In Dementia, My Grandma Is Losing Her English — But Returning to Yiddish

I've gathered that speaking in her native tongue is not only an instinct, but a comfort to Grandma Vera.

It was a Sunday night last July when I first heard my grandmother use a Yiddish phrase that I’d never heard before.

During our goodbye hug, she whispered “ziseh neshoma” instead of her usual “shaina maidel.”

Normally, I’d just say “love you” and be on my way, but I had to know exactly what she meant.

“Ziseneshomeh?” I attempted to pronounce, “What does that mean?”

She fluttered her eyes, searching for the English translation, a process that would double in time as the months and her dementia progressed.

She replied, “Sweet soul,” giving me a wet smooch on the cheek.

The months preceding last summer, my grandma’s memory had begun to decline. As English phrases flickered off, ones in her native tongue, Yiddish, flickered on. The light never waned, only changed form.

I thought I knew the language of our foremothers, Hebrew, but little did I know there was a whole world out there waiting for me to explore it. The entire time, it was hiding beneath my grandma’s lucidity.

It was abundantly clear that her Yiddish was uniquely hers. Rather than hearing the stereotypical “meshuggeneh” or “kvetch” or “schlep,” I now had a front row seat to the very words she used to say to her own grandmother.

My grandma is my best friend — I’ve spent half of my waking days in her presence, but recently when we spend time together, it’s like I’m with an entirely new person. I think I really like her.

When her dementia first struck, she was often searching for the words that she forgot in English, such as a historical figure or a concept. When she forgets something, Grandma Vera looks to the ground in shame, oftentimes stifling tears, and repeats, “I just can’t remember.” My mom or I will say, “It’s OK,” to which she responds, “no, it’s not.” It is painfully evident that she’s mourning her agency, as well as her reputation as someone who remembers almost everything she reads and experiences.

Research suggests that dementia propels the patient back in time, with the most recent self gradually eroding backward. Therefore, the further her dementia progresses, the less English my grandmother speaks. But while her English may be fleeting, her Yiddish, her truest self, is unwavering. The results are extraordinary, a fusion of her many ages.

Her past self is introducing itself to us, and slowly but surely, we say hello.

We’ve always known the pride she had in her Yiddish roots, but she censored what we could and couldn’t see. Now, unwillingly but zestfully, she shares with us the crown jewel of her upbringing. I only wish I had learned her language when I was younger, so I could communicate with this older version of her now.

Despite feeling dismayed that we can no longer always understand her explicitly, my family feels the overwhelming urge to celebrate the origins that my grandma had to neglect in order to assimilate for the past 90 or so years.

I’ve gathered that Yiddish is not only an instinct, but a comfort to Grandma Vera. Since last September when she lost her husband of 73 years, she’s coveted a deeper sense of home, of comfort, familiarity.

When I discuss these observations with my mom, caregiver and daughter to Grandma Vera, she expresses a similar bittersweet reaction. On the one hand, we’re losing the Vera we’ve been so accustomed to, someone who reserves her Yiddish for moments of solitude. On the other hand, we’re growing closer to her core, or as my mom puts it, “conjuring memories of her earliest days, her earlier life, when Yiddish was the predominant language spoken in her home.”

What used to be “let’s go on a walk to digest supper” has become “let’s take a shpatzir.” What used to be “goodnight, dear” has become “schluff gezunt.” “I’ll have just a bite” is now “only a bissel.”

What used to be a classic “bubele” (darling) or “mamele” (little mother) has become “ketzel” (little kitten) or “ziskayt” (sweetie). Our meals are colored with “gshmack” between each bite in lieu of “delicious,” our goodbyes conclude with “zeye gezunt” instead of “be well.” She greets me with “machzicht bakfvem” rather than “make yourself comfortable,” but I can feel what she means before I nudge her to translate.

What once was “you’re a mensch” is now “tayereh mensch,” meaning “beloved mensch.” In place of “very good” is “zayer gut.”

When my grandpa died just over a year ago, Grandma Vera disclosed to me one of her nightly rituals that proved to be a “tonic,” as she says, to losing the love of her life, her best friend of 75 years.

Before she goes to sleep each night, she says to herself in this exact order, “Altz iz in ordinem,” meaning everything is in order, and “kol beseder,” everything’s OK.

I thought she was trying to share with me her own ritual to get to know her better or because she trusted me with it, but in reality, she was recommending that I do it myself to stave off the nightmares of both consciousness and unconsciousness.

She made me practice saying it with her, so I could replicate it beside my bed that night. I’d forget to do so, but the phrases would cycle through my head throughout most hours of each day afterward.

She implies, time and time again, that affirming yourself it’s all going to be OK, we’re lucky to be alive, as she says in English on the daily, is instrumental in moving forward from adversity. And she’s had a sakh, a lot, of adversity.

A couple of months ago, I brought Grandma Vera a bouquet of flowers: autumnal shades of red, yellows and oranges for her to stare at when she is in her house, in solitude. As I handed them to her, she whispered, “arunt tiakafalen frum himmel,” or “it fell from heaven.” What appears to me a phrase of the week remains something she’s been spinning between her ears for her entire life.

I’m opening my eyes and ears to something which, strung along with many other circumstances and events, led to my existence. As a child of an anonymous sperm donor, I’m tethered to the limited knowledge of where I come from. Though I know I come from two loving women, we all wonder about our blood.

Day by day, I glimpse the way Grandma Vera has spent her life, always translating things in secret. In turn, I can translate her love for me. What I’ve come to understand is that love only multiplies with every language in which it’s expressed. By speaking not only in our shared language, but in her language, I’m peering into not only her beginnings, but also into my own.

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