My grandmother on my mother’s side, of blessed memory, passed away ten years ago this month. She continues to have a presence, however, through her influence and the love that radiated from her over her lifetime. No matter how much I may be in shock that we have lost her, nothing will bring her back.
One of the happiest memories of my childhood involves my grandmother and my teddy bear. Early on in my teddy bear’s existence, his mouth was represented by a small red felt tongue. One morning, before I went to school, I noticed that the tongue had fallen off. When I returned home from school that day, the lack of tongue had been replaced by a small red smile. It was one of many things that my grandmother would do for my teddy bear. Over a number of years, he acquired quite a few stitches, without which he would have fallen apart by now. This is one reason I am fond of said teddy bear – seeing all the stitches reminds me of my late grandmother. Other reasons involve how incredibly adorable the bear is, but I think those reasons are besides the point right now.
Another fond memory I have from childhood is of my grandmother mispronouncing certain things – some because of her Austrian background, some not. For example, she would pronounce the letter W as a V – as is done in German. The word wall would therefore be pronounced as “vall”, etc. She would also often make certain proper nouns plural, or singular, depending on what they would be to begin with. So we would go to McDonald to have a Big Macs. Whenever I would come even close to suggesting alternative pronunciation, she would challenge me to say something exceedingly complicated in German. I would never be able to, of course. This could be out on the street, where street names were quite lengthy, or at bizarre foreign restaurants.
Despite many trips to McDonald’s as a child, my grandmother had a heavy influence on my becoming a more observant Jew. I recently learned that when a person makes sacrifices for religious observance, the reward for it often goes to someone further down the family line. One could perhaps say that I was fortunate enough to become more observant religiously because my late grandmother was so careful to light candles at the appropriate times and to dress modestly. I was oblivious to her doing so while she was still alive, but I greatly appreciate it now. Could it be that at this moment my grandmother is aware of all that is going on and is celebrating somewhere above?
Something else that I learned from my grandmother along those lines was a love of baking challah by hand with all fresh ingredients. I saw her mixing the flour, water, and eggs together, making a dough, kneading the dough, letting it rise – and baking it at the right temperature such that it would make a delicious challah. A number of years after she passed away, I tried to make challah and had limited success. With my mother’s help, I have been able to make much better challah since the first time. I’m thoroughly thrilled that the addition of a cup of orange juice has improved the challah so much.
Similarly, it was in the hospital as my grandmother lay dying of cancer that I started to write down the recipe for hamentaschen, the kind of cookie that is made for Purim. Purim is, not coincidentally, this time of year. One of the ingredients in the recipe is a sort of tea biscuit. A year or so after my grandmother passed away, my mother went to the supermarket to buy the necessary ingredients. She wasn’t sure where the tea biscuits were, when all of a sudden she thought of her mother and stopped. Immediately to her right were the tea biscuits. It’s hard to tell whether it was my grandmother that led my mother to the tea biscuits or if my mother knew where the tea biscuits were all along – rather, the hamentaschen were good for the first time that year. Not too soft, but not too hard – with a delicious filling.
I have yet another funny memory of going somewhere with my family in the car and my grandmother explaining to me how my parents only wanted me to do well in school – they weren’t asking anything excessive of me. It wasn’t as if they were asking me to dance on the roof, or something difficult like that. It was my grandmother’s way of doing things, of putting things in a sort of humorous light. She wanted me to be happy, but also to be a good student – surely not as difficult as, say, dancing on the roof. There was a wonderful sense of balance that I have since been unfamiliar with.
My brother once told me a similar story of how he had a dream that he went with her to a purveyor of pornographic literature, and she happily agreed to buy it for him as she was not aware of the contents of said literature. A person could not say that she would really be so unaware as to not know the content of this kind of literature, but rather that she would do anything to make us happy. This was not done, of course, out of ignorance, though some people in my life have suggested that this could be equated with bliss.
That was what my grandmother was like – always trying to make peace, but still being a strong woman. If she disagreed with you on a point, you would certainly know about it. I remember this because of the one time I asked her what was so terribly wrong with not being Jewish. Her argument against this, while I may not remember it, was quite compelling. In the few times in my life when I have been approached by missionaries, the power of her argument stayed with me. Now, as an observant Jew, the argument is even more compelling.