The Gifts She Left| September 6, 2022
If you tell a child something often enough, she’ll believe you
“You’re a lefty,” my grandmother would tell eight-year-old me. Proudly, triumphantly, like it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.
“Like my mother, aleha hashalom. Ah, she was a clever woman,” Oma would add, in her impeccable English, with its heavy German accent. “A brrillyant voman.”
To hear her tell it was to have my heart swell anew in every telling. What an educated woman Oma’s mother was, what a memory! She could quote pages and pages of Hirsch by heart!
Oma had so much influence on my childhood, but I only discovered it later. As I turned from teen to wife and moved away, the opportunities I’d wasted sat heavily on me.
Now I realize how many of the stories she shared, formed the person I am today.
Hearing in passing about a story I’d written for a composition assignment at school, Oma once again referenced the great-grandmother who had passed away decades before I was born.
“You’re a lefty, just like my mother. So intelligent. What a gifted writer she was.” And Oma patted my hand and beamed. “No, you didn’t steal this talent, girl. Nicht gestohlen.”
If you tell a child something often enough, she’ll believe you. My struggles with scissors in kindergarten and smeared writing and spiral notebooks in high school were insignificant when deep inside I knew I was the lucky one, the lefty. I was just like my great-grandmother, and she had real struggles. She had her left hand strapped behind her back in school. She was mocked and jeered at, the Linke. And still she was intelligent and talented. And how she wrote!
“G-d gave you a gift, girl,” Oma said once, wagging a playful finger at me. “Use it.” I wonder now if she knew what alliteration was, but that particular phrase lodged itself firmly within my heart.
When a high school teacher read out parts of a story I’d written in English class as an example of good writing, I was happy and flattered, if not a little embarrassed. But it was no surprise. Well, yes. I had a gift. I was left-handed!
I went to seminary and to work. Through it all I listened to Oma’s stories, asked for advice, always ended up on her kitchen chair eating Schnecken (who would have thought those heavenly yeast spirals’ name means snails? No matter, they’re the backdrop of my childhood). She celebrated with me when a poem of mine was published, beamed with pride when I won a story competition.
“Let me tell you about my mother…” Oma would say. And I never tired of it.
When I married and moved to Israel, I left a part of my heart in Oma’s.
Then I lost her slowly — each time I saw her in my yearly visits to England, she was so much farther away from the Oma I’d seen the year before. And yet, instead of watching a disintegration, it seemed to me that I was seeing a distillation of the woman I had known and loved — a difficult but strangely emotive paring down. Her pure essence shone through — her gratitude to Hashem for everything, the love she radiated for all of us, for humankind.
The last time I saw Oma, I climbed the stairs in the old age home hesitantly, dread lining my stomach. But how could I not go? Every parting, every year, meant never knowing what the coming year would bring.
It hurt. Oma was tiny in her chair, shrunken to nothing under the blankets. Sweat trickled down my back as I breathed into the room that was overheated for her sake. Every part of me wanted to disappear, to get up and walk out, to say this was a mistake.
My eyes roamed the walls plastered with Oma’s nachas — her children and their children and theirs — links on her chain. Again and again, I forced my eyes back to Oma, focused on why I had come. Forced a smile as we started to sing her favorite Shabbos songs and felt it become real as she came to life. Oh, how her neshamah shone through as she clutched the siddur and tapped her hand in time to our singing.
My father placed her hand gently on my bent head, Give a bentsh, Oma. And I tried to squash the pain down, to concentrate on the love. Don’t let the tears fall.
I held them at bay as we whispered good Shabbos, good night. Should I say goodbye? When I reached the bottom of the stairs I turned back, half expecting the shards of my splintering heart to be littered across the stairs.
But they weren’t, and it was Shabbos, and we went back to my parents’ house and ate the seudah.
How could any of us have known how some mere weeks later the world would be in the death grip of a pandemic? How could any of us have foreseen a reality in which no one could go to visit Oma?
She ebbed away bit by bit over the never-ending months of interminable lockdowns, my life-threatening birth and recovery, the searing heat of summer.
And then the final days. I prowled, clutching the phone, barely hearing things around me as I roamed from room to room, not knowing what it was I was searching for. I was barely present as I lit the candles, knowing I’d be cut off for twenty-five hours with no word from those lucky enough to be there.
Oma left us that Shabbos. Her Shabbos, how fitting… the yom simchah v’menuchah that she so loved.
And I was stunned by the intensity — even ferocity — of my mourning.
Oma had lived for close to a century! She had been gifted with lucidity into old age until those final years which we had spent losing her in slow, painful increments.
Why the acute pain of loss now? I had mourned the Oma I’d loved while she’d slowly drifted away from me. I’d cried while dreaming of moments I wanted to share with her. I’d lost her again and again and again.
There was no rationale, but still I prowled, tiptoeing around a hole that didn’t make sense to me.
And then I found pieces of Oma inside of me. On difficult days I’d remember her telling me how she pushed through hard times. “Put a smile and war paint on, and get on with it,” I’d repeat to myself, as the waves of Covid and the kids at home threatened to drown me. I’d hum the songs Oma loved, laugh when I heard someone calling streusel strew-sell, the chocolatey scent of Oma’s Streuselkuchen in my nostrils for a fleeting second.
And suddenly, pushing up from somewhere deep down, there were stories waiting to be told. I sat and let the words pour out; a story was published, I closed on a contract — someone thought my writing was good enough for that! — and wrote some more. A lot more.
Dizzyingly, somehow all before Oma’s first yahrzeit.
The words kept coming, and I didn’t stop them. The feedback came too. I had spent years dabbling in freelance writing, but never had I written like this.
It seemed like a strange coincidence, but it somehow made sense. Now that Oma was gone, all those words she’d poured into my open ears about her mother, and our shared left-handedness, somehow crystallized into a realization, the blooming of a confidence she’d planted and watered over my formative years.
This lefty could write.
Sometimes I look at Oma’s picture, trace her unique handwriting on the tefillas habanim she gave me when I got married, and talk to her.
See, Oma. I’m writing stories. I wish you could read them.
Even now I imagine her smile, hear her words.
G-d gave you a gift, girl. Use it.
I’m trying, Oma. This one’s for you.
L’illui nishmas Maras Leah bas haChover Reb Dovid haLevi
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 809)
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