Let the little boy through

Rachel Sofaer (Photographed 20.10.2009)

Rachel Sofaer (Photographed 20.10.2009)

This week saw me suddenly and unexpectedly on the next available flight from the São Paulo waste, baking in 33ºc, to -4ºc, via BA Club World. (Steerage was sold out.) Good seats. Nice menu. Balancing Lavender Facial Wipe. The same problems with the ‘entertainment system’. The same difficulty getting to sleep. The toilets are identical (unfortunately) except that they stick a white carnation to the mirror.

On the 29th December last year, less than a week after her 97th birthday, Grandma complained of a pain in her leg. (“Pins and needles. Darn nuisance.”) What wasn’t known at the time, was that a blood clot was forming in an artery just above the joint in her left knee. Her leg began to fail. By the time the correct diagnosis was made, the options were stark: cut off the leg or die.

But in the case of an increasingly ailing 97 year old, chopping off a limb is not so easy and even if the operation is survived, the long-term outlook, which after all cannot be so very long, is bleak.

When the consultant outlined the alternatives, Grandma’s response was typically self-effacing and stoic. “Something had to happen.” Her decision, to be made ‘comfortable’ meant a stepped increase in the prescription of pain relief, as her beautiful fragile body became slowly poisoned by the septicaemia that would gradually cause her organs to fail, one after the other.


Born in Calcutta in 1912, Grandma is the daughter of a second generation Calcutta Baghdadi mother, and a first generation Calcutta Baghdadi father who came to India from Aleppo. Along with many other Arabian Jews who exploited the trade links along the Asian peninsula from Calcutta at its western most point to Shanghai at its southern most tip, he travelled to India in the hope of making his fortune. He traded in jute. No fortune was made but he provided for his family until eventually he was bankrupt.

Her father was a God-fearing Jew who took his religion seriously, but in order to secure the best education for his daughter, and perhaps also to devolve responsibility for a difficult child (Grandma was, by her own reckoning, “quite a handful”) she was sent to a Catholic Boarding School. Saint Helen’s Convent in Kurseong is still at the foothills of the Himalayas where India borders Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and what is now Bangladesh. Here she went to school under the English system with Catholics, Parsees, Moslems, Hindus and Jews of a variety of nationalities and mother-tongues, taught by nuns – the Daughters of the Cross – who came from Liège and delivered the Cambridge Examination Board Senior School Certificate curriculum with thick Belgian accents. English may have been the official language of instruction in India since 1835 and my grandmother’s first language, but she needed Hindustani to converse in the kitchen and the street, would have been required to read basic Hebrew for religious instruction and was aware of the Arabic of her ancestors.

In 1930 Grandma left Calcutta for London to train as a nurse. Like most middle-class daughters of the Raj she had never had to undertake any domestic chores. Arriving at her London training hospital in an era when nurses were expected to deliver complete care to patients, including cooking, cleaning and washing, Grandma was presented with a broom by the Ward Sister. Gazing at it rather forlornly, and without any hesitation at embracing hard work, she rather ruefully explained, to the horror of her colleagues, that she didn’t know what to do with it. She described the experience as “shameful”.

Grandma had been a ‘champion roller-skater’ as a teenager. I don’t know which championship this was but neither did I want to ask. The image created was of a strong, athletic girl with a ribbon pinned to her white cotton shirt.

In her late 80s, the fever to feel once more the rush of those wheels underfoot caused her to take herself on the bus from Croydon to a Streatham roller-skating shop. Grandma stood in the queue behind a row of South London youth and at the appropriate moment gave her shoe size to an increasingly nervous attendant. Thank goodness the fever abated the moment the skates were on. “I felt a little bit unsteady.” She took the skates off and the bus back home.

Grandma had the mischievousness of a child and the determination of a warrior. It was with these qualities that she lived for her family. Her bloodline was her duty and her reward. As far as she was concerned we were the most important people in the world. This didn’t make us feel better than anyone else, just more important to her. She delighted in our pleasures and was distressed by our pains.

Although private, polite and not making any public fuss, she would take all necessary steps to give us the best possible experience that she could conjure. At the Lord Mayor’s Parade or the Changing of the Guard, she would elbow her way through crowd with cries of “let the little boy through” pushing us ahead of her, so that we really did get the best view possible, while she made do with a face full of backpack behind a 6 foot tourist.

Arriving at her house for a family gathering, or even for a casual visit, not so much as a saucer of space was left on any horizontal surface, such was the assembly of plates and bowls of delicacies. Her one disappointment was if you didn’t try everything. On numerous occasions I would complain after the third ‘main course’ that I was in agony from being so stuffed that I had heartburn. “Oh god Josh dear,” she would say, “take a break, go and stretch out of the sofa, and come back when you are ready.” Those meals really were a marathon.

