Happy 100th Birthday, Grammy: Remembering What My Grandmother Taught Me About Life
It’s been nearly eight years since my grandmother passed away. Sometimes when I feel a flicker of sunshine, I know she is still with me. This May she would have been 100 years old. What a party we would have thrown. Frank Sinatra would have been playing. Gin and tonic at the bar. Fudge for all. My grandmother would have been at the center of it all, right where she belonged.
In honor of my grandmother, I wanted to share the eulogy I delivered at her funeral. For me, these words help me remember how incredible she was. They celebrate how she lived her life. They remind me what matters in life. They bring her back to me, even for just a moment.
As many of you know, my grandmother, Helen Berkman, was a one-of-a-kind woman. She was the kind of woman you would smile just thinking about. She was the kind of woman who everyone liked, whose caring and loving nature made you feel special, who taught you to appreciate the good things in life-- no matter how big or how small.
My grandmother lived her ninety two years to the fullest extent possible. And while we grieve her passing and will miss her deeply I know she would have wanted us to celebrate her life. I know she would have wanted us to reminisce about all the good times we shared with her and think about the legacy she left behind.
My grandmother always used to tell people she was blessed because she had our family. She felt blessed to have three loving and extraordinary daughters. Blessed to have nine grandchildren who she watched grow from babies into responsible adults. Blessed to have seventeen great-grandchildren who she got to hold and cuddle--the next generation.
But the truth is that we were all the blessed ones. For to have had a mother, a mother-in-law, a grandmother or a great-grandmother like her was in itself one of life’s greatest blessings. To have loved and be loved by such an extraordinarily unselfish and giving woman is something to be forever cherished.
Grammy was the centerpiece of all of our family gatherings. All of us felt our own special bond with her. You couldn’t help but want to sit with her and hold her hand. She gave all of us her unconditional love. She truly loved each of us equally. Perhaps that is why I spent many years trying to get her to admit that I was the favorite grandchild. As the youngest of nine grandchildren I drew parallels to how she was also the youngest child of nine. I tried to woo her with funny stories and special hugs. I tried to prove to her why I was worthy of this coveted title. And while she did once admit I was the favorite I have to admit I simply bullied it out of her.
Grammy had so much energy. At family celebrations Grammy would still be on the dance floor after most of us had already sat down exhausted. She taught me shuffle ball change during my dance recital days. She would dance around her house (not always with the shades pulled down) to the music of Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli.
Grammy had so much warmth. As a little girl I’d snuggle with her in the morning, breathing her signature grandma scent and secretly laughing at her hair wrapped in toilet paper to preserve her hairdo. She seized every opportunity to tell you that she loved you. And she meant it. And knowing how much she loved you made things that much easier. She had an uncanny ability to bring a smile to your face when she smiled at you, her slightly crooked smile letting you know that everything would be okay.
She believed in giving back to the community. A long-time volunteer at the local hospital, my grandmother did what she did best. With a quiet smile and open heart, she cheered people up. She made them feel special.
What many people may be surprised to learn is that Grammy liked to win. When I was growing up we would often play games-- Rummikub, Scrabble, Gin Rummy, Boggle. And no matter how little I was and how much I wanted to win, she never let me win. I am one of the most competitive people I know, especially when it came to board games. Grammy knew this too. But she was unyielding and made me earn every victory. And this simply made me fight harder to be the best I could be, not just in board games, but in all of life’s challenges. Grammy would probably deny that she was competitive-- this only made me love her more.
Unlike the typical Jewish grandmother, she did not live to feed others. With the exception of her Matzoh ball soup, which is so good that she used it as currency to pay her accountant, Grammy was no-frills when it came to cooking. Not knowing any better, I used to rejoice when Grammy had jello waiting for me in the refrigerator.
Grammy was so diplomatic. As the matriarch of such a large and often boisterous family this wasn’t always easy. But with the bang of her imaginary gavel, she called out “Next case judge” when she wanted to change the topic of conversation. She would look at you in a certain way when you were doing something she disproved of and you would stop in your tracks. Grammy wanted everyone to be happy. What she may not have realized is how much we all tried to please her.
It didn’t take a lot to make her happy. A postcard from summer camp, a 5-minute phone call (unless you were paying for it and then she’d talk longer), a hug, a smile, a funny story. She had her family. She had her friends. She had the peace of mind knowing that she did all she could to provide her daughters with more than she had growing up so that they could provide their own children and grandchildren with even more.
My new baby, Jenna Hope, is named in honor of my grandmother. The H in Hope is for Helen and her Hebrew name will be Chaya. I am so proud that my daughter will carry on such a meaningful name. I will be reminded every time that I look at my Jenna Hope of my extraordinary Grandma Helen. And I know that Jenna will embrace the unique qualities that made my grandmother who she was and who Jenna will hopefully become.
I recently came across a quote that reminded me a lot of my grandmother. It said:
Dream some, love a lot.
Laugh some, live a lot.
This quote, casually crocheted and framed in a restaurant my husband and I visited, sounded like something my grandmother might say. More so, this quote seemed to summarize the way she lived her life and the way she encouraged others to live. So as we celebrate the life of Helen Berkman, let’s remember the lessons she bestowed upon us, and the legacy she left behind. Let’s remember to stop and smell the roses of everything life has to offer. Let’s remember to dream and to laugh and to love and live. Let’s remember that we were the blessed ones.