Open Letter to My Grandmother (Happy 80th Birthday)
Last week I got your postcard, the one from the retreat house out in Jersey. The one with the sunset on the front, and “Greetings from Long Branch.” You’ve told me before about these retreats, where your church ladies gather in community. You were one of the leaders this time around, in a group of one hundred and four women. That number. So impressive. One hundred and four women. You were excited for the gathering, including your three best friends. But you had wondered if your love for them might distract you from more numinous devotion that weekend, as it was their first time joining you on retreat. I know that split feeling, and I recognized it when you said it. But Mother Teresa once asked, how can there be too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers. Could these ladies be like flowers too, then? I’ll text you about that later.
Speaking of texts, thanks for your message this morning, quoting Macrina Wiederkehr. Because it’s March in Switzerland and I’m six hours ahead, I often wake up to your WhatsApp messages sent – I like to think – right before going to bed. Today you quoted one of your favorite Sisters, a Benedictine I still owe more time to. Every time you send her words, my morning prayer ritual extends. My mental scroll rolls out a little farther, as I work quickly at memorizing. Oh God, help me to believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is. Revolutionary, I thought. Have a blessed day, you wrote.
When I was little and lived closer, we didn’t need overseas texts. During sleepovers you prayed on your knees right down next to me. After we watched something Disney, sipping tea with milk and sugar, the upstairs couch was pulled out and the bed made (Fat Napoleon and Black Cat always jumped in). We’d brush our teeth with blue toothpaste from the dentist office where you work, and gargle mouthwash so sweet I could drink it. Finally, we would crouch on our knees as you led us in forming finger steeples. I’d sneak sideways glances at you, all your warmth, beauty and goodness kneeling with focus and humility. Your wavy, black hair still high above my shoulder, above my own unruly head of curls. You probably know this, but back then I was a terrible sleeper. And so what seemed like hours later (but more likely a matter of minutes), I would watch from my pillow as you glided to the bathroom. With the door closed, I would wait for the miracle. It happened every so often, and it went like this. I’d wait for you to come out so I could sneak in the bathroom afterwards. I’d look at the ceiling and so often they’d be there, those soft streaks of heaven clouds trickling around the light fixture. It was magical and mysterious, and made perfect sense to me. After nightly prayers, you reached heaven in the bathroom. It was a story I held close to me. It was only years later someone told me about your private cigarette ritual. One smoke in the bathroom, always at night…one indulgence before sleep.
Now your faith you let radiate to all around you. It’s integral to your being, how you navigate the world. Last month you explained this in your own words to me, after I wrote you three questions inspired by the StoryCorps project. Who are you? What are you most proud of? And how would you like to be remembered? You wrote about meeting Pop when you were fifteen and being a wife, mom, and grandmother. Beautiful people, you called us. You wrote about helping others, your sense of humor, and cooking great meatballs.
But mostly, you wrote about spirituality. First, you reflected on your girlhood: If you asked my mother who I was, she would say that I was the child who was in church all the time! Of course, this wasn’t completely true, but I did ask for a prayer book for my sixteenth birthday. Now I ask you, what sixteen-year-old asks for a prayer book? I never gave any thought to entering the religious life because I liked boys too much. Later, on your evolving relationship with religion: Long overdue changes were taking place in the Catholic Church as a result of Vatican II and with it I began to change as well. I began reading the Bible, spiritual books containing prayers from all around the world. After doing some church hopping, I found a church where community and fellowship existed. I found a Sacred Tribe. Finally, about your faith in small actions as tremendous as a sing-along: I would like to be remembered as a person who encourages grace before meals and to end by singing AMEN! There isn’t a single Sunday dinner without that old spiritual. Even the uncles pause to sing, before dipping crusty bread in pasta sauce. Aaa-men, aaa-men, aaa-men, amen, amen. Hallelujah! Your faith is something I’ve witnessed since as far back as I can remember, since my first real memories separate from stories I’ve listened to. In the early days you took us to mass in New Jersey, despite us being so young and so squirmy. Driving there on Sundays, Pop promised peppermint patties for good behavior. I loathed putting on stockings, something I’ve never had patience for. But I loved sitting on the cold floor and coloring sheep in Christian workbooks. I loved lighting candles and the sounds of the choir singing. And when it came time for the sign of peace, I’d shoot up to offer my small hand. To this day it’s my favorite part of any mass (when we got married, my husband and I were sure to include this in our interfaith Jewish-Catholic ceremony).
When we moved to London in the ‘90s, your voice followed along with us, as you read the Berenstain Bears on tapes sent across the ocean. Growing up is a funny thing; it was only years later I’d learn those stories were laced with faith-based messages. Sure it wasn’t so explicit as the newer titles in that series, but they were faith-based nonetheless. I wonder, did you know that? What I loved then was hearing your voice exhale each word out of the cassette. What I love now is the care you put into those recordings.
