My maternal grandmother Essie Buchman died on Monday, 8 June, at the age of 104. She was buried three days later, next to my grandfather Abraham, in Pinelands Cemetery, between the mountain and the sea, in Cape Town, South Africa. My father called me somberly, but without drama, to share the news that Essie had died in her sleep. She had had a cough, according to the night nurse at Highlands House, but had died peacefully. “It was such a shock,” said the nurse. “She had a normal day.” My grandfather had left enough money to support my grandmother until she was 103, and my father managed to joke when he called to share the news that she had looked in her bank account and decided it was time to go.
My grandmother lived in an assisted living home in the suburbs of Cape Town for the last twelve years of her life, the first four of them with my grandfather when he was still alive. In the early years, Essie and Abraham had a small apartment in the assisted living home, and took their meals together and with friends, mostly friends who were twenty years younger than they were. Even in their nineties, they had looked decades younger than they were, thanks at least in part to the diet of yoghurt, apples, and whole-wheat crackers that my grandmother had lived on in her teenage years and re-introduced when my grandfather had a heart attack at the age of 50.
Eight years ago, when my mother had received the call that my grandfather was dying, three weeks shy of his hundredth birthday, she had leapt on a plane and arrived moments before his death. He had waited for her, and her last moments with him were beautiful and present. He was almost 100, but his death was a shock, and her grief enormous. Now, with Essie’s death, we were navigating a worldwide pandemic and there was no question of leaping anywhere. My mother wrestled briefly with the idea of flying back for the funeral, but having already made the 16,000-mile round trip once this year, it seemed wise to maintain the quarantine that my parents had been observing for the past ten weeks.
The author’s mother, Herzlia, and her parents, Essie and Abraham.
My mother and father had been in Cape Town in early March, just before the lockdown, and had flown back to New York, somewhat dramatically, on the very last flight out before President Ramaphosa shut down all international flights. She had spent every day of that trip with my grandmother at Highlands House, as she had done every six months for many years, but my grandmother was “not really there” and had not been “there” for almost all of the eight years since my grandfather died. Traveling all that way
- at some risk - did not seem wise or safe, especially since it was highly unlikely that a funeral would take place or, if it did, that anyone would attend. She visualized an empty cemetery, my grandfather’s tombstone, a minyan of strangers saying the prayers over my grandmother’s coffin.
But to her surprise, some of her dearest friends called to say that they would put on masks and go to the funeral. These were old friends from my mother’s youth, who she had kept up with in her own way, which is to say, with great love in her heart but not a lot of consistency. In fact it was really my grandmother who had held these friends of my mother’s close to her. They had visited Essie in the assisted living home for years, as if she were a beloved and entertaining relative. Of course my mother shouldn’t come, they told her. They would say the prayers for her. Now, she told me, she had to revise the lens. The funeral would happen without her, but it would include people she knew and loved and the Rabbi, from the Gardens Synagogue, who, despite the fact that there were very few burials taking place, had so known and adored my grandparents that he was willing to make an exception for this one. So now her absence became more poignant, because she would not be standing at the graveside alongside the other mourners. Having lived thousands of miles from her parents for forty years, once again she would be absent.
Essie was born in Kovno, Lithuania, at a time of anti-Semitic pogroms that she had personally endured and survived. They emigrated to Africa when she was 10 years old. The story went that when she arrived in Johannesburg, the immigration officer commented that she was very fat. “You should see my sister,” she replied. From that day forward, she vowed, she would be slim and stay slim. Her father was a baker, and although the smell of bread was one of her most beautiful memories, I never saw her eat a single slice.
In her prime, which lasted well into her nineties, my grandmother had a penetrating wit, an offbeat sense of humor, a worldliness and direct gaze that attracted many younger people to her. When my friend Catherine and I made a trip to South Africa, we spent many evenings with my grandparents in their tiny apartment. My grandmother was not a great cook, but she had flair. She made delicious Wiener schnitzel and a very unusual apple pie, which was uncharacteristically heavy on butter and short on apples. It was okay to give visitors rich food, but the family were encouraged to eat small portions to stay trim. Because Catherine and I were there, my grandfather splurged on expensive chardonnay and joked about the fact that we were modern women who poured our own wine. Without my own parents there, my grandparents were strangely liberated. I recall those evenings being light-hearted and a bit raucous. Catherine, who has attended many glamorous dinner parties referred to the meals as the best dinner parties she’d ever attended.
My grandmother could dive into deep intimate issues while also being one of the most anxious, controlling, and stubborn people I’ve ever met. When I was a teenager, she looked at me with her steely blue eyes and asked, “Why so definite?” But I knew she loved my willfulness. She was a vivid storyteller, and set us tests to make sure that we had retained the stories she had told about relatives in Kovno, her beloved relatives and friends who were left behind in 1926, “all of them perished. All of them gone.” I passed those tests and still remember those names as if they had been etched in stone.
