I hated the glass cabinet at the entrance to his room. There were many sad and distressing things to face when I visited the nursing home – from the woman who had forgotten that her parents were long dead and kept crying out Mama and Papa, to watching the residents have bibs clipped around their necks before being spoon fed. My sister was most struck by the smell as we walked from the entrance to his room, which she described as sulphuric. There was also something malignant in the air, besides the accidental bodily functions; abundant pain and grief.
The nursing home called the cabinets ‘memory boxes’. They were designed to help forgetful residents find their rooms and prevent them from barging in on others. ‘Memory boxes are also an attractive addition to any corridor,’ boasted the nursing home’s newsletter, which I found years later. Apart from being signposts and adding to the décor, the memory boxes were also meant to stimulate memories.
The residents were encouraged to display their personal memorabilia, but it was the family members who decided which memories went in the box, particularly for those in the high-level nursing area, like my grandfather Jack, whom we called Popsi.
The memory boxes were a random assortment of personal items that survived whatever circumstances led the person into care. Before my grandparents’ apartment was sold, my family and I culled their collections of souvenirs, photographs and ornaments, making quick decisions about which possessions to keep. All of their furniture was taken away on a charity truck, including the lounge suite Popsi won on Wheel of Fortune. He loved Wheel of Fortune as much as the game Scrabble; they allowed him to show off his intellect.
One of our relatives told us that his father, Popsi’s brother, used to talk about his ‘highly intelligent brother Itskal’. The nickname Itskal was devised when they were growing up because Popsi, who loved school so much, used to call out, ‘It’s school, it’s school!’ when it was time to go.
He was a bright scholar who topped many of his subjects at school, including Hebrew and Tanach, a Jewish text. He once told my dad that he had been planning to study to become a Rabbi but that required him to wait a year and he was impatient. Popsi was fascinated by the ‘poetry of numbers’, according to my dad, and was able to multiply long numbers quickly to a captivated audience. He also loved spelling, playing around with words and working on anagrams and crosswords. He valued his mind, memory and education above most material things.
Popsi’s move into the home was so quick that we didn’t give his memory box much thought. The nursing home did not guide us, and we didn’t know what to include to help him remember his life. Stimulating his memory seemed cruel, almost like torture. I believed that photos and objects from the past would distress him.
We had taken some framed photographs from my grandparents’ living room, a couple of clear paperweights with floating pieces of London Bridge inside them, and a small menorah from Popsi’s favourite Jewish festival of Chanukah and arranged them in the memory box. It was the only tangible remainder of my grandparents’ life together but it felt jarring and tokenistic.
Still, I doubted that Popsi ever looked inside. My grandmother had died a few months before he moved in and he didn’t care about anything apart from when his next cup of tea would arrive and how to work the complex new television in his life.
A nurse had watched us arrange the chosen items in the cabinet, rushing us so that she could lock it. She told us officiously that we could request the key if we wanted to change or remove anything.
There were many visual distractions in the public areas of the nursing home to compensate for the sense of loss in the rooms. The memory boxes felt extremely personal but all the visiting families stared at them as they walked down the hallways.
There were traces of Popsi’s old life in his sterile new home. Not his gaunt body, so small now in his blue blazer and holding little resemblance to the way he used to look. The room, an artificial recreation of his old home, similar to the memory boxes, was primarily for the sake of the visiting families, as the residents did not seem interested in their surroundings. There was a framed photograph of my grandmother on a table, his precious World War Two medals in a drawer near his bed, an untouched Bryce Courtenay novel, a couple of travel knickknacks, and prints and paintings densely covering the walls, as colourful and wild as they looked at home. One that stood out to me was a Japanese painting of a wild horse. There was a still-life of some fruit, a bottle of wine and a book.
Still-life paintings seemed ironic in the nursing home setting, as the objects in the room and the residents themselves rarely moved. His room was furnished by the nursing home, and was very utilitarian. There was a bed with an emergency button that he never seemed able to locate when he needed it most. There was a table on wheels, used for tea times and some of his meals. There were cabinets, closets and a large television.
Popsi often got confused and thought he was in hospital. It must have been disorientating to sleep night after night in an unfamiliar bed.
Soon after he moved in, my sister and I spent an afternoon hanging up his paintings in an effort to make him feel more comfortable. We were in the middle of hanging the last, feeling proud of our work even if Popsi had barely noticed, when a nurse burst into the room.
