When my grandmother was 89 she became a mild celebrity as a painter. Another Grandma Moses. Only better, at least I thought so. She began painting in her late 60’s, after her husband died, to fill the void and loneliness. Then, quite unexpectedly, two famous artists stumbled upon her work while she was exhibiting at the outdoor Greenwich Village Art Show. Both men bought her paintings and hung them on their studio walls, and suddenly the art community was asking about this old lady who paints like Marc Chagall and who had never taken a lesson in her life.

At this time. I was a fledgling writer. I saw in the stir an opportunity to write an article on Grandma Lottie and so break into print, and she agreed to do it. There was also the other benefit, that I would learn about sides of her I never knew. And that was important—because time was running out.

She had always been just “Grandma,” making chicken soup and alternating between Yiddish, which I did not understand, and a heavily accented English. She would kiss me, even as an adult, the way that peasants do, grabbing my face in her big meaty hands and pressing my whole head to her lips. The smacking sound made my ears ring. That was unmistakable affection.

Grandma Lottie lived in a fifth floor walk-up in the Bronx, and it was that long climb that kept her young. When I was a kid her neighborhood had been respectable and Jewish. But time and history moved on, and now the area was a dilapidated, partly burned-out ghetto. The halls were filled with debris, stink, graffiti, and noise.

I knocked. She answered the door. This was no sweet, white-haired, frail granny. This was an old lioness. Lottie looked more like Gertrude Stein; short and stocky with shaggy, close-cropped hair set above that deeply wrinkled peasant’s face.

I came in with my tape recorder and camera, to capture her words and the image of her paintings, which covered the walls from floor to ceiling. Her output was amazing, considering her age when she began.

The paintings were like her face; craggy and wild. A still-life of a bowl of fruit was created from at least a halfinch of built-up paint, layer-on-layer to evoke the textures and shimmering shapes. Even such a contemplative subject had van Gogh’s freneticism.

Lottie told a story with every canvas. Since she was self-taught, no one had told her that it was impossible to convey a long narrative with a single painting. One canvas was divided into four sections and told the story of a Puerto Rican neighbor’s family history. To explain it does not reveal the impact; seeing it was like viewing a tapestry. It was childlike but very effective.

I turned on my tape recorder. “Okay, Grandma, let’s start. Tell me, how did you begin painting? What are your favorite subjects? What techniques do you use? You know, that kind of thing.” Admittedly, it was not very imaginative, but at least it was a way to warm her up.

“No!” She said defiantly. “If they want to know my paintings, they’ve got to know Lottie!”

“But Grandma, I know your story. I can fill it in.”

“Johnny-cakes,” (that was her pet name for me) “you think you do. I put my whole life in each picture. You want to write. Then you’ve got to know. Look at this one.”

Lottie took down one of her biggest canvases. I set up my camera. This painting was a jumble of events and figures that I could not follow. It had wild, unreal colors and everything was screaming for my attention simultaneously. I did not know where to look first to find the beginning of the story.

“Here. We start.” Lottie pointed to a lower corner. “See? I am 14. It is a long, dusty, thirsty road from my home town of Jzerovenah.”

“Where is that. Grandma?”

“Where else but Austro-Hungary? I am heading for Vienna, the jewel of Europe.”

Grandma’s words had a sing-song quality as if she had repeated this story over and over to herself as she painted. It was a magical dialogue to bring the oil-based characters to life. And she was not speaking one word of Yiddish. It was obvious she wanted me to know that she could hold a conversation entirely in English.

“I walked all four days.” Her fingers moved to another portion of the painting, to a young girl and an older woman figure. “I was just like my mother, full of ambition. As I trudged along, I remember how she said ‘Go to Vienna. There you have a chance to marry an officer, even a nobleman. Don’t stay here and die a nobody like me.'”

