Writing Portfolio- Emma Lichenstein, Age 17, Grade 12, Stuyvesant High School, Gold Key


I don’t cry easily.

I know that there are different types of tears. There are basal tears, which keep our eyes lubricated and reflex tears, which are produced when our eyes are irritated. There are emotional tears, which occur when our bodies react emotionally to a trigger by secreting proteins and hormones and all sorts of biological stuff. These kinds of tears are culturally acceptable for situations like grief, pain, sorrow, nostalgia, and death.

So crying is physically and emotionally justifiable – I’ll give it that – but I just don’t really do it. I don’t want other people to see me with my face red, my eyes scrunched up into slits, globules of water sliding down my cheeks, my nose spewing a copious amount of snot and the corners of my chapped, bitten lips turned downward. It’s terribly unattractive, don’t you think?

And I’m always afraid that when other people see me crying, they’re not actually seeing me. They’re seeing this small, sensitive, broken-down version of me. They’re seeing a person who has her guard is down, who is out of control and has problems, who is shaking with fear and quivering with vulnerability.

I’m always the awkward one who gets labeled as cold, soulless, dispassionate in those moments when everyone is sobbing and I’m just sitting there like a granite statue, stoic and unfeeling. What they don’t understand is that I feel it all, I’m just incapable of expressing it. I want to show it. I want them to know that all of the suffering and heart-wrenching woe and despair that they feel, I feel too.

But I’m not much of a crier.

* * *

My grandmother passed away on a Wednesday. I remember that my parents took me out for Indian food to give me the tragic news. I don’t know why they chose Indian food or why they selected that place in particular, but I remember munching on a crispy samosa when my dad decided to speak.

“Grandma’s not doing so well,” he said

“I know.”

“What do you mean, you know?” my mother asked.

“I heard daddy talking to Aunt Fran about it. Grandma was having trouble breathing and she was hooked up to one of those respirator tubey things.”

“Well, yeah.” There was a long awkward pause, in which I returned to my pocket of potatoey goodness and resumed my voracious munching.

“She passed away earlier today,” my dad said. He couldn’t make direct eye contact with me. I held my samosa in midair, halting myself from taking another bite.

“That’s…terrible?” I tried.

“Why do you ask it like it’s a question?” my mother asked.

“I mean, what else am I supposed to say to that?”

“Goddammit Emma, she was your grandmother! Don’t you care?” my father exploded, lashing out at me. “You don’t have anything else to say? You’re not going to say you’re sorry, or that she’s in a better place now? You’re not going to cry?” I could see that he was holding back tears despite his anger.

“Don’t yell at her,” my mother pleaded.

I hung my head in shame and didn’t speak a word or eat a bite for the rest of the meal.

Whatever. It was too spicy anyways. I can’t stand Indian food.

* * *

It’s not that I didn’t love my grandmother, I did. She wasn’t the typical Jewish grandmother, though. She wasn’t a jolly, round old lady with a big bust, bottom, and heart, and she didn’t have an affinity for cooking. When I walked into her cramped Brooklyn apartment, I was met with the overwhelming, pungent smell of tobacco smoke mixed with orange peels rather than matzoh ball soup or kugel with raisins. She was a small, wrinkled, woman whose large, beak-like nose and claw-like hands reminded me of a bird. She weighed less than I did, but complained about a hundred times more than I did.

I remember one time when my parents went out to go food shopping for her. Since her legs were weak and her vision was poor, traversing through the aisles of Stop & Shop on a quest for vegetables, cat food, and cigarettes was not exactly an easy feat for her, so she stayed home and I kept her company.

“Are you hungry?” she asked.

“Kind of. Is there anything in the fridge? I can just grab something.”

“No no, I’ll make you something.”

“That’s okay, you don’t have to cook for me, I’ll make something myself.”

“Oh, so you think I’m an old lady? That I don’t have it in me? Well I’ll show you,” she said defiantly. “I’m making you Matzoh Brie, not the way that Chinese mother of yours makes it. She makes it like a matzoh egg foo young or something,” she said with disdain.

“I’ll help you.”

