Metaphor, memory, and my grandmother’s hands
New Jersey, United States
|Stir of Memories, 2017
Oil on canvas, private collection of Gregory O’Gara
Sometimes when it rains, the droplets are barely perceptible. There is no fog or mist, no thunder, no presage. I sat outside looking upward. There was nothing discernable in the darkness of the sky except the absence of stars. If memories were like stars, they should last forever; but even stars die. Tonight, they were only obscured by clouds I could not see.
It was an unusually warm autumn evening. Below and around me, brown and gray leaves were scattered like pieces of dry parchment, curling inward as they dried. They formed a thin earthen blanket that would disperse with the first gust of wind. I felt nothing on the exposed skin of my arms but heard the leaves crackle as invisible drops of water started to fall. It sounded like the burning kindle of a fire.
The fallen leaves seemed older than the large maples that encircled the yard. Although they had been nurtured by the trees, they were now lifeless on the ground. I imagined some hidden wisdom contained in the delicate fibers of their surface. Each year a new generation would grow and collect the knowledge of the seasons. Lines and veins recorded life in a language we did not understand. They reminded me of my grandmother’s hands.
Her name was Rachael. I know her hands held me firmly since the day of my birth. She died about twenty years ago at the age of ninety-two. I miss her. She was a kind woman and took me into her arms with great love as a child. She never gave me a second glance as I jumped freely on the mattress of her brass-framed bed. The apartment had the aroma of freshly baked challah and chicken soup. It was a stark contrast to my own home where my father occasionally cooked hamburgers or fried liver and onions. Mom loved making chicken parmesan and the occasional meatloaf. My father’s parents were from Ireland. They settled first in midtown Manhattan and then moved to Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. My mother’s parents, Max and Rachael, came from Russia and Romania. They settled with many other Jews in the Hester Street tenements of the lower east side. In the 1930s they moved to Tremont Avenue in the Bronx.
Although my grandmother was gentle with me, she had quite a temper. Once she hit my father over the head with her shoe. I also remember her arguing with my grandfather. As the words became heated, she would glance over at me and switch the exchange to Yiddish. It was a mixture of mostly German and Hebrew. My favorite “insult” was “mashugana cup” which translates to “crazy head.” She also called me her little “Shaynala” as she squeezed the life out of my cheeks. I looked up the name Shana to understand its etymology. “Shana is a feminine given name of multiple origins. The pronunciation of the name varies depending upon the context and source. According to Bruce Lansky, Shana occurs as a familiar diminutive or form of Shannon, a Gaelic name, meaning ‘small and wise.’… Beyond its Irish roots, Shana is also often used as a nickname for Shoshana, an ancient form of Susannah, and means ‘lily’ or ‘rose’ in Hebrew. The name Shaina, sometimes spelled Shayna or Shana, is of Yiddish origin, and implies ‘beautiful.’”1
Unknowingly, she was calling me by a name that had origins in Gaelic, Hebrew, and Yiddish. That was probably a good proxy for my genetic composition. My father used to joke that one of the lost tribes of Israel had settled Ireland. Apparently, there is some evidence to support the theory.2
I shared many “firsts” with my grandmother that I will never forget. We took a ride on a green city bus across town. My first ride on the subway shuttled us to the Christmas Show at Radio City. I stood under her coat in line because it was rainy and cold. On my first trip to see Santa at Macy’s where we waited in line for two hours, I started crying and would not sit on his lap. She was a little aggravated, but found humor in the situation. We went to the Horn & Hardart automat on 46th and Broadway, a cafeteria where sandwiches, cakes, and drinks came out of vending machines. One summer she asked a backhoe operator at a construction site to let me sit in his seat. He did, and I blew the horn. I also took my first plane ride to her house in Florida at a time when you could travel alone at age eight.