Lottie’s face crinkled. The painful memories welled up, still burning after all these years. This painting was a catharsis. “There were wonderful parties in Vienna filled with generals and counts. But d—n it! Only the bluebloods ever went! And I was just a peasant girl. I had to step in the gutter when those nobles strutted down the street, or get whipped for my nerve!”

Lottie’s hand flitted over the final section. Here I could see a bed, people hunched over, working. “Dreams. Pointless dreams. For two long years. But what was I? Just a common seamstress. Living like a mouse behind the tailor shop on five dollars a month. I lay in the dark, in my little room, cursing that I was a peasant, a Jew. That’s what kept me from being someone!”

Her narrative had wrung out deep emotional pain. It might overwhelm her to go to another picture immediately. “Grandma, can I have a cup of coffee?” She had none. Instead, she made me the traditional glass of tea. Served it with a stale, flaky strudel. That calmed her. I looked through the open window, to the cluttered fire escape and a burnedout building across the way, listened to the raucous sound of children playing stickball in the street. When she dies, I thought, there will be a deeper downhill change in this street. Her presence gives it a real history, a link to a time when there was optimism here.

“Grandma, are you ready to go on?”

“Yes.” She took down another painting. I photographed it. This one had a distinct circular movement, like an overhead view of a hurricane. Characters and places went swirling into the vortex. Grandma Lottie pointed to the outermost part of the whirlwind, where the story began.

“Grandma, what do you call this painting?”

Steerage. It is about coming to America. . . . Steerage. Two weeks of lice and filthy peasants, crossing the Atlantic, packed like cattle. The old women grumbled and grew sick sleeping on the iron floor.” Lottie once again spoke to herself as much as to me. “But me, I loved it! I loved the million stars over us. I loved the stories that passed among the families, and smelling the lotkas cooking on the little open stoves. I was sixteen. I ate up the misery just as easy as I ate the black bread I carried. Behind me for good were the phony noblemen. Ahead, starting fresh in America. Being free. Getting rich. Being somebody because there were no rules against us Jews. Nothing to hold us down.”

Here the painting showed the boat docked alongside crudely drawn skyscrapers and the peasants clambering off, hanging on to their only possessions, their shabby luggage and torn bedrolls.

Grandma Lottie looked at me for the first time since she began her narrative. A puzzled wrinkle cut her forehead. “You know. Johnny-cakes, I see something new from talking out loud. Something I never saw when I was painting. There’s opposites in the story. We were all running away from being slaves. Running from the hard rules that kept us bent double. None of us ever knew a day when we could stand up straight. But the weight sat on us so long, it went into our souls. So no matter how fast we ran . . . ” Her voice trailed off.

“What do you mean, Grandma?”

“We couldn’t escape. It was inside us!”

She turned back to the painting. To a small scene of tightly packed tenements and a network of fire escapes.

“Look. We were in New York. I moved to the Lower East Side. There, each block was like a different country. Avenue A was Russkies. Avenue B for Polacks. We Jews kept Avenue C from the Irish the best we could. We built synagogues and our Jewish theaters . . . I met your grandpa, Izzy, where we both found work. See Johnny, there he is! Grandpa! We sewed hems for two cents a dress in the garment center. I enjoyed life so much, I didn’t think it was unfair to work long hours, because I was making four times as much as in Vienna. I felt free and rich. But the long hours hurt my sensitive Izzy. Now Johnny-cakes, here it is, what I’m talking about . . . running from being a slave . . . but I met it here. In Izzy!”

Lottie laughed at the magic of her insight. Her wrinkles exploded into deep fissures. Her gold teeth flashed. “It’s so funny. I just see it now. A lifetime too late! . . . My Izzy had talent. I liked that. He was a poet. That’s how he protested how the workers were treated. He was a Socialist, always talking about the worker’s paradise he was making, where the laws would bring down the greedy bosses. I loved his fire to change the world. So we got married. But I didn’t see how different we were, how Izzy believed in what I was running from. I wanted to be rich. To have furs and a big house. Izzy’s dream was killing off the rich. Can you imagine that? I fought with him for nearly fifty years and never knew it was because he was what I was running from. It just hit me. Izzy’s dream was bringing Vienna here. Only he didn’t know it. The apparatchik and busybodies who tell people how much they can earn, by taxing all they make—why then, we’d still be peasants.”

