I remember my grandmother Lil so fondly. There are many really wonderful sweet moments from when I was little, first in Montreal, then from over the six-hour distance on the 401. And then, the longer distance with my move to the US. I alway found my grandmother to be an instant source of love and support and approval, and for a long time, chocolate cake, party sandwiches, and chicken soup with rice.
I want to focus on one aspect of who she was that has had a huge impact on me. My grandmother certainly did not have an easy life, and she suffered through a lot of tragedy. She was an incredible survivor, always passing through each trial, not without scars, but always in wholeness.
It was not enough for Grandma that she survive. She had to do better, by bringing a lot more beauty into this world. She did so through music, through visual arts, and through language.
Grandma taught me the power of song. She used to sing to us as kids— most of us grandchildren remember the song, “my mother gave me a nickel to buy a pickle.” She could sit for hours while I played piano, and at least a few minutes of guitar after I took that up before asking me to get back to the piano.
Grandma taught me the importance of creating and surrounding ourselves with art. Her apartment was an exclusive gallery of portraits, landscapes, and still lifes, exhibiting the best of local artists. The Montreal gallery owners all knew her, and even when she was legally blind, she could tell which artists and paintings would do well. Between her influences and growing up in my parents’ home, I cannot imagine living in a place with blank walls.
My grandmother knew very well that which is taught at the beginning of Torah, that the universe was created through language, through spoken words. She made sure that we all knew it. Growing up in Soviet Union she learned the significance of words. She told me that her father once asked her what the Soviets taught her in school about God, and she emphatically responded, to hell with God! Her father, teaching her that it’s better not to commit to ideas until you’ve actually given them enough thought to be sure of your response, said, maybe just say,” I don’t know.” When she came to Montreal, she learned what it was to not speak the language. She was asked something in English that she did not understand during her first day of school, and she knew that a response was expected. For the last time at a loss for words, she simply answered yes. All the kids laughed. To her dying day she was unsure of what was asked, though it might have been for her name. Ensuring this would not happen again, Grandma quickly learned and mastered the English language. She won a prize at school for an assignment asking what she wanted to be when she grew up. Grandma wrote that she wanted to be a gypsy, so she could dance and be free. Her imagination was so rich that the other children would pay her to tell them stories in the schoolyard. Later, she used her talents to raise funds for Hadassah and bring meaning, ideas, and laughs into the lives of so many in her community, writing musical parodies such as Carmen Cohen and How to Have a Big Affair, my two personal favorites. And she paid close attention to every syllable, word, and phrase, making sure that the lyrics would convey the exact meaning she wanted. Through language, she built worlds and brought light into this one.
Grandma taught me that surviving is not enough. One must thrive, doing everything they can to bring light through creativity and love into this world. I am so grateful for these lessons. I love you Grandma. Thank you for all the love and blessings you bestowed upon us. We’ll miss you and always remember you.