The drive to my grandmother’s house goes like this.
Touch down in Tel Aviv each December and feel the breezes like sighs. Pick up the luggage, hope there aren’t too many Birthright trips clogging the line. Argue with the rental car guy.
We want a Mazda 3, we say. So does everyone, he says. We know there are some left, we can see them in the parking lot, we say. He relents. We cheer.
Mazda 3 secured, tune the radio to Galgalatz. If it’s playing b.s. music, try a bunch of different stations until the sound of Arik Einstein or Naomi Shemer pipes in. Then watch the wheels of the car kick up the red soil, smell the lantanas by the side of the road (and when you get close, the acid smell of chicken shit). Finally, finally breathe.
I’ve made the trip from Ben Gurion Airport to my savta Avia’s house more times than I can reasonably count. We went twice a year beginning three weeks after I was born, plus bonus trips for weddings and the occasional holiday. But time didn’t erode the feeling of crossing into another dimension when I passed Sa’ad Junction; if anything, it only increased.
Besides the great weather, what I loved most about going home was that my grandma never grasped what my life in the U.S. was like. She didn’t care what classes I was taking; she had no context for the anxieties of applying to college or, for that matter, climbing the ranks of The Crimson.
Instead, she touched the parts of me that are entirely divorced from my ambition: my passionate shopping habits, my laziness, my somewhat insincere professions of love for the gloopy seeded cookies she made each Wednesday. For a long time she didn’t know I wanted to go to Harvard. She had a different kind of knowledge — the certainty that the first afternoon I spent at her house I’d lug out the hammock chair and swing around for hours on the porch.
I saw her last in January 2019, at my aunt’s. We hugged our goodbyes and promised to meet again in March, when I planned to return for spring break. That evening, we drove past Sa’ad, past the lantanas, past the red soil. We returned the rental car and shuffled onto the plane. We silently laughed at the Birthright girls talking about how they’d found love with whatever hot Israeli drifter accompanied their trip, their voices like squeaky toys.
Then a month later, my mom called me. Savta had died overnight — a freak medical accident during a routine surgery, the oxygen leaving her brain in the hallway of the ICU.
I remember standing on the corner of DeWolfe Street, dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to do with all my love for her, my expectations of the years we would have together, my hope for another drive back home. They held her funeral that week, the parts of my life she had never known keeping me from it.
Our trips to Israel since she died have been just fine. I still love the weather when it gets so hot your iPhone stops working if you leave it in the car. I love the lantanas, the bougainvillea, and the citrus trees, too. But I miss shedding my empty worries and becoming the version of myself she knew. I’ve now had to do the worst kind of math: subtract one person I love from the earth, subtract one person who loves me.
After she died I made a promise to myself to be better — to stir my awkwardness until it dissolves, to pour my feelings for her into my parents, my brother, my acquaintances.
When I’m in the car with my mom, I play her favorite songs — the ones about little houses with red roofs, the ones about lilacs in the spring, the ones with no words, just melodies. We sing along as we watch the Massachusetts coast speed by, imagining it’s the Mediterranean.
Sometimes, when I roll down the window to smell the ocean, I dream I’m on a different road, headed to see her again. I pretend she’s still alive.
And one day, I hope, someone will feel the way I felt as they’ll be driving home to me.
— Shera S. Avi-Yonah ’21 is the Managing Editor of The Crimson’s 147th Guard. This is one of eight essays published as a part of FM’s 2020 “Synapse” feature, about gaps and how we fill them.