Watching Grandparents Age and Holding On To The Goodies
“Bubbie, do you remember all those amazing desserts you used to bake for us for Pesach?”
We are sitting at my grandmother’s dining room table on a Sunday in March. At the sound of “desserts” my children briefly look up from their coloring and then resume with dedication.
Bubbie shakes her head apologetically. “Sorry, I don’t.”
“You made these delicious brownies, and meringue cookies, and the best pareve ice cream,” I tell her, hoping that maybe just a little more detail will bring back the memories. That maybe the “Pesach goodies” file hasn’t yet been deleted. I am searching her face for recognition—her eyes, her sweet smile—some type of sign that tells me she does still remember. But she is honest—always has been—that it doesn’t sound familiar.
I swallow the small lump in my throat and gaze out the window, noticing the colorful sky as the afternoon sun is starting to begin its slow descent. I look around the apartment, adorned with photos of smiles, laughs, and family togetherness. I notice the living room chair where my Zaydie always sat, reading books and doing the New York Times crossword puzzle, until he died a few years ago. I think of their 65-year marriage, and how she hasn’t forgotten that he’s gone.
“Mommy, can you please pass me the green marker?” snaps me back to this moment, and I’m glad it does. It reminds me that the picture in front of me is a precious gift: Bubbie, surrounded by her children, joyful for our visit and hearing about what’s going on in our lives.
But as we chat, my mind continues doing a mambo dance between the past, present, and future.
My memories of Bubbie are still so vivid. How she’d routinely cup my cheeks and call me a “Sheina Maidela.” The smell of her signature chicken soup that would fill the whole house. How she loved going to shul and would her accessorize her outfit with pretty jewelry and a matching hat. The way she instructed Zaydie, “Aaron! Stand up straight!” even when he was 95 (at my wedding she stopped the photographer mid-photo to do this.) The postcards in sleepaway camp. The Chanukah parties. Her yearly solos at the Pesach seder.
My children have different memories of Bubbie. They never visited her house, and only know her as living in an apartment (with fun elevator buttons to press). They didn’t know her in her independent, more vibrant years; when she could drive, cook, shop, and travel. But their memories of Bubbie are real and special too. Playing with her collection of stuffed animals. Having pizza parties with her. Running in circles through her kitchen into the living room like it’s a racetrack.
As I watch their memories with her develop, I integrate them into my own. They’re all with the same Bubbie, and they’re all meaningful. But for me, it’s painful to watch the shift.
When I was growing up, I thought my grandparents would live forever. I couldn’t imagine knowing them differently than the way I related to them when I was young. My journey into independent adulthood corresponded with their farewell to it, with my life getting bigger and busier as theirs began to dwindle down. As I’ve visited them over the years and observed their feelings and my own, I’ve become acutely aware that we don’t just grieve the loss of life, we grieve the loss of abilities.
Even as I watch Bubbie’s functioning change, her legacy of caring still comes through, and I cling to those moments. She still offers, “Rachel, feel free to drop off the kids if you ever need a break.” I smile and say, “Thanks,” wishing I could take her up on it. That she could watch my children the same way she watched me when I was three and we baked together while my mother was giving birth.
Watching Bubbie during these final years of her life gives me a new perspective- not just on what it means to get older and what you have left, but what it’s like for those you leave behind. Our family legacy continues to unfold as I watch Bubbie’s children—my parents and aunts and uncles—rise to an occasion that has challenges that are as practical as emotional. I see their unwavering dedication to her, constantly making sure she is comfortable and has what she needs, always collaborating with each other as a team to plan how to best take care of her.
For me, it’s agonizing to watch a woman who spent her life as a caregiver now be in a position of needing to be dependent on others. But more heartbreaking are the moments when she can’t remember the life she had that was different.
When I ask Bubbie about the Pesach goodies, it’s not about the goodies. It’s about wanting to hold onto a legacy; keeping it fresh and present and an ongoing part of our family narrative. I’m reminding myself as much as I’m reminding her. And I do hope and believe that deep down inside, maybe there is a part of her that does connect with the memories on some level.
It’s funny how legacy is static yet dynamic; it travels with time but also changes through time. I revel in the expansiveness of legacy, but I experience sadness when seeing those transitional moments.
But some things haven’t changed.
At that pre-Pesach visit with Bubbie, as we were getting ready to go, she lifted up the paper we were coloring on and brought it up to her eyes, carefully scrutinizing with curiosity and attention to detail. I smirk at my husband, realizing that our scrap paper with printer errors is not going unnoticed. “Rachel, it looks like there is a lot of information here on the back. Are you sure it’s not important?”
I breathe a sigh of relief. Yep, she’s still Bubbie.
Rachel Hercman, LCSW is a psychotherapist specializing in relationship and sexual health, self-esteem, and trauma. She has a private practice in Manhattan and is a popular speaker in communities, universities, and professional trainings. Rachel has been a featured expert on various websites, including Marriage.com, the Better Sex Blog, and she currently blogs on rachelhercman.com. Rachel is the Clinical Director and Editor at The Layers Project Magazine.