With piercing clarity, I remember the one occasion my grandmother ever talked to me in private, me and me alone.
I was fairly young, maybe seven or eight years old. She had fallen down and broken her hip, and was temporarily confined to a wheelchair. My grandfather’s dementia was something that she’d begun to openly acknowledge at that point, albeit with some reticence. She would live for nearly a decade after this conversation, but at the time, I sensed that she had begun to contemplate her mortality.
Looking back, I wonder if in fact all the contemplation was mine—the emotionless realization that my grandmother, who may have seemed stone-cold on the inside, was actually flimsy on the outside. She used to say she was five-foot-five, while my mother, who is five-foot-three, was clearly taller, even before my grandmother’s wheelchair. When I asked my father if this insistence was a joke, he explained that she had been five-foot-five once, she just wasn’t anymore. How did that happen? She got old, he told me.
It was true. She had gotten old. She had always been old to me, but now she seemed older than ever. Everyday she grew older. This obvious fact had never seemed obvious before.
And so, in that one conversation we ever had together, alone, my grandmother’s mortality was the first thought on my mind.
She took me into The Office, which was really my grandfather’s office and his alone; it was only after his dementia had stopped him speaking altogether, let alone speaking sternly, that my cousins and I would venture in there unsupervised and unafraid. It felt rather bold to be going in there—my grandmother banging into the desk in her wheelchair while I tip-toed behind her in my socks, as though I wanted to avoid leaving footprints in the moldy, mottled, wall-to-wall carpeting.
We opened the safe. Or, I should say, I opened the safe. I told myself I was being helpful—really I just relished the honor of wielding that little metal key.
My grandmother said, very slowly, “I have some gifts for you, which I don’t wear anymore, and that I think would look beautiful on you.”
At first I wondered if this was a criticism—my grandmother had a habit of praising one of my girl cousins for her pretty outfits whenever I was nearby, and particularly whenever I was dressed, as I often was, in my brother’s hand-me-downs. (Or at least it felt as though she only did it on those occasions, and as though it were a sly criticism directed at me.)
For once, however, I decided—perhaps optimistically—that something had changed between us. How, when, or why, I had no idea, but I smiled as prettily as I could and waited for her to open the box.
Inside there were a number of yellowing plastic bags, all containing jewelry. It was more jewelry than I had ever seen in one place in my life—apart from at a museum—but none of it shone or sparkled as much as my mother’s jewelry box, or even my own collection of plastic beads and ersatz pearls. It was like a bird’s nest, I thought—except the bird had long since died or gone away. Nearly every item was tarnished, blackened, or broken. I only realized years later that this was, so to speak, the bottom of the barrel. My grandmother had beautiful jewelry, but she’d already given it all away, first to her daughters, then to her niece, and then to her older granddaughters.
First she noted my soft, unpierced earlobes, which made me shiver; I couldn’t imagine how much it would hurt to let someone thrust a big needle into my skin. She tried to give me a pair of corroded earrings anyway—perhaps as incentive—but I politely refused.
Then she pulled out a blackened bracelet with little green stones. It took me a moment to realize it was a bracelet, because it didn’t have a clasp—at first it just looked like a fish tail. “Wrist,” she instructed me. I obeyed. She wrapped the bracelet around my wrist and held it there, where it hung loosely. With a kind of wonder, she remarked, “Your wrists are even smaller than mine.”
This should not have been surprising; I was a child. She paused, and then said it again, but this time with more force: “Your wrists are even smaller than mine!”
After that she began digging through the plastic bags in earnest.
Even now I remember my grandmother whenever I look at my wrists, or when I subconsciously wrap my fingers around one of them, which I still can do easily, even at the part with the knobbly round bone. I know, with utter certainty, that these fragile little wrists come from my grandmother.
After what seemed like an eternity later, she unearthed a second bracelet, this one with a clasp, albeit a half-broken one. It was the least tarnished item left, rose-gold with tiny diamonds. It spelled out I LOVE YOU.
“He gave this to me.” She held it out. “Now it’s yours.”
“Thank you,” I told her, in practically a whisper, and then she put the plastic bag back into the box and put the box back into the furthest corner of the safe.
“Key,” she commanded, and I watched her lock away the remains of her jewelry.
For years, starting then and still without conclusion, I have furiously combed my memories. Had she ever said it to me? Had she ever said it to my grandfather? Had she ever said it to my father? Anyone? Had she ever said “I love you” before in her entire life? Did the saying, or not saying, even mean anything? Because she must have loved, I know she must have. But vainly, I always wonder: did she love me?
I also wonder—sometimes aloud with my family and perhaps unfairly—when her mind began to “go.” There was a point, definitively, when it had gone—when she insisted that her devoted live-in caregiver was stealing grocery money, or when she spoke of her late husband as though he were simply in the next room. But when was that point? Before or after her husband of sixty-four years had passed away? Before or after I was born? Before or after she gave me the bracelet? And was it less of a “point,” more of a slow seeping away?
To myself, I wonder: when a mind “goes,” what goes with it? Does love? Does love go first, or last, or never?
I only ever wore the bracelet once before my grandmother died—my mother told me it was extremely expensive, so anytime I considered wearing it, I always told myself it would get stolen, or that it would seem like I was trying to show off the diamonds. The one occasion I wore the bracelet was the unveiling of my grandfather’s gravestone. It seemed unlikely that there would be thieves at the old Jewish cemetery, and nearly everyone there was family who knew where the bracelet had come from, so it couldn’t be showing off to them.
At the end of the service I found my grandmother and held out my wrist to her, silently. Look, I wore it, I love you, too.
She told me it was a beautiful bracelet; she asked me where it was from.