I recently had a terrible cough. Again. Some of you may remember the cough-that-never-ended, earlier this year, with which I suffered for FOUR SOLID MONTHS.
Part of what ended it before was going off wheat and dairy. Or the change of the seasons coinciding with. Or maybe the herbs and acupuncture finally kicked in. Or or or.
Anyway, a few days ago and only a few days into the cough, I gave up wheat and dairy again, and the cough cleared up almost immediately. So today, since I finally felt great, I celebrated with a constant hand-to-mouth supply of chocolate-chip rugelach leftover from yesterday’s post-memorial deli-food feast. To be exact, I believe I ate 13 of them. In my defense, they are small. (And powerful.) And it was over 9 hours; in three, short, oh-I’ll-just-have-ONE-more bursts.
And a creamy cream-of-mushroom soup, prepared with extra half-and-half, a liberal dash of green chile powder, a few handfuls of frozen spinach (VEGETABLES! YES!), roasted cauliflower (MORE! VEGETABLES!), brown rice, and… grated cheddar cheese.
I am supposed to be talking about my grandmother’s memorial. Not soup.
Except that the soup is relevant because apparently in her savory cooking, which I rarely experienced, she relied on the sorts of recipes that relied on cream-of-mushroom soup.
I learned this from one of the two amazing speeches made about my grandmother by my cousins who grew up with her.
What I learned at the memorial was how much I’d missed. That she was a grandmother who had her grandkids over regularly, who took them to classic movies and high-culture arts events.
She was, on the east coast on a daily or weekly basis, the same difficult person I knew in short bursts on the west coast, smarter than everyone else, exacting, impossible to please. But that difficult personality in quotidian form had benefits, at least so it looks from this distance.
I really did have a relationship with her, and I really didn’t. As I’ve said already, it was complicated.
Two realizations have hit me in this process of memorializing. I did grow up with her brother. My Uncle Ben was a terrifying man. Tough, uncompromising. Smarter than everyone else. When I was little, he gave me a lecture on how to hold my fork. A LECTURE. FORK. Seriously.
Uncle Ben and his wife Aunt Edith lived in Los Angeles. So they were in-loco-grandparentis. Though not really that either because they had eight grandchildren that lived in town. My sister and I were like grandchildren-plus.
But some of the things I heard about at the memorial yesterday, I did with Aunt Edith and Uncle Ben. Maybe not the arts events but certainly the holidays, and a few visits, and a bit of the cooking. I loved Aunt Edith; she was an amazing cook and an elegant and extraordinarily sweet woman. And man did she enjoy a good a joke. The only one I can remember her telling right now is about Joan Rivers having so many facelifts she had a beard. But there were others…!
It strikes me that there’s a pattern in this part of my lineage of very smart and difficult to please people marrying remarkably sweet and wonderful people. (I’m sure Scott would be too nice to agree with me, but there it is.) Sadie’s husband, my grandfather who died before I was born, was known for having a huge heart.
Uncle Ben led the Passover Seder with an iron fist. We didn’t dream of making jokes or deviating from the text. When he talked, the pauses carried more weight than the words. As much as I was around him, I avoided conversation with him. But he had this garden. His house was on two lots. One lot held house, the adjacent lot was his backyard which was taken up by half with a prolific vegetable and fruit garden. I remember being young enough when he first showed it to me that I wondered if the eggplants really had eggs in them. And the blackberry bushes taller than me whose yield became the jam on Edith’s perfectly delicious butter-fried zucchini pancakes and fluffy cheese blintzes.
I think it was up to my parents to shape my relationships with their parents and assorted elder relatives. At least in the early years. And maybe it was up to the relatives themselves to be more fun to be around?
My lineage also contains a repetitive drift. Each generation moving thousands of miles from the previous one every few clusters of decades. I am certain my parents’ decision to create the distance they did was out of self-preservation and, by association, for my own protection.
(My parents are lucky I only drifted half-a-state north.)
In yiddish, the word for family and the word for crazy sound almost the same:
Mishpocha (family) / Meshuggenuh (crazy)
Will I take these lessons and make a different life from them?
1) If I find myself being exacting and impossible to please, may I soften, and find something to laugh about.
2) Start leaving Jonah with people.
I have already given Jonah more of an opportunity to form relationships with his grandparents than I had. Although we also have the barrier of distance and cost of travel, we don’t have the unpleasant-to-be-around issue. We have traveled to see them a lot this year in particular, and we are lucky they come to us as often as they do. But to really have unsupervised time with the grandparents is something else, an opportunity to build a relationship.
The family who lived near my grandmother in Baltimore has stories. And those stories are part of me because she was my grandmother. But for the most part, I really didn’t live them, so they are also not mine.
Except I love the stories I have been told: about how she kept kosher at home most of the time but had a special frying pan for making bacon for BLTs; and how when she was young and her family ran a dry-goods store and lived above it, they used to sneak downstairs in the middle of the night for candy.
When I think about what it was like to hug her, I know I loved her. And I know she loved me.
I wish my family wasn’t so spread out. I wish the world wasn’t such a busy place. Our lives are so stretched to the limit at all times; I struggle to make time for even my friends who live only a few minutes away.
3) Appreciate every moment you spend with people instead of worrying over the moments you don’t.
4) Don’t feel guilty.
* * *
I meant to say more about the memorial itself:
My sister and I both did not have speeches but my grandmother had designated a poem she wanted read at the ceremony, “What Will Matter,” by Michael Josephson. Dad said that it had comforted her towards the end.
It was appropriately pedantic, on the importance of being a good person over material pursuits, etc. I felt like I was channeling her teacher spirit and that she’d knowingly saved my sister and I by giving us this text to read.
I didn’t realize that her body was going to be there. Because of my father’s impending surgery (which he came through today with flying colors, thank goodness), we are getting a pass on the get-her-in-the-ground-ASAP rules of Judaism. She will be buried in Baltimore, as soon as my father is well enough to travel with the body.
So when the Rabbi stopped me in the parking lot beforehand to ask why we were having the memorial at a cemetery, when we could have done it anywhere, I responded that maybe my dad liked the gravitas of the venue, and that all the dead would be listening. The Rabbi nodded sagely and said something in Yiddish that was either an agreement of some sort or meant to ward off whatever curse I might have brought on by not speaking reverently.
When I saw the pine box in the room, I thought it was a prop. But then one of the funeral directors invited us to view her.
I went with my aunt, my cousins, and Scott. And the handsome young man in the dark suit lifted the top, removed a white cloth from her face. She looked incredibly peaceful, and impossibly small. Without her enormous presence, the body didn’t match her true size.
“They put make-up on her,” my aunt said. “When I saw her before, she was green.”
But in my experience (having been with Leila when she passed), after death, the face is at peace, and can be oddly beautiful.
A memorial for someone who was 101 really is a celebration. We cried. And we laughed. And nobody minced words. As my dad said, essentially, my grandmother was a lot of things, but you could always count on her to be honest. The memorializing was done honestly, and with dignity. I think she would have appreciated that.