I had a close relationship with my grandparents and wanted my children
to have the same. Sadly, due to our recent cross-country move, we
live 2,500 miles from my parents and 3,500 from my in-laws. Spontaneous
or frequent visits are not exactly feasible. My kids' distance from
grandparents, coupled with them no longer being babies, made me
yearn for them to have that kind of connection.
"Not too sick, not too scary looking,"
I told our rabbi, who offered to find us an elderly person to visit
on one of our unstructured afternoons.
A few months later, he phoned. "I have
the perfect people: Hilda and Arthur Stein.* She's attached to oxygen
I called. A man with a deep, strong voice
answered. I introduced myself and ran the visit idea by him. First
I would bring Benjamin, then 9 1/2, followed by Daniella, his soon-to-be-6-year-old
sister. Three-year-old Simone would stay home with a babysitter.
We agreed on the following Tuesday.
"Why are we going to these old people's
house?" Benjamin asked en route to the Steins. "Do they have kids?"
he asked before I could answer.
"So," said Benjamin, running it through
his head, "it's really for them, right?"
"Yup," I said. He couldn't see the smile
on my face from the back seat.
"I'm nervous," he said as he rang their
bell. I was too. What if we had nothing to talk about? What if this
childless couple couldn't relate to kids? What if my kids couldn't
connect with them?
Slow, heavy footsteps shuffled across
the floor. A short, white-haired man with glasses opened the door.
"Oh, hello. You Jennifer?"
"Yes, and this is my son, Benjamin," I
said, tapping him gently on his back to take Arthur's extended hand.
He waved for us to follow him in and meet Hilda, who was seated
at the dining room table half-watching the afternoon news. There
was a walker at her side. The frail-looking lady with a thin plastic
tube under her nose smiled, revealing a mouth full of part missing,
part rotten teeth.
motioned for Benjamin to sit down in the empty chair next to Hilda.
Spotting a free chair a few feet away, I pulled it up to the table
and sat down.
"So, Benjamin, what grade are you in?"
"Fourth," said Benjamin softly. I elbowed
him to speak up.
"What are your favorite subjects?" she
asked, looking him straight in the eye. Looking back at her, Benjamin
answered question after question, first Hilda's then Arthur's: Did
he have any brothers or sisters? Was he the oldest? Where were we
Eyeing a candy dish on the buffet behind
Arthur, Benjamin asked if he could have one.
"Sure, help yourself. You can take some
for your sisters, too, if you want," Arthur chuckled. "They're really
for Hilda. She loves candy."
Although Hilda's short-term memory was
shaky, she recalled an evening at the opera in Washington D.C. when
she sat a few rows away from John F. Kennedy. Having just studied
civil rights in school, Benjamin's eyes widened. "You really saw
him?" he asked in admiration.
An hour later, Benjamin pointed discreetly
to the watch on his wrist. "Can we go now?" he mouthed to me. "Please."
I told the Steins we had to head home to make dinner.
"When are you coming back?" asked
Hilda as soon as we stood up to go.
The following Tuesday I took Daniella.
She ran to the door and bolted into the room as soon as Arthur opened
it. The news was on TV again. I hugged Arthur and kissed Hilda,
but they weren't focused on me. All eyes were on my daughter.
"What's that?" Daniella asked, pointing
to the tube running under Hilda's nose. I had never asked what was
"It's oxygen to help me breathe,"
she said. "See it comes from this bottle into my nose," she pointed to the canister on
the table next to her. "The candy helps, too!"
"Oh." Daniella stared a little longer
at Hilda's sunken eyes and almost toothless grin.
"You're so beautiful," Hilda said to my
daughter. My kindergartner beamed at me. "How old are you?" Again,
the barrage of questions: What grade was she in? Was her brother
nice to her?
"You're so intelligent," Hilda said every
few minutes. "How old are you?" Each time she asked the same question
Daniella would patiently repeat the answer. Each time Hilda complimented
her I could sense my middle child blossom from the attention.
"Can I have one?" Daniella said, spotting
the candy dish.
