This story starts in 1907, the year Jennie Esther Levy, my maternal grandmother, was born in Henderson, Ky. But for now, there is no 1907; nor is there a 1919 (the year her father died suddenly, in a car crash); or 1927 (the year she was married); or 1932 (the year she gave birth to her second daughter, my mother, Carol); or 1958 (the year her husband, Clarence, died of cancer). There are no grandchildren or great-grandchildren, or weddings or funerals or bar mitzvahs or Thanksgivings. There is only the eternal present: this room, these walls, those photographs on the dressing table. When my mother and I arrive in her room at Brighton Gardens in Friendship Heights (to which she has only recently been moved), she is sitting in an easy chair, reading the New York Times, as she has done every morning of her adult life, not that she understands a damn word. She is wearing a pretty, if slightly shabby, pale blue silk dress. Her reading glasses are perched partway down her nose. Her gray hair is flat but clean. Her room, sunny and pleasant, is immaculately neat. Last August, she turned 90. "Nana," I say, kneeling on the floor by her side, "it's your granddaughter, Jennifer." "Jennifer," she says. "How nice to see you again." "You look pretty," I say. "You're wearing a pretty dress." "Do you think so?" she says. Then: "Why do you have so much gray in your hair, Barbara?" "I'm getting older." "Who did you say you were, dear?" "I'm Jennifer, Carol's daughter." "Jennifer. So good to see you, dear. Why do you have so much gray in your hair?" "I'm almost 40, Nana." "Nonsense," she says. Then: "Who did you say you are, dear?" "I'm Jennifer." "Your hair is getting awfully ugly, Carol. Why don't you go to the beauty parlor?" She had been a magnificent person, with a fierce kind of radiance. Indeed, I can't remember a time when my whole view of life, my whole perception of who I was in relationship to the world around me, wasn't suffused with a larger image of Jennie, for whom I was named. She was a beautiful woman, always, energetic, athletic and strong-willed, and so charming that, well into her eighties, she enchanted men half her age. Her marriage to my grandfather was passionate and happy. And though she never quite recovered from my grandfather's death, her sense of herself as a person to be reckoned with was palpable. When my husband (at the time my boyfriend) first met her, he was, in a word, smitten. This was 12, 13 years ago. The two of them sat side by side, in her living room on East 68th Street, and talked, if memory serves, about Ed Koch, crack cocaine and Proust. But now, of course, she is beyond all that -- beyond ambition, and longing, and even memory. Her climb into great old age wasn't pretty, either. It was subtle at first, subtle enough for all of us to believe her when she exclaimed, wide-eyed, that we were all a bunch of overanxious, namby-pamby, neurotic worrywarts. But there were incidents that were alarming. One day, she got lost in her own Manhattan neighborhood, and wandered, panicked, through suddenly unrecognizable streets until a kind stranger delivered her to her own lobby. Then she began to write large checks to men who called her on the phone and told her that she owed them money; then her silver was gone; then her jewelry; then her cash began to disappear. She signed up for lifetime subscriptions to Car and Driver and Teen magazines. She bought truckloads of mail-order vitamins. Her home, which she'd once run with ruthless cleanliness, fell into musty, dusty disrepair. The doctors to whom my mother and aunt insisted on taking her reported that there was fungus growing between her toes, and that her gums were infected -- and that, finally, was that. Soon after her 85th birthday, she was packed, along with her most precious belongings, and sent to live in a place where she would be safe, a place in Connecticut, with a garden, and kind, endlessly patient attendants, and a whole platoon of oldsters whose bodies had outlasted their minds. Although Nana had for many years been a big part of my life (she took me to Scandinavia for my 18th birthday, taught me to eat sushi when I moved to New York and dragged me, periodically, to the Metropolitan Opera), I was too busy building my own life -- husband, kids, work, food, weeds, dirty dishes, laundry -- to dwell on her. But then, last June, my mother called to say that she was sending me something special for my birthday, and when the special thing arrived it turned out to be Nana's Memory Books, covering the years 1918 to 1924, and I sat on the sofa with her books on my lap and bawled like a baby. There are two books. Inside them is an entire world long gone -- a sweeter world, I think, than ours -- of small-town America, of sporting events and socials, before television changed everything, and before the 1927 Mississippi flood came and washed out a great swath of the middle part of the country. There is, for example, this: Gorgeous game! I played my best and made a goal from the center of the floor. (I have been captain in all our games.) Easy game and perfectly wonderful people! Marvelous time. Do I remember Charles Armstrong? I Say I Do!!!! (Jennie was the star of the Henderson, Ky., girls basketball team.) And this, commemorating the start-up of a club -- of which Jennie was