‘You can’t put those up yourselves! You have to go through the office and they will get someone to put them up safely.’
We took them down, flushed, not saying a word.
When he first moved in, Popsi was somewhat animated and hospitable. He shuffled around his room, offering a chocolate he had hidden in his mini fridge or trying to share the drink that came on his lunch tray, a special thickened juice to aid digestion, which I turned down as politely as I could.
After he had lived there for a while, he was diagnosed with dementia. Our visits changed as he did. I would sit with my sister or parents in the window seat at the back of the room, the closest point to the outside world; you could see the bursts of green from the grass and trees and a blur of movement from the cars passing by, and remember that life continued to exist outside the nursing home. We often read the paper or attempted conversation with Popsi, but he was progressively unresponsive.
Sometimes we could elicit a wan smile from him through conversation. Other times he just smiled when we came in and cried when we left – loud, choking sobs that echoed in the dining area and startled his fellow diners, who then stared at us as we backed out of the room, feeling like criminals.
Wanting to do something, we put energy into Popsi’s physical wellbeing. My parents called to ensure that his nails were clipped and that his hair was cut at the salon at the nursing home.
‘You had a haircut!’ we would exclaim with mock surprise when we arrived. ‘Don’t you look good!’
He would smile in response, completely apathetic about his hair but pleased by our enthusiasm. His personal appearance used to be important to him. As a child, I was intrigued that he had an old-fashioned shaving brush made out of an exotic animal’s fur, as well as a brush for cleaning under his nails. His hair had always been cut by a barber, his beard shaved and his nails cut short. Now, he wouldn’t have cared if his hair fell past his shoulders, or if his nails curled up in spirals.
He refused to wear any of the new clothes we bought him, insisting on shabby, disintegrating outfits. All of his shirts and trousers were labelled with his name, like children’s clothing on a school camp. But there was nothing sentimental about these tags, made by an employee in the laundry room with a labelling machine.
Most noticeable was the change in the way he communicated with us. He had always been quite the conversationalist. He loved to make puns and Dad-jokes and used catchphrases like ‘We’ve arrived and to prove it we’re here!’ He taught my sister and me his work telephone number by singing ‘Two, two’ like ‘Choo, choo’ in the song Chattanooga Choo Choo. He performed complicated card tricks, relishing in his audience’s reactions.
At Passover, Popsi was one of the few still alert and buzzing late at night, desperate to sing the long, complex songs Chad Gadya and Echad Mi Yodeah. He loved bursting into songs and poems that had multiple verses to remember, showing off his exceptional memory.
Now, at best he would watch us. Often, he wept over the passing of time or from watching an old movie that triggered a memory, or seeing one of his old diaries. He kept going back in time and would suddenly insist he was 75 rather than 91. Sometimes he loved reminiscing about the war with visitors while other times it was a taboo topic that made him very distressed.
From what I could see, the full-time nursing staff did little to help with the residents’ emotional states. I was never sure whether they were trying and failing, or whether they didn’t have the time or inclination. Some of the patients were prescribed anti-depressants by the doctors who came through the nursing home periodically. It took a couple of months before Popsi was diagnosed with depression.
I found it saddest that Popsi kept forgetting that his wife Marie, my grandmother, had died. Convinced that he was in the hospital recovering and that he would be home soon, he would ask, ‘When do I leave the hospital? How long have I been here?’
He worried about how my grandmother was coping at home without him, and asked, with a regularity we came to dread, ‘How’s Marie?’
Every time he asked, ‘How’s Marie?’, it was tempting to respond with ‘good’ or ‘fine’, but it felt wrong to lie to him. I didn’t want to contribute to a fantasy world where his wife was alive. Popsi deserved honesty and integrity. Yet if we reminded him of her death, he sobbed uncontrollably for the rest of our visit. His sobbing didn’t seem like expressing grief, just suffering.
My uncle eventually discovered how to get around the question ‘How’s Marie?’ without lying, by responding ‘Much the same, really.’
Seven years earlier, when I turned 20, my grandparents started dying. My grief was immense. We are a small, close-knit family, and my four grandparents played a monumental role in my life, like additional parents. I used to think their apartments would belong to them forever, seeing the objects within them as permanent fixtures. I viewed my grandparents as if they were immortal, thinking they would be around when I wanted to learn more about them.
