As read yesterday at her funeral…
Our parents give us life.
Our grandparents give us a sense of who we are and where we came from.
This week, as we said goodbye to Grandma Sheila, it hit me how incredibly lucky I have been to have my lovely grandmother with me for 42 years. Not only with me, but an integral, close part of my life. It is rare for a grandparent-grandchild relationship to be so essential and so long-lasting, but then, Grandma Sheila was that exceptional kind of person every single day of her life.
Until the last couple of years, my grandmother had more energy and interest in life than anyone I’ve ever known. When I was living in Washington, D.C. in my 20s, she and Grandpa Artie came to visit. They must have been in their 70s at the time, and we went all over town – shopping, dinner, movies. After seeing a Hitchcock film that Saturday night, Grandma and Grandpa said, “Ok, where are we going now?” I was so exhausted that I insisted it was time for bed. They looked at me with surprise – and disappointment – because they would have gone for dessert, coffee, more living, more life.
My grandmother was an incredible matriarch. Really, she was the regal leader in our family. She baked and cooked and babysat and took us shopping and saw our new clothes when we were little. She was always present, part of our everyday lives in such a tangible way. As a child, I had friends whose grandparents had retired to Florida and I remember feeling that while they were lucky enough to get a yearly trip to warmer weather, I was even luckier, because I had my grandparents all the time.
That constant loving presence really shapes a person. From our grandparents, we learn where we come from, we learn our history, we learn who we are.
Once, when I was 12, my grandmother took me for a day of shopping at Fairlane Mall. I was so excited to share with her my favorite music – early 1980s rap. She agreed to play my radio station in her car as she drove us carefully down the Southfield Freeway. As we came up over a hill, we didn’t know there was a car stalled in the center lane.
Grandma reacted quickly, extended her arm in front of me to protect me, and with the other arm, masterfully steered around the car, spinning out across the three freeway lanes onto the shoulder. It was terrifying. The first car accident I had ever been in. The car stopped, she checked to make sure we were both ok, then leaned over and shut off the radio.
I felt terrible that my music caused my grandmother to get in an accident. Of course, it didn’t, and she told me that later, but she never said a harsh word. She simply pulled back onto the road and took us quietly to the mall and we spent the afternoon shopping and talking as if nothing had happened.
What made my grandmother special? So wonderful? Her elegance. She always looked the picture of perfection and grace. She knew everyone in Detroit, and everyone knew her. Even better, no one ever had a bad word to say about my grandmother. She loved deeply and fully, all of us. She was the kind of person who just had more love in her heart for the more people who joined our lives.
This story of my grandmother wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t pay homage to her incredible cooking. It seemed anything she made was delicious – even my children thought her Campbell’s vegetable soup was amazing!
When I lived in New York, Grandma Sheila sent me Jacobson’s boxes full of her double-chocolate brownies and once, I made the mistake of bringing them to work – I barely got one for myself.
She taught me to make gefilte fish from scratch. I took this very seriously, as quite an honor, and showed up on a Sunday before Passover one year to help her chop the fish in her big wooden bowl, twice, so it came out extra fluffy. There were fish heads bobbing in a pot of boiling water and carrots cooking and so many steps in this assembly line process.
The apartment reeked of cooking fish and by the time we were done, so did I – my hair, my clothing, everything. I went home and showered to rid myself of the smell – but the next day at work, when I unzipped my purse that had been with me at Grandma’s apartment, out wafted the scent of fish. For a week I carried that smell with me!
One year when I couldn’t make it home for Passover, I called Grandma Sheila for her matzo ball soup recipe. The secret, she said, was fresh dill. I wrote down everything she said and drove all over town looking for a whole pullet cut into eighths, parsnip, parsley root, everything she listed.
In my apartment, which I shared with one friend, I spent half a day cooking and when I finally sat down at our little table by myself with a steaming bowl in front of me, that first bite, full of dill, made me feel like I was at my grandparents’ Pasover table, rather than alone in another city.
My grandparents were a large part of the reason I moved back to Michigan. After all, what is life without family to support you, to love you unconditionally, to be at your side through good and through bad?
As I have shared the news this week of my grandmother’s state, friends and colleagues have mentioned how old they were when they lost their grandparents. The oldest was late 20s.
I come back to this notion that for 42 years, my grandmother has been an influential and important part of my life. Until this last week, I hadn’t realized how truly exceptional that is. Many marriages never last that long!
She is so much a part of who I am that even though I knew she would one day leave us, I can’t quite believe she is gone.
Grandma Sheila – you impacted my life in so many ways. You shaped who I am. You shaped who my children are. You influenced all of us so greatly. I will always love you and save a special corner of my heart to keep you with me. And I know we will miss you every day of our lives.