This One’s for My Grandmothers

The afternoon I got into Harvard was the day of my grandmother’s funeral. I had never been to a funeral and my then-boyfriend warned me that time worked differently then, when you were at the service and the before waiting and the afterward not waiting and wishing you were still waiting. I said yes, of course, I understand. But I didn’t. There was lots of crying in the synagogue; there was the part at the cemetery where we all gathered round to shovel dirt onto a coffin in an amorphous part of Long Island. These were expected occurrences, but contained within them was an unexpectedness, a kind of loss I couldn’t describe, because I was about to find out where I was going to college, on the way to understanding a little bit more about who I was going to be, and I wanted my grandmother to know that. I wanted she and I to have each other when I was older, when I was just about to become a person.

At 5 p.m., after the funeral, we were at my grandmother’s house, all of us who had just come back from the cemetery, eating cold cuts from Ben’s Delicatessen, and I went upstairs to a small room that had an old turquoise Mac. My e-mail address, fiafia1989@aol.com, told me that I had gotten into Harvard. I did all the normal things I do when I’m excited, mostly jumped. People downstairs heard me yell. My aunt came up after ten or fifteen minutes. She gently suggested that when more people came for dinner I should try harder not to look so happy.

Everyone should have, I think, at least one saddest-happiest day, because maybe the first part of growing up is accounting for the coexistence of opposite truths.

My grandmother didn’t finish college. She got married at 18 to my grandfather, a man eleven years her senior. Within the year she was pregnant. Her daughter and sons went to college, became professionals. But she didn’t go to college. She read voraciously, watched jeopardy religiously, and always won at scrabble. In the year before she died, I sent her books to read, books that I was also reading. Then we would discuss them on the telephone.

“Heellooo,” she would say with an old-style New York Jewish twang, “I want to talk about ‘The Yacobian Building.’”

Then we would. My grandmother was the kind of woman who got what she asked for, but even then I knew there were things for which she couldn’t ask.

A week before my grandmother died I washed her hair in my bathroom. In the way of old people, her skin was like rice paper. I was terrified I would break her, or cut her, but her body was so empty, almost, that I wasn’t certain that if I did accidentally sink a too-long fingernail into her person anything would come out. I warmed the water and had her sit on a bench while I ran my fingers through what was left of her hair. Then I held a hairdryer, set to low, up and fluffed her white tufts.

“I feel so clean,” she said to me.

I have another grandmother also, one who is coming to graduation. She grew up in Cairo, but spent most of her adult life in Rome, where my grandfather worked for a branch of the United Nations. Now this grandmother lives upstairs from my parents in New York City. She also married young—though she has a college degree, she did not complete her graduate education. She also reads voraciously, always wins at scrabble. I call her Nonna, Italian for grandmother, and she is a constant romantic advisor. She has met all the important boyfriends, providing running commentary on all of them during those first meetings.

A few weeks ago I was on the phone with my mother, discussing plans for my grandmother’s trip to Cambridge for commencement.

“Nonna wants you to know you don’t have to get married right away,” my mother said.  “She wants you to know you don’t have to get married ever, if you don’t want to. She says you should live your life.”

This may be a comment on various complaints I have levied recently about not having a boyfriend, about the several pity parties I have thrown myself.

“Well, I don’t know,” I replied. “I mean hopefully I will get married someday.”

But I was missing the point, of course. The point was that she is proud of me for the person I am about to be becoming.

I failed at writing a parting shot about Harvard, I suppose, but that’s because I wanted to say this one’s for you, for you Grandma and Nonna, but I can already anticipate what they would respond. They would say: No, actually, this one’s for you.

Sofia E. Groopman ’12 is a history and literature concentrator in Currier House.

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