My grandmother serves me small lunches she likes to call gourmet. Ham, whole wheat, mustard, assorted cookies my mother brings my grandparents from the market across the street. A few spoonfuls of soup, split pea in winter and gazpacho in summer. My grandfather offers guests ginger ale a few times, forgetting he’s already done so. Sometimes he offers wine, but it is too early for wine. We eat around a cramped kitchen table with the A/C rumbling and a view of 76th Street out the long corner window.
My grandparents have lived in this house for over half a century, and they do not not leave it anymore: a tendency which began with my grandmother’s fear of slushy street corners—plus osteoporotic hips—which gradually lost its rationale over the years, particularly in summer, when ice wasn’t an obvious concern.
The last day I visited them before returning for my final months in Providence, my grandmother served me tuna fish salad; she said she hadn’t made it in a long time. Then she noted that nowadays, most people in the obits seem to die at ninety-four. She seemed very positive about this. Not too bad, we agreed. I briefly thought about the fact that she knew exactly what her statement meant, as in: three years to go. In what ways was she counting? Then I ate more tuna fish, and added pepper, as per her suggestion.
She also had my grandfather bring us the latest New Yorker, pointing to an “exit interview” with the “radical lesbian artist” Barbara Hammer, who lived with cancer for thirteen years before her death this week. My grandmother is interested in whether my generation treats homosexuality as nonchalantly as characters do in the contemporary fiction she’s reading lately, and I laugh, wondering if this is an opening, and instead I say depending on who you hang out with, I think, yes.
In the interview, Hammer says that “the wonderful thing about dying is the interesting processes. I find it fascinating as an artist and as a writer.” I questioned whether my grandmother—who is not yet physically dying but considers these years the “end of her life”—sees this time this way, as curious and instructive. I hoped so, but I also didn’t have the time to ask, which could serve as a heavy-handed metaphor for how I will feel in a few years time about all the conversations we never had. That day, I didn’t have time to ask because I left my grandparents after approximately an hour and a half at the kitchen table. I more or less always stayed for an hour and a half. They were easy to say goodbye to; the relationship functioned as it did because they knew I had other things to do—unlike a friend or a parent, they wanted me to have better things to do.
They blessed me as I went. We have naches from you! my grandmother wrote in her unfastened hand on a birthday card from 2014. Because I don’t know any Yiddish, she included definitions. Naches meant the esteem derived from one’s children or grandchildren. I suppose I had yicches, the esteem derived from one’s elders.
As I went, I noticed that the elevator in their building had been recently renovated: the oversized and satisfying buttons of my childhood had vanished, giving way to a white, glossy interior, too sleek for deteriorating pre-war. There were all sorts of problems with the building by now—it was built in 1926, the same year my grandfather was born, and he didn’t say much that afternoon on account of dementia but he did say that as a person born in the year 1926, he knows what it means for a body to decay.
My own house in Providence, the place I consider home, sits halfway between my grandparents’ apartment and a city I couldn’t stop thinking about in the summertime, when I thought the Maine coast sounded refreshingly cool and salty. When I finally visited for a weekend, it was deep winter and Portland’s streets were treacherous, temperatures fluctuating so much that the ice melted and re-froze daily.
On our last day, I stepped outside one of those gas-stations-turned-coffee-shops, leaving my friends to tear into the last of a set of pastries by themselves while I called my grandmother for her birthday. It seems I’m ninety-two. Ninety bloody two. She asked me what I was reading, and then she said goodbye. I relished this brevity, a natural trait I had not inherited.
So do you think Grandma might die before Grandpa? I asked my parents on the phone a few days later. You know, we’re starting to think that might be a real possibility. They had begun referring to this phase as “Grandma’s retreat,” which sounded like she was in Florida or maybe on a chaise on an Alaskan cruise, where she would see icebergs calving for the first time.
By “retreat,” they pointed to an enclosure they saw my grandmother beginning to shroud around herself. Different from agoraphobia, I observed her moving inward—a shift from her novelistic personality, frequent gasps and exasperated sighs summing to the soundtrack to a dramatic but comic worldview. She was the heroine in a tasteful Broadway theatre, another one of the joys she gave up when she stopped venturing outside.
Yet she now performed this retreat matter-of-factly, without fanfare. People sometimes say that elderly people get nicer as they age, but my grandmother wasn’t acting more docile. It simply seemed like she was ready—I’ve seen quite enough, thank you very much—and was unabashed about letting others know. There weren’t that many “others” anyway, since, as she reminded me, almost everyone she had loved besides her husband had died before her.
