| LifeTakes |

The Memory Keeper

“Who will laugh with me when I mention Kalman’s name? Who will chuckle at the memory of the broken vase that I hid under my pillow?”

It felt as though the entire world was holding its breath.

Fresh, green grass peeked out shyly from between the tombstones, and I thought it strange. A cemetery didn’t seem the place for rebirth and renewal. Rows of silent sentinels stood guard over sacred memories. The air was silent; eerily so. A lone bird perched atop an imposing ohel, following my movements with its beady eyes. It seemed to contest my right to introduce human frailty in this eternal domain.

Bubby grasped my hand tightly. Her eyes were closed and a procession of tears marched down her wrinkled cheeks. Behind her closed eyelids, what did she see?


A deep breath; an attempt to steady her trembling voice.

“Tziporah’la … Chaim was so happy that you carried Mama’s name. It meant so much to him. Reminded him of Mama, wearing her faded pink apron. Now I have to remember on my own.”

Bubby fell silent, and her grip on my arm weakened. Chaim was Bubby’s only surviving brother. All their siblings had met their deaths in Auschwitz. Now he was gone, and with him Bubby’s link to the past. Only he remembered her as the spoiled princess of the family. Only he knew the secrets of her childhood dreams and the fragility that had disappeared when she began to build her family.

“Who will laugh with me when I mention Kalman’s name? Who will chuckle at the memory of the broken vase that I hid under my pillow?”

I stood helplessly at her side. “I will, Bubby,” I whispered. “I’ll laugh with you.”

I knew that my sincere desire could never bridge the gap of generations, but I so badly wanted to try. Bubby didn’t even hear my promise. She was immersed in a world that lived on only in her heart.

“Chaim understood,” she said. “He knew that I embroidered my white tablecloth to recreate the tablecloth from home. He knew and he didn’t laugh at my aborted attempts. Chaim knew why Purim was the saddest day of the year. Only he knew that our family had been deported that day.”

I stared at my elderly grandmother in shock. She had never displayed any sorrow on Purim, as far as I could recall. Why didn’t she mention anything throughout the years?

The men at the freshly dug grave site were beginning to disperse and I gently urged Bubby to follow them to the exit.

“We barely spoke, me and Chaim. We didn’t need to. I knew that on Rosh HaShanah he smelled Mama’s honey-and-noodle kugel, the recipe that Mama refused to divulge. He didn’t have to tell me what he was thinking on Erev Yom Kippur because I knew with absolute certainty that he was feeling Tatte’s hands on his head and the light pinch on his cheek.”

“Bubby, you have a whole family behind you,” I said, desperate to comfort her. “We all love you and respect you. Your children, the eineklach … we’re here for you.”

“Tziporah’la, I know that,” Bubby said. “You’re all here for me, but only Chaim was here with me. He remembered me from way back when and for him I was still Gitchu, the little girl with braids. Now I am just Mommy and Bubby.…”

Bubby smiled, a sad and disconsolate smile. “Don’t get me wrong, Tzippy. I love my titles and my children are my life.”

A moment of silence stretched to two and then three. Bubby rested her hand on the wrought-iron gate of the beis hachayim and looked at me with mournful intensity.

“But today I lost the connection to the person I once was, Tzippy, and it hurts. It hurts more than you can imagine.”


(Originally featured in Family Table, Issue 347)

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