In Heaven there is G-d and there are angels and also the souls of those who have left us behind, yet alas there are no telephones, not even the old-fashioned kind with a cord attached to the wall, though I’m guessing there are no walls either. And so we cannot call G-d or ask the angels to patch us through to the souls whose absence we feel every day, widening the chasm between our world and the World to Come.
Growing up, I found safety and happiness in my grandmother’s arms and at her dining room table, where she fed me love and doled out homemade chopped herring. But even when we weren’t in the same place physically, we could be together on the telephone, its long, twisting cord the long-distance tether between us.
She is gone so many years already and I still miss everything about her. But what I miss most is her voice. Talking to her now is akin to talking to G-d, a one-sided conversation grounded in my faith that they both hear what I’m saying. He grants and takes away. She listens, putting in a good word with Him for me. I share stories and ask questions, then pause, hoping for answers I will never hear. Instead, I wait for a sign, like the rustling of the leaves on a tree when I visit her in the cemetery or the sudden appearance of something that has been missing from a cabinet for months.
As if she were still perched on a bench outside her apartment building on the Grand Concourse at 206th Street, she remains my keeper of secrets – a vault filled with my dreams and sorrows, my joys and inhibitions. I tell her the things I cannot share with anyone else, not even with G-d, though He, who sees and hears everything, knows it all anyway. Still, I believe that in His infinite kindness, He tries to give us a bit of privacy, sending the eavesdropping angels on some errand around a cloud.
I have, of course, never heard G-d’s voice nor have I seen Him. All I know of Him I feel in my heart. My grandmother, however, appears vivid in my mind’s eye, floating in His shadow. The old linoleum at the bottom of Heaven creaks beneath the rubber soles of her orthopedic shoes as she shuffles around, dusting her Lladro and talking to her plants. I have photographs should these images ever lose their clarity, but there is nothing I can do to hold onto her voice. Sometimes, it’s as if she is standing next to me, spinning a yarn about her childhood. On others, her sound begins to fade and slip away. I wish I’d bottled it up in a jar before G-d decided He wanted her marvelous laugh all to Himself.
Years before my grandmother’s soul departed from her frail body, her body left her beloved Bronx apartment behind. She handed the keys to the super and bid farewell to the hairdresser who washed and set her wig and to the market which no longer sold the herring from which she made my favorite delicacy because the old Jews from the neighborhood had either passed away or moved to Florida and the young ones had long ago escaped the city for picket fences in the suburbs. She packed what she had room for in the shoebox of her new place, including her old phone. Before long, though, she – too short on earth as angels must be – could no longer answer when I called.
On the hardest of days after she is gone, I reach for the cordless to ring her anyway. I need her voice to fill me up, to lift my spirits and guide me as it has done a breathtaking number of times before. But alas, there is no phone in Heaven. Catching myself, I try to get her attention by putting on her old Persian coat, which has hung in the back of my closet for years. I twirl around and ask her how I look. She says nothing, of course, but I feel her turn my attention to the place where the coat is torn at the back, right where the sleeves and the shoulders meet.
I talk to her as I drive into town, where DiMarco the tailor tells me the coat is too old and worn, far too fragile to fix. I suspect he is just afraid he might clip the wings my grandmother has hidden for me inside the lining.
At home, I return the coat to the back of the closet, painfully aware that I can no longer get lost in her embrace, nor can I call her where she now resides. But she has given me the wings to write about her, which I do often. It is my futile attempt to return her to earth, if only on the page.