Lastly, I remember my grandmother’s hands. After I had exhausted myself jumping on the bed, I would lay forward and watch TV on her blanket. She would come in and lay next to me and scratch and tickle my back. I squirmed and laughed. She used to say, “There’s a cockroach under your shirt.” I called the game “the cockroach” and always asked for “more, more.” On my third birthday she gave me a typewriter, which was gift-wrapped in tinfoil. I was thrilled with the machine, pushing hard on the letters because it was not electric. Grandma used her hands to guide my fingers. She showed me how to make letters into words that appeared on white paper. With my hand in hers, she taught me a way to record my words.
My parents had a very uncommon mixed marriage in the early sixties. There was a great deal of anti-Semitism. Like many cultures, the Catholics and the Jews tended to settle in different neighborhoods and stay close to their families. My father’s family was less forgiving, but gradually came to know my mother as a kind and compassionate person. Dad was stubborn, though, and could not give a damn what his family or other people thought. Although I was raised as a Catholic, my parents gave me a Bris. I considered myself lucky because I got the best of both worlds. As a result, I grew up in a small melting pot of religion and culture that opened up a much wider view of the world. It was an inspiring contrast of traditions and rituals.
My grandmother moved to a comfortable assisted living home in Connecticut when she was in her 90s. The home was a stark contrast to the earlier “old age homes” where my father’s mother spent her last days. We would visit Grandma Rachael on weekends with my wife and two daughters, ages one and four. I walked into her room with the girls. She looked at my daughters with awe and love. I moved closer to give her a kiss. She put her hand up, staring with a look of mistrust. She said: “Who are you? Are you trying to steal from me?” I said, “Grandma, it’s Gregory.” She did not answer. It was like an abrupt incision in my heart. Over the next year, she would sometimes get better, and other times worse. Our shared memories would eventually become solely my own. However, the love she nurtured would endure and continue to shape my life in countless ways.
My mind returned to the present. If the leaves around me had a message, it would be hard to decipher, like the broken fragments of a crumbling scroll. If they were assembled correctly, maybe I could read their enigmatic secret. The trees were not yet bare, as they should be this time of year. Perhaps they also had more to reveal. I smoked a cigar, shedding white plumes of smoke from my mouth like unspoken words. I wanted the cloud of vapor to acquire substantiality, the strength of solid matter to speak for me. There was silence. I contemplated the forgotten languages of the past. Rising like steam into the air, the smoke dissipated and was absorbed by the night. For a moment, the rain stopped. Embers had fallen on my shirt. I wiped them away quickly. Like lines of ink, small trails of black ash remained.
Perhaps clarity comes with age – what has been gained and lost, the choices and the contradictions. Memories are the remnants of action and movement, colored by the present. Like the memory of my grandmother, each one has had a unique influence on my life. Together they have brought me to this moment. With age the details fade, but memory transcends age through a totality of experience. It shapes the sum of our character. Perhaps it is finally expressed in the singularity of wisdom. I looked up again and thought wisdom might be held in the color of the leaves that shuddered and were swept away by the wind.
- “Shana (given name).” Wikipedia.org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shana_(given_name) (accessed October 29, 2017)
- James O’Shea. “Are the Celts one of the ten lost tribes of Israel?” Irishcentral.com. https://www.irishcentral.com/news/are-the-celts-one-of-the-ten-lost-tribes-of-israel-233823021-237790101; also, E.T.H.I.C. “The Hebrew-Celtic Connection.” Israelite.info. http://www.israelite.info/thebiblestoryfiles/hebrew-celtic-connection.html (accessed October 29, 2017)
GREGORY O’GARA, is a native of the Bronx, NY, Greg attended high school at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. His love of writing and poetry grew out of Fieldston’s dedication to classical education and outstanding teachers. Greg obtained a B.S. in engineering and later completed his MBA in finance. His passion for writing further developed as a speechwriter and research analyst in the chairman’s office of PaineWebber (now UBS). He has worked as a corporate strategist for several firms including: UBS, Prudential, TIAA-CREF, and TD Ameritrade. Greg currently resides in New Jersey and enjoys painting and playing the piano.
Fall 2017 | Sections | Personal Narratives