A few months before she died, my grandmother taped a new picture to the bedroom wall of our beach house. A curly-haired man in a black suit stood on a hilltop, holding hands with a woman who floated above him wearing a dress the color of grape juice.
“That’s Marc Chagall and me.”
Until then, we were sure Grandmom’s only husband had been Grandpop. Each year on her anniversary, Grandmom let down her hair and took her bridal veil and shoes out of a Wanamaker’s hatbox. “Is my veil on straight, P.J.?” she’d ask. “Hand me that mirror.” Then she’d slip her feet into white satin pumps. “Look, kinderlach, they still fit.” If Mom was anywhere nearby, she gave Grandmom a pinch-face look; I don’t know if it was the Yiddish or the wedding outfit that got to her.
Sometimes Grandmom asked P.J. to help her with the shoes. “You too, Cookie,” she’d add if she remembered I was there. My name isn’t really Cookie—it’s Ella—but we were all called something else, as if our real names were just placeholders. Paula Jean was “P.J.,” and my oldest sister Susan was “Princess.” I think Mom gave us nicknames so we’d be more like the kids at the Baldwin School—Muffy, Bitsy, Chip—but our names didn’t sound anything like theirs; and I’m sure no one at school had a grandmother from Russia who lived with them.
Grandmom’s skin looked laundered smooth, and with her face framed in lace, you’d almost think she was a bride. She’d stand and point to the old wedding photograph that used to be on the wall: a young man with licorice-slick hair, his arm draped around his bride. “He was such a sweet man. Always gave you kids candy. Remember?” P.J. remembers because she’s two years older; but I was only four when he died in 1951, so I only had shriveled memories.
Now there was a new wedding picture on the wall. I ran my finger over the jagged edge, and traced the smiling man waving his purple banner bride.
Marc Chagall? Why was P.J. nodding like she knew who he was?
“He looks happy,” said P.J., “but there’s a funny expression on your face, Grandmom, like you were dizzy or maybe afraid he was going to let go of your hand. Were you scared?”
“No, P.J. He’d never let me go.”
Why were they pretending those were real people? “Grandmom, that’s not you.
Where are your white shoes?”
When she didn’t answer, I turned. My lower lip did a shimmy shake.
“Why are you making stuff up?”
“Cookie, what are you talking? Don’t you recognize Vitebsk? In Russia?”
Grandmom barely had an accent, so it was easy to forget she came from somewhere else. Only when she said things like, “I don’t vant to move. I’m stayink in my house,” could you hear the Vitebsk in her voice. She may have talked to P.J. about the famous artist who came from the same town, but I’d heard her mention the name Marc only once before, so I didn’t recognize Vitebsk as I stood in Grandmom’s bedroom at the intersection of real and make believe.
“That’s just a stupid drawing. Where’s the real picture? The real you?”
P.J. stood next to Grandmom’s rocking chair looking at me with shut up all over her face.
“Tell her that people don’t fly, P.J.” My sister was so smart she never even believed in Santa Claus. That’s why she was going to be a lawyer like Daddy. “Tell her P.J,” I yelled.
Grandmom rocked slowly, mumbling as if she were praying.
“Cookie, it’s time for the cake.” P.J.’s voice brought Grandmom and me back to now.
“You can do the honors.” It was my turn to perform the closing ritual.
I unwrapped a pack of Tastykakes, handing one chocolate cupcake to P.J., taking one for myself, and handing the wax paper with the third cupcake stuck icing side down to Grandmom. She peeled off the last cupcake, ate it, then licked the chocolate icing off the paper. “Wrapper icing is the best thing about Tastykakes,” she said, wiping her mouth with a Happy Anniversary napkin. The party was over.
The Ventnor library smelled like old paper marinated in sea salt. I wandered around the children’s room waiting for the librarian to turn her back so I could sneak into the adult section. The librarian was a shriveled stump of a woman with a seagull beak and a voice made for shushing and shooing. You had to be thirteen to read the grown-up stuff, but I didn’t care. If I wanted to be a reporter like Brenda Starr in the comics, I’d have to start bending stupid rules. What kind of dirty stuff did they think I’d find in art books except maybe pictures of naked ladies, and I already knew how they looked. Like a good reporter I’d brought a notebook to record the facts about Marc Chagall, the mysterious painter from Russia who drew flying people and may or may not have been married to my grandmother.
