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When a beloved grandmother lives far away

A decade after he moved to Tel Aviv for what started out as an adventure and became a full life, the author’s grandmother has fallen seriously ill, and he is not sure he will have much time with her – if any. This, then, is the flip side of the adventure: the pain of distance

By Ari Miller

Nearly 10,000 kilometers away, they found cancer on one of Mom Mom’s lungs. I sit in a Tel Aviv cafe not knowing if I’ve seen my maternal grandmother and last surviving grandparent for the last time.

Mom Mom, the author's grandmother (photo: Ari Miller)

Family is weird, as is distance. I was back home this past Thanksgiving. It was an impromptu and surprise visit. For every possible reason I am so thankful I got to make it. I doubt I’ll be able to make it back to the US in the immediate future. With a trip made so recently and plans to attend friends’ wedding in June, plus just starting my own bakery, I have a severe lack of time and funds. In the worst case scenario, I would not be present at the end game.

This would not be the first time. I immigrated to Israel about a decade ago. A year later my Pop died, my paternal grandfather who first introduced me to the kitchen. I had just seen him during my first visit back to the US, he died just a few weeks following my return. I miss him dearly, especially as I enter the world of the professional kitchen. But, I knew then, that it had been much more important to me that I saw him alive more so than had I been there to witness his burial. But still, not being there with family at such moments is painful in its own right.

I’m going to miss Mom Mom –  which is to say, I already miss Mom Mom. I see her once a year at best. She has never been out to visit me. But, she has flown me in so I can see her. Mom Mom is cool. I’ve told her as much. And she feigns surprise each and every time that I do. This thin, demure woman who, as best as I can tell left much to be desired as a mother and redeemed herself in her relationship with her grandchildren, is fucking cool.

During one visit home, I was in the car with Mom Mom and my sister who was visiting from her home away from home in Austin, Texas. Somehow the topic of pornography came up. This gave rise to Mom Mom’s observation that sometimes, late at night, she’d leave on one of the scrambled cable channels in the hopes of catching a second or two of some dirty stuff. My sister, who never misses a beat, told Mom Mom that she’s more than welcome to watch porn as an adult rather than as a high schooler hoping not to be caught by her parents. Mom Mom dismissed the notion. It’s not what she was looking for.

Then, thank fake god, I was turning into a parking lot when, five minutes later, Mom Mom, elaborated that indeed she had always wanted to see two men together. I lost my shit as I pulled into the spot.

I wonder if I’d be more sad were I there to see her weak and frightened. But this is the reality of life as an expat. Events are missed: birthdays, weddings, reunions, holidays and deaths. My life here interacts with my life there as best I can make them. Technology has been a huge boon to maintaining and reestablishing intimate interactions from so far away. In fact, catching up with my mom and sister, I am missing a family dinner of epic proportion – Hoagies at home. But not with Mom Mom.

But Mom Mom is decidedly low-tech, not one for adapting to new technology. She’s mastered the microwave and VCR and that’s enough. We’d speak on the phone often but her hearing has failed her at this age (a number so closely guarded that I do not actually know it). So we write letters. She recounts her life  in the most ridiculous ways. She is my favorite satirist. A widow of nearly 30 years, Mom Mom lives on her own in her own place. She doesn’t drive – not since she careened straight into a telephone pole her first time behind the wheel – so she depends upon friends and family to chauffeur her around. She generously repays such efforts by picking up the tab at the restaurant you have escorted her to.

But her friends fall ill, they move away and they die. Her children, my uncle and mother, have a strained relationship with Mom Mom at best. So she doesn’t get out as often as she’d like. And she documents her observations and frustrations at this time in her life in a series of four to five handwritten pages, front and back, that I receive delivered from her door to mine. She lives vicariously through me, always asking that I send her pictures of my going ons, complete with date and explanation. Of late, I’ve taken to sending her pictures not just of me but of my friends. As her friends disappear she has made new ones in mine. In her last letter she wrote, “Your friends sure are cool. Am I using that word right?”

Yeah, Mom Mom, you have and you are.

Ari Miller is a baker, cook and writer living in Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv. He owns Food Underground, purveyors of the best soft pretzels in the Middle East, a food product that Mom Mom loves dearly. His most recent article was published (in Hebrew) in Blazer, where he recounts his experience as a judge at the World Testicle Cooking Championship in Serbia, of which Mom Mom says, “Feh!”

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    1. Ari

      PS

      The cafe I was sitting at was the Misanthrope.

      Reply to Comment