By Jonathan Zimmerman
'Jon's coming over today. He's doing really well."
That's what my grandmother told my grandfather every Tuesday morning. Actually, she told his portrait. It hung on the wall in her bedroom, which she shared with him until he died in 1990.
A few years after that, I got a job in New York. But my wife and I had already settled near Philadelphia, and we weren't prepared to move. So I commuted to New York a few days a week, becoming Grandma's companion - and, eventually, her caretaker - every Tuesday night, for 16 years.
I brought her matzoh ball soup from the 2nd Avenue Deli, and we talked. Mostly, though, I listened. Grandma was born in 1907, during the first elected administration of Theodore Roosevelt. One night, she described at great length the celebrations in New York marking the end of World War I. She was 11 at the time.
She told me about her parents, her siblings, her education. And she told me about Grandpa. High school sweethearts, they sneaked secretly down to City Hall to obtain a marriage license several years before their wedding. "Back then, you couldn't just 'be' with a man, if you know what I mean," Grandma said. I knew what she meant.
We talked about her long career in the New York public schools, where Grandma taught physical education and health. She described the rise of drug addiction in the 1950s and 1960s. She told me about counseling students who had become pregnant.
Many years ago, I met a woman who had taken phys-ed with Grandma. Did she remember her teacher? Most definitely. "I had never seen a teacher who was so beautiful," Grandma's former student recalled.
And Grandma was beautiful. Tall and statuesque, she traveled around the country in the summers to teach and "call" at folk-dance festivals. She must have turned a lot of heads. On one of her trips, she told me, a male dance caller had tried to engage her in - how shall we say this? - a pas de deux. Nothing doing.
Most of all, though, Grandma talked about her two sons and their children and grandchildren. To her, every Zimmerman walked on water. So good-looking! So smart! So successful! We weren't all that, actually, at least not all of the time. But to Grandma, we were.
And as time went on, we were all that was left. Grandma's hearing declined and she started to get confused. But she recognized us, even when she didn't know our names.
On a recent Sunday, when I brought my wife and daughters to see her, there was a long lull in the conversation. Grandma seemed listless and disoriented. Suddenly, apropos of nothing, she spoke up. "Family, family, family, family, family!" she said, beaming.
We are all born into intimate configurations of human beings. We go out into the world, to work and live and love. But we all come back to the place from whence we came. That's why Grandma started to call out for her own mother and father, right before the end. Family, family, family, family, family.
The last time she spoke to me was about two weeks ago. She was sleeping, and I nudged her awake and shouted into her hearing aid. "I love you, Grandma!" I boomed. "And I love you," she mumbled back.
The end finally came last week. And yes, it was on a Tuesday. I held her hand as her breathing slowed. I went to take a shower. And when I came back, she was gone.
Did she wait until Tuesday, so I'd be there with her? And did she wait until I left her room, to spare me the shock of watching her die? I'll never know.
I walked out of her apartment and through the streets of lower Manhattan. I heard cars and buses and subway trains, rumbling under the ground. I heard wind whipping through trees in Washington Square. But above all the din, there was Grandma: inimitable, indelible, indominable. And I heard her say: Jon's coming over today. He's doing really well.