by Susannah Chovnick
After college I went to Israel, to explore my Jewish heritage. That’s when my Irish Catholic grandmother, Mimi, passed away. She was 98. Two years away from a signed letter from the President that congratulates you on reaching 100.
I remember visiting Mimi once a month on Sundays. We’d take the train from our home in Brooklyn, all the way to the Upper East Side. An hour, minimum. The first train would be the R. The classic R. The familiar train that took me back and forth from middle school. We’d ride right past that Court St. station. Grateful it was a weekend. It’d be me, my mom, sometimes my older sister too. Get off at Union Square. Crowds of people squishing past to get on right when it was our turn to exit. We’d pass a drummer on the upper platform. Someone breakdancing. We’d never watch though. Just another obstacle to get around. Sometimes I’d stare at everyone, other times I’d look at my feet. Averting the eyes of dirty faces or old men talking to themselves.
“Come on now, I want to make sure we get the express, I can hear it,” my mother would push us along. Five trains approaching one station, yet we always thought it was ours we were missing. We’d walk up the stairs, past the turnstiles, under another set of stairs, past another exit and then down the steps to the 6. For some reason, I feel like someone was always playing the xylophone. I’d try to read a book. Usually it’d just be the same line over and over again, as I listened to conversations all around me and heard trains screeching from every corner cutting off drumbeats and grand finales of the platform artists. Finally, it’d arrive. It was a newer train different than the R. Instead of orange and pink seats, it had thin blue ones. No two seaters, or three seaters, just one long bench-like seat on each side. On the train, I’d close my book and yawn.
I’d see blonde couples speaking in French, holding hands across from a man with one eye, slouched over in a corner seat. I’d see men with paint on their jeans, and women with heels. Doctors, wearing scrubs. We’d get off and I’d finally stop holding my breath. We’d reach the street, and walk past a playground.
We’d stop in the fancy deli that was on the corner of Mimi’s block. There weren’t cell phones back then. We’d go back and forth, wondering out loud what we thought my grandma would like the most. Something soft, something Irish. A corn beef sandwich cut up in small pieces, some soup. Perhaps something sweet for after, to go with the afternoon tea.
I think of being 10, maybe that was a year I visited her the most, before the teen years kicked in and I had other weekend plans. It’s weird, when you’ve only known someone as old. She lived 23 years after I was born. And yet from day one, I felt my time with her vanishing, felt the looming of a nearby grim reaper. I couldn’t help but always wonder, how near to the end each next visit took us.
We’d sit in her small square apartment. Take a pink elevator with big buttons up to the 10th floor. She lived in a building just for people close to her age. A certain smell took hold as soon as we walked through the lobby. Like leftover meat stew and toilet spray.
We’d arrive at 12:00, have tea by 2:00, leave around 3:00. She’d sit in her chair. We’d sit on the couch. I’d look out the window and see trees from the courtyard, other tall buildings, windows reflecting sunlight. We’d listen to her reminisce about my mother’s childhood dog. About her husband, my mother’s father, who passed long ago. My mother and Mimi would sometimes disagree on facts.
“Mom, it wasn’t like that.”
“JoanAnn, yes, it was.”
My sister and I would listen and smile, and hope she recognized our faces. I wished I could have known her. Her gentle voice was soft and full of bubbles of laughter. But it was just the end, the leftover. A shell full of memories. An album with photos only in faded colors.
When I learned she had moved on, I was told it happened the way we all wish it to happen.
It was night, and she was sleeping peacefully.
About the photographer: Kyle Hemmings has art work in The Stray Branch, Euphenism, Uppagus, Scars Publications, Sonic Boom, Black Market Lit, and elsewhere. He loves pre-punk garage bands of the 60s, manga comics, urban photography and French Impressionism. This photograph is titled “Sunday Afternoon.”