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  • It's only 7 AM in the morning, but my grandmother has been living alone for years since the passing of her husband. She rises early and gets busy out of habit. The pans and pots are inexplicably crashing around at that early hour. "She can't possibly be cooking already" I think to myself.

    I pull on a sweatshirt and some sweatpants from my suitcase, and walk downstairs from my father's childhood bedroom in the house he grew up in.

    My grandmother's din has been silenced for a moment. As I walk through her living room to the kitchen, I finally spot her at the table, in her usual chair near the laundry room door. She has a cup of coffee in front of her, a folded newspaper, and her ever-present ashtray.

    She greets me as she has for the past 20 years, as if she hadn't seen me for a long time, "Good morning, butchy" she says, as the special smile she reserves for her children and grandchildren stretches across her face. "Want some breakfast?"

    I'm not a big breakfast eater, so the thought of the endless amount of food she will no doubt prepare gives my stomach a sympathetic, sinking feeling. "No thanks, Grandma, I'll just have some coffee." I tell her, as I turn for the cabinets where the aged cups and saucers live. Despite the fact that she doesn't entertain all that much anymore, she doesn't have informal, personal coffee ware -- only the coffee service that she's used for the past 50 years with guests.

    I hear the kitchen chair scratch across the linoleum floor as she begins to get up. "I got it. I know where it is." I tell her preemptively.

    "You really should eat something. How about some eggs? I have some salami you can put in it." she says, as she stands and begins towards the stove, where she's already laid out the ancient iron pan, eggs, butter and a deli bag.

    "No, I'm really not hungry now. I'll just grab some coffee and wake up for a minute." I tell her.

    She's stubborn, and it will likely take three offers and refusals before she sits again.

    But this time she surprises me. She turns from the stove and sits back down. And, then I notice. She looks tired. She looks worn. She looks...old.

    I hadn't really thought of her as being old until then. She was always just Grandma. With her hair done exactly as the beauty parlor had done it on a weekly basis for the last 20 or so years I've known her. In clothes that managed to be fashionable for someone who didn't really chase fashion. She looks really tired.

    I grab my cup, go to the coffee maker that she's had for many years and pour myself a cup of coffee. The milk is already out, poured into a server and sitting next to little bowls of pink Sweet 'N Low, sugar and the spoons. All of this at 7 AM.

    I drop a load of milk into the coffee and take my usual seat across from her at her kitchen table. She watches me sit, and lights a cigarette. There are already three cigarette butts in the ashtray. She's been up for a while.

    She takes a contemplative puff, and that reserved smile is back across her face. "So, you slept well? Was the room warm enough?"

    When I got to her house after driving to Norfolk from Raleigh, my aunts, uncles and cousins were all there, waiting for me. Dinner, desserts and stories kept the evening going until late. My parents had moved away in the '60's, first to Boston, then to Baltimore. All of Grandma's other children had only moved to Virginia Beach, only a half hour away. It was a family treat to have me in.

    I was working in Raleigh, bringing the Disney Ice Show to Dorton Arena, on the campus of NC State. My job with Feld Entertainment took me all over the country, but for now, I was in Raleigh, making preparations for the show to arrive in a few weeks. Being so close to Virginia made it easy for me to hop in my rented car and drive to Norfolk for a weekend family visit.

    "Slept fine. It's summer, of course the room was warm" I teased.

    She suffered from the thin blood common to advanced age. Suffering chills in rooms that other people found close and a bit stuffy.

    "How about you? Did you sleep OK?" I asked.

    She gives a small sigh. She's not a complainer, so I'm a little surprised. "Oh, OK." she says, tapping some ash into her ashtray, "I don't sleep as well as I used to, I guess."

    Her bedroom down here on the main floor is the room she shared for 30 plus years with my grandfather, and hasn't changed one bit since his passing. His dresser sits where it always did, with the photos and memorabilia it had when he was alive. In fact, other than not having him bustling around the house, the house still feels like he lives in it.

    "How's your job?" she asks, deftly changing subjects from her to me, "Is it OK?"

    "I like it. It's pretty cool. It'll be a challenge putting an ice show in the arena we're in though. It's got glass walls so we can't do the black outs between segments very well."

    "Now, I know I'm just a stupid old lady, but tell me , what exactly do you do again?" She's anything but stupid, but I've faced this with virtually everyone I know. I struggle to explain what a "promoter" is and what the job entails. I wonder again why I just didn't take a job in advertising and let that be the simple answer to the question I get asked repeatedly.

    "I make all of the arrangements for the shows the company owns in the cities I'm assigned to. I go there before the show and set up all of the advertising, public relations, promotions and what not, and then the show catches up with me and I'm responsible for sales." My canned answer. For her, I'll go into as much detail as she wants.

    "I thought you were interested in advertising, " she states, not so much a question as an accusation, "Is this what you wanted to do?"

    "Well, I didn't know this existed before I graduated," I begin, feeling a little stung and not knowing why, "I kind of tripped across it, and it has a lot of the things I'm interested in."

    "I see. But you travel so much. I don't know how you're going to meet people." she says, not looking at me, but at the coffee cup in front of her "Aren't you a bit lonely like this?"

    The purpose of the conversation hits me. I'm her oldest grandson - the first son of her first son. "She's worried I'm not meeting girls," I think to myself.