The oversized art books were lying flat on a bottom shelf. I pulled out the one on Chagall and crouched in a corner. The book was printed on glossy paper, even the text part. There was a short section about his life, but it was mostly pictures—people flying, men playing fiddles, weird-looking animals. I stared at the picture of a guy in a white suit with a sad upside-down head. Behind the man in the picture were some houses like the ones in Grandmom’s picture, except they were black. The words “Ox Bowe” were printed at the bottom in funny letters, and there was a jagged gap in the binding where a page had been ripped out.
The photograph of Chagall in the book showed a curly-haired man who didn’t look anything like slick-haired Grandpop in the old wedding photo. Chagall had moved to Paris and married a woman named Bella who’d died many years ago. Grandmom was still alive and her name wasn’t Bella, so she couldn’t have been married to Chagall.
“You knew she made it up,” I told P.J. later that afternoon.
“She believed she was married to him.”
“Anything’s possible if you believe it, Cookie.”
“You’re not making any sense, P.J. I thought you wanted to be a lawyer.”
“Well you don’t sound like one to me.”
If Mom had had her way, Grandmom wouldn’t have moved in with us. I know because I heard her arguing with Daddy late one night.
“She can’t stay where she is, Sonia. They’ll rob her blind.”
“We could set her up in an apartment.”
“But you promised you’d never leave her alone. Signed on the dotted line.”
“She wouldn’t be alone in an apartment.”
“Alone is alone.” Dad was probably thinking of his own mother who’d been found dead in her apartment a day after suffering a stroke.
“I know I signed, but is it legally binding?”
“Technically you’ll have to give up your chunk of the estate if you don’t abide by the agreement.”
Mom sounded beaten. “It won’t be pretty, the two of us in the same house. Not that she was a bad mother. More like she was someone else’s mother. She kept telling me I was smart, I should go on to college. I told her all I wanted was an engagement ring at nineteen and a mink coat at twenty-two. No joke. That’s what we all wanted back then. I told her I wanted to live the American dream.”
“I think she wanted that, too. Just a different dream.”
“The way she looks at me sometimes—feels like she’s still waiting for me to make something of myself.”
Before Grandmom moved in with us, she lived in Overbrook Park, in Philly but close to the suburbs. Grandmom and Grandpop had converted the basement of their row house into a dress shop, and we visited as often as Mom would take us. The room was crammed with racks of dresses, blouses, skirts, and gowns. When there were no customers, Grandmom let P.J. and me pick dresses off the racks and try them on in the laundry-cum-fitting room. P.J. was chunky like Grandmom, with light skin and freckles. Her hair, once defiantly red, had betrayed her, turning weak coffee brown. I was dark like Mom and built like her. Susan, with her straight blond hair and porcelain skin, resembled no one in the family. Decked out in strapless gowns with beaded tops she had yet to grow into, tottering around in the high-heeled shoes Grandmom had scattered around for the ladies, Susan was molding herself into the nickname she’d been given.
When P.J. and I got tired of dressing up, we’d duck under racks, pretending we were lost in the jungle. We’d undress the mannequins, laughing at their flattened lady parts. Mom always waited for us upstairs. I wondered if she’d ever played downstairs when she was growing up or whether then, like now, the clothing business had been beneath her.
We behaved ourselves when customers came into the shop. P.J. and I watched Grandmom size up the ladies with her eyes, the way artists on the boardwalk draw someone’s picture in five brushstrokes; then she’d hand them the skirt or dress they were meant to have. Her regulars didn’t even bother scanning the racks.
“How do you do it, Grandmom?”
“One part art, P.J. to three parts practice.”
“What about magic?” Grandmom shook her head, but her smile suggested that magic might indeed be part of the equation.
When Grandmom first moved into our house on the Main Line, she wandered ghostlike from room to room. “It’s not like you don’t know this place,” Mom complained. “You’ve been here hundreds of times.”
“So many rooms. It’s like a castle.”
“Three thousand square feet. Not much compared to some of the other houses in the neighborhood.”
