that I’m sorry that life was happening to her this way. And then she pulls me in closer and holds me more tightly than usual as if to say, so am I.
As I pull away, I see her eyes water a bit. And though I can’t know what she’s thinking about, it might be the same thing that I am, which is that once every nine years means that it’s unlikely we’ll ever see each other again, and now neither of us knows what to do or say about that either.
I break from her gaze, walk to the door and turn off the lights.
“Oh, also,” I say, “for when everyone leaves, there’s some anti-Semitic ice cream in the freezer.” Though I can’t see her face in the dark room, I hope she smiles.
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What a great, thought-provoking essay! So many people can relate to it! Thanks for writing such a moving piece!
Lost my nan to Alzheimer’s a few months ago and this is beautiful and also punches me right in the pancreas. What a read 💔