It’s the same care you put into each letter you’ve ever sent me. To Seville, Jaén, Madrid, and now Zürich. You’ve visited me too, both in Spain and Switzerland. In Spain you were moved by the history of “convivencia,” that time of interplay between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities. This came to an end, of course, with Isabel and Ferdinand and the awful Inquisition. There’s a black and white photo of you in a cathedral in Segovia, taken after we’d been talking about this history of religious respect and resentment. When I look at it now, I wish I knew what you were thinking. Was it about the shock of intolerance that the Catholic kings displayed (so far from your ever-widening spiritual circles). Or was it all we’ve learned from our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters? About the Sufi poets we love, Hafiz and Rumi? Or the powerful mysticism in the Kabbalah tradition? I wonder, what were you thinking?
I do know what you thought when we visited Fraumünster last spring. After our audio tour, you told me again and again how moved you were by the Marc Chagal windows. Fraumünster, that enormous Evangelical Reform church sitting on the Lammot River in Zürich, is fairly stark on the inside, with the exception of the collection of Chagal stained glass windows installed in 1970. In my brown leather journal, I carry a bookmark from that day. It shows my favorite of the five windows on the front of it. The bright green window, the one with Chagal’s depiction of Mary. She gazes to her right, holding her baby on her hip. We spoke long afterwards about how moved we were by those windows. Later, when you were settled back in your hotel, I sent you a message saying how special the day was for me. You made my day in so many ways today. I can’t wait for the rest of this weekend, every moment. Love you Gram! A few minutes later, you wrote back. I had a great day, too! Now I need to use the converter for my curling iron, so I’m not a flat head.
A flat head you are not, you can trust me on that. You’ve let yourself go gray lately; you’re more beautiful than ever. And speaking of the body, let’s talk about those matching tattoos we got in New York last December. I chose my confirmation name, Johannah, to match the given name of both my grandmas. But matching tattoos, those were your idea. For your eightieth birthday and my thirtieth, we both got lotus flowers. When I asked you why now, you said you wanted to do something adventurous to celebrate aging. Your friends recently went skydiving, so you had to do something significant (on a side note, please introduce me to these friends). There’s the deep significance of the lotus, to embrace joy and suffering. It’s about the petals of understanding that come out of the ordinary and extraordinary dirt. Here’s how I see it: if the mud is our inevitable human suffering, there can be joy in finding meaning in it. We’re two weeks into March now, and this means it’s been two years since Pop died of heart failure. He’d been sick for some time, but it still felt shocking that afternoon. Everyone dies, we know, but I’d never experienced it so near to me. But do you remember how many of us showed up that afternoon? Something like thirteen kids and grandkids were there in that hospital. All of us, tall and small, were with Pop in those last moments. Back at the house that evening, you told me Pop’s faith was so certain that it made it easier to let go in the end. He fully believed he knew where he was going after his life here on earth.
Myself, I’m more of a devout questioner about these things. But fast-forward a few days, and I had a dream so vivid I could practically smell the Old Spice on Pop’s sweater. We were gathered on the porch at your house on Canterbury Lane. It was getting dark as we finished a late summer barbeque. Everyone was helping bring empty plates into the kitchen, but I lingered with the fireflies for a minute. And then there was Pop, standing on the other side of the screened-in deck. The edges of his body shimmered unsteadily, like the far-out horizon on a hot August morning. He held a candle up to the window, with both hands grasping it. I opened the door for him to come in, but Pop shook his head. He couldn’t come inside, but please give this candle to Grandma. Tell her all is well, Pop said, because she’s still worried about him. Light a candle, keep it glowing. All is okay. It’s been a chaotic few weeks for us human beings. There’s the virus, economy, the political battles. It’s been easy to forget faith as fear spreads like spilt milk on a counter. But today, like so many others, I woke up to one of your texts. Today it wasn’t a quote, or a story, or a spiritual passage. It was a cartoon sunflower wearing big black sunglasses. Today is National Plant a Flower Day, you wrote. Spring is almost here.
Thank you, Gram, for all you are and all you do. Happiest of birthdays to you. I love you.
From Sarah to Gram with Love
“I adore my grandparents – my grandmother, the woman I write to in this piece, she’s a friend, spiritual mentor and master joke-teller. We’ve been writing each other for years, and that form of communication and contact has become even more important in these times of distancing across the world and all its neighborhoods.”
Sarah is a native New Yorker currently living in Zurich. Who as an educator and meditator loves language, trail running, and community.
To Joan Mirabile in celebration of her 80th birthday on May 30th from her granddaughter Sarah Mirabile Blacker