    "It's not really ideal for dating, if that's what you mean. I meet lots of people in each town though. There's the folks in the ad agency I hire, and the PR firm, and then of course there's people in the Ice Show and in the Circus..."

    "I'm guessing there aren't a lot of Jewish people though," she interrupts. I'm sensing the ambush here. Back to the same old argument we've had for years.

    "Grandma," I begin, hearing the frustration in my own voice, "I go all over the country. There's Jewish people almost everywhere. I don't think I'll be marrying a skater, if that's what you're worried about." Cheap shot. I think I'm so clever that I've figured out what she's really getting at.

    She's not very bait-able though. Her cigarette is dead. She lights another one, not looking at me. I know her well enough to know that she's trying to convey her point but not trying to start an argument.

    "I just get concerned that you're not with people that you can identify with," she says "Roots are important."

    I feel the blood rise in my face. This battle has been waged since I've been in high school, at this very table. Starting with lectures about being careful who I date, to discussions about the blonde haired, blue eyed girl that I took to a dance. In small skirmishes, some bloody arguments, some just prodding suggestions, we've covered this topic before. It's not a favorite of mine.

    For people who aren't Jewish, it's a bit tough to explain this: Jewish people are cliquish. But, it goes deeper than simple snobbery, or some type of intolerance for others. It goes to the steppes of Russia, where Cossacks came sweeping over the plains into the scrub towns where Jews were sequestered into a single block.

    Back to the ghettoes of Poland, where Jews were separated with walls and guards so they wouldn't infect the Christian townspeople.

    Probably back to the desert of Egypt and Judea, where 12 tribes of Israel wandered, looking for a home.

    My Grandmother was a product of countless generations of isolated togetherness. Jews don't intermarry because they can't intermarry -- Polish law says so. Jews stick to their own because they aren't allowed out of their part of town. The walls prevent it.

    Even in Norfolk, Virginia, the early Jewish "pioneers" arriving in the late 19th Century moved into parts of town near their own. Near the shul and the rabbi. Near the kosher butcher, like my great grandfather. Two thousand years of history are hard to suppress.

    "I'm not getting married anytime soon." I say, knowing this is not really her point, "And, no matter where I work, there's going to be diverse people there. I don't get the focus on staying with your own all the time. That's pretty backwards."

    She looks at me across the table, with the smile she reserves for auto mechanics who try to rip her off, or grocery boys who've put the eggs at the bottom of the bag, under the cantaloupe. She takes a puff. Again, that smallest of sighs.

    I begin again, not wanting to come off as harshly as I just had "This job isn't forever, you know. I'll start looking for an agency job soon, and that will probably be back in Baltimore." Baltimore is where I was born and grew up. With a tremendous Jewish population of its own, my parents had moved into another Jewish ghetto, but this one had sprawling suburban lawns, trees and schools.

    She looks away for a moment and when she looks back, I can see that she thinks she's made her point. "I know you're not looking to get married anytime soon. But, you know it's important to marry within your own. Marriage is hard enough without adding the extra burden of different backgrounds and religions."

    Now, I sigh. "People make it work all the time, Grandma. Religion isn't only thing that's important in a marriage. Love is really important. And, compatibility. Getting along is probably more important, don't you think." And, as the question is asked, I already know how she'll answer.

    "Of course getting along is important. When you share backgrounds, you have points of view that you can each understand easier, and then you can work on other differences, if you have them." She looks a bit thoughtful, as she says this, as if there's more she's not saying.

    "OK, I agree with that, but I still don't think that religion is the only thing that people can have in common. I mean, we're all Americans, or we're all from Maryland, and a million other things that we share in common. Being Jewish isn't the be-all end-all for cultural similarities."

    She thinks about this for a moment. As she does this, I see back to her beginnings, as that girl who looked so remarkable wearing the fashionable clothes of the day. And, my grandfather, so handsome, and tall. She literally married the boy next door. My grandfather's family and her family lived next to each other. They knew everything about each other. And, even all these years after his passing, she still used her husband's name and not her own.

    The gulf between us seems much larger than the table separating us. Me, the third generation American, almost completely secularized into modern culture. Her, the first generation American, grudgingly adopting modern ways, but holding the immigrant values of her parents dear.

    She stubs out her cigarette and starts to reach for another, but changes her mind. "When you get to my age, and things change so quickly, the old and familiar aren't only comforting but they anchor you. Anchors are important when the world is so confusing and dangerous. " She pauses for a moment, and that smile she reserves for children is back, "When you get older, you'll know what I mean."

    She sips at her coffee again, and lets this sink in. I don't have any real response to this, so I mutter something affirmative. She's given me the deepest wisdom she can. The world will change, and we will change with it. However much those changes occur, the anchors of our families, our backgrounds, our heritage, keep us who we are.

    I'm not even sure if free will has anything to do with it. It's almost an immutable law, like gravity, that you can't easily escape your background. And, like a bouncing ball, you come back to ground eventually, somewhere close to where you started.

    I feel a bit betrayed. I want to argue. I want to fight against predetermination with all my might. I'm only 23 years old! What a terrible thing to realize that you'll be exactly who you are!

    She sees all of this in my face, perhaps, and wisely doesn't say anything else for a moment. She stubs out her half-finished cigarette and pushes back from the table.

    "How about some eggs with salami?"

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