My Safta: How Her Faltering Memory Taught Me Lessons in Life

Written by Bari Perlmutter on . Posted in Features

My Safta Esther Malka z”l was a true warrior. For my entire life, up until this past August, my safta had been fighting to live. Dementia struck her when I was still in diapers, and continued to slowly sap her abilities for the 23 years that followed. As my brain was slowly developing through my toddler and childhood years, hers was slowly declining. I couldn’t completely understand what this meant, but I tried my best to somehow accept it.

In elementary school, for instance, my most challenging subject was reading. However, whenever my safta was at our house, I would take a pile of books to her bed. For hours, we would sit together and read stories. Many would imagine this scene as an eight-year-old girl reading out loud while her grandmother helped her with any words she couldn’t pronounce. In my childhood, however, this scene was the reverse. My grandmother would be the one reading, and I was the one helping her along. Since I was going to school every day to learn, I believed that if I just taught my grandmother this basic skill, she would remember how to do it again.


I’m not quite sure when this reading phase ended, but I spent much of my childhood years trying to teach my safta anything I could. Music was always something that connected us. I would sit with my grandmother at the piano bench and show her how to play.

As my safta’s abilities became more and more limited, we had to move her to a facility that provided more care. We moved her seven times in a span of about 20 years. Each move was an attempt to meet her increasing needs. At every move, we looked for the piano. My mother would be the first one to locate it, as she knew how much my safta loved to hear me play and how playing for her helped me connect with her. One of my favorite memories is how I sat my safta on the couch next to the piano while I would play. I could feel her eyes on me the entire time, as she hummed along with every note. My grandmother couldn’t remember any of our names, but somehow was able to remember the exact tune of “Yesterday” by the Beatles and, of course, “Hatikvah.”

In her final nursing home, where she became nonverbal and her physical abilities were very limited, I would look forward to hearing her sing “Hatikvah” every time I came to visit. When I would call my mom from college, in the years when my grandmother could no longer speak, I would hear her humming “Hatikvah” in the background as my mother sat by her side. “Hatikvah” (The Hope,) was the very last song that she remembered. Even her aides caught on to the tune.

I spent most of my life trying to teach my safta various skills, but it was only after her recent passing that I realized just how much she taught me. Making frequent visits to assisted-living facilities and nursing homes while I was growing up was not easy. Most of the residents living beside my grandmother were extremely ill, physically, mentally, or both. Often on my visits to my grandmother, we would hear yelling from one or more of the residents. They had limited control over what came out of their mouth and were often confused and scared. Residents would frequently ask us where they were, and we would assure them that they were home. We learned that the most important thing they needed was comforting and love. At times, my parents would tell me they thought I was too young to be exposed to such a heart-wrenching environment, but I assured them it was important for me to experience this with my family.

More important to me than the difficulty, visiting these homes was eye opening. I like to think my safta wanted us there to show us how important it is to embrace life and the ones we love. If anyone knew how to make the most of life, it was her. If you’ve ever seen a photograph of my beautiful safta, you know she was always beaming.

Some people say it was unfortunate that I never saw my safta in full health, but I disagree. I saw a side of her that I wish more people could have seen. She acted with even more heart and soul because she would forget about everything else. She forgot details because they were hardly significant, especially when compared to what was important to her; family came first, and then came chocolate and shopping trips to Loehmann’s. Her memory loss was a source of sadness, sometimes laughter, but most importantly, it held a lesson to be learned.

During our visits in her final nursing home, we would be in and out of her room at times. Whenever we would come back into the room, her eyes would light up. She would greet us anew, as if she hadn’t seen us in years, even though it had only been a few minutes. Yes, she forgot she had just seen us, but this taught us how important it is to embrace our loved ones every time we see them, like my safta did. These episodes made me laugh, but they also made me feel very loved, no matter how many times she did it. This continued even after she forgot our names, as our presence was enough to remind her she was with family.

Be it before her decline or during, anyone who knew her well knew that she loved nothing more than the company of her loved ones. In the early years of her dementia, when she was more physically capable, she would wrap her arms around all of us while passing others, saying “these are mine.” I was fortunate to grow up visiting her frequently with my family. We would sit in the beautiful outdoors, listen to music, make music, and laugh. We all learned the importance of appreciating the little things in life and how to live in the present. I remember sitting at my mother’s vanity doing her makeup or painting her nails once she was unable to do it for herself anymore. She had such a love for beauty, and not in a superficial way, but in an almost spiritual way. Beauty takes the mundane and uplifts it. Because she lived in the moment, we learned how to pay attention to it when we otherwise would have looked past it. This love for beauty is something that my family and I always shared with my Safta and will continue to appreciate in her honor.

She loved unconditionally. Her situation created role models for my brother and I to look up to. The way my father cared for the needs of both my Ш and my mother throughout her illness was exceptional. My Safta loved him very much. Her face lit up every time he walked into the room. She loved my father as her own.

The relationship that my mother had with her mother was inspiring. The dedication my mother had day in and day out to go to the nursing home to make sure her mother was comfortable was difficult for me to understand at times. Now I understand it. I learned what honoring one’s parents really means, no matter how difficult the task. My mother thought about her mother all the time, and made sure she was with her as often as she could be, until the last few moments of her life.

Through the power of love in G-d’s hands, my safta wouldn’t leave this world until she somehow knew that all of her children were safe and sound. Even through the dementia, she managed to stay true to herself, always caring for her children. Her love was fierce and her fighting spirit gave her the strength to hold on the extra two days until she knew that my brother’s surgery was successful and I arrived in New York safely to sit by her side. Only then did she giver herself permission to go peacefully. She spent her life teaching us how to love, and, without regret, we gave it to her as we loved her through her last breath.