Holy cow, how is it already late November?! I’ve been terrible about updating the blog this year. There are many excuses, but none make up for not writing. I suppose in a way it reflects what a full, busy and happy year it’s been on balance, and that’s ok.
In late September, though, I came up against the tribulation that every expat hopes will never come: a death in my family, on the other side of the world. At about 6:30pm on a Wednesday, my mom emailed to say my 91-year-old grandmother in Florida wasn’t feeling well and had checked herself into a hospital. The doctor said it wasn’t anything serious, and my uncle talked to her and she seemed to be ok. I had talked to my Grandma two days earlier and she’d seemed fine, maybe just a little bit more tired than usual. All I could do was hope that things would improve.
But they didn’t. At around 8pm (8am Wednesday morning at home in Massachusetts), my dad called to tell me my Grandmother had passed away overnight. I went numb. I suppose it’s good that my mother’s email had at least planted the seed of that possibility, but it still didn’t seem real because the thing is, I thought my Grandma would live forever. We all did.
She was my constant, always sending cards, always ready to chat on the phone, always so positive and supportive of everything that I did. I was her only grandchild, and she was my only grandmother (my father’s mother passed away long before I was born). We had the most wonderful relationship.
My grandmother lived in a Jewish retirement facility in West Palm Beach, Florida called “The Tradition” (as in the Fiddler on the Roof song). She moved there after my Grandfather died in 2003, selling the house in nearby Boynton Beach that they’d bought to retire to back in the 80s. I visited my grandparents in Florida every year of my life except for one (2010, when we were in Australia). It was my first plane trip, at the age of about 6 weeks. I started flying down by myself at 9. My grandparents were world travelers; they visited China in 1980, shortly after it opened up to the West. They traveled all over South America and Australia, visiting distant relatives who’d fled Europe in the early part of the 20th century. My grandparents were certainly not ones to rough it, but they possessed a definite sense of adventure and curiosity for the larger world. They were certainly my earliest travel inspiration.
My grandmother’s mind was sharp till the end. I tried to call her every one or two weeks, and I’d catch her up on where I’d been, what I was doing at work, and so on. She’d relate the latest gossip from The Tradition (which was very much like middle school, right down to people reserving seats during mealtimes and having crushes on the most eligible single gentlemen). She’d tell me how her recent Bridge and Canasta games went (invariably either “I had lousy cards” or “I was the big winner, I won $5!”). She’d breathlessly recount that week’s guest lecture or piano performance.
The last time we spoke we talked about the election, and Florida’s pivotal role in it. (Palm Beach County and its tricky ballots were at the center of the disputed 2000 election). I was a bit nervous to find out her thoughts; Romney and the GOP went to great lengths to stress their pro-Israel bona fides as compared to Obama, and I knew that was a key issue at The Tradition. I should have given my Grandma more credit, though; she agreed with my sentiment that no woman should vote for Romney in good conscience, and saw more nuance in the economy than I thought she might. We talked about setting up a video Skype chat to discuss the candidates’ positions with all her friends. It made me so happy that my Grandmother was sharp enough to use Skype on her computer. When she was born her family had no telephone and sometimes no electricity; I marvel at the technological advances she witnessed in her lifetime and her remarkable ability to adapt to them.
Which, once again, is why I thought my Grandma would live forever. It’s not that I took her for granted, she was just so fantastic that I fully believed she could overcome any challenge that got in her way; I never thought she’d pass away so quickly after complaining of stomach pains.
After I got the call from my parents, my mind started racing with how quickly – and at what cost – I could get home. I immediately called the hubs (per usual, still at work) and he said he’d investigate his options with redeeming SQ miles. Since the funeral would be in my grandparents’ hometown of Nashua, New Hampshire (about an hour north of Boston), and since my family is in Boston, we decided it would be better to fly straight there from Singapore rather than fly through New York-JFK (maybe the worst airport in the US to fly into in terms of lines and general zoo-iness).
