It's no coincidence, I always think, that my grandmother's yahrzeit falls so near to Yom haShoah, the day of remembrance for the Holocaust. I should not have known her well - she lived impossibly far away for most of my childhood, and lived nearby only for a blinkingly short time. But in that blink? Well.
A teenaged trip to Poland, touring the concentration camps, because that's what you did with your gratingly idealist Jewish teen in the 80's, and for all I know, still do. The kids came home shocked, quieter, and many of us, angrier. Try gratingly idealist with an edge of historical angst? Yeah. Great. I came home stunned, and realizing for the first time that there were numbers large enough for me not to grasp, and that those were numbers of people.
I'd learned that, as it happens, in a warehouse of shoes.
Anger, I rather thought, was a reasonable response to the unimaginable. But my grandmother mourned such anger in her quiet, determined way, and had far more right to it than I. She wrote endless letters, trying to educate people about the Holocaust, teach a nuanced, thoughtful understanding of history. And she was not angry.
I missed that at first, awash in a collection of her oddities. She didn't bake cookies - she mashed bananas and sprinkled carob powder on them. She had a compost heap, and believed in rot. She ate this buggy, dirty lettuce, sold in coops (what the what the was a co-op? hell-o? seventies?) by people who didn't believe in deodorant. She treasured her friendship with a farmer person, who didn't believe in using modern fertiziliers because oh, maybe somehow they'd be bad for you. And oh yes, there were the herbal remedies. And her vegetarianism. That chamomile tea will lighten brown hair, turning it nearly blonde - and didn't I want to try that? And wierd quirks about plastic in the microwave. What was there to understand? The woman was sweet but high, high, high on the seriously odd scale.
If she had one saving grace, teen-me thought, it was that she made the absolute best sandwiches ever. Thick, crusty, never seen the inside of a supermarket bread. With seeds and things in it. Slabs of avocado. Crunchy bits of sprouts which were sneakily delicious despite being so - so - hippie. And oh! that dirty lettuce, washed and crisp and melting. On that foundation, she wreaked a range of marvels. And, being the food slut that I am, I fell in love.
Years later, I'd be a parent, making decisions about organic food and whether a bit of ginger might settle a young-un's tum. But back then, I was a fuzzy teenager, chewing on a revelation and learning that individuals count. That the specifics of circumstance can rule you, and that unless I knew those specifics, I could not judge. I set that thought next to the impossible warehouse of shoes, and watched it. Chewed. Tried to undercut it with her narrative of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, machine guns and the camps. Swallowed.
The sandwich - and the idea - settled deep inside me, both setting standards for which I owe her.
Decades after her death, I found myself in a produce store, staring at a rather lumpy looking bit of citrus. And then frozen, inhaling the distinctive smell of a sour orange, and remembering sun-rich fruit, and a farmer casually picking something perfectly ripe. Think about patience, thoughtfulness and smile at the orange in a way that made an older man tilt his head and watch me. Grin a little, even.
She echoes, my grandmother does. And I miss her.