Lottie put the painting back on the wall. She would not let me help her. She took another down. At 89, she was still independent and feisty. The room seemed very small from being filled with so many canvases. They were everywhere. Behind the frayed couch. Behind the dusty television set.

“But Johnny, it wasn’t all struggle and misery. Look here. We had good times together. Some nights we’d go dancing till sun-up, then head straight back to work, hardly tired. Our love was better than sleep.”

It was all there on the canvas. Lottie and Izzy working. Lottie and Izzy dancing, with a big smudgy yellow moon radiating over them. But the next scene was more obscure. Lottie and Izzy walking hand-in-hand. Small children wandered through the canvas. There was a crude shop. Grandma spoke to the canvas as if trying to reconcile their life together.

“Izzy. We were like oil and water. You, always scribbling those senseless protest poems. We got along until I started nagging you to give me your savings to open the business I always dreamed of A fabric shop. Of course we lost everything. You didn’t give a damn. You hated money. You talked about your poems to the customers, instead of business. But I can’t blame you. That’s the way you always were. I have no right to be angry.”

Grandma Lottie ate the last of her strudel. The front of her dress was speckled with pastry flakes. She brushed them off with a crude brusqueness. “How could I have married a man so opposite?”

“But Grandma, there’s a part of you that’s just like him. The artistic side. You admired the writer, the fighter, in him. It makes sense. It’s just-too-bad-he-wasn’t fighting for your side.”

“Yes. You are right. Johnny-cakes.” She seemed relieved. She went into the closet and took out a dust-covered painting that was wedged between dozens of pairs of jumbled old-lady black shoes. She blew the dust off and sneezed. She rested it against the sofa. Her mood changed. Grandma twitched the way old women sometimes do. A sign that she sensed the Reaper’s hand on her shoulder and was trying to shake it off.

The painting’s locale was this very room. It was all recognizable—the sofa, the narrow windows, and rusted fire escape. Izzy lay on the couch. A Yiddish-language newspaper was open across his chest.

“Izzy,” Grandma Lottie began, her words hushed now. “Izzy, it’s time for essen. I thought he was taking a nap, but no, he was dead. Sixty-nine years old and all he had to show for it was those cheap hem-cutting tools he neatly put on the dresser. And a trunkful of old worthless poems.”

Grandma spoke directly to Izzy on the couch. Some of the paint had peeled off, from being banged and crushed by the jumble of shoes.

“Izzy,” she said, “I was so alone the first five years after you died. The children hardly ever came to see me. Every last friend was dead. I was too old to make new ones. I even read your old poems once. They weren’t so bad. Izzy, I took up painting because my insides hurt so bad. But I also burned to tell all I had seen and felt.”

Once again, Lottie looked at me. “Part of me is in every brush-stroke. My labor pains. The bread lines. My lice-covered clothes during steerage. The three children I brought into the world. The hard cruel times and the good. My whole d—n bitter life.”

I was moved. She seemed exhausted. Was it from carrying the pictures or from the emotional strain? I packed my equipment and said I would be back to finish the interview.

A few days later it rained. The weather grew cold, the streets, iced over. Grandma Lottie went downstairs for groceries, slipped on the ice, and shattered her hip.

I visited her in the hospital. She did not recognize me. She was heavily sedated. I asked the doctor why the sedation. Was it for pain?

“No,” he answered, matter-of-factly, “it is to keep her quiet. She is a real rebel. She thinks she is twenty. She doesn’t take crap from any of the staff or the other patients. So we have to do it. For her own good. So she can fit in and get better.”

A week later she was dead. I believe she was given an overdose. No rebels allowed.