My mother was only five years old when my grandmother left. Although both parents were still alive, all three children were placed in an orphanage for years until my grandfather remarried and could provide a suitable home for them again. It was the 1940s, and this was how things were done in Jewish, middle-class families who were simply doing their best. Photos of my mother’s mother were removed from albums, her belongings discarded, and, to my knowledge, no one ever spoke of her again.
Then in 2005, my older sister discovered a box in a stranger’s attic in Rockport, Long Island where she’d gone to look for clues about our grandmother. In it were a handful of black-and-white photos, along with an ink drawing signed J.S., her initials before she was married. For the first time, we were able to see our grandmother as she was. A slight, young woman with wistful eyes and a melancholy smile. She was an artist, a daughter, a mother, and a wife, who for whatever reasons, could not sustain the life that had befallen her.
Even though it was my first time seeing it, there was something uncannily familiar about my grandmother’s image, as if I were staring at my own altered reflection. I wept for an entire week, recognizing the inexplicable tears I’d shed as a child on countless nights. I now understood the origins of that previously untraceable grief. I’d grown up with only the bare facts of my grandmother’s story, hearing it from the little girl who had lost her mother so long ago. Now, my grandmother had returned to share her own version, and I began to understand the turmoil behind her heart-wrenching decision to say goodbye.
A few summers ago, I sat alone in a kayak at dusk on a vast, still Minnesota lake. It was a time in my life when every choice I needed to make felt like an impossible puzzle to solve, including the choice to start over. My grandmother appeared before me in a boat. “Do not leave without your peace,” she said to me. Then I knew that this was not the first time she’d visited me. In fact, she’d always been there throughout my life, silently watching every milestone, each celebration and loss, and offering wisdom at just the right moments. Some nights, as I am falling asleep, I hear her name, like a whisper inside my head, and I know that she is there. And always will be.