My grandmother’s whereabouts remain largely unknown. Well, to me they do. Naturally, my parents know exactly where she’s buried, and I know that place is somewhere in the New York metropolitan area. I remember driving from the funeral home in White Plains, sitting in the backseat with a rabbi who spoke to me like I was 11 when I was, in fact, 12.
Lately, it’s been troubling me that if I physically wanted to find my dead grandmother—who died in 1992—I couldn’t. There is something vain in the way I flatter my own memory, which is ultimately undeserving of praise. I was in sixth grade when she died, and the way my recollection of her is slipping, you’d think I was 6. Plus, it’s not like we don’t speak of the woman.
For my family, she had that whole deity-on-earth Sun King thing going on—except Jewish and feisty and she never ruled France. Still: I should know where she is.
Even when she was alive, it was difficult for me to locate her. For one thing, she was a small woman. For another, we were emotionally close but neither of us had a driver’s license, and that put a damper on things. She lived in places I had never been: a street named after a broom on the Lower East Side, then Brooklyn, then Queens. Then, at some point during my toddlerhood, she moved to a condominium complex in Mamaroneck. As a preteen, I’d plot running away from home to live with her.
I went through a phase when I was convinced I could walk anywhere. So she’d help me figure out exactly how I could walk to, say, Japan. In trips to her house, I’d stare out the back window of my parents’ car, trying to determine how I’d walk to grandmother’s house if I had to. But there were no appealing bridges or romantic woods—just split-levels and an A&P and a few not-so-foot-traffic-friendly highways.
For my father’s birthday this year, I decided to take some literal steps closer to my grandmother. With the help of Google and MapQuest, I took the No. 7 train out to the last possible stop in Queens. Then I waited for a bus. The bus took me three stops deeper into the borough, at which point I was the only passenger. I got out and walked a few blocks to Stork’s, a German bakery on 150th Street. It wasn’t my grandmother’s graveyard, but more than once I had heard her say she wanted to go there when she died.
Technically, my father grew up in Brooklyn, but my grandmother was living in Whitestone, Queens, by the time I was born. So with the exception of my father’s affinity for egg creams and the Dodgers, I associate that side of my family with the wrong borough.
As expected, the bakery seemed smaller and slightly less magical as an adult. But it smelled exactly the same. I placed an order for bear claws and rainbow cookies and thin strips of homemade chocolate creepily dubbed “cats’ tongues.” These were treated like gold bullion when we were kids, and I was pleased to see that Stork’s still produced them. While I waited, a German woman with a thinning blond bun, her forehead covered with so many wrinkles it was concave, pushed through a swinging door. She shouted in German at someone in the kitchen behind her. I had my order in hand and my back turned when I heard “Wait!” She came out from behind the rounded glass counter, spun me around, squeezed my face and said: “How is your grandmother?”
“She’s …. ”
The German woman beamed, still molding cheeks into a fish face.
“ … good. She’s great,” I said.
For Dad’s birthday brunch in Manhattan that weekend, I whipped out the paper bag with the Stork’s logo—so familiar, it took everyone at the table a few seconds to realize how long it had been since they’d seen it. My father beamed and bit into a bear claw. But then his face loosened and he said: “Wait a minute. What time did you go out there?”
“I don’t know—Thursday?” I thought perhaps he was questioning the freshness of the claw.
My father comes from a generation when New York neighborhoods grew worse and worse. I come from a generation where New York neighborhoods get better and better. (“Better” meaning a gentrified population of yuppies, hipsters and overpriced boutiques, which in some languages translates to “tragic.”) Still, I started to realize the importance of keeping in touch with the physical memory of things.
My desire to visit my grandmother’s grave was now affixed to my “to-do” list. But I didn’t want it to be one of those things that gets carried over to the next list and the next: Your whole life can be transformed into one sprawling long-division problem if you’re not careful. I asked my parents the name of my grandmother’s cemetery, stripping my tone of any suggestion that I actually planned on visiting. It’s not that I didn’t want to go with my family, riding in the back seat again, putting rocks on grandma’s grave and telling her what we’ve been up to this decade. I wanted to do that at some point, but I hadn’t seen the woman in 15 years and I needed my alone time. Furthermore, I needed it on the way there and back.
Long Island: I am sorry to report that my grandmother is buried in a cemetery in Lindenhurst, Long Island. The cemetery has a Web site. Well, ain’t technology grand! Who else in your life will lead you to marzipan cookies and help you find your dead grandmother? One problem: No No. 7 train. No buses. I needed a car.
That’s when I saw a “layout” tab on the main menu. I clicked on it to find what looked like a blueprint of the cemetery, with misshapen squares and paths running through them like seams on a quilt. With this, I was meant to find my loved one’s “lot.” Seeing the map immediately brightened my fading memory. I smiled and put my fingertip through a haze of monitor static to touch lot 6.
I had found her, but now what? I hadn’t thought past this moment. I could take the train to Lindenhurst, but then what? Would a cab wait? Would it drop me off and then I’d have to find some sort of main house to get the number for another? What if cabs don’t go to cemeteries? It’s probably an unwritten cabbie rule: no picking up people outside of Sutton Place (bad tippers + vomit) and no graveyards.
And if the cabbie did agree, would the pressure of a meter running and a driver waiting sully the purity of my communication with the dead? I guess I would tell her how much I miss her, but it doesn’t take especially long to tell someone that. She probably wouldn’t approve of me coming in the winter, anyway. If she were alive, she might lovingly smack me in the back of my head, asking me what I was thinking, coming all the way out here without gloves.
I still want to go, but now that I’ve found her, it seems a far better idea to take the train out in the spring. Everything will be thawed and blooming and cheerful again. And, worst-case scenario, I can walk home if I have to.