a founding member: Absolutely a "High" club. Members are seven girls, namely Juicy, Judy, Katherine, Elizabeth L., Carfie, Sue, and me. We have wonderful times hiking, going to all the shows to-gether, and giving dances. Of course we send telegrams to "THE" team when it is out of town and we work for the athletic association on everythin'. We've got the spirit "that gets 'em" and plenty of PIP -- Altogether now!! There are also hundreds of newspaper clippings, invitations, dance cards, letters, corsages, theater programs, rings, cigarette butts, ticket stubs from high school sporting events, school compositions, ribbons, Christmas cards, progress reports, bottle caps, letters, postcards, photographs, menus and telegrams. What emerges is a young, fearless girl in the midst of making herself. Even the death of her father, in 1919, didn't mar her sense of possibility, of all those worlds beyond Henderson that she glimpsed, every summer, when she went on the "circuit" throughout small towns in the South, to stay with relatives and meet other Jewish boys and girls. Their photographs are here, too -- fresh-faced boys and girls mugging for the camera, the boys in suits and ties, the girls with their bobbed hair. Most of them are long gone. What was this urge of hers, to record every moment, to save every document and memento, of her youth? Did she know, even then, that it would vanish, not just from the world but from her mind? Last summer, my aunt called to say that Jennie was in the hospital, suffering from a respiratory infection. And for a moment, I prayed that she would just go ahead and get it over with -- that Nana would die, and in death be reunited with her own true self, in the form of her own memories. How wonderful it would be, I thought, if she could just chuck her body and reclaim all those decades, all those layers of memories that once made up her self. How wonderful, too, and how satisfying, for all of us, for her children and her grandchildren, if we could consign her to our own internal boxes -- prettily wrapped boxes labeled "Nana" -- where we could embrace her and keep her in our deepest selves, and remember her as she had been. If only she were dead, I thought, rather than merely diminished, we could put her back where she'd once been, restore her to herself, if only in our hearts. She'd all but disappeared from our midsts, anyway. Why not abandon the husk? In the olden days, of course (or maybe I'm just making this up, not having been around in the olden days), people didn't linger on and on and on, in a drugged and dripped nether world of neither-here-nor-there, but died -- wham -- and were laid to rest. Sometime afterward, memory of the deceased would be preserved, codified in material shape. In my own case, I live with just such preserved memory, with things that conjure up lost worlds and long-dead people. I speak of the objects that clutter my house and take up space on my bookshelves and along my walls -- three separate, privately printed family histories, dozens of black-and-white photographs (an entire gallery of my ancestors), furniture, knickknacks, and silver candlesticks that once were polished and arranged by the people whose lives my own has sprung from. For all I know, my ancestors preserved these things precisely so that I (". . . One day my great-great-grandchild . . .") might preserve them, precisely so that, when they went to their graves, they could at least console themselves with the thought that one of their descendants might know that, once upon a time, these earbobs belonged to Babette Felsenthal of Jackson, Tenn. Perhaps my most treasured treasure, though, comes not from my mother and Jennie's side of the family -- the side of the family to whom I've always felt most closely aligned -- but from my father's. Indeed, my paternal great-great-grandparents, Michael Simon Levy and Betsy Jacobs Levy, hang over my living room sofa, preserved in oil paints. They arrived, via UPS, just in January. Painted sometime in the 1850s, the portraits show two handsome, somber people, dressed in finery, and emerging out of a black, elegant gloom. As a child, I was terrified of them, sure that the people gazing out from within the gold-colored frames in my grandparents hallway were watching me with condemnation. But as I grew older, I began to covet them. I wanted to make them mine, to bind them to me, to claim a history and a people and a drama far larger than anything I could concoct in my ordinary daily life. When friends come to visit, my husband likes to give them a tour of the ancestors, pointing out, along the way, that it is unusual for Jewish families to possess such artifacts, for the simple reason that many Jews coming to this country were too poor to afford so much as a single sitting at a photographer's studio -- and pointing out, too, how precious it is for any Jew, living in this century of mass destruction and mass murder, to be in possession of the details of one's family history. But my ancestors not only came to this country long before Hitler cast his shadow across Europe, but, upon arrival, prospered. And Michael Levy, in particular, did so well -- as the owner of a factory, M.S. Levy and Sons of Baltimore, that made men's hats -- that he could afford to have his own and his wife's portrait painted