What experience changed your perspective on life?
I was about 11 years old and I got into a horrible fight at school with my brother who was barely more than a year older than me so we were close growing up, but with a lot of tension. We had a lot of mutual friends and I don’t remember the specifics, but I felt as if he had embarrassed me in front of everyone or diminished me into being some sort of child even though our age difference was small. After school I went to my Grandmother’s as I usually did after school at that time, while my brother went to wrestling practice.
My Grandmother had a thick French accent and lived in an enormous, overgrown looking house that was filled from head to toe with books and I LOVED it. My brother was more sporty than me and that got a lot of attention and appreciation from our father who I was more alienated from for being bookish. My Grandmother was my only kindred spirit in the family and for much of my childhood really.
Anyways I kind of tried to conceal my anger from my Grandmother at first and I was helping her clean (which I enjoyed doing because we would listen to great jazz and blues artists which she loved and she would tell me about the lives of jazz musicians and such, it was all very cool to me). At one point though she said something or other about my brother and I just couldn’t help it, I hadn’t cried in front of my grandmother in years but I was just so angry and frustrated that it all came out. I was so embarrassed, but I just told her everything right then about how overshadowed I felt by him, how my father didn’t love me the way he loved him, feelings I was super ashamed of even having.
She kind of let my emotions hang in the air and just quietly comforted me by rubbing my back, but then she told me to come upstairs with her to her bedroom. Her bedroom had a lot of character like a lot of the house and it was filled with photos and books and albums she loved and especially had a lot of Jewish art on the walls.
She fumbled around in her desk pulling out random papers and odds and ends until she pulled out a dusty photo album that I had never seen before which was in itself remarkable because my grandmother loved to show me photos of when she first came to America and my mother and uncles as children, all that.
We sat down on the bed and she opened it and there were all of these black and white photos of my great-grandparents when they were alive. It started with very small children and my great-grandparents looking very finely dressed and happy and page by page there was just this horrible transformation of the children getting older and my great grandparents looking like they had aged 20 years when their children had only aged a few years. I had some understanding of what was going on of course, I knew about WW2, the holocaust etc. Which is to say, I knew an age appropriate version of all that, but I was beginning to get old enough that something darker was lurking, a more visceral reality to what I knew factually to be true.
We got to the exact center of the album with my Grandmother saying very little except people’s names, when the photos were taken, etc. Then right there, over a photo, pressed between the pages, was a patch, a patch of a yellow star with the word “Juif” on it. And my grandmother, pressed the star to her chest, as if holding it to where it would have been sewn an age ago and gave me a small nod and said in her soft-breazy accent “This one was not mine, I don’t think, but Claudette’s” and she pointed down at the picture that the star had been covering.
It was of two teenage girls, young, perhaps 13 or 14, smiling in front of some sort of railing overlooking a river, stars visible in their clothing. One, I immediately recognized to be my grandmother, who… while a wonderful human being had sort of a crooked smile and a big nose that was altogether too interesting looking to be mainstream beautiful. The girl next to her in the photo looked in many ways like her, but definitely had more classic good looks and a certain radiance that really came off the page.
“This is her. Claudette, my sister. We were very close in age, closer even than you and your brother.” she kept punctuating her sentences with a sort of bitter, humorless laugh and would pause, look away and then look back at the photo.
“She was my best friend, but I was very jealous of her, very. She was beautiful, funny. It hurt to even be jealous of her, she was so likable.” She sighed and I caught sight of the numbers tattooed on her arm, my earliest memory was and is of my grandmother giving me my first hair cut in front of the mirror and her guest room and my eyes catching those numbers in the reflection as if for the first time and the sudden curiosity they inspired. I felt a morbid echo of that curiosity then.
Then she said to me “I never would have thought then. That I would have been the lucky one. Your granmere has gotten old. Claudette will be 15 forever.” and her voice broke on that last word, not quite finishing it.
“Try not to fight with your brother Ezra, or else, do not let the fight go on for too long. You’re young, but you’re smart enough to know that most of us are not young forever. Trust me, the older you get, the more desperately you will need those who knew you when you were young.”
And then just like that the moment was over, she replaced the star, shut the album and shut it all away. Then she went back to cleaning, as if her own heart hadn’t broken all those years ago, as if she hadn’t just blown my own fucking young mind.
My Grandmother died when I was 16, but wrote me a card for my high school graduation in advance knowing that she probably wasn’t going to make it. On the day I graduated I opened and read her advice, her hopes for me, all good stuff. It ended with her recalling that day and what it had meant for her and how she hoped I could find balance in life between being true to myself and not sacrificing happiness. The last line was “We all have a responsibility to remember the bad times, even when it hurts to admit that they happened; just as we have a responsibility to remember the good times, even when it hurts to admit that they’re gone. Congratulations on your graduation, I love you with all of my heart.”
I bawled then, I’m tearing up now just thinking about it. Never has another human being had more of an impact on another than my grandmother had on me.