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Grandma Rachel's Ghosts

Grandma Rachel's Ghosts

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Can the dead speak to us? And if they can, will we listen?

Jacob was five the first time he saw them, the two strange women in Grandma Rachel's kitchen. They appeared suddenly, from thin air.

It was summer and scorching hot, but the two women wore old-fashioned heavy winter dresses. They spoke with an accent like Grandma, from a land far away.

They had stories to tell. Nice stories that Jacob loved hearing, and awful, painful stories that made him cover his ears.

Now, years have passed and Grandma Rachel is dying. Will Jacob finally be able to listen to what the ghosts have to tell him before it's too late?

Grandma Rachel's Ghosts is a short story.

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Mother is waiting in the hall, and I can see she has been crying. She sees me approach and rises from the plastic chair by the door. “She's acting crazy again,” Mother says. “Shouting about Esther and Tova and Yitzhak. Saying dreadful things. Telling me I'm blind.”

The lines around her eyes are more pronounced, as if being in this home of the elderly is aging her.

“What am I going to do about her?” she asks.

I take her hands, the hands that have bathed me, changed me, dressed me, gave me food and warmth and education. These hands are now smaller than mine. My palms easily engulf hers.

“It will be all right,” I say, and the lie flows so easily that I'm scared by it.

“She's been asking for you. Wondering where you are.”

I nod, my head heavy with tiredness. I came straight from the airport and the jet lag is weighing on me. I guide Mother back to the chair and ask her to wait for me. I enter Grandma Rachel's room. The acrid scents of medication, antiseptic material, and old age sting my nostrils. A nurse stands by Grandma Rachel's bed, adjusting her IV. Grandma looks tiny. She seems to have shrunken both in height and weight. Her hair is sparse and her clothes hang on her scrawny frame.

“Jacob,” Grandma Rachel whispers, “you're here. Finally. They think I'm crazy, that I'm imagining things. My own sisters. Tell them.”

I am silent. The nurse gives me a nod of familiarity. Wordlessly, she's telling me that it's okay, that she knows what I'm going through. I realize the nurse thinks Grandma is delusional, that her mind has deteriorated to the point where she sees apparitions. I want to speak, want to shout out the truth. The shame builds up inside and pushes the truth against the closed gate of my mouth. In the end I simply tell the nurse that I'll take over.

The nurse nods. “I've given her a sedative. She'll fall asleep soon.”

I thank her and sit by Grandma Rachel's bed. Her eyes are closed and her breath is slow and even. She's on the verge of sleep.

On the other side stand Tova and Esther in their long dresses of brown wool. I can see them both frowning at me.



The first time I saw Grandma Rachel chatting with her sisters, I didn't know who they were. I remember finding it strange that two women were walking around in the blistering July heat of Tel Aviv wearing long-sleeved, coarse wool dresses whose hems caressed the floor.

I was sitting cross-legged on the cool kitchen tiles, clad only in shorts, sucking a lemon popsicle, and I was still hot.

Grandma was hunched over the kitchen table, her graying hair rolled into a tight bun, fingers curling dough into crescent-shaped rugelach. The scent of cinnamon, sugar, and fresh flour permeated the kitchen. To my five-year-old nose, there was nothing more intoxicating than that smell.

Like a pianist playing a concerto to perfection, Grandma Rachel would work on her rugelach. It was her art form. She never consulted a recipe or used a measuring cup. She added sugar and cinnamon and raisins and sour cream by feel only, and the final pastries always tasted sublime.

Although Grandma's rugelach were a source of pleasure for me, they were a constant cause of frustration for my mother. No matter how many times she attempted to replicate Grandma's masterpieces, she always fell short. They would spend hours in Grandma's small kitchen, creating one batch after the other, working side by side, Grandma giving the instructions in Yiddish, Mother asking her questions in Hebrew. I could always tell which rugelach were Grandma's—those I devoured—and which were Mother's—those she would take to her colleagues at work the next day.

That day in July, as I sat with my hands sticky with melted popsicle and my mouth filled with an artificial lemony flavor, I watched intently as Grandma pulled a completed batch of rugelach out of her oven, set it on the counter to cool, and resumed work on another. The two strange women with the long dresses were also watching her.

The woman on Grandma's left looked like the picture of Grandma from when she was younger, the one that stood on her piano. She had brown hair and eyes that matched, a wide face, and lips that were firmly pressed. The woman wrinkled her nose as Grandma poured syrup over the dough. “What are you doing, Rachel? You forgot to add the cinnamon. Where's your head?”

The woman on Grandma's right nodded, her black ponytail bobbing up and down, her eyebrows pinched in worry. “It's also too much syrup. It will end up too sweet.” She turned to the woman on Grandma’s left. “This isn't the way Mother used to make them, is it, Tova?”

“The boy likes them sweet,” Grandma Rachel said, sprinkling cinnamon on the dough. “And I don't remember you liking mother's cooking all that much, Esther.”

“The boy has a yellow mouth and walks around half naked,” Tova said.

Grandma grabbed a wet cloth and wiped my hands and mouth clean, kissed me on the forehead, and tousled my hair. “He's five and this is how they do it here. In this heat, I wouldn't mind walking around half-naked either.”

She blushed as she said this and then laughed. Tova and Esther laughed too.

So it continued, the two women hovering around Grandma Rachel, watching over her as she baked, offering tips and advice, bemoaning every mistake they perceived she made. Despite their thorny criticism, Grandma Rachel never got angry or impatient. She seemed to relish every protest, every dig at her skills. Throughout that day, whenever Tova and Esther corrected her cleaning methods, sewing abilities, or the way she looked after me, she responded with a smile or a laugh.

This went on until Mother picked me up after work.

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