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Circles of Love

Shifra Leah Kahn

I was a child who never fit into a society where the normal family was one father, one mother, two children

Thursday, October 06, 2016

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H ow do you apologize to someone who cuts off all contact, someone who is consumed with anger at your actions and feels betrayed, someone you love and will always love?

As a child, I did the only thing possible. Each day, after school, I would stand outside her house and wait, hoping that I would be allowed back in to make my peace. I would walk the crazy paving that had been laid when I was a child. Then, it had been a game to avoid the cracks; now I was trying to repair the cracks in our love.

Day after day, week after week, I would stand outside her house, watch and wait for a sign to show I was forgiven. Autumn leaves collected in corners. Scooping up a handful, I allowed them to waft through my fingers, a cloud of pleading. Winter was bitter. I left footprints of love that were ignored.

It took me a long time to choose just the right card for her birthday. All that day, I kept patting my pocket, reassuring myself it was still there. As I stood there, the warmth of the sun on my back, I visualized the door opening. I would be ushered inside and… I pushed the card through, listened to the sound as it hit the wooden floor — heard no response, not even the tread of footsteps. She knew I was there, but no one dared invite me inside. No one dared go against her word.

I was a child who never fit into a society where the normal family was one father, one mother, two children. We were one father, one grandmother, four siblings and an assortment of aunts who we called “the aunts.” My mother had succumbed to polio after five days’ illness, leaving four children — I, at seven, the oldest — my devastated father, and her grieving mother, my grandmother.

In those days, death meant all vestige of previous life was hidden away deep within drawers or sealed cardboard boxes pushed to the back of wardrobes to gather dust. I was never told my mother had died — and I never asked where she had gone. With the hindsight of time, it was, I realize now, the way they coped with tragedy. I never even questioned when we moved in with my grandmother to her new house.

My grandmother did a brave and selfless thing. She did it for my mother, her precious firstborn. For my mother who, after her father had died, learned to drive so she could help in the family business. For my mother, who had given her the grandchildren that softened her mourning for her beloved husband. For my mother who, in the eyes of my grandmother, would still be alive had my grandmother not refused, against the advice of her doctor, to vaccinate her against polio.

Ignoring the fact that she was in the early stages of multiple sclerosis, she gave our devastated family a home. She took us in, knowing she was destined to become more and more disabled. And as difficult and headstrong as she was, she loved us. I know, without a doubt, she never hesitated to take us in, not for a moment.

Situations evolve, and what was never meant to be, happened without anyone realizing. As my grandmother became more and more disabled, the world of this proud, capable, and elegant woman shrank to one room and the corridor that led to the bathroom. She began to rely on me, trusting me with tasks no child should be expected to do.

She was tall, a head taller than me; when helping her on and off the commode I was frightened she would fall, I grabbed at her clothes like a lifebelt. As time went on, she eschewed any help but mine. I was the only one who saw her frailties, her struggles, and her vulnerabilities.

Even as she struggled, I knew she loved me. I remember laughing together, sitting on her bed and sharing confidences. One day, tired after an interrupted night, I fell asleep on her bed. She struggled, step by torturous step, to reach me and cover me with her quilt. Then she bent over and kissed my forehead.

The burden continued. There was no malice or forethought; I was there, I was a girl, I helped — and helped and helped. Through nights when time after time I rolled out of bed to reposition her legs to alleviate the cramps that must have been excruciating, only to crawl back to snatch a modicum of sleep. Through days punctuated by shrill bells that summoned me to help. My childhood vanished, my schooldays disappeared.

One day I took my life back. I decided to ignore my grandmother’s assertion that “Girls just get married. You can be a secretary!” and fulfil my ambition to become a teacher. To follow my dream I needed to take public exams — study uninterrupted, know that my nights were my own, go to school without feeling guilty that I was abandoning my responsibilities. I cornered my father, saying, “Either we all leave — or I’ll go on my own! It’s your choice.”

And leave we did — to a dark, gloomy cottage with coal fires and damp, a far cry from the home we had abandoned. But to me it was a palace, freedom. I cooked in the miniscule kitchen, laid fires before I went to bed, got up before dawn to coax heat from truculent coals, took clothes to the launderette, ironed shirt after shirt — and it was still freedom.

I must have been the first person to rebel against my grandmother and she was angry, very angry. Even confined to one room, she ruled with an iron hand and I was banned, forever. She would have nothing to do with me. Phone calls were rejected. The door remained firmly closed. But she was still my grandmother. She had given us a home. I loved her — in spite of everything.

From autumn through winter to the promise of spring I stood outside that house, gazing at her window. I could close my eyes and imagine what she was doing, almost hearing her voice as she ordered her world. Once or twice I even thought I saw the curtain twitch and someone look out. But the door stayed closed and I would return home to prepare supper and tackle my homework.

Then one day, with the garden alive with a rainbow of roses, there were vans outside the house. Out of sight I watched, catching a glimpse of my aunt directing the men. They struggled with the heavy old furniture; the dining-room table and chairs, the hall table on which she would place a tiny screw of paper containing two chocolates to sweeten our day, the mirror from the corridor. The house was too big for one frail old lady, and my grandmother moved to an apartment beneath her daughter, my aunt. “Come and see!” said my aunt. And a couple of weeks later, I did. Once again, I stood outside a door, taking a deep breath. I knocked. The door opened.

It was a new start for us both. I was welcomed back without a word. It was a silence that allowed her to forgive while her dignity remained intact. Several times a week I would visit, and we would talk. She never asked for my help — and I never gave it; we became grandmother and granddaughter.

I left for my chuppah from her apartment and even though I wanted her with me, at the last minute she refused to leave the safety of her four walls. I understood, of course I did. Pictures of her with her children show a tall, beautiful woman standing proud. Now she was confined to a wheelchair.

Once I had children, I would pack up a car full of children and paraphernalia, and every Wednesday we would spend the afternoon together. The children would chatter, include her in their games and she would laugh, really laugh. My children brought her the joy she had missed from us, her own grandchildren.

Near the end of her life, I crept into her room. In bed, alone most of the time, she rarely opened her eyes. I took her hand. “Grandma,” I whispered. Her head turned toward me, her eyes gazed into mine. “I’m sorry.”

“No,” she said. “It was wrong. I’m the one who is sorry.”

I want to tell her that it made me the person I am, gave me the strength to weather life’s problems, that I loved her. But she closed her eyes and drifted away.

I didn’t need to hear her words to know what she felt — how the circle was closed, how we were tied together not in hate, but in love. And in forgiveness. 

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