I haven’t seen her since 1974 but she had one of the most profound effects of anyone in my life. I remember her voice, and her scent (lilac), and most of all her hand gripping mine tightly to make sure I didn’t stray onto city streets when we walked to nursery school. She was the first person ever to call me “my Nancy” too.
We lived in a three family house in North Bergen, New Jersey, and she was my landlady, but she was like another grandmother to me. I had two wonderful grandmothers of my own, but she and I lived under the same roof and she had endless patience for my questions and demands. Her husband worked late and both my parents worked so we spent a lot of time together, visiting the couple who lived on the top floor, watching holiday movies (I had to sit on her lap because the scene with Tevye’s nightmare in Fiddler On the Roof terrified me), playing board games or going to the butcher on the avenue. She had a basement filled with seltzer bottles and I used to help her do the laundry down there. When her own grandchildren, who lived far away *, visited, my mother used to have to keep me away forcibly because I thought Maeme belonged to me.
On Hanukah, we lit the menorah and she made me potato pancakes and I was allowed to spin in her husband’s leather desk chair, something that was forbidden on normal nights. She is the reason that Catholic me has celebrated Hanukah since I was a little girl. I celebrate it to this day because I ended up marrying a Jewish guy. (* A Jewish guy whose childhood backyard backed up on the backyard of Maeme’s grandchildren. In Yiddish they call this beschert, which means meant-to-be.)
When my parents told me they were buying a house in the suburbs and I would have a backyard and a swingset, I sobbed. I had no interest in these things, I just registered that they were going to take me away from Maeme. The night before they moved they had to send me to sleep over my aunt’s because I made such a fuss.
She visited once the year we moved and I never saw her again. In the 1990s someone found her current address and I wrote her a letter telling her how much I loved her. I didn’t receive a letter back but my mother got a phone call from her daughter saying that she was ill but had loved hearing from me.
In 2011 my mother was visiting the grave of a friend in another place entirely, and turned around and stumbled upon Maeme’s grave. Based on her age we knew she would be deceased, so finding her this way made us happy– it also felt beschert.
My Hanukah celebrations since Maeme have been a lot more raucous, as you will see on my post on CaFleureBon, where we are giving away a full bottle of Jovoy Paris‘ Les Jeux Sont Faits thanks to Francois Henin. But I’ll never forget the lady who first put a shamash (the candle you use to light the other candles on the menorah) in my hands.