Some people excel at preserving the past. I have friends who write down and collect every family recipe, others cleverly ask their relatives the important questions while they have their memories intact, and even record the responses. Many items that I treasure have only survived due to other people’s diligence.
In high school, my sister and I had to research and write lengthy essays about our family history. I studied my mum’s side of the family, and when it was my sister’s turn she studied our dad’s dad, Popsi. We conducted interviews, found diaries from the time, collected maps, medals and certificates, and read historical sources.
At the time, it was just a project. It was interesting, but we felt no sense of urgency to hear these stories before it was too late. Also, there was a sense that war stories were not for girls. I don’t know if this was just the general attitude in our community and wider society at the time, or just something my family believed. Now I wish I had asked him to tell more stories about being a soldier.
When we were packing up the apartment, we found my sister’s essay on Popsi. All of his war stories, written in his journal and relayed to my sister, were told in relation to his beloved Marie, our Nana. My sister interviewed Nana about her experiences at the time, including her memories of sandbags, gas masks, ration books and the Blitz. She recalled Churchill’s most memorable speeches (‘We can offer only blood, sweat and tears’) and the changing roles for women during the war effort. However, while she was happy to tell stories of the Home Front, my sister felt Nana believed that Popsi’s story was the one worth telling.
My sister’s essay on Popsi contains many exciting, funny and obscure details that I regret not hearing from him myself. I learnt that in 1937, 21-year-old Jack was popular and a ladies man who went dancing every Saturday night. He met 17-year-old Marie in 1938 at a Communist youth camp in England when she cheekily asked him to share the steak he was cooking. They began to date.
Several days before World War Two broke out, Jack developed appendicitis and was evacuated to a place called Bedford. Marie visited regularly with her friends. War was declared in September 1939. After several days he was allowed to return to London and was conscripted into the British Army in January 1940. On arrival, the men were tested and divided into their units. Popsi was given a Royal Corps of Signals, meaning he would learn Morse code and become a signaller.
According to my sister’s notes from her interviews and his diaries:
The men were ‘kitted out’ with uniforms and sent back to London, to live in a large house in the suburb of Enfield. Each room of the house housed about 12 men, who slept on palliasses, or straw mattresses. The men were taught Morse code and tested every Friday. The three top scorers were given a free weekend to go into town. Jack received the top mark every week. On these free weekends, Jack caught a bus and met up with Marie, who lived in Angel Islington. For the first six months of the war, known as the ‘Phoney War’, Jack and Marie would go dancing or to see movies every weekend.
It was unsurprising to read that Popsi topped every test, no doubt due to his overwhelming desire to see Nana.
Jack proposed to Marie in August 1940 while he was on leave, six months into serving, with a ring he had purchased for 22 pounds.
A couple of months after their engagement, Jack was stationed in Melrose, Scotland, working as a signaller. The night duty was particularly hard, with temperatures below zero. They slept for four hours and guarded for two hours at a time. He described these shifts as ‘Bloody awful.’
I can sense Popsi’s frustration and impatience when I read his diary. In an entry dated October 1940, he wrote, ‘Nine months today. Dear me. What a waste of a career.’
In April 1941, Jack was given four days’ notice that he was being sent overseas. He went absent without leave, hitchhiking 300 miles to see Marie, his fiancée. They spent the day together. He returned to be tried before the Court Marshall for his punishment, which turned out to be two weeks of jankers – domestic duties, and no pay. According to my sister’s notes, many other men had the same idea at the time. ‘95 unaccounted for this morning,’ Jack noted in his diary on 18 April 1941.
Jack spent years overseas as a signaller, using Morse code to send and receive messages. His departure had all the flair he deserved. Rather than taking a regular battleship down the Gibraltar and through the Mediterranean to get to the Middle East, the British Army used a luxury passenger ship because it skirted the danger of U-Boats, or submarines. The men slept in numbered hammocks, which were set up in large ballrooms.
He was most proud of his time served in Tobruk, where the soldiers were referred to as the Rats of Tobruk as they were surrounded and hemmed in on all sides by the Germans. They lived in caves or holes in the ground. My sister’s essay captures the stress of this time.
The weather was 35 degrees Celsius during the day, and five at night. Jack needed to sleep in a big coat and leather jacket and there were many fleas. Food consisted of a daily ration of corned beef and biscuits, with water being distributed once a day. Tobruk was completely deserted and devoid of civilians. The only inhabitants were the Army and the Italians. Every two or three days there was a sand storm.