“Well I prefer the summer house in Ventnor. This place feels like a dress that’s three sizes too big.”
“Momma, would you stop with the dresses already. You’re out of the clothing business.” She made the word “clothing” sound like something slimy you’d find under a trash can.
When Grandmom wandered our house, I think she was looking for the house she’d left behind and the shop where she’d worked magic. We asked her what she’d done with the clothing, but she wouldn’t say. I pictured her plucking the racks like chickens, feeding her regulars one last time, until there was nothing left but metal bones.
The night after Grandmom moved in, P.J. and I sat at the foot of her bed as she rubbed Nivea into her arms and neck. “I remember things,” she said, eyes half closed.
“Russia. The smell of the cows and the way it looked when the sun went down, like the church steeples were on fire. Papa blessing the bread. He was so smart, studying all day.” Her voice trailed off.
When I asked Mom if she knew Grandmom had come from a different country, she shrugged. “That was a long time ago. I heard those stories plenty when I was younger.”
A few nights later I heard voices in Grandmom’s room. Through the half-open door, I saw P.J. and Grandmom in bed, laughing. “You started telling your stories without me!” I cried, sounding like the little kid who tagged along behind her big sisters squawking me too so much, they called me “Me Too Cookie.” But once P.J. “discovered” me, I had no further use for me too. It was the year I turned seven, and I told her how people got polio.
“It’s the foam,” I said, pointing to the sudsy outline left by the waves. We were standing near the water’s edge on our beach in Ventnor. “My friend Mikey told me. He heard it from a doctor.”
P.J. scanned the frothy line extending along the water’s edge to infinity. “A line of death,” she said. I nodded, and we spent the rest of the summer jumping the line of death, making up games, weaving ourselves tight as braids. When she told me how much fun I was, there was a note of surprise in her voice as if to say, So you were in there all along. I had no idea.
Sometimes I noticed Susan staring at P.J. and me. I’m not sure what I saw in her eyes, but I think I understood how she felt—same way I felt watching Grandmom and P.J. laughing in the bedroom.
Grandmom’s stories began with her childhood in Vitebsk and ended when she got married, as if those were the starting and ending points of her life. She told us about the crossing, and how her father had died on the ship, but she never spoke of Marc Chagall.
Some nights after we’d gone to bed, I’d hear footsteps in the hall and voices on the other side of the wall. I don’t think Grandmom intentionally left me out. It’s just that I floated like something in a Chagall painting, just outside her range of vision. She seemed to find a kindred spirit in P.J. I saw how she smoothed P.J.’s hair and told her how smart she was, something she did with me, but with less intensity. I resented Grandmom’s intrusion into our lives, and the way she made me feel like an outsider. I discovered that if I brushed my hair over half my face and looked to the left, I could make Grandmom disappear.
Soon after Grandmom moved in, another intruder entered our house: a Christmas tree. It had bluish needles and smelled outdoorsy, like stuff the cleaning lady used in the bathroom. When P.J. and I came home from school, Mom was hanging the last of the blue and white balls that Susan handed her, as if she’d been decorating trees all her life.
Grandmom sat on the sofa, watching; she didn’t notice P.J. settle in next to her. Mom stepped down off the ladder and walked around the tree a couple of times before facing her mother, anticipating Grandmom’s objections.
“It’s blue and white, like Hanukkah.”
“For God sake, Mom, it’s just a tree. I didn’t want the kids to feel left out. Remember how you wanted a tree, P.J.?”
“Yeah, when I was little and thought everyone had trees.” P.J. turned to the menorah on the mantel.
I don’t want a Christian tree,” said P.J., grabbing Grandmom’s hand and kneading her doughy skin. I sat down next to P.J. but I don’t think she noticed.
“Well I do,” said Susan, brushing against the tree as she moved closer to Mom. Lines were being drawn.
The sound of a Christmas ball exploding against the hardwood floor shocked us into silence.
“When Marc moved to Paris, he didn’t stop painting Russian villages.” Grandmom’s voice cut the silence.
“Who the hell is Marc?”
It was the first time I heard Grandmom mention Chagall and the only time I heard Mom swear.
“Everything he painted stayed in the air.”
