From the stoop I watch my grandmother drawing closer. Her back is bent—she says from the sins of her youth—her walk plodding but deliberate. When she sees me her step quickens, her smile twinkles eyes nearly lost in a roadmap of wrinkles.
“Mein shayna madel,” she says, over and over as if we had not seen each other in years, squeezing my left forearm with strength built from hauling groceries and children, rolling out pastry, carrying the burdens of others. Then, “So. Are you married yet?”
It’s a joke between us.
“Nope.” I grin, taking the string bag from her arm—a bouquet of almost-fresh black-eyed Susans, day-old bread, and a cheese, the aroma of which I can’t place. “Are you?”
“Ach, you.” She is done with men, she always says. Then spits out a Yiddish phrase, literally translated as “they shit in your house and leave you the mess.” But I don’t believe her. I’ve seen her old charcoal drawings, many of the same handsome shirtless man, with eyes like fire and a prominent scar running down his torso. I’m only a college student and don’t know much about art, but there is clearly passion in those lines and shadows. I can hardly see this woman being done with men for good, unless it’s for spite.
Finally we go upstairs; I make tea and she sits at my kitchen table, awaiting me. I put the flowers into a vase and hope they’ll revive; I make a plate of the bread and cheese with some apples I bought from the farm market. I don’t let her lift a finger. She fought my mother on this but not me. Never me. Maybe that’s the difference between being a daughter versus a granddaughter.
When I join her and we prepare to eat, she reaches for my hand and murmurs a prayer. Our tradition is to say what others call “grace” after a meal, but it is just the two of us now and grandma says we can make our own traditions.
We bow our heads, tighten the grip between us and say “Putin khylo.”
My grandmother turns her head and spits. Then we eat.
It’s funny. The man is long dead, and we still do this thing. So we’ll never forget, she says.
But she doesn’t like to talk about what it is she wants to forget. I know it has to do with the war, and what happened after. I promise myself that next time, I will ask about the man in the drawings. But not today. Today is for bread and cheese and flowers, and for practicing how to forget.