He wrote in his diary: ‘Shells, bombs, digging and sand storms. Hellish sand storms. Sand in lungs, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, everywhere. In food, drink, clothes. What a life.’
After Tobruk, he was on his way to defend Malaya from the Japanese when Singapore fell. The soldiers were diverted to Bombay, India, to control Hindu resistance during Gandhi’s ascendancy.
What transpired in India, from what I imagine reading my sister’s essay, reminds me a bit of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, or any of the myriad films in which British people arrive in India and look around in amazement.
Jack was stationed in India for three years. He got malaria on the Burmese border. Later, he developed a hernia from playing football and was recovering in an army hospital just as his unit was due to be dropped in by parachutes behind the enemy line, known as chindits. His hernia saved his life, as half the men were killed. After the British pushed back the Japanese they were given leave. Jack spent two weeks in Kodaicanal in southern India, a place up in the mountains ‘which overlooked the clouds’, he told my sister. The American missionaries he stayed with fed him breakfast, ‘elevenses’, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper and cakes with every meal. His body couldn’t handle the rich, abundant food and he ended up with colic.
After three years and eight months overseas, seven years after he met Marie, he was sent home to England. In his journal dated January 1945, he wrote, ‘And so ends one more not-so-happy year, but with a fine ending, going home.’
Jack arrived home in a navy-blue and white striped suit known as a demob suit. They were mass produced, out of date, civilian clothing provided by the army to soldiers returning from service. Nana spoke of Popsi’s suit fondly.
My grandparents’ wedding was planned in three weeks. With an additional week of leave for a honeymoon, Popsi returned to service the week after.
He was sent to join the army of occupation in Germany, taking over as interpreter since he spoke fluent German. There was a policy of non-fraternisation under which the British were forbidden to speak with Germans.
Popsi loved to tell us the story of when he violated this policy by giving chocolates to German children, and was called to the officer to be reprimanded. He argued that the policy was unreasonable and it was dropped.
My dad, who enjoyed hearing war stories, heard a different version. As a child, he asked Popsi ethical questions about killing enemies in the war, curious about whether this constituted murder. He asked, ‘Did you ever kill anyone?’ but only ever heard one story with any violence in it. It was about a time when starving German children came begging, their country devastated by war and defeat, and a British soldier slapped one of the children. Popsi yelled at him to stop and ‘knocked him down’, having been quite the boxer in his youth.
Later, he was transferred to Bayeux, France, and then Calais, where he was put in charge of the local telephone exchange. Popsi recalled this time in an email to me when I was visiting France. ‘Can you imagine the calls I managed to make to Nana in London, free of charge of course. So many memories!’
Nana and Popsi were married for 63 years. Their last anniversary was less than a month before Nana died. I learnt so much about love from them. I used to smile – even when feeling admonished – when Popsi stuck his hand in the air if people were interrupting his wife and said, ‘Marie’s talking,’ in a no-nonsense voice. I loved the way that it was ritualistic for them to chant ‘Tea?’ day and night, upon entering a room, putting down a newspaper or after a meal. When I visited, there was nothing more endearing than the sight of Nana and Popsi tucked into bed drinking their cups of tea, often clasping each other’s hands.
You could make a clichéd, very fitting reference to them being like a pair of animals who mate for life, such as swans and turtle doves, or perhaps gibbons and vultures – since Nana liked obscure information. They spent their lives besotted with each other. I get the feeling that while Nana deeply respected Popsi’s war years, the rest of their life was Nana’s domain. It was his job to ensure she had an audience.
There are so many family stories of the way Nana and Popsi belonged together. My mother remembers the tale of Nana wandering through Grace Brothers in the Sydney CBD and hearing a public phone ringing. She picked it up to tell the caller they had the wrong number and found Popsi on the other line, trying to reach her. These stories feel like family myths, sometimes unbelievable, always entertaining and worth remembering.
Nana and Popsi moved their young family to Australia in the fifties, lured by cheap fares and the promise of a good lifestyle. Popsi built up a successful career in insurance, pairing math skills with his love of people. Recently, my sister found one of his letters that he used to pitch to future clients. His words are personable and highly persuasive. Nana worked as a secretary, skilled in stenography and shorthand, and trained in first aid and nursing during the war, which, according to my dad, ‘was handy for two sickly/hypochondriac children.’