That’s all she’d say about Marc Chagall.
Two weeks after the anniversary party in Ventnor, Grandmom went missing for the first time. P.J. and I knew something was wrong as soon as we walked up the porch steps with a Necco Skybar and two Archie comics and saw the empty rocking chair. Grandmom had given us money for chocolate, and we knew she’d never pass up a chocolate opportunity. If Grandmom wasn’t sitting in her chair on the screened-in porch, she was either in the bathroom or napping in her room. But she wasn’t in either of those places. The call came from the Ventnor police department just as Mom walked in with a bag of groceries. They said the librarian had reported an old lady wandering around the stacks wearing a bathing suit she’d put on backward. The policeman who answered the call recognized Grandmom. He’d covered her with a striped beach towel, but by the time he got her home, the towel had slipped off one shoulder and a wrinkled grandmom boobie bounced up and down like a Slinky. Mom scolded her, P.J. hugged her, and I wondered if I’d ever grow boobies. And if I did, would they look like that?
Mom was afraid Grandmom had Alzheimer’s and told us we all needed to keep an eye on her. I looked up the ten signs of Alzheimer’s in the library, and except for the wandering, she didn’t have any of the symptoms described in the book, though there were other changes, like how she cut her wedding veil into strips and knit them into an afghan. I wondered if she just didn’t want to live in this world anymore.
But she still loved the beach, sitting in her chair under the umbrella, looking up to watch the Goodyear blimp or planes towing advertising banners. We sat with her by the water’s edge in beach chairs so low the water splashed our butts through the webbing when the tide came in. “Look at that.” She pointed to a boy flying a dragon-shaped kite that spit a paper tongue of fire as it swooped. “Marc did a kite painting, but that man is sitting on a roof when he flies his kite.” She drew some letters in the sand: Ox Bowe.
“What’s that?” I asked her?
“Och Bosheh. It’s Russian.”
“What’s it mean?”
“Oh God,” she sighed.
The second time Grandmom wandered off, we found her on the roof of the lifeguard house where they store rescue equipment. It was late, and the beach was deserted. Grandmom was leaning against the sloped roof, her feet resting on the gutter, which was all that kept her from sliding off. We begged her to stand still and stay calm, as Dad ran back to the house to call the police. She stared past us.
“Jesus H. Christ,” the cop said as he walked down the ramp to the beach. “How’d she do that? There’s no ladder or nothing. She musta swung herself over the boardwalk railing onto the roof.”
“Or she flew,” P.J. suggested. That’s the last time I saw Grandmom smile.
She was too high up to reach, and the lifeguard house was locked, so Dad ran back to the house to get a ladder. As he set the ladder against the side of the building, Grandmom sidestepped along the gutter to the front of the building, spread her arms, and flew. The sand was soft and deep, so she hardly made a sound as she landed on her side.
“Hip fractures can be deadly,” the doctor told my mother a couple days later. “She might never make it out of the hospital. We’ll try to keep her as comfortable as possible and move her to a private room when one becomes available.”
Mom and Dad filled her room with flowers, and we brought chocolate bars whenever we visited. P.J. spent as much time as she could at her bedside. That was P.J.’s gift to Grandmom. But there was something I could give her, too. Something I owed her since I’d tried to make her disappear, if only in my imagination.
They’d already transferred Grandmom’s belongings to the single room she’d be moving to the following day. Grandmom had lots of visitors that night, so no one noticed when I slipped out of the room carrying a canvas tote.
Walking into Grandmom’s new room I unrolled the pictures I’d ripped out of the Chagall book I’d “borrowed” from the library and covered the walls with them—flying cows, and couples, and fiddlers, and horses—til the room danced. Then I climbed onto the nightstand and taped the wedding picture to the ceiling over her bed, so when she felt lonely, she could look at herself floating high above the village that lived in her memory and in the imagination of Marc Chagall, who held her firmly by the hand.
About The Author
Natalie Zellat Dyen is a freelance writer and photographer. Her recent fiction and poetry have been published in Willow Review and The Jewish Writing Project. Her essays and non-fiction articles have appeared in Global Woman Magazine, Intercom Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other newspapers. She has traveled widely and has recently returned from her second trip to India.