The first time I saw my granddaughters, I was standing across the street, didn’t dare go any closer. The windows in the suburban neighborhoods of Groningen hang large and low—I was embarrassed by how effortlessly I’d gotten what I’d come for, frightened by how easily they could be gobbled up by my gaze. But I too was exposed. The slightest turn of their heads, and they would have seen me.
The girls took no interest in the goings‑on outside. They were entirely absorbed in themselves, in their minute concerns. Girls with the kind of light, thin hair that spills between your fingers like flour. They were alone in the living room, too close within my reach. Had I been asked, I would have been at a loss to explain my presence. I left.
I waited for darkness to fall and lights to flicker on inside houses. This time I ventured closer, hesitating for a few moments before I crossed the street. I almost tapped on the windowpane. I was astonished by the ease with which the family moved about. That was not how I remembered my daughter—I was stunned by the power of her presence. I whispered her name, “Leah, Leah,” just to make sense of what I was seeing. I stood there, not for long, a few minutes. Leah’s daughters, Lotte and Sanne, were sitting at the dimly lit dining room table and yet seemed to be in constant motion, shifting the yellow light to and fro. Her husband, Johan, stood in the kitchen with his back to me, toiling over dinner, while Leah passed between the rooms, crucified by the window frame, disappearing from one room and reappearing in another, bending reality as if she could walk through walls. Even though the living room fireplace wasn’t lit, it wrapped the house in warmth. Gave it a homeyness, that’s what it was. And there were books everywhere, even in the kitchen. The household looked wholesome, everything about it meant to evoke the innocence of raw materials, the woodiness of forest trees, the wooliness of clouds. And because I was watching my daughter and her family without their knowledge, I was vulnerable to witnessing what wasn’t mine to witness; I was running the spectator’s risk.
A woman in a novel I once read was from Dublin and had eleven siblings. When she grew up and got married, she gave birth to two daughters. Her daughters have never walked down a street on their own. They have never shared a bed. The woman didn’t reveal much more about her daughters, but I understood that what she meant to say by this is that she loved them and, at the same time, didn’t know how to love them. And there’s the rub, the problem with love. She tried.
They went on vacation, the woman, her husband, and the girls, a family road trip; a silly argument broke out and the woman looked briefly in the car mirror and saw her daughter in the back, staring into space. She noticed that her daughter’s mouth had sunk inwards, and she saw, with terrible prescience, the particular thing that would go wrong with her face, either quickly or slowly, the thing that could grab her prettiness away before she was grown. In those very words. And the woman thought, I have to keep her happy.
When I read this, I already had a young girl of my own. Leah. As a toddler, she was spirited and loud. Whispering in her tiny ears—and in her father’s big ones—I called her foghorn. Meir and I marveled at our foghorn. I had other names for her too, dozens of them. I missed her every moment I spent in the studio, and scooped her into my arms every time we reunited. My love for my baby daughter came easily. Her father was also in love with her; we talked about her every night after she fell asleep, thanked each other for the gift that was our girl. Everything that I had been denied I gave to her, and then some. And she loved me too.
Everything about this baby—the drool dribbling down her chin and pooling at her neck, her urine‑soaked diapers, the sticky discharge from her eyes and nose when she was sick—everything about Leah was good. Sometimes, looking at her or sniffing her, I’d start salivating, feel a sudden urge to sink my teeth into her. I’m going to eat you, I’d tell her, I’m going to gobble you up! And Leah would laugh. I’d tickle her to elicit more of those roaring giggles, and if people around us stared, I wasn’t embarrassed. Quite the opposite.
When she was four, I wanted another baby. I told Meir, just imagine: two Leahs. As if that somehow could have also meant, say no. Which he did. I was angry at him for months, until the whole thing fell by the wayside. Meir crossed into his fifties, we moved to a bigger apartment, arrived at the sweet spot of our careers, slept soundly, kept up with our four‑year‑old, five‑year‑ old, six‑year‑old Leah, lacked for nothing. And Leah grew up.
Meir’s younger brother, Yochai, who like Meir came to fatherhood late in life, tells me about his daughter.
She was seven when he divorced his wife. Now the girl is eight, and as he puts her to bed at night and kisses her forehead, tucking the blanket around her, her absence is already palpable. She’s at once there and already gone, leaving him stranded between who she was and who she is yet to be. We meet at a small café downtown—until Meir’s death, we never really talked; Yochai was always bottled up around me—and when I get home that evening, I’m restless. I pick up a book and read about a woman, not the one in Ireland whose girls never walked down a street on their own, a French woman, whose teenage daughter has been in jail for two years. In the daughter’s story, told from behind bars, she asserts that she was loved by her parents, perhaps even loved too much, and so she seems uncertain as to whether she was ever liked. I put the book down. The cover stares at me for a few long moments, I think I’m through with it. As I grew, the daughter writes of her relationship with her mother, I became for her the other side of the wall.
I think about Leah at fourteen, fifteen—the perilous years.
I’d studied her face hundreds of times, thousands, always thinking, you take my breath away. Sometimes I told her, you’re so beautiful it’s crazy, and Leah would roll her eyes, her features hardening, and I knew that with my lovestruck gaze, so blinded to her flaws, I was letting her down. And yet I kept doing it. I didn’t stop. I refused to accept the wall between us.
I want to write about Leah in one go, everything there is.
But oh, the needle’s eye of language.
I would have liked to write about Leah without words.
From How to Love Your Daughter by Hila Blum and translated by Daniella Zamir, published on July 18, 2023 by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Hila Blum and translated by Daniella Zamir