They lived in what felt like a fairytale house during my childhood, with a pool in the backyard, before they moved to their apartment. Popsi swam what always struck me as an impressive number of laps regardless of the weather outside. He laughed as my sister and I huddled by the edge of the unheated pool, poking our toes in. ‘Come on, it’s warm as toast!’ he would say.
Nana and Popsi always seemed so busy to me when I was growing up, unlike most grandparents I knew. Popsi juggled his job, family, social life, and community work for the Lions Club. They travelled regularly for work and leisure, reconnecting with family in the UK and the USA. Highly social and generous, they made lasting friendships, including one that started at a hotel in Paris and lasted 50 years.
There are pictures of my grandparents wearing leis and tipsy smiles at a conference dinner in Hawaii. While the photograph is delightful enough on its own, the real gems are in Nana’s 1992 cruise ship diary from the Queen Elizabeth 2. I have to quote from this diary, which is a hearty counterargument to David Foster Wallace’s less positive account of cruising.
‘Last night we danced a bit. Had Popsi not wanted to dance, I could have snapped my fingers – and, presto! – a mature gentleman would have appeared dressed in coffee coloured jacket and cream slacks to niftily wiz me away to perform an expert fox-trot, and return me to my spouse, lone ladies take heart!’
Also, ‘O G-d. At 8pm we finished a five-course meal terminating with plum and apple crumble. Now we must go to the Columbian restaurant for a midnight feast. If we do not, what regrets will we succumb to when, supperless, we retire to bed for the night when we get back home.’ Then, a note scrawled later that night: ‘We did not go to supper! Stayed in our cabin and read new books and relaxed. What virtue.’
What you don’t read into her hilarious accounts on the ship is that she was quite the worrier and pessimist. Popsi complemented her perfectly, effortlessly managing his responsibilities and duties and remaining steadfastly optimistic. When family drama occurred, Popsi assured her everything would be okay.
His optimism was often a disadvantage, like when he was certain that there would be no traffic. I looked up to him as the positive, endlessly cheerful optimist in the family. If you ever asked how he was, there was only one answer: ‘Good, good.’ It was such a contrast to how I felt, with social anxiety. He had an answer to everything. I wanted to take on the ease with which he navigated his life, to be as calm, jovial and charming as he was, and stop worrying about what others thought.
Popsi spent many years of his life with the single focus of making sure Nana was comfortable and happy. He used to boom, ‘Your wish is my command, Madam.’
Any joy he felt over seeing his grandchildren was expressed in terms of Nana. ‘Nana was so delighted after your visit,’ he would say. ‘She just loves hearing from her girls.’ He sent surreptitious reminders when her birthday or their anniversary was approaching, to ensure all family contacted her.
As he got older and more fragile, he continued to insist on walking to the bank or post office himself. The younger Popsi could have walked to these places in ten minutes, but now it was taking him up to thirty and he was exhausted on his return. When he had the option to be wheeled by a family member or carer, he refused.
He had car accidents frequently. He would argue, ‘That pole wasn’t there when I parked!’ and failed his driving test, which had, unfortunately for him, just been introduced for over-85s in New South Wales. He immediately applied to retake the test and passed the second time. He was determined to drive, regardless of what his family said. He lost his licence permanently when he had a stroke at the wheel and crashed into a truck outside his building, ending up in hospital.
He had been experiencing strokes for years, but most weren’t debilitating. My parents and various government agency carers helped Nana while Popsi was in hospital until he came back and resumed his duties.
When family members took over the driving for him, he insisted that we pull up illegally at the front doors of the building. Part two of this process was going upstairs to collect Nana in her wheelchair, wheeling her out to the lift and to the front door, then helping her into the front seat and folding up her heavy wheelchair to put in the boot. All of this took a toll on his body, but he loved doing it for her.
His senior years neatly coincided with the invention of home computers, offering a new way to sweeten Nana’s life. The emails he sent to friends and relatives were about her, or from her; she used to dictate lengthy emails that he patiently typed – he would then print the responses in colour for her.
Popsi typed up the book Nana wrote about the wife of her beloved Charles Dickens. Dickens had been an awful husband but he remained Nana’s favourite writer. My dad remembers, ‘Popsi carefully typed the book on his computer, putting a totally unnecessary carriage return at the end of each line on the screen, because that’s how typewriters worked.’ According to Nana, the book wasn’t published because someone beat her to the idea. She wrote a play about Indigenous Australians and unwed mothers that was performed, and Popsi typed individual copies for the cast.
