by Ariela Freedman
Linda Leith Publishing, 2019
When my grandmother died, I was the first to go through her things. Well, not the first. The woman we hired to look after her was there before me, and she had taken my grandmother’s two fur coats, the otter and the mink. I mourned the loss of the coats more deeply than the loss of my grandmother, a difficult and distant woman who wielded her reading glasses and books to keep others at a distance, like a sword and shield. In the last month of her illness, I had grown to know her a little better, but her hospital self, bedridden, drug-addled, loopy and confessional, confusingly affectionate, was unrecognizably different from the termagant of my childhood. When she suddenly and expectedly died—suddenly because every death is a shock, expectedly because the doctor had been cruelly clear about the one to four months she had left to live—I was not sure whom or what I had lost.
Those coats were like pets to me when I was a child. They were the singular attraction of our rare visits to my grandmother’s house. My grandmother did not like noise, was not particularly comfortable with children, and her apartment was full of tiny Swarovski sculptures and porcelain shepherdesses that we were not allowed to touch. But my sister and I were allowed to take the coats out of the closet, to model them and stroke them. We both always wanted the mink, which was silver white, and not the otter, black and sleek. I was the eldest, so I claimed the mink as right of primogeniture.
When we first played with the coats we would drape them over ourselves and crawl on the floor and pretend we were animals. When we were older we stood upright and pretended that we were ladies, even though being a lady was much less interesting than being an animal. Being a lady was a static game. After we had arranged our hair over the collars of the coats, had done up the fascinating Chinese frog and ball fasteners, twirled two or three times like dancers to see the coats balloon out, and declared our intention to go to tea or lunch, we were usually at a stalemate, hypnotized in front of the full-length mirrors on the closet doors, unwilling to take off the coats but hot and burdened by their dead weight.
Or sometimes we hung the furs up at the far end of the long closet. I was Lucy and she was Edmund (younger sisters have to take the boy parts). We walked in the darkness to the back to the closet, feeling our way through the rows of polyester and crushed velvet and the smells of baby powder and tobacco—l’eau de grand-mère and, as the ad would have it, priceless. When we came to the sleek heavy furs, I parted them with my hands and said, “Edmund, it’s getting lighter,” and each time I was disappointed not to see the lamppost in the forest, not to feel the sharp cold spikes of snowflakes on my hand.
My grandmother did, coincidentally, have Turkish Delight on a high shelf in the kitchen. When we played that game, we always asked for it, seduced every time by the queen’s description, and every time disappointed by the gelatinous perfumed powdered cubes which were nothing like what we thought of as candy.
As we grew older, we no longer played at dogs or ladies, but instead imagined a feral thing in the closet that wanted to eat us, that lived in the dark. We did not come out until one of us was crying, though our grandmother, who was so seldom left in charge of us, never really seemed to notice, or mind.
Though the loss of the furs was most potent for me, my grandmother’s helper also ran up a phone bill of about eight hundred dollars to an astrology call line.
“You were right about her,” my mother said on the phone. “I feel terrible about that, and how she must have treated grandma.”
I had sounded the alarm about the caregiver a couple of months earlier, after the second time I visited my grandmother in the hospital. The helper left as soon as I reached the room, and said she’d be back in ten minutes. It was over an hour before I tracked her down, smoking outside the hospital.
“I don’t trust her,” I told my mother on the phone later that day. “She seems completely uninterested in grandma. She’s supposed to help her. I don’t like the way she talks to her.”
My mother was still reeling from her own recent widowhood. She lived a seven-hour drive away, and was tethered by a midlife net of multiple responsibilities: my twin eight-year old brothers, her own ailing parents, the transformation and abdication of my sister. After my father died, my sister declared that she had found God, became ultra-orthodox, and moved to a yeshiva in the hills of the Galilee. My mother was in no way prepared to manage the care of a mother-in-law who had always despised her. Nonetheless, she called her brother-in-law in New York, my grandmother’s last living son, to pass on my concerns. He told her she had no right to be critical, living as she did at a distance. Then he got angry. How dare she say anything at all? My mother hung up the phone and they did not speak again until the day of my grand-mother’s funeral. Even then, it was no tearful reconciliation, just a phone call, mutual expressions of hurt and rebuke, and a receiver hung up as violently as the slamming of a door.