Everything is either white or reflective in my grandmotherâ€™s bedroom. Of the two beds, I slept on the water bed because it hurt her back. I would sprawl out under the tangle of white blankets and stare at my reflection in the mirrored ceiling, waiting for her to turn off the lights in the bathroom and turn on the house alarm. She would come to my bed then, lean over me, her face shiny with the concoction of lotions that she was convinced prevented wrinkles, her skin smelling lightly of perfume. She would kiss my cheeks and then bury her face in my neck, an explosion of sound coming from her mouth while I grinned and squirmed. Vacuum cleaner kisses, she called them. She swore I used to be terrified of them.
My grandmother always represented opulence and elegance to me. The racks of designer clothes and shoes, the array of painting and sculpture that filled the giant house: it all seemed like something out of a fairy tale to me. I was a teenager before I learned that her life was not all glamour and publicity.
She was born in the Hungarian countryside to a family of many children and modest means. At age four she convinced her mother to let her travel to Budapest with an actress whom she had befriended. The actress wanted her to make a cameo appearance in her new film. She would care for my grandmother in Budapest for a few weeks and return her to her family. But my grandmother never made it back home.
In 1944 the German army occupied Hungary. My grandmother found herself in the care of people who were not her parents and who, for fear of political persecution, needed to get out of the country. Later, when she had the strength to face them, images from that journey fell into a disjointed story. The starving mothers with their wailing children, the pain of walking days on end, and then the displacement: from Austria, to North Africa, and then South America, where her foster parents eventually settled.
At age 18, my grandmother got married in Argentina to a man with whom she could barely communicate. It was not the love at first sight story I would have liked to imagine in my girlish romantic youth. It was a story of being yanked from one place and replanted in another, a story of adjustment to language and culture, and a story of the ability of a woman to turn iron into gold wherever she went.
After outliving the doctorsâ€™ predictions by five years, my grandmother died of breast cancer in 2006, the day after her sixty-seventh birthday. The next night I turned out the lights in the bathroom and turned on the alarm. She told me once that when she died, she would always be looking out for me. Neither one of us was much for religion, but that night, when I stared dry-eyed at my reflection in the mirrored ceiling, I believed it.