Her memory began to fail her in her mid-nineties. It did not register with us then that her confusion at the time of my grandfather’s death was not sudden. It became clear only in retrospect that his tender heart and attention to her had obscured the severity of her dementia. After he died, she asked after him twenty, thirty times a day. It was as if he were living in a parallel universe and she was always just missing him, but it all seemed perfectly logical to her. He had obviously just gone out for a walk, or had already eaten lunch, or he was having a rest. She was troubled by his absence, but he was always just around the corner. Later she would accuse everyone of forgetting to tell her that he had died — again, twenty times a day. Each loss a fresh loss. So when she stopped asking about him, it was a relief, but it marked the beginning of a more serious decline.
Oddly, her new self was more relaxed and easygoing than she had ever been in her active days. Along with the details of her history, she seemed to let go of her lifelong anxieties. She suddenly loved bananas, and bread. Her old self would have been horrified. She grew plump. Her nails were painted a garish pink by the staff in the nursing home, a color she would have loathed. Her hair, always done, always stylish, lay flat on her head. She would have been appalled. She always recognized my mother, her only child, although she did ask on a number of occasions if she had siblings. Having been so deeply, and sometimes intrusively involved with me, my sister and our whole extended family, it was strange and unsettling to find that we had stopped existing for her, as if we had never been. Her intense scrutiny, her presence in my life had been so huge, I could not believe that I had simply disappeared.
Hours after my grandmother died, my grandfather’s friend Tamar called my mother to say that she would be attending the funeral, and my mother reported that Tamar had offer to “zoom her in.” “Zoom you, mom?” I asked. “How will that work?” My mother at 80 is healthy but finally agreed to supplement her hearing with powerful hearing aids. If you call her in the morning, she says she needs to first put “her ears in” and when she does, she hears not just what you say, but what is unspoken. She inherited this from her own mother, but without the hard edges. She recently discovered WhatsApp and FaceTime. “Isn’t technology WONDERFUL?” she says. Essie, the ultimate connector, would have loved it. She wasn’t quite sure how it would go, but the funeral would begin at 9 o’clock in the morning, and Tamar had it all worked out.
When my father called after the funeral, I heard first a long pause, which felt, even on the phone, filled with silent awe. Perhaps, in this strange lockdown, we have learned to read intimacy in new ways. My father is not prone to dramatic statements or gushy sentimentality. “That,” he said, “was one of the most extraordinary funerals I have ever been to.” My father, who has fine hearing, sat next to my mother as Tamar Facetimed her. Her phone in hand, she panned across the scene — the grey drizzly day, the small gathering of her friends in their raincoats and facemasks, my grandfather’s tombstone, and next to it, the hole in the ground where my grandmother was to be buried. The Rabbi addressed my mother directly throughout the short service. “He spoke into her ears” said my father, “and talked only to her.” Then Tamar approached the casket and my mother was led right up to the edge of the grave and watched as the coffin was lowered into the earth and dirt was thrown into the grave.
When I asked my father if anyone had filmed the funeral and he said, “No. It cannot be retrieved.” Sitting in my own house, on my own couch, the call, right after the funeral, the cadence of his account, pulled me into that dusty, drizzly setting that no video could have reproduced. My mother described the funeral to me again later that day. It was a description of her awe of technology as much as her awe of the ineffable. Tamar, she said, had pulled off a magic trick. My mother had talked to each of her friends, and she had heard them all so clearly, in real time from 8,000 miles away, while my father craned over her shoulder to see if he could capture a glimpse of his own parents’ tombstones. And it was not the mechanics of how Tamar, who my mother called an angel, did it, but the fact that she had thought of it, and the fact that a funeral had taken place even in the midst of illness and remove.
Recently, my sister told me that when she was eleven, my grandmother had the idea that they should secretly record the Friday night dinner conversations on a tape recorder so that they could dissect them the next day. They hid the tape recorder in a kitchen drawer, and shared meaningful glances throughout the dinner. But my grandmother had forgotten to push the record button, so there was nothing on the tape when they played it back. But it was the listening at the table, that attention to stories, the tests of “do you remember so and so,” the constant repetitions — these were the things that mattered to her. In our family, you would never have said, “You’ve told that story a hundred times.” Of course you told the story a hundred times. That way it could be embellished and embroidered and perfected.
My grandmother carried around with her at all times a small red address book, filled with phone numbers in her scratchy, almost illegible handwriting, and when we were young she would pass us the worn little notebook and ask us to “dial” and make calls for her, her little mini-secretaries. Lately, I have wondered why, with perfectly good eyesight, she needed us to make her calls for her, like Hollywood assistants, and it strikes me now that she was teaching us her most important lesson — to reach out and connect. Although it was not filmed or recorded in any way, the funeral can be retrieved, and it was and will be over and over again in the retelling of it. She would be proud. We’d been listening.