By Susan Esther Barnes
This week I finished taking a class series on walking people through the process of dying, as well as visiting people in mourning. On the last night of class, Rabbi Lezak asked us to tell stories of a time when either someone visited us while we were in mourning, or a time when we visited a mourner.
The first thing I thought was I’ve never received a visit while I was in mourning. We come from a small family, and both my grandfathers died before I was born. The only family members who have died in my lifetime were my two grandmothers and my two Great Uncles. In no case did anyone come to our house to comfort us after their deaths.
The next thing I thought about was how, after my father’s mother’s funeral, we gathered for lunch at the apartment she had shared with her brother, my Great Uncle Mitch. At some point during lunch my father’s wife Sonia said, “One story I remember about Pearl is – “ but Uncle Mitch cut her off. He would not permit anyone to talk about Grandma. I don’t remember anyone in my family talking about Grandma after that day. Whenever I think about that lunch, I feel like I was cheated. How many stories about Grandma would I have heard if Uncle Mitch had let us talk about her? What would I have learned about her that I will never know?
Last summer, I said the Mourner’s Kaddish for the 25th anniversary of Grandma’s death. As far as I know, it was the first time anyone had said Kaddish for her since her funeral. She was too strong a force in this world to be forgotten easily. She is still a positive force in my life. So although I can’t go back to that lunch to try to convince Uncle Mitch to let us speak, here are the stories I want to preserve about her.
Grandma was about five feet tall, in her 80’s, and bent over from osteoporosis. Her whole body shook all the time, like Katherine Hepburn’s does now. When I asked her why she shook like that, she told me a rat suddenly jumped out at her when she was a girl, and it scared her so badly she’d never been able to stop shaking.
Anyone who knew Grandma would immediately know her rat story was a complete fabrication. She might look small and frail, but she was a warrior. She was a woman of action. Nobody would believe something as insignificant as a rat would scare her for long. When she was living in Hungary and Hitler was rising to power, she went to see him speak so she could size him up for herself. She didn’t know German, but what she saw and heard alarmed her. Rather than cowering in fear, she gathered up her husband and son (my father), and got the heck out of Dodge. They would not be among the six million killed.
Grandma was the embodiment of unconditional love. She was a refuge and a protector. That doesn’t mean she never got mad at us. When my sister and I got into trouble, boy, would we know it. Just the look on her face would make the bravest person back off fast. No sane person would ever cross her twice.
She taught me that when it comes for sticking up for what is right, size doesn’t matter. She regularly walked to the Opportunity Shop in her neighborhood, where she volunteered raising money for Israel. She never learned to drive, but she lived in San Francisco, knew all the Muni routes, and had no trouble getting wherever she wanted to go. When she got on a bus and found all the seats were taken, she would stand in the middle of the aisle, look down the length of the bus, and announce in a loud voice hardly impeded by her small shaking body, “As a rule, it used to be that when an old lady got on the bus, a gentleman would give her his seat!” Immediately, a half dozen shame-faced people would leap to their feet and offer her their place. Some of them were so embarrassed they never sat down again even after they realized they could. My sister and I got some good seats this way.
Aside from her unconditional love, the best gift Grandma gave me was a sense of connection to my Jewish heritage. Although we grew up in a secular home, Grandma consistently made sure to write “Happy Hanukah” on the presents we unwrapped at Christmas. She had a hanukiah in her living room year round, and a Jewish calendar in the kitchen. If we wanted a snack, in her home matzo was always available. These may seem like small things, but as I was growing up, whenever I heard someone say the only way to get to Heaven was though Jesus I knew it wasn’t true because Grandma wasn’t Christian and there was no way a fair and decent God would, for even a moment, consider keeping her out.
So this is how I remember Grandma. Every year, from now on, I will be saying Kaddish for the anniversary of her death. And from time to time I will wear something that has Tweetie Bird on it. Because, like Grandma, to the uninitiated Tweetie Bird may appear to be small and helpless, but anyone who knows anything knows Tweetie, like Grandma, is well capable of taking care of himself.
For Pearl Singer, may her memory be a blessing.