Minutes later, we both had plates of sweet, steaming matzoh and egg. “Your mother does it all wrong. She uses salt. You’re supposed to use a little bit of cinnamon,” she said, wagging her bony finger at me, as if it was my fault.

“Now help me do my word puzzle, dear. If we finish this one, I’ll give you some strawberries with sugar. Just a pinch of sugar makes everything so much better. But don’t tell your father. He’ll yell at me for giving you cavities. It can be our secret.”

I liked having those secrets with her. For the most part, my grandmother was a pretty snarky lady. She criticized my father for marrying an Asian woman, she judged the way my mom spoke and cooked, she expressed her scorn for the way my two cousins partied and drank, she attributed their craziness to my Aunt Marcia and Uncle Steven’s poor parenting skills, she passive-agressively berated my Aunt Fran for marrying a crazy man from California whose early death we never discuss. It was the nice, grandmotherly moments that were seldom present.

* * *

Her funeral was held on a Friday.

It was a small service, with the immediate family, family friends, relatives, no more than twenty people. I was the youngest one there. I figured that anyone else who might have come to see my grandmother be put in the ground was probably too old and fragile to leave his or her home in Florida, or already in the ground him or herself.

We stood around the grave, and it contained some hackneyed phrases like “beloved grandmother, caring mother, faithful wife.” Why do people put things like that on gravestones? Why not just tell the truth? “Dorothy Lichtenstein was a wonderful woman until she got married, her husband died due to lung cancer, and she was left with three ungrateful hoodlums who turned her into the cranky old lady she was before she passed away.” But I guess that would take a long time to engrave and it would cost too much.

Each of her children said something about her. My Aunt Fran talked about how Grandma would always be with us. My Aunt Marcia said she had always aspired to be the type of strong, independent woman my grandmother was. My father, however, begged her for forgiveness. Out of my grandmother’s three children, my father probably had the most strained relationship due to both of their hot tempers and unyielding, stubborn personalities. It was a bit disconcerting to see my father, a grown man who screamed at me for not crying, kneel down by her grave and repeat “please forgive me,” over and over again, his shoulders shaking and his chest rising and falling in time with his sobs.

Then they wanted everyone present to take the shovel and dump a bit of soil into her plot. When it was my turn, my arms buckled under the weight of the shovel, and instead of gently depositing my part, I dumped it haphazardly so that the dirt made a badumping noise onto the shiny purple veneer of her coffin. I was mortified. This was my parting contact with my grandmother, or what was left of her anyways, and I just clumsily dumped a pile dirt onto her coffin. I guess it was something symbolic, like the final pat of the shovel meant she was really, truly gone. Dead.

* * *

We had to go to her house to sit shiva.

There were twenty-something of us, all crowded into her tiny apartment. Someone had gone through the place, so it smelled like fresh cotton Febreze instead of tobacco smoke. People came up to me, and I could read their condolences all over their faces.

I decided to explore. I wandered into my grandmother’s bedroom, which someone had organized. Gone were the stacks of magazines and piles of pens on the table, gone were the bottles of perfumes she sprayed on herself that really made no difference because the smoke smell was so embedded in her clothing, gone were the combs that had small strands of silver hair tinged with spots of black, gone were the pictures of her children and grandchildren that were messily taped to her wall next to her calendar with the days crossed out in red pen. Her bed was made military style with hospital corners, and her closet had been organized by color. It’s as if she never lived here, never existed.

I loathed whoever had tampered with the remains of my grandmother’s past.

* * *

I woke up Saturday afternoon, feeling terrible.

My parents had gone out to take care of my grandmother’s banking accounts or something, and they wouldn’t be back for a few hours. Waking up from more than fifteen hours of sleep, my stomach was growling with hunger. I rummaged through the pantry and cupboards to find something to eat.