"Yes, and you can take one for your brother
and sister if that's okay," Arthur said.
Sensing Daniella wouldn't last too much
longer, I stood and prepared my daughter to leave. "When are you
coming back?" Hilda asked.
"Next week. I'll call you," I answered,
leaning over to give her a kiss.
The weeks passed and my children grew
accustomed to our weekly visits. Occasionally, they would try to
protest with "Do we have to?" or "Why me?" whines. Secretly, though,
I suspected they enjoyed themselves. The candy dish helped, but
it was more than that. For Benjamin, it was about being a part of
the grown-up banter. On Daniella days it was about her. Whether
she drew a picture or danced around the living room, Arthur and
Hilda watched adoringly.
As for me, I loved seeing my kids so comfortable
around these aging non-family members. I encouraged them to show
respectto speak clearly, look them in the eye, shake hands or give
hugs. I particularly enjoyed the childhood stories the Steins shared,
weaving together tales of war, survival and family. I realized the
Steins were as old as my grandparents were at the end of their lives.
The way I remembered them.
As the months passed that first year,
I worked play dates and other activities around the visits. I brought
Simone on some occasions as well as my parents when they were in
town. All along, I kept wondering what Arthur would do after Hilda
passed away. Worse, what would become of Hilda if something happened
Then I got the phone call.
"Hilda's in the hospital," the rabbi said.
"She fell. She didn't break her hip, but is too weak to walk or
I went to visit Hilda at the hospital.
Attached to an IV, she was floating in and out of consciousness.
I felt my kids could handle it, so I took Benjamin and Daniella,
explaining to them what Hilda would look like.
When we entered the room, her eyes lit
up. "Look who's here," she smiled. Unable to lift her head off the
pillow, Hilda held out a hand. I urged Daniella to take it. "How
was school?" she asked. We stayed only a few minutesjust long
enough to cheer her up.
Since Arthur was home by himself, we invited
him for dinner. The kids were so excited they dressed up and made
place cards. As soon as he arrived, the girls danced around him,
vying for his attention.
Over the course of the following year,
Hilda was in and out of the hospital and a nursing home. Wherever
she was, we visited. And whenever she was away from home, we invited
Arthurfor a holiday party with friends or for family meals.
I began calling him at other times to check in.
Early fall that second year, I called
Arthur. Hilda was back home with full-time care, he explained. I
went with Benjamin to visit. Seated on the couch, Hilda's body was
tiny compared to the sofa cushions.
"Poor Hilda has emphysema, you know,"
Arthur explained. I had never known.
Arthur asked about our travels and
about school. Slumped over, Hilda dozed off. "Hilda, you okay there?"
Arthur would ask every few minutes. Our stop-and-start conversation
felt strange without her.
"Arthur, I can't breathe," she gasped.
"I can't breathe." He asked if she had a candy to suck on. He called
the aide to check her oxygen.
Benjamin looked at me with a pained
expression. I knew that as much as it was difficult to witness,
he was old enough at 11 to be there.
When we stood up to go, Hilda pried her
eyes open. "When are you coming back?"
Five days later Arthur called to tell
me Hilda had passed away. When my children returned home from school,
I told them the news.
"That's so sad. Poor Arthur," Benjamin
"But where will he live? Who will live
with him?" Daniella asked, folding her body into mine.
One by one, I answered their questions.
Still, I knew I couldn't say anything that would assuage their pain
that they would never see Hilda again, that life ends.
My husband and I went to Hilda's funeral
the next day, where I took a back-row seat. I couldn't bear to see
Later that day, Arthur said, "You know,
Jennifer, how much Hilda loved seeing you and the kids. Every time
after you'd leave she always wanted to know when were you coming
"Don't worry," I reassured him. "I'll
call you, Arthur," I said, leaning over to kiss him on the cheek.
Every week as we set the table for
our Friday night family dinner, Benjamin, Daniella and even Simone
always ask, "Is Arthur coming tonight?" And every so often I smile
and nod my head yes.
* Names have been changed