To what extent Popsi volunteered to do these things for her, I can only guess. Nana was good at organising people to do things. I love to remember her perched on her walker, the basket beneath filled to capacity with notepads, several lists, a cordless phone and many pens. She liked to call the local vet and inform them that they were mistreating their dogs by keeping them out in the sun with too little water. She always had projects and ideas. When we were little, she had an idea for a book called Silly Work, which was filled with creative activities for children to do.
Had she grown up in another time, she would have been a powerful businesswoman or a CEO. Or, perhaps, a teacher. Now that I am doing a Masters in Teaching, I see elements of Nana in so much of the work I do. A good teacher uses fun, imagination and creativity in their lessons.
She used to help us make bunnies, tying thread around the top of a ball of cotton wool to make a head, stretching out some ears, and drawing eyes on. She created activities and games for us, things that burst open our imaginations and made us love to write and draw.
Nana was a fairytale cliché of a grandmother, who used to get us to peep into tree trunks looking for fairies and pixies. As a teenager, it was impossible for me to consider that someone that good with young children could offer any advice to a cranky, confused version of the child she loved.
Nana often reminisced that as a child, I used to put my elbows on the table, lean my chin on my clasped hands, and tell her everything. I don’t remember doing this but it seemed important to her, having raised sons who were not quite as willing to talk about feelings, to establish that she had been my confidant. She would say, ‘Why don’t you come and sit on my bed and tell me about it? You liked to do that as a little girl.’
When I fell in love with a woman and entered a serious relationship with her, Nana didn’t mention it for the first couple of years.
One day, she finally addressed it as we sat in the waiting room of St Vincent’s Hospital, waiting for her appointment. She mentioned my girlfriend’s brother in the navy, and pointed out how attractive men in uniforms were – case in point being Popsi during World War Two. I demurred, turning down the idea of swapping partners within my girlfriend’s family.
‘Will you two have children?’
This was the first time I remember Nana acknowledging my relationship. She couldn’t quite look me in the eye but she seemed to genuinely want to know.
In shock, I shrugged and said possibly. This led to a conversation about how two women might achieve this without the helpful presence of a man. I’m certain that we talked far more about sperm than we ever would have if I were seeing a man.
Nana became close to my girlfriend and began to have long conversations with her. When we had to move out of our apartment for a few months, she offered us a room in their apartment, where we shared the bed. She had reached the point of realising that our company, and our arms and legs as we pushed her in her wheelchair to local restaurants and cafes, offered her a great deal of joy and that it wasn’t worth rejecting our relationship on principle.
At this stage, Popsi was already weak, physically, and mostly quiet, distracted and set in his ways. He didn’t mind us living there but would get irritated and fussy, quite uncharacteristically. He would count his change whenever anyone did the shopping for him. But Nana was so theatrical that he mostly went by unnoticed. Nana thrived during our time at their apartment, while Popsi started to fade.
My parents left Sydney in March 2006. My girlfriend and I moved to Melbourne at the end of that year. There were many reasons, but none that make sense to me now. My mum’s mother had passed away in 2004 and my family had never felt the same since. Our group of eight, just by losing one member, had come unstuck. I was sick of grief and conflict. I desired change. I believed that a new place offered a magical fix.
Moving away from my grandparents was one of the hardest things I’ve done.
Popsi avoided direct displays of emotion, and we never discussed missing each other the way Nana and I did. He showed his feelings by getting up early and escorting us to Central Station the day we left Sydney.
Unable to drive us, he put on his blue blazer – which I had adorned with a large Lions Club patch on the pocket, at Nana’s request – and ordered us a taxi. He kissed me goodbye and waved soberly from the window as the taxi driver did a U-turn and headed back towards his apartment.
Popsi showed his love and care through action. He would kiss his family members and generally chose the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach to love.
Years earlier, the way that I felt most connected to Popsi was through religion, even though none of us were particularly observant. My family’s progressive synagogue offered a twice-weekly service for particularly dedicated members at 6:45am. My dad and I used to go with Popsi. I was a high school student at the time, and chose to sacrifice my sleep for the tri-generational bonding time and also for the toast and tea after the service. Popsi insisted on joining us, getting up, shaving and dressing formally and waiting downstairs for us to pick him up. The Rabbi often gave him the honour of being called up to the Torah. When he turned 83, the synagogue offered him a second Bar Mitzvah, which is not common.