in oil paints. "He was one of the richest Jews in Baltimore," my husband tells our guests. (He was also a devout Jew, the father of 10 surviving children, and a generous philanthropist.) But the most amazing thing to me now about these portraits is that the people in them are so young and so full of hope. For decades, the portraits hung on my grandparents' living room wall, in Baltimore. (My paternal grandfather was the grandson of Michael and Betsy Levy) When my grandfather died in 1979, the portraits remained with my grandmother, Helene Lobe Moses. And after she died, last summer, they came to me. Of my two grandmothers, Helene was the lucky one. She died just two months shy of her 94th birthday. She died in her sleep, at home in Baltimore, her system weakened by a recent bout of pneumonia; Helene inhabited her own personality up until the last moments of her life. (She had lamb chops -- her favorite -- for dinner on the night she died.) When we went to visit her, it was the old Helene, the grandmother I had always known, who kissed me hello and insisted that I eat a decent lunch (with, at the very least, seconds, and a generous dessert). Moreover, she was always engaged, eager to hear about us, talk about the great events of the day, and learn our opinions of, say, the latest scandal coming out of Washington. (What she would have made of the current one is anyone's guess.) Unlike Jennie, she was not the champion of her own biography: She didn't keep diaries, and in fact rarely spoke of herself at all, believing, I suppose, that her own private concerns were of no great interest. But not for a second did she forget who she was. Not for a moment did she grow confused about her own family history and that of her husband, or have to be reminded of which photograph, of the dozens that adorned her shelves, corresponded with which great-grandchild. To her, the portraits of her husband's grandparents, Michael and Betsy Levy, weren't artifacts. They were from living memory -- a vital part of her own lived life. (After all, her husband ran the hat factory that Michael Levy had founded.) I've never known anyone else quite like her, with her steady, purposeful disposition and sense of place in the world, and sense of who she was to the very end. But she was also the unlucky one. Her eyesight began to go in her late seventies. She was widowed around the same time. Her closest friends dropped off, one by one, until "the girls" who were her lifelong companions were all gone. Toward the end of her life, she was all but cut off from the world by her own failing body. She was legally blind, she had a hard time hearing and she couldn't walk. She got around her apartment in a motorized wheelchair, which she needed help getting in and out of. She needed help in the bathroom. She needed help at the dinner table. She needed help getting dressed. And all this time, she knew exactly what was happening to her. Her mind remained sharp even while her body fell apart. The day of Helene's funeral was a hot one, steamy and oppressive. All of us -- her children and grandchildren and their children and spouses, her surviving cousins and nieces and nephews, and dozens of others whom her life had touched -- gathered, sweating, beside her grave. Her casket was lowered into the ground and then we all took turns, as is the custom at Jewish funerals, putting a shovelful of dirt on top of it. And we waited in the heat of the July afternoon until the hole in the earth was completely covered, and then we all said goodbye. In the boxes containing Jennie's Memory Books, I recently found a batch of yellowed official papers, family documents that Jennie herself had gathered -- going all the way back to Bavaria. I remember when she undertook this project: I was a teenager; Nana was in her late sixties, and determined to get a grip on her own family history, to preserve it, and the memories of her ancestors, both for herself and for her descendants. Among these papers is an obituary of Jennie's grandmother, Augusta Paul Levy, from the Henderson, Ky., newspaper. (Jennie called her "Henderson Grandma.") Augusta was 90 years old when she died, at home at 400 S. Main St., of bronchial pneumonia. "Despite her advanced years," the obituary reads, "Mrs. Levy, previous to her death, had enjoyed perfect health and had retained full use of all her faculties . . . She was keenly interested in world affairs . . . particularly in the Kellogg peace treaty and shortly before her death discussed it at length with members of her family." The clipping is dated December 27, 1928 -- that's 70 years ago, when Jennie was 21, surrounded by babies and small children, and handsome, vibrant people, when life was so full and so joyous that the very air she breathed seemed to sing. I imagine her imagining her own end coming in a similar fashion -- swift and sure. I imagine her imagining herself similarly ancient but hearty, discussing world events with members of her own family. But now Jennie is 90, the age her grandmother was when she died (and I am surrounded by small children), but she can no longer remember either her grandmother or her granddaughter. How old is she? She doesn't know. She is with us still, but she left us long ago. Who will remember her memories for her? Who, indeed, will remember mine?