She wasn’t the dead type. She passed away in her style, flashing out from one minute to the next like a light bulb gone dark. The funeral, which I only heard about an hour before it took place, was done with her body still warm.
And I’m thinking, they’ll lower a gravestone over her. On her kitchen cabinet, affixed with white masking tape, is a poem she clipped from the New York Times several years ago. She read it to me and to my mother on the phone, and to my friends who came with me for Shabbos when it was my turn on the family roster. It said, “Don’t place flowers on a cold gravestone, visit me now…”
So we visited. But not for her.
Each room had carpeting and a chandelier, which she called a chilar. Her beds were homey, the rooms small and cozy, and it wasn’t until she got an aide with a stack of supplies that smelled of medicine that I realized the house was old.
Her neighbors sent her meals. They had formed a family of friends as one does with people who send their house smells out into a common hall. She lived in the projects in Williamsburg, on the tenth floor.
When we came, we knew it was a twenty-four hour thing. It wasn’t tempting to brave the stairwell up and down ten flights, our feet echoing the rats away. So we sat, and it was warm and cozy, and Mayerowitz sent in challahs in a plastic bag, and Cinner a kugel.
Babby shopped for her specialties on Lee Ave, her aide pushing the wheelchair while she pulled things off the shelf, smelled them, and spoke to the proprietor about freshness and the news. By now, most of the people who had opened their shops when they first realized they needed to feed a family, were sitting in living rooms bedecked with wedding photos of grandchildren. New, young men were in charge, and they didn’t know that the wheelchair-bound woman was someone to laugh with. But she made it be known. She asked questions and demanded service, all with an outstretched hand rising high above her wheelchair handlebars. She was one of those who remained tall at eighty, taller than me, so the wheels of her chair never overwhelmed her.
She shopped for crumbly, mouth-watering cheesecake. She brought home pickled tomatoes, hot purple eggplant dip and thin slices of pastrami and tongue. And she put up a chulent of lima beans, chicken feet, potatoes and hard-boiled eggs, slow cooked to dreaminess. Her freezer always held cherry twin pops and a chocolate-covered vanilla pop. Her fridge door had chocolate where the butter should be.
There was food but no nosh. She told us, “If you want garbage, bring your own.” So we did.
We ate the seudah in the kitchen. We made kiddush and right away poured the wine into three plastic cups filled up to the half mark with ice. Then we sipped slowly.
Depending on my companion, we sang zemiros. Mostly, we had predictable discussions with Babby.
“If I’d win the lottery,” Babby started, “you’d all be happy.” She’d drink another sip of wine, pour from this bottle and that, and cluck her tongue. “And suddenly people will come knocking on my door on the tenth floor.” She smiled, the pride already hers.
“I let my husband sit and learn all the years. My job was to let him do his.” I wondered what that looked like; what I remember is my grandfather already made old by a stroke. Her allegiance to him made her whisper, “Do you want me to put you in an old age home? I’m keeping you here, because it’s good for you to be here, even though it’s hard for both of us.” I sat behind them on the couch as they cried at the dining room table; he nearly doubled over in his wheelchair, pipes and bags hanging behind him. Later he was gone.