When Popsi moved into the nursing home, I particularly missed seeing him in the synagogue. I think Popsi felt happiest when our family practised religion. He loved the words, the melodies and the sense of community he found there. His parents were Romanian, which made him a Sephardic Jew, and he always valued the Yiddish language as well as traditional music. He loved using the Hebrew language, particularly through song. Languages came easily to him, like riddles to solve.
In Melbourne, I found that practising Judaism made me extremely sad. Most of the songs made me think of Popsi. Keeping Passover was distressing, as none of the songs were Popsi’s tunes, and the service lacked his commanding presence.
I travelled to Sydney regularly once I moved. My girlfriend and I were struggling financially at the time, and, after losing a significant amount of weight, I had found out that I had Grave’s Disease. My thyroid gets overactive, flooding my body with thyroid hormones that make my hands tremble and my heart beat incessantly. It is a genetic condition that is believed to be caused by stress.
Despite being highly anxious and ill, I obsessively organised trips back, which involved requesting leave and searching for last minute flights. I constantly feared that one of my grandparents would die.
Popsi turned 90 in November 2007 and Nana threw herself into planning an elaborate function. Despite family conflict that had been going on for years – which is a separate story entirely – she managed to gather most of their family together. It was a celebration of his life and included all of his favourite songs, some of which he jumped up and performed.
I was at work when I found out that Nana died. I saw multiple missed calls on my mobile and asked for permission to go and take a personal call. I broke down when my dad told me.
She had passed away in the night. It was the sort of the death that I always dreaded, as there was no chance to say goodbye, but was probably a good way to go. Popsi found her dead in their bedroom when he woke up.
My dad said, ‘I often wonder about Nana’s death, whether it was as instant and peaceful as I imagine, or whether she lay on the floor trying to wake up the snoring Popsi for a long time. I think he wondered that too, and that that was what finally broke his spirit.’
After Nana’s death, Popsi only lasted at home for a few months, unable to continue functioning without her. I was certain he only used a handful of objects, mostly the kettle and the computer riddled with viruses.
He began to fall, regularly, in his shower. He ended up in the hospital on a regular basis. The series of live-in ‘home sharers’ my parents found for him couldn’t keep him safe, and they quit one after the other, usually after one of his visits to the ER. He wept every time he was taken away in an ambulance or when a well-meaning acquaintance asked about his wife.
I didn’t notice at the time, but his personality had been changing while Nana was alive. Now that she was gone, he changed completely. When we went to visit him, he was distressed and weeping, angry, or apathetic.
Once he moved into the nursing home, I was forced to come to terms with his deterioration. I couldn’t tell if we had been oblivious to the extent of his decline or if his condition had worsened since his arrival. It was hard to believe he managed at home for so long. He always had such a sharp mind that he felt capable and refused help.
For someone so smart and logical, he hadn’t been realistic about his health and abilities. I wondered if his last few energetic years had been forced for Nana’s sake. He must have run on adrenaline and willpower. As long as she was around, he was mobile and desperate to do things for her. Once she was gone, he could give up.
I continued to travel to Sydney regularly, sometimes at the expense of my health. Even though Popsi rarely remembered my visits, I needed to see him. I would rush and stress to get there and then arrive at the nursing home to find total stillness.
I would leave Popsi’s nursing home and then head to Bondi to see my mum’s father, Deda. He was younger, and in better shape, so visiting him felt uplifting. He would ask how Popsi was, and would then shake his head sadly at the response, saying, ‘Poor Popsi.’
I maximised every moment in Sydney, squeezing in visits to family and friends. This meant rushing between places, always conscious of the time and my heart pounding.
My priority was always my grandparents, at the expense of some of my friendships. I couldn’t explain what I was going through, especially to those who hadn’t lost grandparents or others who were not as close to theirs. Losing both grandmothers – who had turned out to be the glue that kept our family together – made me terrified of losing my grandfathers.
On Melbourne Cup Day, my girlfriend and I flew to Sydney and went to the nursing home with our luggage. Popsi alternated between sleeping and staring ahead. We sat with him in silence, holding his hand.
We left to see Deda. All the buses were packed as the nursing home was so close to Randwick Racecourse. We tried to catch a taxi but despite waiting for almost an hour we had no luck. Finally we gave up and walked through Centennial Park, on a moody, overcast afternoon. We could barely laugh at the situation as we dragged our bags through the muddy park and were chased by black swans.
