Unspeakable

 

“You told her we’re dieting, right?” I whisper to my mother as we enter the elevator to my grandmother’s third floor apartment.
“You made too much,” I say when I see the dining table crammed with platters of fruit, gefilte fish, cottage cheese, and tuna salad.
“But everything’s low-fat,” my grandmother announces proudly. I spoon some pineapple chunks onto a paper plate.
The Swartzberg House for the Jewish Elderly in Skokie, Illinois, is an unlikely shrine, but it’s high on my pilgrimage list whenever I visit Chicago from Los Angeles. Now that my mother’s mother is officially old—in her 80s—it’s important to show up. The truth is that my grandmother’s always seemed old to me. Penciled in eyebrows, shapeless housedresses, a faint scent of mothballs penetrating even her strongest perfume. No matter how long she’s been in the U.S., her Polish “Old Country” aura is as strong as ever.
My grandmother asks the predictable questions, and I answer as if from a well-worn script. Job—the same clinical psychology practice. Dates—a few, but no one exciting. Living situation—a safe apartment in a decent neighborhood. I don’t bring up a suicidal patient I felt I’d failed, a lover who suddenly realized he was gay, or my struggle to find a neighborhood in L.A. I want to settle in. I’m relieved when she and my mother shift to Yiddish so I can tune them out without guilt.
I gaze around the small living room. An Israeli calendar that looks like it’s from the 1960s hangs among generic prints on the painted white walls. Purple African violets in green plastic pots sit on every available surface. The late June sun pours in through tightly shut windows. The room gets stuffier as the afternoon progresses. Does everyone become impervious to heat when they get older? Sweating and bored, I grab the lone photo album from among the few books on the coffee table. I stare at random out-of-focus faces. Who are these people?
I turn a plastic covered cardboard page and a wallet-sized print falls out, drifting to the floor. I retrieve it and immediately recognize Leon, my mother’s brother who died a few years before I was born. I was named after him, but I know nothing about him. In the photo, he’s wearing a dark blazer, a white shirt, and a tie. Wavy brown hair peeks out from under a tasseled graduation cap. His smile reminds me of pictures of my mother at the same age. I wish he could speak. I stare at the photo, then look up, seriously trying to engage for the first time this afternoon. “Oh, it’s Leon,” I say.
The Yiddish buzzing stops, but neither my mother nor my grandmother meets my eyes.
Maybe it’s the suffocating heat, maybe it’s the sense that I don’t exist in this room, but I feel compelled to push. “It’s Leon,” I say, a little more forcefully, but the room has gone quiet. Somewhere in the building, a door slams shut. A muffled car engine turns over in the parking lot. I slip Leon’s picture back into the album’s center, without lifting the plastic, for fear that other photos might fall out.
“The tuna salad’s good,” I pronounce, to no one in particular.

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Lynda Levy is a retired psychologist and life coach. After years of living in hectic Los Angeles, she’s discovering new connections with family, creativity, and herself in the desert surround of Phoenix, Arizona. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Feminine Collective, The Sonder Review, 9 Lives: A Life in 10 Minutes Anthology, and Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility.