The Rooms of My Heart

In the boundless silence of my beloved grandma’s absence, by the grand window, I will stand and wait for her to come back to me.

Mika Almog
Mika Almog
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Mika Almog
Mika Almog

At this very moment, my childhood is coming to a close. Usually, transitions such as this one are like skilled pickpockets: You know you’ve been visited only once you realize what’s missing, and by then it’s too late they’ve vanished in the crowd. Not this time. I’m aware, from top to bottom. I measure the moment in floor panels, in square feet, in rooms and windows.

A year-and-a-half ago my beloved grandmother died. A few weeks ago we sold her apartment. And now I’m here, standing by the picture window that overlooks the sea, about to carefully glean final souvenirs from what was for my entire life my refuge, my sanctuary, my own private heaven.

For a full year and a half we left the apartment untouched. And as long as it stood exactly as it was the day she died, exactly as it had been for decades there was still some chance that this was all a colossal misunderstanding, a poorly written comedy of errors. That she just went for one of her Dead Sea weekends, and would return shortly, bringing Arad towels and Dead Sea minerals for everyone, laughing: “Goodness! Such a fuss ...!”

I plop myself down on the green sofa, basic and practical like the rest of her belongings, and still the single most comfortable piece of furniture on the face of the earth. I fell asleep on it as a child, and I fell asleep on it as babies rested on my chest, and it sweetened their slumber, too.

One year and seven months ago my youngest daughter was born, the third of my children. On the day she was born, her older sister’s temperature shot up to 40 degrees Celsius, and it stayed there for five days straight. The doctors strictly recommended I avoid going home, so from the maternity ward I came here.

My grandma, who around that time seemed to be growing a bit tired, swung the door open when we arrived, beaming. For three days she hovered around her postnatal granddaughter and three-day-old great-granddaughter, caring and coddling, cooking and fussing, her 87 years soft as the down of a gosling and strong as the wings of an eagle. My five-year-old got better and I went home with my new baby, feeling the joy of a new beginning.

A few days passed, a mere 20 days from the little one’s birth, and we stood with a baby carriage in front of a grave. She died suddenly, my grandma, of cardiac arrest, in her sleep. And the pain was so great I feared the little one’s breast milk would turn salty.

I drift into the kitchen and stroke the Formica-topped table. I ate thousands of meals at this table. She wasn’t fond of cooking and kept her cuisine simple and regular, and fresh and wonderful. At the end of the meal she would serve me chocolate pudding and, like a coffee-grounds reader, would examine my dessert, finding a shape or a character or the outlines of a place in the rises and falls of the pudding, and from that one detail a story would emerge.

About my mother’s and my uncles’ childhoods; about the kibbutz and Tel Aviv in its early days; about her service in the British Army as a nurse and as a jeep driver. History sprinkled with the gift of a colorful imagination, and all in immense detail: the guard on the kibbutz had one brown eye and one blue ... I’d listen to her for hours, often forgetting to eat my pudding.

In the bathroom I open her cosmetics cabinet and find her 40-year-old tweezers. When I was 14 I snuck in here because I decided it was time to tweeze my eyebrows. Focused and determined, I pushed my face up against the mirror, tweezing left and right, fixing this and straightening that. When I was done I stepped back to examine my work and saw a bald-faced alien, with two pencil-thin, crooked lines where my eyebrows used to be.

She heard me crying and came in. At first she burst out laughing but quickly composed herself and told me all about the gorgeous Marlene Dietrich, whose super-thin eyebrows were considered a trademark of beauty and elegance. As she was talking she did a quick touch-up with an eyebrow pencil, to prove that it would be possible to be seen in public. And remember, she promised, like all things in life, this too, shall pass.

On the bedside table, a pile of books, newspapers and crossword puzzles. After she died this was where we found her knitting needles. She gave each baby born in the family a pair of beautifully knit booties. But she was superstitious and would only start knitting after the baby arrived, to avoid the evil eye. Resting by the needles was one complete, pearl-colored, lovely bootie. On the needle itself was the other one, half-knit. She was in the middle.

Just down the hall from her bedroom, my room. The room I slept in when I stayed with her, with its narrow bed. In the morning she’d come in, sit on the edge of my bed and sing: Goo-ood mor-ning my dar-ling-Goo-ood mor-ning my sweet-heart. Every morning at 7 A.M., I sing this tune in my children’s ears, remembering well how sweet it was to start my day with a song.

From my room a long corridor stretches to the living room. When I was a child it was much, much longer. At the end of the hall a heavy wooden door, with thick bottle-green glass windows set in it. When our family would gather for Shabbat dinner I would wait behind it, my hand on its cool silver knob, wearing my tap shoes or holding a tambourine. My parents and aunts and uncles were green blobs through the thick glass, and I could hear my grandma’s voice hushing them: “Shhh! The little one has a show for us!”

The door slides open with a creak, but the living room is empty. And suddenly I remember how she sat on the carpet when she was well over 80, rolling a ball between my kids, when suddenly my son stopped playing, stood up and wrapped his arms around her neck, holding her tight. “I love this house!” he said to her, and she, understanding that he understood, said to me, overjoyed: “Did you hear him. Did you hear what he said?”

I listen to the silence. The radio isn’t playing in the kitchen and no one rushes to turn up the volume when the news starts. There’s no big, generous laughter and no cough immediately following. There’s no one to tell off for smoking Nelson cigarettes in the little sun terrace off the kitchen, and no one’s here to swear to God she smoked only one today. No one calls me into the kitchen for dinner. No one tells me to stop washing the dishes and go lie down on the green sofa and get some rest, I work too hard. The warm hum of compassion is gone, absorbed into the silent walls.

A young couple bought the apartment. In just a few weeks they’ll move in here with their little girl, and her childhood will pour into the rooms where my childhood ran. The beloved sea breeze will flutter the lavender curtains on her window as she grows, and her memories will have a slightly salty flavor. Perhaps they’ll live here for 40 years and see four generations passing through these rooms. And perhaps they’ll live here for a brief time only, and then another family will come, and another, and for a few years my grandma’s home will wander in place, awaiting the next family whose history will become so entwined in its walls and floors that bidding farewell to its rooms will break their hearts. But I’ll be here, always.

In the boundless silence of my beloved grandma’s absence, by the grand window overlooking the sea, I will stand and wait. Wait for a great wind to rise from the waves, carrying her on its mighty wings, bringing her back to me. And when we face each other once again, I’ll reach out.

And you’ll wrap me in your arms, in your warm body, as if you swallowed the sun itself, and I’ll feel the beating of your heart as you whisper sweet comforts in my ear. And you’ll tell me that all’s well with the world. And I’ll believe you.

IllustrationCredit: Adi Emanuel