My grandmother, Natalie, died at age 95 last week. I flew out to Seattle for the memorial ceremony. It was the first time I'd seen so many Trupins in years.
Many memorials are full of sadness, both for the deceased and for regrets that we didn't spend more time with the person while they were alive. Natalie was different. We had ample time to prepare for her passing, and she left us with what can only be called a rich legacy of stories and remembrances. We were sad to have lost her, but at the same time we were upbeat all day.
She lived quite a full life. She was born in Harlem, and learned English in school. Today we'd call it immersion teaching, and maybe shunt her off into an ESL course for a while. Back then, the mid 1910s, you learned in English.
Natalie was always striving for more in life - not in a bad way, but in a way that was about two generations ahead of her time. She graduated from Hunter College way back when. She had a tack-sharp mind, strong opinions, and a personality that would befit a CEO. She and my grandfather, Julian, passed down a strongly liberal political bent through the entire family. In her later years, I visited her a few times in her senior residences, and she complained to me that everyone was so nice there but they never took an interest in discussing politics. For me, that would be almost like losing the ability to see in color. I am sure it was the same for her, perhaps even moreso.
I flew in the night before, sitting next to a guy with a passport written in Arabic who evidently smuggled more than three ounces of concentrated B.O. onto the plane with him. He repeatedly stretched his arms and spritzed three rows around him. I stayed at the cheapest hotel I could find at short notice. I realized I didn't have a decent jacket, so I spun by the Factoria Mall on Sunday morning to get the Target special. It turned out that I was pretty much overdressed, as Rabbi Jonathan and I were the only two wearing ties.
The family had put together a slideshow of Natalie's life. My dad and uncle each got up to speak for a few minutes. The rabbi then asked what it was like to be Natalie's grandchildren. I looked around, and none of the four of us stood up. So I took the lead. I got to my feet and talked about how Natalie had always instilled certain values in us, whether intentional or not. We all got a strong political leaning from her, and a pride in intelligence. She never truly left her upbringing. We would be at many a restaurant where she would clean out the dinner rolls, ketchup and sugar packets, and anything else that could help her lead a life free of privation.
Most of all, I spoke of her concern for her grandchildren. She was always worried about our health. Once, when I was a teen, she walked over to me one morning and said "Sonny, I know you're not a health nut, but I want you to promise me you'll always wear a thingie on your dinkus." With that, Rabbi Jonathan had to retake control of the ceremony.
We spent a long afternoon just talking about Natalie, sharing stories about her life and interaction with each of us. She could be difficult at times, but when I look back, it wasn't just a matter of being a cranky person. It was never due to thoughtlessness, because she was never not thinking. She forgot a lot of things in the last few years of her life, but she will never be forgotten. Because she's not really gone; she lives on in each of us.