It started with a couple of strawberries. Then I remembered the time when my grandmother sprinkled sugar on strawberries and how good it tasted, so I started halving the strawberries and coating them with sugar. Then I coated them with Nutella, and when I was tired of I took a spoon and ate Nutella straight from the container. I dug the same spoon into a carton of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream. Tired of sweet stuff, I ate a few servings of Sour Cream & Onion Pringles, stacks upon stacks. Pull-n-peel Twizzlers winded into small pinwheels. Cheez-it and Swedish fish sandwiches. Half of an untoasted bagel. Red pepper hummus on my index finger, straight from the container. Handfuls of Froot Loops, with the colorful circles falling through the spaces between my fingers. Golden Oeos, licking the vanilla cream on the inside and then gobbling down the cookie part. Red seedless grapes, trying to cram as many in my mouth as humanly possible. Bittersweet baking chocolate, leaving a confusing taste on my tongue. Washed down with Newman’s Own Lemonade.

I figured if I couldn’t show them, I could eat my feelings. Every food item I engulfed was for someone different. This one’s for you, grandma, for dying on us and leaving us, I thought. This is for my mom, who left me alone like this. This is for my dad, who yelled at me for not crying. And the rest of it? It’s all for me, because don’t know what else to feel or do but this. Oh, and this is for God because I hope He takes pity on me.

At some point, I looked down at the kitchen table. Containers, wrappers, rubber bands, packages, boxes…they were all strewn across the table. Most of them were nearly empty. I stood up, and the nausea hit me. My eyes did that weird thing where they get all hazy so I was looking at the floor but not really seeing it. My head suddenly felt like it was leaden, weighed down heavy. My stomach felt like its lining was going to burst at any second, as the acids mixed with bases, sweet mixed with salty, distinct flavors mixed with stale and tasteless things. Bloated. Unhappy. Pathetic.

I have to get all of this out of me, I decided. I made my way to the bathroom, holding onto the sink counter to balance myself. I kneeled down next to the toilet bowl. Come on. Do it. I slowly slid my middle finger down my throat until it hit the fleshy part in the back that I forget the name of. My stomach convulsed and I did a double take as the bile rose in my throat, but nothing came out.

Shit, I thought. I’m out of control. I can’t even get myself to vomit. Who the hell am I? What have I become?

I remembered reading a book where the girl used a toothbrush to get herself to throw up. I grabbed a green one from the metal toothbrush holder. It looked like it was new, and I felt the raised plastic lettering on the side that said “Have a nice day! – Dr. Berman” with a little smiley face. It was ironic, because a nice day was exactly what I wasn’t having.

Taking a breath, I rammed the toothbrush down my throat. Again, my stomach convulsed but this time it all came up. It was disgusting, with reds and oranges and beige and browns all mixed together, chunky, regurgitated. I couldn’t stop gagging. Goddammit, why the hell did I eat that much? When I was through, I stared at it, sitting there in the toilet bowl. That right there was my pent-up emotions – the anger, the sadness, the grief, the stress – all of it, gross.

I felt like I had hit rock bottom, because it was the first real loss I had ever experienced, because I wanted my grandmother back, because I felt like nobody gave a shit about me, because I had lost control, because I was sick and tired of feeling but not showing.

At some point, I passed out on the bathroom floor with my cheek pressed against the cool, glazed tiles. My mother must have returned home sometime afterwards, seeing the mess I had made in the kitchen and in the toilet, because she cleaned me all up and put me in my bed.

When I woke up, my parents asked me if I wanted to talk about it.

“Give me time,” I said. “I’ll get there, I’ll be ready eventually.”

* * *

Last month marked two years since my grandmother’s death.

We went to visit her on a Sunday. Not all the people from her funeral were there, just my aunts and uncles, my parents and me. We didn’t say much. In addition to placing purple tulips (her favorite color and favorite flower) next to her grave, each person went up to the headstone and put a few pebbles on it, which is a Jewish tradition. I’m not sure exactly what it means, but I guess it’s supposed to be some sort of metaphor. It represents how we are never truly done building a monument to the dead, because there is always something to add to the mound.

I feel like I inherited the worst and best of her – the headstrong mindset and sardonic sense of humor along with the hidden compassionate nature and loyalty to people. And sometimes when I think about that, the fact that a part of her is still in me as a living memory, it makes me tear up a little on the inside.

And I don’t cry easily.

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