Saying Goodbye to Nanny

It was November 2002. In a rare convergence of celebrations, we were carving turkeys, lighting chanukiahs, and shoveling snow all on the same day. Chanukah and Thanksgiving had arrived and Nor’Easter had also descended upon New York that last week of November.

After the annual 50-person-plus feast at my cousin’s house in Scarsdale, we had returned to Long Island for potato latkes and sufganyiot. Being satiated never stopped my family from eating some more, and so we did. We lit candles with my husband’s side of the family, opened gifts, and were all sitting around a table laden with Chanukah desserts when I began to have a nagging feeling. My grandmother, who had been in a nursing home at that point for about nine years, was in the hospital with pneumonia. I had seen her a couple of days earlier, but somehow felt the need to check in on her. I had a lingering feeling, and despite the falling snow, and the house full of relatives, I wanted to go to the hospital. They all tried to dissuade me, but a very fixated person when I want to do something, I excused myself, and figured they could all carry on quite well without me.

When I arrived at Franklin General Hospital, I went up to Nanny’s room, which was on the second floor. She was in the first room in front of the elevator, so I had a clear view of her the moment the doors opened. Nanny was in the bed by the window, and she had no roommate. There she lay. Six months into her 99th year, she remained a chubby cherub. Her Russian peasant roots were never more apparent, as her rosy cheeks glistened, her blue eyes still sparkled, and her snow-white full head of hair (at 99!) lay across the pillow. She had not a tooth in her mouth, but from the doorway I could see that she had her lips puckered up in a tight knot. There was a nurse between her bedside and the window, and she was holding a large syringe (it resembled the turkey baster that we had used at my cousin’s house earlier in the day) filled with what I assumed to be some semi-liquid nutrient. Nanny was having no part of the food, and she tossed her head from side to side to indicate so. Both my grandmother and the nurse looked up at me at the same moment, the nurse with a look that questioned whom I might be, and Nanny, with a toothless smile that spread from ear to ear. I indicated to the nurse that I might be more successful in getting Nanny to eat, and I entered the room, and reached for the food syringe.

As I did so, Nanny’s smile brightened even more. It lit up her face, and I can still recall the sweet toothless, glowing happiness that seemed to shine up at me from her expression. She said my name aloud, with what sounded like both delight and relief. As I approached the bed, I told my grandma that I thought she needed something to “eat” and that I would be more than happy to help. She instantly responded by opening her mouth just enough for me to place the nutrient in, slowly releasing the plunger. She swallowed, and smiled again. Nanny allowed me to give her the full portion of her dinner. The nurse, who was watching from the corner of the room, smiled, and was clearly about to comment on her satisfaction that her patient had eaten. With this, my grandmother caught us all off-guard, and turned to her, sticking her tongue straight out, while simultaneously raising the middle finger of her right hand, saying, “That’s what I think of you.” Both the nurse and I could barely contain our amusement at the tenacity and fire of my elderly, semi-senile grandma, and the appropriateness (if not politeness) of her expression –in her mind, anyway. Anyone who knew my grandmother in her youth could attest to the characteristic quality of her behavior; she was a spitfire –untamed and a force of all forces.

The nurse slipped out, and I pulled up a chair and sat down by Nanny’s bedside. She was drowsy, full from her meal, and clearly comfortable with her pillows and cozy blankets around her. She was not yet fully asleep, so I told her that I would sing with her for a bit, and I thought of some of the old Yiddish songs that she loved, which my dad used to sing to me at bedtime throughout my childhood. Di Grine Kuzine, Lumeh Zingt a Yiddish Lid, and Chanukah oh Chanukah were her favorites. So, we sang. Well, actually I sang, she hummed a bit, smiling and listening.

I must have been there talking and singing, for perhaps an hour. My grandma dozed in and out of slumber, and when she was obviously in a good sleep, I gave her a kiss on her cheek. I sat a bit longer, thinking about how, with my mother already gone, I was Nanny’s closest relative. Being with her that evening seemed so sweet and so right. I thought about all the memories I had growing up with her, that we had lived together after leaving Brooklyn, and about how, as an only-child, my mother being one as well, we were all so closely bonded.  I departed a half-hour later.

I made my way through the thickening snowfall, and returned to my home, where all the festivities were long over, and only several china platters, some glassware atop the dining table, and the still burning embers in the fireplace gave any evidence of a party that evening. Finishing the clean-up, and feeling the late hour calling, I was anxious to head for my bed. As I approached the staircase, my phone rang. My grandmother’s nurse said simply, “Your grandmother is gone. She passed away about ten minutes after you left.”

Six months short of her 100th birthday, my Nanny, Zelda, later Jenny –later yet, Rachel– passed on. I knew she was calling me to her bedside that night. She ate, we sang, and she had had enough.

The Rabbi Arthur Schneier Park East Day School is a prestigious NYC Jewish Day School in the heart of New York City.  Located in the Upper East Side, this Jewish Day School promotes academic growth through community and collaboration.