Micah swept into the kitchen, his arms hugging paper sacks crowned with curly topped carrots and bunches of radish. We were in St. Louis visiting his grandmothers and all the others we’d left behind when we moved to New York City. “I’m going to make a collage with Savta,” he said, “a food collage.” Savta is Micah’s paternal grandmother, and he hadn’t seen her in three years, as he’d been honing his skills as a chef at Gramercy Tavern.
My mother-in-law was once an artist, a weaver of silk tapestries, cerulean wefts with golden warps piercing through. But Alzheimer’s had taken her mind, her ability to distinguish between the beets and the carrots Micah began slicing, razor thin, on his mandolin. And macular degeneration had claimed her eyes, so we never knew exactly what it was she saw anymore when she gazed into our faces. She had taken to her bed in the past few months and we wondered if each visit was the last.
“I invited Namaw to come along,” Micah said, as he carved a curling strand of cucumber.
“Namaw said yes?” My own mother hadn’t seen Savta in over a decade. They had shared dinners sometimes through the years, but once my mother-in-law’s Alzheimer’s set in, she bowed out.
“Well, she said she isn’t too good with people who can’t talk—she gets close to people by talking,” Micah laughed. “But I told her it would be okay.”
I bit my cuticle, saying nothing. My children have trained me to keep silent at times like these.
We drove over early the next morning. Hattie, her caretaker, had wheeled Savta to the kitchen table. She waited there, hunkered down like a small bird, expectant.
I sat across, feeling helpless. I had feared my mother-in-law, at first. Her dark moods, her strange silences, her blunt Israeli style. When my husband and I returned to St. Louis every few months now to check in on her, though she grinned in his presence, she didn’t seem to know who I was. “Mah zeh?” she used to say to her son, when she still had words. “What’s this?”
I began to wonder if my own mother would show up.
Micah laid out a dozen plastic containers across the counter. He was intent on having his grandma “play” with the food, hoping she’d take some pleasure in it. A way of sharing who he is with his savta, the person he has only recently become. I knew he was hoping to meet her in some land beyond language.
I’ve practiced meditation for the past few years. The daughter of a woman who is always the first to jump in when silence strikes, I’m making my way into silence now. I took deep breaths, hoping all would go well.
The doorbell rang. My mother was speaking to Hattie as if she was deaf; the way folks speak when they’re in a foreign country, desperate to be heard.
Savta, who had only been babbling gibberish the past few months, suddenly found a few Hebrew words. Micah’s forehead creased as he plumbed the depths of his day school Hebrew, trying to answer.
My mother swept through the kitchen, kissing everyone, carrying a vase of orange geraniums. She sat in the chair next to me, saying something about a beautiful day, but grew quiet as she watched Micah pull a chair up close to his savta.
He dipped a spoon into one of the containers, and then spread a layer of black lentils atop a puree of golden beets. He crowned these with thin disks of watermelon radishes and plums. Then he held a spoonful of lentils to his grandmother’s mouth.
She peered up at him, leaning in toward the six-foot-four-inch man he’d become, the boy she’d once chased on the deck outside: the four-year-old and his savta, gathering leaves, pine-cones and sticks for an October collage.
Savta nuzzled her face into Micah’s, while he giggled, nuzzling her back. Only him. She kissed and cradled his chin with her hand, making smacking noises, murmuring, “Bubelah, bubelah.”
My mother watched the two of them silently. I thought I saw tears in her eyes.
Later, we walked beneath the trees at Concordia Seminary, my mother and me. Savta and her husband once planted trees in their backyard, a new tree each time a grandchild was born. “I can’t believe how much she can express,” my mother said.
Hattie ate the warm vegetable salad Micah constructed in patient concentration before he flew home. When I thank Hattie each time we leave St. Louis, she always says, “It’s a blessing, child, it’s a blessing.”
Savta ran a few slices of plum over her gums as she watched Micah plate the salad. She tasted the prayerful presence of her grandchild.