Continued from Back to New York
After long, grueling weekdays at the office, my grandfather looked forward to Saturday morning walks through the park with Joan. They’d feed the birds and the squirrels and indulge in fresh popcorn or hot roasted nuts. A famous story survives from these days: After a particularly rambunctious game of hide and seek, Herman’s ever-present fedora slipped off his head at the precise moment that a pigeon flew overhead depositing a moist, chalky gift smack in the middle of grandfather’s balding head. As he mopped at his head with a handkerchief, Joan fell to the ground in a cataclysm of giggles.
It was after one of these Saturday outings in the spring of 1954 that Herman’s exertions got the best of him. When they entered the flat, it was obvious that something was not right. Joan ushered her grandfather in, guided him to the couch, and yelled for her mom. Yry found her father, sheet-white, beads of sweat gathering on his forehead and lips stained blue. She called for an ambulance, ignoring her father’s remonstrations. He never walked out of the hospital.
In looking back, his colleagues and partners pieced together bits of insight and realized that he had been having small mini-strokes during the weeks before his death. Joan was devastated. Her nights were filled with ambulance drivers bursting into the apartment and scattering stuff all over, hovering over her grandfather, and inserting needles and tubes. No one hinted that she might have contributed to Herman’s collapse. But that idea niggled her—a heavy load for a ten-year old. In the dark recesses of her mind, she even wondered if her mother’s financial burdens had contributed to her beloved Vovo’s demise.
Letters of shock and condolence arrived from friends and family the world over. Norah was bereft. Their union had weathered immensely trying times and events but their love was as deep and true as it had been the day they met. I suspect that no one, including Norah, expected her to outlive her robust and energetic husband.
The rest of 1954 gave itself over to grieving and consultations with the partners and lawyers to settle Herman’s business affairs. Yry worked especially hard to normalize the holidays without her father’s presence. She carried out the traditional decorations of the flat, bought and wrapped gifts, and baked cookies with Joan.
Perhaps having a toddler cavorting around was therapeutic. There are plenty of photos to document the happier times. Joan loved playing dress up and I was a wonderful, if squirmy, subject for her imagination. There were doll parties where each of her many dolls was dressed in finery—sewn by Yry and often with the help of Joan—and assembled around a table set with Joan’s play dishes complete with tea and tiny sandwiches.
My grandmother, Noni, as Iris called her, lingered for another two and half years. She suffered from debilitating anxiety—which I believe had plagued her throughout her life—and severe osteoarthritis. She was bed-ridden during her last months. As I think back on this, I wonder how in the world my mother managed. There was no household help, no home health nurses, no hospice, just my grandmother’s darkened room and the screams of pain that echoed through the apartment every time she moved. In my memories, my grandmother, when she was still standing, was comma-shaped with flaming red hair, lips drawn into a grimace, and harsh words for anyone who stepped into her path, said the wrong thing or made too much noise. I was frightened of her.