Isabelle noticed an unlit Yahrzeit candle on the island in our kitchen before she went upstairs last night. (My mom is at our house through tomorrow. Today marks the lunar calendar anniversary of my grandmother’s passing. My mom is staying with us through tomorrow so she brought the candle to our house to light it.)
“What’s dat for?” Isabelle asked.
I said something like it’s to help us remember my grandmother who is gone.
“Who’s your grandma?” she asked.
I reached for a photograph of my grandparents that I keep atop my desk. I pointed to my grandmother and said, “That was my Grandma. That’s Bubbe’s mommy. You’re named after her.”
“Who’s dat?” she pointed at the little girl in the center of the photo.
“That was me. I was nine years-old in that photo.”
She was perplexed by the fact that I was ever young. So our conversation turned to how I could have ever been a girl.
This afternoon, my mother pulled me aside once Isabelle returned from school.
“What do you want me to say if she asks about the candle?”
“Has she asked about it yet?”
“Yes, she did this morning when we were eating breakfast.”
“What did you say?”
My mom told me her approximated answer and then followed up with, “What do you want me to say to her?”
I pondered. “A children’s author named Patricia Polacco talks about death as letting go of the grass. You could say Grandma let go of the grass.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” my mom scoffed.
In hindsight, I realize this was ridiculous to say to my mom. I was teaching fifth grade in Manhattan when my grandmother passed away in March 2007. We had done a Patricia Polacco Author Study and my students knew that letting go of the grass equated death. Therefore, we talked about my grandmother’s death as her letting go of the grass after her passing. (My gosh, that was such a great class of kids. We had our own little language.)
“Well, I guess it’d make more sense if you were familiar with Patricia Polacco’s books,” I responded.
“So, what do you want me to tell her?” my mom asked again.
I thought. “You could say something about Grandma being old. Or you could say she was tired and went back to live with her parents in heaven.”
I looked at my mom and she looked back at me. We were both clueless whether heaven was a concept we should be introducing.
“You could tell her heaven us up there,” I said.
“Do you want me to say that?” she asked. “I want to say what you want me to say.”
“I don’t know what the answer is. All I can tell you is that I remember going to Uncle Irving’s funeral when I was four-years-old. And look at me. I’m not permanently damaged as a result of attending the funeral. Whatever you say will be the right thing.”
Fortunately, Isabelle went to sleep tonight without another question about the Yahrzeit candle. It will burn out later and will be thrown away tomorrow. Most likely, she won’t remember it was ever shining.
But I know there will be questions about where my grandmother is again. And I don’t have an answer ready. It is so hard to talk about death without scaring a young child. I want to say the right thing, but I’m not sure there is a right answer.
We talk about my grandmother all of the time in front of Isabelle. Talking about her keeps her memory alive. I’m not planning to stop. But one day, not long from now, I know the question about where she is will surface again. And when that happens, I hope I have some kind of answer ready for Isabelle.
Right now, I have nothing.