I couldn’t grasp the seventy years between us. She had lived in her own mind so long and I thought she must be desperate to get out. I personally felt panicked knowing that at ninety-two, if I am lucky to live that long, I will still be in this mind, with my thoughts. Sometimes I wanted to turn it off and to sit in silence with nothing more to think, or else think entirely different thoughts from entirely different perspectives, which, I suppose, is why people meditate and do drugs, respectively.
On the contrary, my grandmother did not seem desperate. Unsurprisingly, she had never learned to meditate and did not care to alter her state of mind beyond a single glass of sherry. She must have figured out years ago that it wasn’t so bad to remain in one mind, that that was why things got interesting.
I had the rest of my life to discover this fully. Then again, “the rest of my life” was a strange phrase. Adults keep telling me things will fall into place, as though the pieces of a life fall like blossoms, as they would in the middle of May. By then, I would have graduated, and then the next stage would come—hopefully that would all fall into place too, no longer blossoms but autumn’s dead leaves.
It seemed far away now, but there’s that educational video that shows that as you grow older, time really does speed up, because one day becomes an increasingly infinitesimal fraction of the total time you’ve lived. So however fast the last six months had passed, the ensuing six would—scientifically!—appear to pass even faster.
“Despair,” Fanny Howe writes in The Deep North. “It’s an ancient feeling and is born in each person. Despair, the word, came like a sweet-dropping medicine, a coat of taste for her fear. Never had a word had such reverberating power for her.”
I was asking what did the rest have in store? A huge, foolish question. My grandmother approached a separate question: what did death have in store? I believed the answer to both was absolutely nothing. This sounds too harsh, but last summer, waiting for Maine, I lay around in the heat of the third-floor apartment in Providence with my window stretched wide, no defense against blow flies, and reread too much Chris Kraus. That’s where I came across the Howe.
“Both of us share with the real Kathy Acker this horror of completely making shit up,” Kraus said to Olivia Laing in an interview in The Paris Review last September. This is exactly where I located Howe’s despair: not only in meaninglessness (absolutely nothing), but mainly in the subsequent falsity of any forged, fabricated meaning. I knew that everything I deemed important was totally made up.
When I called my grandmother on the phone after the shootings in Pittsburgh last fall, she asked if I were calling all the old Jewish women in my life. You’re my old Jewish woman! I replied. Then I apologized, though I didn’t know for what. It only confirms my belief to never step foot in a temple before I die, she said, wryly. Then paused, and said: You find yourself at the end of your life in the same place you began. She grew up in the Depression, was abandoned by her biological father; her husband fled northern Germany in the late thirties. Like many nonagenarians, I thought they had lived through, well, a lot. I wanted the world to be less fucked up now than it was when she came into it. To lie and say it were different when it was essentially the same would constitute another rendering of Kraus’s bullshit mechanism.
I have no way of knowing how different this moment is from all the moments that came before it. To move in circles had a kind of sick logic to it, but I also thought it possible that my grandmother was wrong: this moment may very well be different. Maybe it’s even singular.
There are signs that the world is ending, and I want to make it clear that we talk about disaster all the time. Sitting on couches a little high, morbidly discussing microplastics, how the ocean glistens normally until you run your hands through it. Pasta strainers. I walk home alone on a wet night and try to ignore the discussion, its cynicism. Ultimately, this willful oblivion makes it easier to drive in a car, my parents’ as it speeds out of Manhattan while the sky is growing orange, and forget that things won’t always be this way—in less than half the time I’ve already lived, things won’t be this way ever again. Climate activists have long insisted that Howe’s ancient facet of despair is especially justified right now, even obligatory. But in “How to Survive the End of the World,” healers adrienne maree brown and Autumn Brown speak candidly about what it might mean to face apocalypse. They pose questions with perceptible answers, ones that might aid us in dealing with the dread and doubt of our particular generational circumstance in less abstract terms. What do you pack? Get your friends together, the Browns say. Sit down and figure it out: who knows about weather patterns; who can make jam, or can; who do you trust with your life?
Because the signs are still only that, I haven’t started to ask questions this concretely. But sometimes I wonder: Would my parents ask me to leave them behind? Would I pack up my things, and the friends I hold tightest, a partner, if I have one, and drive away this fast? And if so, where would we go? Manhattan will be saved, they wrote in the aughts. This month Bill de Blasio proposed expanding our shoreline into the East River. Make it bigger!
My grandparents don’t need to answer the Browns’ questions directly: another generational divide. Their apartment is on the 9th floor, where utility bills are still going up. Even if waters rise decades before expected, there they will sit, running out of money—islands unto themselves, as the city does what the city does all around them. In some ways they are untouched there, and also, they are trapped.
