The small white package arrives with the mail and has a return address of Sarasota, Florida. My fingers pull anxiously at the tape, even though I already know what is inside.
When I slide my hand in the opening, my skin is met with the feel of soft silk. I pull the blouse out of the package. It is a shirt from my grandmother, with the sale tag still intact. A piece of paper flutters out of the envelope. Try this on, the note reads in my grandfather’s neat handwriting.
Later, after my daughter is asleep, I slip the black and white silk top on in front of the hallway mirror. The fabric is loose fitting and falls below my hips, elongating my torso. My shoulders are relaxed in my reflection; it is comforting to wear something chosen by my grandmother.
Of course, the blouse fits perfectly, like everything she sends me. I have yet to meet another woman with the same fashion sense as my 94-year-old grandmother.
I dial my grandfather’s iPhone, but my grandmother answers.
“Hi Temi, it’s Becky.”
“Oh, Becky, it’s good to hear from you. Did you get the blouse?” Her voice rises with excitement.
“Yes, it’s perfect,” I answer. “Did you buy it for yourself?” I often raid my grandmother’s closet when we visit, as her clothing is more stylish than anything I own.
My grandmother sighs. “Yes, but I don’t get out as much lately, so I thought you would use it more. It’s awful, getting old.”
My breath catches in my throat at her response. I remember when my grandparents traveled the world, exploring cities in Europe and Israel. Now they live in an assisted living facility. Even making the trip up north to visit us has become too difficult for them.
“Thanks Temi. I appreciate it and will wear it this weekend.” I say. There is silence on the line, so I talk about my daughter and promise to send more photos of her.
When I hang up a few minutes later, I envision my grandparents sitting side by side in their small apartment, shrinking. Every time I see them, they are smaller. They spend less time awake—both sleep late and take naps. I wonder if the bright Florida sunshine is to blame; perhaps it is drying them out.
The question that I am asked most often about my grandparents is why I call them by their first names. We all do: My sisters, parents and cousins refer to my grandmother as Temi and my grandfather as Brad.
“That’s just what we have always called them,” I answer. I am not sure whether the grandchildren started it, or my grandparents requested it.
My answer is weak, but Grandma and Grandpa are not words that come to mind when I picture them. They are not like the grandparents portrayed in the movies: the older white haired couples who move around slowly in dowdy clothes.
Temi wears silk blouses and leather flats while Brad can be found in khaki shorts with button down shirts tucked into his belted waist. Over dinner, we discuss topics like the political situation in Israel and the presidential elections. Temi visits the salon to have her hair styled regularly, and she accessorizes her outfits with chunky jewelry. Their home in the assisted living facility is teeming with colorful oriental rugs and exotic bronze statues from their travels.
Years ago, my grandparents lived outside of Boston in a huge house that looked like a castle. The long driveway led to a dark wooden front door that opened to a home full of hidden gems, like a laundry chute in the hallway floor and a dumbwaiter that went to the kitchen.
The turret of the home housed Temi’s walk-in closet and enormous white vanity table. As a child, I sat on the floor next to her chair, wide eyed as she did her makeup and hair, transforming into a more glamorous version of herself. Afterwards, she opened her closet doors and chose one of her impeccable outfits. There were so many mirrors in the room, I sometimes wondered if I would disappear into my reflection, lost in this magical house.
During our visits, I loved to lie on the bear fur rug in the library; my grandparents teased me that it roared at night. There was a secret door in the back of the closet in the maid’s room; I imagined that fairies lived behind it and flew around at night, spreading their dust. On the Jewish holidays, Temi could be found in the bright yellow kitchen, cooking matzah ball soup, freshly baked challah, and roasted chicken.
I call them Temi and Brad because to me, they have always been royalty. How could I call them Grandma and Grandpa when they lived in a magical castle?
My grandparents are weak now, and it is hard for them to hold my daughter when we visit. They can’t pick her up, but they still coo over her, singing Yiddish lullabies.
When I watch my grandparents and daughter together, I am slapped by the hard truth: My daughter will not have Temi around to take her shopping during her teen years or offer fashion advice. This is a heartbreaking reality, but my grandparents are in their mid-90s and my daughter is 3.
When sitting together, I notice that Temi’s arms are covered in sunspots, while my daughter’s skin is porcelain and clear. My grandparents’ bodies are breaking down, while my daughter continues to grow. Each year, we celebrate my daughter getting older. I celebrate my grandparents’ birthdays, too, but with a flicker of resistance as they inch closer to the century mark.
A few days after the package arrived, my daughter finds the blouse lying on a chair in my bedroom. She holds the soft fabric between her small, sticky hands.
“Mommy, this is so soft,” she says.
“It’s a present from Temi.” I respond. She nods, knowing that Temi is someone important, even though she cannot yet grasp the idea of a great-grandparent.
“Let me tell you a story,” I say while pulling my daughter into my lap on the bed. I think about my beautiful grandmother, who has always held her head up high and dressed impeccably. I think about the magical castle-house outside of Boston, with dizzying rooms and roaring bear rugs and the comforting smells of the holidays. There are so many tales to share.
My daughter’s small body pushes against my chest, and I feel it rubbing against my heart. I imagine our roots grounding into the earth beneath us, as I begin to tell her the story of where she came from.