The next night, I was on an SQ flight to London-Heathrow, then transferred to a Virgin Atlantic flight to Boston. After a sleepless night following the devastating news, a full day of work, and a relatively sleepless 13-hour flight from Singapore to London, I was mentally and physically exhausted. Figures that about 90% of my flight seemed to be old British people going on leaf peeper tours to New England; I basically saw grandparents everywhere I turned, and that’s when the situation really hit me. As my flight took off I started sobbing uncontrollably and hyperventilating; I had to run to the bathroom to take deep breaths and splash my face with cold water. On the bright side, the flight from London to Boston is only about 6.5 hours, which now seems like nothing since I’m used to 12- or 14-hour intercontinental flights. Soon enough I was in my mother’s warm embrace, followed by the comforting taste of clam chowder, lobster rolls and pumpkin beer.
After two trips home last year, and with two family weddings on the horizon for 2013, the hubs and I hadn’t planned to go back to the U.S. at all in 2012. Strangely when autumn rolled around this year, I found myself missing the fall foliage and crisp, smoky air more than I had in years past. Fall is absolutely gorgeous in New England – it’s why all those old British people were taking coach tours there, after all – and with each passing year that I’ve spent in a seasonless place, I’ve found myself missing it more and more.
Getting to see the fall leaves was one upside of my trip home – I felt like it was a gift from my Grandma, as if she knew it would soothe my soul. For most of the week I was back the weather was unseasonably warm (or else rainy), but I found myself taking frequent photos of the fall leaves, as if I was looking for my Grandma in their beauty. The best foliage I saw was during the day we went north to New Hampshire, for her funeral.
I’ve not been to many funerals in my life (I suppose that’s a good thing). My Grandmother’s was the first I ever spoke at, and despite the fact that I bawled as we walked in and out behind the coffin, I managed to hold it together while I talked. I owed that to my Grandma. The service was held at the temple in Nashua that my grandparents helped build in the 1950s. The last time I was there was for my Grandfather’s funeral in 2003. Before that it was for my Grandparents’ 50th anniversary celebration when I was 12 (also known as that time I didn’t have the heart to tell the rabbi that I hadn’t had a bat mitzvah, and faked my way through the prayers well enough that he complimented me on my Hebrew).
I consider myself religionless, but always admired how rooted my Grandparents were in their faith. At the very least I think of myself as culturally Jewish: I appreciate why my great-grandparents left Russia, admire how incredibly hard they worked to build successful lives in the U.S., and absolutely delighted in how lucky I was to have [in my opinion] the best kind of grandmother, a Jewish grandmother (also known as a Bubbe).
From plying me with challah and knishes and ruggelach, to praising me so much as a child that I actually did believe I was the prettiest little girl in the world, to attempting to fix me up with nice Jewish boys that were the grandsons of friends and friends of friends, my grandmother lived up to the stereotypes in all the best possible ways.
My grandparents were the most generous, loving people I’ve ever known. They showed me what it means to be a good person, how to live a life that is happy and truly full. They would have done anything for me, and I for them.
I don’t particularly like flying, but I’d fly across the world a 100 times more if it brought my Grandma back. Every time I see her pop up in my recent Skype conversations, my heart twinges. When something good happens, I still make a mental note to tell her the next time we talk. When the hubs and I left the U.S. and moved to Australia in 2009, saying goodbye to my Grandma was the hardest part. I was terrified when I hugged her goodbye that it would be the last time I’d see her, yet she was just fine when I made it back for a visit in May 2011, and again last December. I fully assumed she’d be there whenever we finally moved back, that she would someday dote on her great-grandchild(ren) as her father, my Papa, had doted on me until his death at age 99.
So it’s been two months and I’m only just beginning to come to grips with the loss of my Grandmother. At this time of year (Chrismukkah for those of us from mixed marriages, the most wonderful time of year), I always think about lighting the menorah with my mother, saying one of the few Hebrew prayers I actually knew, getting to open one of the eight carefully pre-wrapped presents that my Grandparents had sent up from Florida. In February I’ll miss the box of fresh Florida grapefruit that followed me from boarding school, to California, to New York.
Going home to grieve was the only option, because if I hadn’t, I’m not sure my Grandmother’s death would seem real. Seeing my aunts and uncles and cousins, drinking Dunkin Donuts coffee, watching the Patriots with my Dad…just getting a taste of the familiar both put me at ease and made the reality sink in.
Living so far from home, I find myself maintaining relationships mostly over facebook, with a bit of email and g-chat thrown in for good measure. It’s a strange way to live, and after nearly four years is still the hardest part of expat-dom to deal with.