How much sadness we carry for the lives we ignore, or forget, or simply lose; lives that have made our own possible. My paternal grandmother spent the last third – half? I don’t even know – of her life in just such an institution as this one. I have no photos of her, no letters in her handwriting, no keepsakes – no material proof at all that she ever lived. Is memory sufficient witness? I can barely remember her, though as a child I certainly saw her on ‘out’ days. And what I remember most are thin, old-fashioned cotton dresses in a floral pattern, wispy grey-to-whitening hair scraped into a bun, then later hacked off short, and conversations in Yiddish, which were almost entirely incomprehensible to me. And much of her conversation was in any case incomprehensible, for she conducted long exchanges with people whom none of us could see or hear.
If I had her with me now, I’d try to record and translate those conversations. Who is to say that they made no sense? Something of her must have been in them – something, perhaps, of her triple exile from home, language, and then the world itself.
I also remember my childhood shame at having a ‘crazy’ grandmother, not daring to admit a relative was locked up in that place, the one other kids sometimes made fun of. Now what shames me most is that I’ve never even asked if my grandmother left a suitcase behind; never even thought to ask. We named our elder daughter after her, yet she, our Esther, has asked almost nothing as well.