At some point during my grandmother’s shiva, while my relatives milled about in the kitchen sharing stories and slices of lukewarm lasagna on paper plates, I walked upstairs. I pushed open the creaky wooden door to her office, and, without turning on the lights, sat down on the red carpeted floor in front of her bookshelf. Its rows filled a wall no wider than seven or eight feet, but I felt more lost than I ever have in Widener Library’s endless, subterranean stacks. I tilted my head to read the names on spines, trying to figure out if she organized her books alphabetically, or by subject, or if she just placed them on the shelves at random. I had sat down in front of the bookshelf many times, choosing paperbacks to cram in my overnight bag, but I had never asked her that.
The heart of my grandparents’ home, on the half-level between the dining room and the bedrooms upstairs, is the living room that hosts my grandfather’s elaborate music system. On Sunday afternoons we would form a half-circle in front of his stereo the way most families do in front of a television set, the notes of Bach or Beethoven or The Beatles filling the air. But if my grandfather’s living room was its heart, then my grandmother’s office was their home’s crowded, whirring brain. The books that often spilled out of it, like so many uncontained thoughts, only hinted at the deep layers of memory buried inside.
My grandmother had twinkling green eyes and an easy smile. After dinner, when my father and grandfather went upstairs to listen to music, she would turn to me and smack her palm on the table. “So,” she would say, “what are you reading now?” She would ask which books I liked, and why, in a tone that demanded a concrete and specific answer: the tone of the English teacher she once was. Sometimes, she brought me paperbacks from the office. Sometimes, I showed her the papers I wrote for school, or the stories I had started to write on my own. Reading was our ritual, our code, the language that only we could speak. It formed an invisible silo around us, a secret cave where I could hide from the dreary suburbia of my childhood. I never thought to ask what sort of solace it provided her.
My grandmother learned the ritual from her father, Irving Novafastovsky. Fleeing pogroms and revolution, Irving fled his shtetl near Kiev for Romania, then France, then Cuba, and then the United States. He had attended religious school only until about the eighth grade, but in America his immigrant wife taught him to read English, and he devoured novels. The stories he told at home on a dairy farm in Lebanon, Connecticut, blended Old Testament stories with Russian folktales and quoted passages from Abraham Lincoln’s speeches. He rattled off dozens of quippy morality tales. A boy, walking with his father, drops a bag of cherries. The father tells the boy to pick it up, but the boy refuses. The father picks up the bag and walks ahead of the boy, dropping one cherry on the ground every few steps. “You should have taken the bag,” he tells the boy.
My grandmother, Frances, was born on October 26, 1932. Unemployment in the United States was at 32 percent. Franklin Roosevelt, with his promise of a New Deal for the American people, won the presidential election in a landslide a couple weeks later. Fran and her sister, Lila, wore dresses made from empty grain sacks; the girls, and their brother, Sheldon, ate milk and eggs from the farm and vegetables from the garden. They weren’t well off, but they had it better than most.
As a child, my grandmother hid in an apple tree with a book instead of doing her chores. In Jersey City, where the family later moved, she was top of her class at Snyder High School, vivacious and popular, the lead in her senior class play. Once, on the street, a man claiming to represent a modeling agency approached her. But the job would have required straightening her curly hair, so she turned it down.
One day, toward the end of high school, her principal knocked on her parents’ door with a letter of recommendation for New York University. For a young woman from her background, attending college was rare, and attending a private college unthinkable. But she went, commuting from home, working full time during the day. She thought she might study literature, or maybe anthropology—she wanted to know what made people people. But she chose speech as her major, a good, practical subject that might help her find work.
Her plans changed, in her junior year of college, when she met my grandfather, Milton, at a dance at the local Jewish Community Center. Though he had come with a date, a friend insisted on introducing him to my grandmother—he thought, for some reason, that they would bond over their shared love of sports. In fact, neither of them followed sports, but both, thinking the other did, feigned fandom for the evening. She gave him her phone number, and he called her for a date the next day. She kissed him as soon as she got into the car. Two weeks later, they were talking about marriage. The wedding came several months after that, followed by a baby, and then three more.
For most of his life, my grandfather managed clothing stores. He worked six days a week, but it was still a struggle to support four children. So, at the age of 33, my grandmother enrolled in local college to get a master’s degree in literature and a teaching certificate, while substitute teaching at Ramapo High School and the town’s Jewish day school.
As a teacher she was eminently knowledgeable, extremely thorough, and maybe, sometimes, a little strict. She prepared for her lessons with the same rigor that she expected from her students. Sorting her papers after she died, my father found a principal’s classroom observation report describing one of her lessons on the iconic Soviet novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. “Before delving into these challenging studies, you recapitulated an excellent historical background,” the principal wrote. “You have the ability to crystalize a considerable amount of historical data into a relatively brief, yet quite comprehensive synopsis.”
Many of my grandmother’s students loved her—would run into her, years later, and thank her for teaching them to appreciate literature. But, like all teachers, she had misbehaving ones, too. Already exhausted by the never-ending demands of work and family, she felt frustrated by those students, and frustrated by her own inability to reach them.
Sometimes, bouts of melancholy waylaid her. The tragedies of the world—wars, genocides, environmental disasters—seemed to overwhelm her. She preferred dark, gloomy writers—Roth, Hardy, Shakespeare during his third, tragic, period—and she often seemed to internalize their perspectives.
Yet she remained, in her adult life, vivacious, charming, able to strike up a lively conversation with anyone. And as she and my grandfather grew older, their passionate young love developed into the easy intimacy of old age. In their retirement, they traveled all over the world—Italy, Egypt, Israel. Later, when her arthritis made traveling impossible, they were equally content to drive around the Hudson Valley. Wherever they walked, they held hands.
