I have been thinking about my Grandma Bea lately.
Sometimes when I am getting dressed in the morning, and I am pulling myself into a standing position from the edge of the bed with the assistance of my walker, I catch a glimpse of myself in Adam's mirrored closet door. And I see Grandma Bea. I see her in my stance -the way she stood with her walker towards the end of her life. I see her walk in my walk - the way she walked slowly and deliberately with her walker, making sure not to fall or misstep. When I catch a glimpse of her in my current physical self, I am reminded of all the other things that she instilled in me.
Grandma Bea was not my biological grandmother. She married my Grandpa Sol (my father's father) soon after I was born. I never knew another grandmother, so the fact that we were not biologically connected really did not make a difference to me at all. It was not that I was unaware of that fact. In fact I was very much aware. I was named for my deceased grandmother (Deborah/Debbie), and often heard wonderful stories from my aunts, parents, and cousins about how beloved she was. But for me, my grandma was Grandma Bea.
Grandma Bea did not have any children of her own. She had a sister who had two sons and they both married and had children of their own. Her nieces and nephews kind of became her children and grandchildren. And us. Me, my brother Mike, and my cousins Marian, Alice, and Deb (yes she too was named after Grandma Deborah/Debbie). We became her grandchildren and she thought of us as such.
I don't remember Grandma Bea being the stereo typical grandmother on most occasions. She was very tall, and when I was very young had this jet black beehive hairdo. Later on it was replaced by her natural gray hair. Either way she was always concerned that her hair looked good. It always seemed that she and my grandfather loved each other, but as a child I always had this feeling that my grandfather might have married her because he was lonely after Grandma Debbie died. Maybe that was from reading too many fairy tales.
I was told when I was older that our family was less religious before Grandma Bea came into our lives. For example, we celebrated together for Passover, but didn't have a seder and read from the Hagaddah until Grandma Bea came into our lives. Or we might have eaten big family meals for Rosh Hashanah, but until Grandma Bea came around we never went to synagogue.
I think of Grandma Bea on every single Jewish holiday and every time I enter a synagogue. The reason I call it a synagogue is because that is what she grew up calling it. Even when my grandfather was still alive, she would always stay at our house during the Jewish holidays. From our house in Roosevelt she could walk to synagogue and she did not drive on the high holidays. It was our tradition that she and I would go earlier than the rest of our family. We would hold hands and walk up the hill on Homestead Lane and she would tell me stories about her father and mother, and going to synagogue with her family. Sometimes the stories would be the same as the ones she told me the following year, but I didn't care. We would walk into synagogue and wish the regulars a "L'shanah Tovah". Grandma would check to make sure her bobby pin was holding her head covering in place. We would pick up our prayer books (always the red book, never the gray) and make our way to the right side of the seating area, where the women sat. Ours was an orthodox synagogue and the men and women sat separately. This always made me feel uncomfortable, but Grandma Bea seemed at home in this environment as this is how she grew up.
Then we would pray. We would find our page number from someone sitting close by. Grandma would sing the familiar prayers in Hebrew without looking at the words in her prayer book. They were ingrained in her being. I would read along the English translation. Sometimes Grandma would point to where we were in the Hebrew, to encourage me to try to follow along. When I was younger, I would pretend to sing along in the Hebrew, belting out a familiar word here or there. As I got older, and the tunes became more familiar, Grandma and I would smile to each other and sing together.
My favorite synagogue memory with Grandma Bea is her silly faces. We would be sitting together in synagogue and as many young kids do, I would begin to get antsy. Grandma would turn to me and make a silly face. Sometimes she would stick out her tongue or cross her eyes. This would put me into fits of laughter. As others from our congregation would turn around to see what the ruckus was, she would sternly look at me, with the slightest grin on her face, and say "shh". This would happen a few times during the service and somehow it kept me in synagogue longer.
When I was about eight years old, as we were leaving synagogue, I introduced Grandma Bea to a Roosevelt neighbor. She said, "oh, I can tell she is your Grandma, you look so much alike." Somehow Grandma and I held it together until we were walking home and then we got hysterical. It then became the family joke that we looked alike. We always joked about it, but somehow it made me feel proud that someone thought I was like her.
When I was twelve (thirteen?) my grandfather died of a massive heart attack. I remember his funeral and being at my grandparents house for at least a part of all eight days of shiva. I remember that his passing coincided with Passover. I remember my father trying to encourage Grandma Bea to eat, and she slowly peeled a hard boiled egg at their big kitchen table. I remember all the aunts and uncles and cousins walking up the sidewalk to pay their respects. I remember sitting in the castle chair in their living room crying. I remember wondering if the death of my grandfather, who I loved dearly, would mean that Grandma Bea would no longer be my grandmother. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Grandma Bea continued to be my grandmother. She continued to come stay with us for the high holidays and for as long as she could, walked with me to synagogue up the big hill on Homestead Lane. She continued to make silly faces, and pray without looking at the words in her prayer book. She continued to love us because we were her grandchildren.
Equally as important is the fact that my father, mother, and Aunt Gail continued to care for her because we were her grandchildren. She wasn't an easy person as she got older and her body started to give out on her. Sometimes she said unkind things, and made life a little complicated for others. But no one gave up on her, and I was in the room with her when she passed away. Ean's middle name is Brett in her honor.
When Grandma Bea moved into a nursing home and it came time to clean out the home that she shared with my grandfather in order to sell it, I remember one of us finding something very telling in my grandfather's heavy dresser drawer. It was a pack of love notes- little square love notes. The were new and not written in. I imagined that my grandfather regularly filled one out and left it on my grandmother's pillow, or by her cup of morning coffee. I felt ashamed for that impression I had as a young child that my grandfather married Grandma Bea just because he was lonely. I wanted to go back in time and hug both of my grandparents and tell them how important they were to me.
A few days after cleaning out the house I went to Shabbat services at a different local synagogue. The prayers were now familiar enough to me to be able to look up from my prayer book as I prayed and sang along. I looked over at my friend's sister and her Nanny. They were not blood related. It didn't matter. It doesn't matter.
Live to love. Love to live.