7.24.2007

חרב מקדשנו and we lost many special people

חרב מקדשנו [our Temple was destroyed] and we, as a nation, lost many people around two thousand years ago. However, my family lost someone right before the national Jewish mourning period of the Three Weeks began and I can't observe Tisha B'Av this year without my own personal loss taking precedence. I couldn't focus during Eicha last night, didn't stay for kinot, and skipped communal prayer entirely this morning. I don't know if it was because I just couldn't deal with forced mourning this year, having done some personal mourning so recently, or if it was because I am exhausted from the chaos of recent (and coming) weeks.

My maternal grandmother passed away almost four weeks ago, on Thursday evening, June 28 (12 Tammuz). Her death was not unexpected, since it was preceded by a year of ovarian cancer, chemotherapy, and recurrence, but it was of course still very sad. Even before the cancer, she withstood years of slow deterioration in her motor skills from multiple sclerosis with what can only be called extraordinary good cheer and equanimity.

This is a what I said at the funeral. It was my first reaction, written almost entirely during the half hour preceding the funeral, with input from my older sister, younger brother, and mother. I read parts of it from what I had prepared beforehand and made some up on the spot. This is what I actually said, based on the the video my brother took.

I hope to blog more about my grandmother, her life, and our loss at some later point, but this should at least give you a little picture of who she was.

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I've been thinking about part of a mishna from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, since my grandmother got sick a little bit over a year ago. The excerpt I’ve been thinking about reads:
ד,א בן זומא אומר...איזה הוא עשיר--השמח בחלקו, שנאמר "יגיע כפיך, כי תאכל; אשריך, וטוב לך" (תהילים קכח,ב): "אשריך", בעולם הזה; "וטוב לך", לעולם הבא

4:1. Ben Zoma would say: Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot. As is stated in Psalms, "If you eat of the toil of your hands, fortunate are you, and good is to you"; "fortunate are you" in this world, "and good is to you" in the World to Come.

I never knew anyone as happy with their lot as Grandma was. What was most important to her was her family. Whenever we came to visit, she was overjoyed--so much so, that she made us happy! When I used to tell her of an upcoming visit—and I told her as soon as I bought the ticket, because I knew that anticipation was half the fun for her—she always worried that I would be bored—she didn't know what I would find to do in Palo Alto! She always said that she didn’t know why I kept coming. It was never a problem—being in the house with her was a joy for me, even if she couldn't promise good weather—that was always the caveat she gave.

From an early age, I associated my grandmother with her matriarchal role of sustainer and food provider. She made us French toast with extra eggs—more than our mother would allow—and brownies that were out of this world—and she let my sister and I lick the bowl and the beaters. She once let me in on a special secret: an excellent way of getting two things done at once is to watch a football game while chopping walnuts for brownies. Nobody else’s grandmother that I knew watched football while chopping walnuts for brownies. She was also the only grandmother I knew who was a good shot. Once I heard a story about my uncle challenging her to a match—and she beat him. I’m sorry [I said this to my uncle], but I had to share that.

I was particularly enamored of my grandmother's tuna salad with pickle relish, something that I was not accustomed to. Even after she was unable to cook for us herself, she directed kitchen activities from her couch and then her chair, answering questions about egg to tuna ratio in tuna salad, how long to cook the roast for, and where a particular pot was located in the kitchen, even though she might not have personally stooped to get it out of its location in many years.

My grandmother, in addition to her continual joy at the presence of her children and grandchildren, was quite…spunky. When my sister and I were interviewing my grandfather, Bapa, before he died, she interjected with a wonderful story that I’d never heard before. Once, when she was working at a five-and-dime, I think during my grandparents' first year of marriage in Chadron, Nebraska, one of her coworkers asked her to climb up a ladder to get something from a high shelf. She refused because she was wearing a skirt. She was fired from the job, but she didn't regret the decision. She taught me a lot about the proper way to be ladylike. She taught my sister and me how to put on nail polish when we were pretty young—six and eight, I think. Nail polish and lipstick were required, but you should never back down when the other person is wrong.

Once, her wise counsel helped me get out of a jamb. When I moved between apartments in New York, and my movers broke the couch because they disregarded my advice about the best way to move it, I didn't know what to do. I was exhausted and distraught and I couldn't reach my mother, so I called my grandmother as I fought back tears. I knew that she was always at home and would answer the phone. Grandma, in no uncertain terms, told me to stand up to them and under no circumstances should I just pay them their money and forget about it. She wisely suggested that I withhold the tip until they fixed the couch. She told me that I could do it. Knees quaking, I did, and although they never did fix the couch as promised, at least I wasn't out the extra tip money.

In thinking about my grandmother, there were certain things that she always said. One of them was always take a sweater when you go to San Francisco even if its eighty degrees outside. Another was that presentation matters in the kitchen and in your wardrobe. You should always tuck in your shirt and it's not nice to put the pot that you cooked the food in on the table. Transfer it to a nice plate or serving dish. Finally, something that she always used to tell my grandfather when he left the house, originally to go to work, and later when he left the house to do other things: “Keys? Billfold? Glasses?” Three things that you should never leave the house without.

I feel very fortunate that I’ve gotten to know my grandmother so well. To reach the age of 28 with a grandmother as such a constant presence in your life is a very special thing. I think I speak for all of us, the grandchildren, when I say that we will never forget all of the things that she taught us. Her life, and the way she was, was an inspiration to all of us.

Thank you.

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I am sorry that we didn't tape what I said at my grandfather, z"l's, funeral in February 2004. I spoke from a few words jotted down on a piece of paper and was unwilling and then unable to reconstruct it afterwards. I would have liked to know what I said, but speaking from such an emotional, difficult place made it hard to even look at the notes afterwards, never mind reconstruct my actual words.

I am both sad and honored to have now spoken at three funerals of three grandparents. Sad because my grandparents are no longer with us, and honored to have known all of them during their long and full lives. As devastated as I am to have lost them, and as much as I always wanted all of them to live long enough to see me marry and have children (and go to graduate school? maybe), I am so lucky to have grown up with all four grandparents playing an active presence in my life. My father's father passed away at the age of 78, when I was 20 years old. My mother's father passed away at the age of 78, when I was 23 years old. And now, my mother's father has passed away at the age of 79, a few days before I turned 28. May my father's mother live and be well for many years to come.

One of the many, many benefits to having close relationships with your grandparents is that you learn all kinds of things that your parents can't teach you. For example, if it had been up to my mother, I never would have been indoctrinated into the ways of nail polish at the age of six, nor would someone have told me (although I often ignore it) that serving food in the dishes in which they were cooked is uncouth.

I miss my grandmother so much, and I am sure that I will continue to miss her as life continues on its merry way and I realize how much left there was to learn from her.

2 comments:

David said...

Your grandmother sounds like she was a really neat person - I am sorry for your loss.

May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.

Nem said...

This is beautiful, thanks for sharing.