And she would run a marathon for us. You know that ‘film moment’ when you say goodbye at the carriage door and as the train pulls away, you gaze from the window to see your, well normally it’s your lover, not your Grandmother, run with the train, waving. Well, Grandma always ran the full length of the platform. Right into her late 70s. Always. Running, crying and waving all at the same time. Inside, cosseted by the love we felt, we would immediately rummage through the many layers of plastic bags to disinter the ‘food for travelling’. To the envy of fellow passengers we would bring out a gastronomic feast of things that were our ‘favourites’. One delicacy that was almost exclusively saved for train journeys, was ‘yellow potato sandwiches’ which consisted of a soft brown roll, a layer of mashed yellow potatoes, sliced chicken breast and thinly cut pickled cucumbers. They were delicious.

Yellow potatoes are a whole entity unto themselves. These golden globes, crispy on the outside, chewy in the middle and soft on the inside (a heavenly trio) are specialities of Grandma alone. The post colonially curious amongst you can check out the article I wrote with Grandma on their hybrid origin here.


Stepping into that hospital room and seeing her there for the first time is devastating. Hollow face. Trying to find things to say. “Hello Grandma.” She opens her bright black sparkling eyes. “Josh dear” and brushes away the tears from my cheeks. She is the one person I have known that when she said “Josh dear” or “Josh darling”, as she always did, the ‘d’ of that darling or that dear, was so affirmative, so full of ardour, that sometimes it almost stung.

It is amazing how quickly you adapt. You accept that this is now the situation and you deal with it. You are pushed between wanting to make her ‘better’ and for the executioner to do his thing without hesitation. She always wanted “a quick chop”.


Grandma has been the constant in my life: the steady, reliable haven, a kind of ultimate return. Her own devastation and subsequent depression at the loss of her beloved husband Ellis, after over 60 years of marriage was a profound setback in her late life but even then she remained dedicated to us all.

Grandma’s devotion to her family was not just some holy altruism. It was also what gave her purpose, pleasure and meaning. When her husband was dying, aged 91, she was desperate to make him more comfortable. “What can I get you? What can I do for you?” she begged. “Peace,” he responded. With a forlorn sigh she replied, “That’s the one thing I can’t give you.” What was not in her power, was to leave us be.

In 2000 Grandma and I went to Barcelona together on a long weekend break. We strolled up and down Las Ramblas and through the cobbled streets of the old town. We had to have late lunches as nowhere was open early enough for our suppertime. We ate paella at the harbour and went paddling in the sea. In El Corte Inglés department store in the Plaça de Catalunya, Grandma bought a towering stack of Turrón, the Spanish nougat, as gifts for members of the family. At one point we agreed to separate and I arranged to meet Grandma back at the hotel an hour later.

When I arrived at the hotel there was no sign of Grandma. As time progressed, I began to panic. Whenever we visited Grandma, we would have to contrive a stated arrival time that was later than that intended because Grandma would always position herself behind her net curtains in a constant vigil, gazing at the pathway in front of her house. Just 10 minutes late would produce an outpouring of grief as to how worried she had been.

The tables had been turned and I sat outside her hotel room cursing myself for what I had done and wondering what on earth I should do now.

Forty minutes later, I saw her tiny little frame appear at the top of the stairs, her arms wedged together like a steering wheel lock, dripping with bags. She had found a street market. “I just couldn’t resist,” she said.

We sat on her hotel bed eating sweet, perfectly ripe peaches like naughty children at a midnight feast.


I think about her house: the abstract floral world of the 1950s, 60s and 70s; the couch, which has lasted my entire lifetime; all now accidentally à la mode. I remember the stacks of food in boxes and bags in the garage, where the extra fridge and extra freezer would store ‘additional supplies’.

I see the Yves Klein blue of the nurses’ uniforms. We sit around her bed, waiting. The depersonalised trappings of the hospital are safe but alienating. We look at her fragile chest, with shallow breath, go up and down; the pulse, strong, is visible at her neck. We follow each of her movements, looking for meaning. Every so often we try to reassure her. Very occasionally, she smiles.


I was asked recently what made Grandma special to me. To be honest I had difficulty in answering. It was not that she was unique but that she was uniquely mine, ours, as her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. In a way what Grandma provided for us was a kind of aggressive ordinariness. To be part of Grandma’s world was to experience unquestioning love, to know that there was always someone who was thinking about you and wanting what was best for you with unlimited generosity. Above all, Grandma represented ‘home’ in all its ramifications: a place where one lives, a social unit, the situation in which something flourishes, and where the vulnerable are cared for.

Yes, she had a good innings but that’s not really the point. The point is that without her it will be harder to uphold what she represents. The best we can do is to strive to be more like Grandma. I am sad that she is going; I feel relieved that she will no longer be in pain; but most of all I feel thankful, so incredibly thankful for the benefit of her love.