Usually we couldn’t afford for both of us to visit Sydney so I did these trips alone. I would then return to Melbourne late on a Sunday night, not in the best frame of mind to prepare for a week of work.
I was so grateful to have my girlfriend with me that trip. Going alone was fine when Popsi was stronger. Now that he was too weak to communicate, satisfied to sleep most of the day, it was hard to maintain a visit. Above all, it was very upsetting.
She hadn’t seen Popsi in a long time and told me he looked very frail. That was the last time she saw him.
My uncle called my dad on New Year’s Eve. I was staying with my parents at the time in northern New South Wales. My sister and girlfriend were overseas when the call came. Our families rarely spoke and most of the updates about Popsi came by email. This time it was different. Popsi was in hospital and they found gangrene in his foot that had led to infection.
I heard my dad say ‘Oh shit,’ and knew that it was the end.
My parents and I booked the earliest flights to Sydney on New Year’s Day. This turned out to be a time where airports are filled with hung-over travellers, all red-eyed and regretful about having booked the cheapest flight home.
At the nursing home, Popsi had been moved off the bed to a mat on the floor. There was a medical reason for this, related to the gangrene, but at the time there was an absurd jungle-gym feel to the room with its blue floor mats.
Nothing felt familiar about the room, where we spent two full days, and neither did Popsi. I have been in two rooms with dying grandparents and both times, what struck me was the lack of ownership I felt over my beloved grandparent. The medical interventions, which even the most sensitive nurses and doctors try to make non-invasive, make you feel removed, ignorant and helpless. With my previous grandparent’s death – my mum’s mother, Baba – the room was packed with relatives.
This changed once it became clear that there was nothing more the medical and nursing staff could offer beyond morphine doses.
My dad and I took over from my uncle and cousin when we arrived. Before they left, my cousin and I watched our British fathers act stoic and repeat information from the nurses. I realised I might have to help them express emotions, since basic conversation was stilted.
Popsi had been the same. As my dad recalls, ‘He was not good at expressing emotion, but that was the English way that they both cultivated so assiduously. He made up for that when the mini-strokes began to bite.’ The strokes made raw, primal emotion burst out at any moment.
My uncle left in the morning on the second day. I moved to the mat, right beside Popsi, and my dad watched me talk to him and hold his dad’s hand for a long time. With nobody present to judge his responses, my dad also took Popsi’s wrinkled, almost translucent hand. There was something innocent in the gesture, possibly the first time they had held hands in decades, apart from manly handshakes.
We watched Popsi for hours. The gaps between his breaths kept increasing. He was motionless and barely breathing. Each time, just as I was sure he had died, he would breathe in.
In between speaking to nurses and watching him for signs of life, I felt like I couldn’t possibly take anything seriously again. How can you justify fears and worries when you have seen what the end looks like? I could not imagine leaving Popsi’s room and fearing, or feeling, anything again.
It was the first time I watched a person die. There was something spiritual and pure about it, a sense of him leaving his painful body. It turned out that having views on heaven, souls or the afterlife was not important. I was startled by this sense of peace and comfort even in our grief, so unlike what I expected.
At Popsi’s funeral, we played the overture from Bizet’s opera Carmen, his favourite music of all time. He loved to roar the songs but I never understood what they meant. The translated Habanera begins with ‘Love is a rebellious bird that nobody can tame… Love is a gypsy’s child, it has never, ever, known a law…’
Music brought us great comfort. When my dad told Popsi’s British relatives that we unorthodoxly played it at the funeral he said we were ‘Risking him rising from the casket to conduct.’
Popsi’s ashes were scattered at a beach in Rose Bay, outside the RSL where his 90th birthday party was held. Nana’s ashes were in the same body of water.
A few weeks later, our families went through Popsi’s room. The staff unlocked the memory box and let us decide what to do with the objects. Nobody fought over the items in it, as they hadn’t really been that symbolic of his life. From Popsi’s bedside drawers I took his war medals, which he used to wear on ANZAC Day.
I now realise it wasn’t Popsi’s memory box. The entire room was a tribute to Nana and Popsi. Not a happy, loving tribute, but one trapped in time and grief. It was a tomb. We thought we were coming to visit him but we were standing at their graves, mourning their lives.