Plenty of my cousins are in their late thirties, old enough not to have focused on climate in some decisions about their imminent future—rather than the questions of when to have kids, how many, whether to stay in Brooklyn once they did—and thus already raising two children under four. One weekend when we go to visit them in a neighborhood overrun with toddlers, my friend suggests that I’m not serious about what I’m saying, which is that maybe I’m not having children because of future precariousness. Meanwhile, I’m reaching to touch my baby cousin, who is named Hart, after her mother and my mother, and who has recently learned to laugh, a skill I did not previously realize I had learned.
Humans have been doing that for thousands of years, my friend argues. Humans have been having children assuming they will be born into a fine sort of world and then something happens—bomb, famine, war. Suddenly the world is no longer hospitable to that child. If that never stopped us before, why now?
In an interview of author Sheila Heti in the Los Angeles Review of Books last May, Kate Wolf tiredly reminds us that “the world is overpopulated and the earth is overtaxed by humanity. But that doesn’t solve the problem of possibly wanting [children] or not, does it?” After writing a book about ‘modern motherhood’ sans a fully developed contemplation of climate change, Sheila Heti agrees with my friend. “We are built to destroy all life on earth, and ourselves. People aren’t going to stop having children for environmental reasons if they feel they want them.”
I remember how I used to figure into Heti’s description of child-desire, talking obnoxiously loudly on public transportation about how beautiful it would be to have a baby with whichever woman I was currently in love. Specifically, I contemplated who would look more interesting pregnant, with an outstretched belly button—our own experiment with the limits of our bodies. The baby would be a girl, and it would have her eyes, obviously.
But this January I read that it’s possible the baby, were it to be born between 2025 and 2035, when temperatures will diverge across the globe, would be more likely to be a boy, because embryonic sex ratios deviate depending on the temperature-stress of pregnant mothers. The boy would also have a significantly increased risk of having a bad heart; mothers exposed to higher temperatures during pregnancy are more likely to give birth to infants with congenital heart problems. I am a fairly neurotic person, and I think if I were pregnant in the summer months post-apocalypse, I would worry about such a thing.
So, peering out on a lifetime of uncertainty, I am circling around preparation. In two months, I’ll graduate from college, and I want to vomit at the notion that someone might consider that trite social marker significant enough to write about. But compelled to consider multiple selves—who I have been and how I regret her and who I would prefer to be—instead I will write about anything but that marker, and you will know, still, that this essay is not about my grandmother, not about motherhood nor climate change. I am only talking about a precipice.
I have this dream in which my grandmother stands alone on the deck of a ferry leaving an island, the foghorn blowing loud, and long, and surprising every time. A cloud soaks her, condensation bound to the withered contours of her cheeks. The horizon is invisible, there is that much fog. No place where the ocean meets the sky, no place to find an edge and clutch it. Just the endless blue. She thinks she will die out there, and yet, she stays. She is prepared: to brace herself, put out her feet, and purposefully leap—despite what she finds below. Very sure, in fact, that she won’t find anything at all.
Can I learn from my grandmother’s practices? With no weather patterns ahead, neither rhyme for jam nor reason to can, all she can do is know, with every bit of certainty she has, that the only thing that lies before her is the unknown itself.
Her own answers to Howe’s despair come, then, in little things. Unconcerned acts, but deliberate. She has long been the first to read The New York Review of Books, thus knowing about young, hip authors like Sally Rooney before anyone my age, weeks ahead of Twitter. In January she presses Conversations with Friends on me. I will call her in a week or two to tell her my thoughts, when I have finished the novel and passed it around to my friends.
My grandmother will speak concisely then too, and in doing so, she will reach out to another version of herself she perhaps sees in me, as if to give solace. One day I might look back on myself in just the same way, ciphers now revealed. For now, though, I will visit my grandmother for lunch the next time I am in New York for a moment, and I will hold her hand lightly and I will not say I do not want you to die but I will think it, and then I will go again.
Convinced there would be no books in that place either, and given that she had always read many books, now she read the biggest ones. The words came like a sweet-dropping medicine, a coat of taste for her fear. Whole volumes of Proust again—patiently lined up on the shelf above their still-shared bed and its water-lilied covers, where she sits as others tie and untie the small leather boats of her shoes—and a biography of Frederick Douglass that is so heavy that when she picks it up it turns the thin skin of her wrists blue. Then yellow. Soon, when the skin returns to its clean and otherwise unmarked folds, it will become impossible to see the trace.
LILY MEYERSOHN B’19 is looking forward to seeing her grandmother next weekend.