I’ve had the life—the privilege, the opportunities—that my grandmother might have had if she were born 60 years later. When I was accepted to Harvard, my parents told me not to worry about the money, or the distance from home. They told me—and the world told me, too—that I could study whatever I wanted. Of course, I wanted to study literature. Money, marriage, children—those things were far from my mind.
When I arrived at Harvard, I found miles of books waiting for me to read them, and, even better, dozens of other students waiting to talk about them. At Harvard, talking about books was no longer a secret ritual. At Harvard, talking about books was cool. Talking about books was something you did at cocktail parties, at leisurely lunches, late at night with the cute guy down the hall. There was a whole new vocabulary to it, words like mimesis and deconstruction, a whole new code. There were clothes for it, coffee shops for it, a certain disaffected, ironic attitude to adopt. I was immersed in this; I was intoxicated by this; I was, I found to my delight, good at this.
Every few months I sent my grandmother a few lines about the books I read in English classes, sometimes with a paper attached. She always wrote back to me quickly, enthusiastically. I can still read her messages in my email archives. “The Wife of Bath shows us a changing world from the spoken to the written, from royal authority to the authority of the Scriptures, etc.,” she wrote when I sent her an essay I had written on Chaucer. “I just loved reading the paper, not only for what it said, but for the person that presented these wonderful ideas.” She responded even more enthusiastically when I sent her the articles I had begun to write for The Crimson and The Advocate. “I was so moved!” she wrote in response to my first Fifteen Minutes cover story. “The writing was wonderful.”
I am ashamed to see now that few of my responses to those emails are more than a line. “Thank you so much, Nana! Love you,” was often all I wrote. I was busy, I reasoned. My academic work was getting harder; I had extracurricular positions to seek, fellowships and prizes to apply for, people to impress.
I saw my grandmother for the second-to-last time the summer before my junior year, when we drove together to my cousin’s wedding. I had finally read “Goodbye, Colombus,” one of her favorites, and we talked, for a while, about Roth. She seemed sad, unusually so. A news piece about Syria came on the radio, and she sighed—it made her think about the Holocaust, about slavery, about all the evil in the world. But the next day, at the rehearsal dinner, she held court in the center of the room, brimming with happiness, enveloping everyone in her pride.
A few weeks later, the heart troubles that had long plagued her got worse. Strange symptoms sent her in and out of the hospital, for procedures that never seemed to work. She was having trouble sleeping, breathing, seeing; she couldn’t read. She couldn’t remember the words for things, couldn’t remember what she had done the day before.
My dad told me to call her. I said I would, but a week went by, and then another one. Crimson elections were about to start; I was running for Magazine Chair. A third week went by, and my grandmother was hospitalized for the last time. My dad read her (for she could no longer read it herself) one of my Crimson articles. It was one of the last I’ve written, a lighthearted profile of a cheese vendor in the square. “It cheered her up,” my dad said. “But you should call her.”
When I came home for Thanksgiving, I drove to Columbia-Presbyterian with my parents. My mother brought containers of chicken soup, the only food my grandmother could stand. We entered her room, where she sat, under several blankets, on a chair by the window. My grandfather sat beside her, rubbing her feet because they were cold. She looked shrunken, small: Her hair was unkempt and the lines in her face looked deeper. She gazed out the window, not at anything, particularly. But when we entered, she broke into a wide grin.
She looked at me. “I loved…” She started to speak, but trailed off. Her mouth twitched, as though searching for a word. “The cheese! I loved the cheese!” I knew that she meant my article. I wanted to cry. Instead, I sat beside her. I told her that I had just been elected Magazine Chair. I showed her a picture of the staff, and she smiled. I told her what I was reading in school, even though I knew that she did not really understand. After about half an hour or so, her eyes started to close, and we helped her get into bed. She woke up a few minutes later, confused, scared, screaming—she needed to go to the bathroom, but she didn’t know how to ask.
In the car on the way home, I suggested to my parents, desperately, that we get Nana some books-on-tape to distract her. They agreed halfheartedly, but we all knew that she would not be able to follow a storyline, or perhaps even tolerate the sound. I returned to school, and I got the call a few days later. It was not just heart problems. She had a disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob which causes the brain’s tissue to degenerate rapidly. Creutzfeld-Jakob is extremely rare; it is always fatal. It turns the cerebrum into something resembling a kitchen sponge, or a bookshelf with half its books removed. My grandmother died just days after her diagnosis.
It is always difficult to see the belongings of a lost loved one: the tube of toothpaste, rolled up for the ease of a hand that will never again grasp it; the clothes laid out for an evening that will never come. But sitting in front of my grandmother’s bookshelf, something else bothered me, too. I realized how many of the books sitting on her shelves we had never discussed. Did she share my love of Edith Wharton? My distaste for Jonathan Franzen? I realized how little I had known about her.
Her bookcase seemed to offer both everything and nothing: pages and pages of words that must have made her think, feel, laugh, and cry, but no clue about her thoughts or feelings, what made her laugh or what made her cry, and why. I searched for some hint of her in the margins, some annotation or haphazard scrawl. But she left nothing, not even a jotted-down phone number, not even a folded-down page.
My grandfather told me to take as many books as I wanted. I brought home a bundle of them, chosen for no particular reason: Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Ubervilles,” DeLillo’s “White Noise,” Morrison’s “Jazz.” I have been going through them, slowly, as college comes to an end. There are not many more grades to earn or prizes to win, no more positions to strive for or people to impress. In the fall, I will go to graduate school, another place with another library, another crowd of people eager to talk about books. I want nothing more than to tell her this; I want nothing more than to tell her what I am reading now.