My mother called to say her mother had died. Tsylia hadn’t recognized anyone in about a decade, so I’d said my own goodbye to her long ago, but with the plague my mother wouldn’t be able to travel to Israel to bury her, so I rented a car and drove to Boston the next morning. All I could offer was to be there. I don’t know if that did any good, but I tried. You only get one mother. Even if she was 95 and in deep dementia there’s no way around the deep loss now that she’s gone. My relationship with Tsylia was complicated. This is what I wrote about her in my book:
When I was born, my grandmother was forty-five. She had badly wanted a third child just a few years before. It didn’t happen, so she transferred all that ardor and attention to her first grandchild. Whatever difficulties one has in their other familial relationships, a new child is a chance to start over. To present oneself anew. I think that’s what I represented to my grandmother: a chance to put her best self forward. I was always my grandmother’s favorite and rarely knew what to do with it. Love is rarely about equality, especially when it’s between grandmother and grandson. There’s just no way of reciprocating such gushing waves of feeling.
Tsylia worked as a physicist but her real occupation was connecting people and getting things that couldn’t be gotten in the Soviet Union’s controlled economy. She used the force of her personality, her charm, and her powers of persuasion to broker deals of various kinds in the black market. For many people in the Soviet Union, but particularly for the urban Jewish intelligentsia my grandmother belonged to, there was one’s official public life and then there was the covert private life where the real action was. Amongst her various dealings, she took a great interest in artists, often having whole collections of this or that forgotten or mistreated painter squirreled away in closets and under beds in her apartment. Perhaps the fact that so many paintings and drawings were around in my first years had some influence on what I ended up doing with my life.
My grandmother treated me to my first stick of gum as well as my first video game——both treats unheard of for the average Muscovite in their daily life. She made it seem that she could get just about any- thing I asked for. When we left the Soviet Union, much of her attention, love, and gifts stayed behind. There were letters and phone calls, but they paled in comparison to our connection back in Mos- cow. Many of the phone calls and letters consist- ed of her attempts to remind me of the way things used to be. But it’s hard to keep an emotional bond strong and stable at thousands of miles’ remove, especially with a seven-year-old boy who’s changing all the time.
All along I felt overwhelmed and slightly embarrassed by her unreserved love for me and rarely knew how to reciprocate. Over the crackly, long-distance connection between Brookline and Moscow, I felt like I was talking to a stranger from the past. I had to humor her if for no other reason than my mother’s guilt-giving glare as I held the receiver to my ear in our kitchen on Babcock Street. But with each passing year, I knew my grandmother less and less while her image of me remained as if frozen in amber. I would always be that little boy in Moscow whom she showered with gifts and attention. The one she took everywhere and told everything.
My brother, Boris, remembers my grandmother very differently. He was only four when we left, so he didn’t form the same bond with her back in Moscow. He got to know her in Jerusalem after my grandparents were finally allowed to leave the Soviet Union in the late ’80s. He describes an old woman prone to fantasy and exaggeration, having a hard time finding her place and a way to be useful in her new country. Everything my grandmother had been back in Moscow was gone once she got to Jerusalem. She was used to being the center of her social circle, of having people come to her for favors and to make introductions. But in Israel she was just another elderly, newly-arrived refugee. Her younger daughter, my aunt Galia, had been in the country for some fifteen years by the time my grandparents arrived, so she made most of the important decisions. Without enough to do, my grandmother fell into depression and stopped taking care of herself. Always prone to take comfort in food, she let her diabetes get out of control and eventually began to suffer from dementia.
I did a few portraits of her over the years. She would praise them in my presence but loathed them in private. She’d tell my mother she didn’t recognize herself in them, that they were pictures of an old lady. I could never see her the way she saw herself.
No one could have.