All that remains

New York only became New York for me sometime during my college years. Up until that time it was the place where my father grew up, my parents met and my grandmother Miriam lived. When I moved to the city after graduation, Miriam in her Penn South apartment on West 28th was the center of it and stayed that way until nearly a decade later when she died. It seems natural then, that although I spent most of my time as a friend or girlfriend or coworker or bandmate, my primary role in New York remained that of a grandchild.

I moved in and out of my grandmother’s apartment but my favorite pajamas stayed here, along with letters, photos and other memorabilia that wouldn't survive sublet-hopping and things strewn about all over Brooklyn, the West Village and the Upper West Side. Once, on a last-minute trip, my dad wore the bottom half of said pajamas to a bar on 23rd Street, having forgotten to bring anything to wear save the outfit for his aunt’s funeral he wore on the drive down from Massachusetts. The fact that no one offered him so much as a second glance in the yellow women’s pajama bottoms gave him a reassuring sense of continuity about the city he'd left behind nearly 35 years earlier —New York was in fact still New York.

My days and jobs and plans were mapped out from this location—uptown, downtown, across the Hudson to Jersey or the East River to Park Slope. My parents stayed here, my band flyers collected on the kitchen wall, for Rosh Hashana and Passover we pulled the table out to the middle of the living room and streams of fold-up chairs would appear along with matzoh balls and extended family. My friends would come over for Chinese food and listen patiently to my grandmother’s stories about Minnie from Montauk and the German Mind. Somewhat outrageously, the room where I'm now typing is the one where I stayed whenever I was sick. Into her 90s Miriam would wait on me hand and foot with lemon honey tea, saltine crackers and hot compresses. All I had to do was push the buttons on the remote control and pull my blankets up to my chin.

By the time I moved back here, I still considered getting home by midnight a pretty early night and so did Miriam. She'd be awake no matter what time I got in. When she heard the door she'd call out, "Rach? Is that you? Come see what there is to nosh." Then she'd scurry into the living room carrying an ungodly number of V8 juice cans for me to gulp down on the spot. Two was the bare minimum any guest was allowed with the understanding that at least one more would be stowed away in your bag for lunch the next day. It was the same with everything she had. "Just a little sliver of cake" was never less than two inches thick.

I'd come into the bright kitchen and within seconds little containers of clear salad were making their way out of the fridge along with pickled beets and at least one potato knish. There was always plenty of Tofutti soy “ice cream”, though for years Miriam thought the pint she had in her freezer was one of the last that would ever be made. "The man who invented it died, so it's going out of business" she’d say as she scooped it out. No questions were endured as to why someone other than the inventor couldn't carry on the tradition of turning soybeans into a frozen dessert. You were just grateful to get to have that penultimate bite.

What is so strange to me is this: I went—practically overnight—from being lavished with food at that table by my grandmother (who liked nothing more than to jump up and run to the fridge to get a jar of applesauce), to feeding applesauce to a baby with a miniature spoon with no grandparents left on the planet. There was almost nothing in between. An absurdly protracted state of adolescence (and this is largely cultural, true for many in my generation), and for me in particular: from grandchild to mom with no transition. It's not sad, it's not terrible, it's not in any way unlucky. How many people have a grandparent still alive when they are 32 years old? How many people make it to 32 themselves? Miriam's husband David--my grandfather--did not. Even Alexander the Great and Jesus only made it one more year.


Today I did not over-schedule things for me and Wally. I left the morning open to wander about nearby playgrounds and buy a basil plant at Trader Joe's. During Wally's nap I read We Took to the Woods. After he woke up two therapists came one after the other and Alex got back early so I snuck off to the gym. On the way home I took my time, wandering past landmarks of my grandmother's New York. The long-deferred unveiling had finally been unveiled. That was three weeks ago already. Everyone has returned to their separate lives and the dead are still dead.

For once I didn't have to rush home. I didn't have company coming over and neither Alex nor I had plans to go out. There was nothing in particular to worry about having to squeeze in or apologize for missing. By contrast, there was a lot of open space. I looked in store windows, tried not to catch the owner's eye in an empty restaurant, thought about the fact that August was over. 

The heat was starting to lift, the sky over Jersey was a lovely pale pink. It felt so different from my usual day: racing from one thing to the next, drowning in papers, busy on purpose, surely late for something. Hard days are generally pretty easy, I realized. It's the easy days that are hard.


  1. This is so beatiful. I ahve tears in my eyes and yet I am smiling thinking of Miriam, hearing her talk and talk (and talk), on your parents couch, over deacdes. This made me miss her, though I really hardly knew her. The part aout the easy days being hard is so true!

  2. Great, now I'm crying at work. I miss Miriam. Lady was always right!!

  3. Rachel, you're such a great writer. Thanks for sharing. Your grandmother sounds lovely. I'm lucky too, my grandparents are still alive and well and only 83. I have memories of my great grandmother stocking up on Tofutti from our local Carvel, for my great grandfather, who was diabetic. Did you ever try it? It's not half bad.

  4. Beautiful memories of Grandma.


  5. SO much in here. The nosh and the V8 brought tears. Aunt Mimi! She was such a lady. Opinionated and fine-ankled...and such a grandma. I love that her home is still alive-different now, but still there. Also the protracted adolescence...a lot here that resonates...looking forward to more on this.

  6. I'm sorry I never answered. That was terrible. Why didn't I? So kind of you all to have written...


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