End of an era

Ruth and Aaron Lichtenstein on their wedding day November 1932Yesterday, just after midnight, I returned from a quick trip to Florida for my grandmother’s funeral. I feel great.

I’m on little sleep and just experienced quite a hectic schedule. Grandma passed on Friday, I published her obituary,  booked travel, and arranged childcare and a ridiculous amount of logistics on Saturday, and then I got on a plane early Sunday morning. The service was Monday, and I headed back the next day. All that was after several weeks of relentless illnesses, medical  interventions, a neighbor’s death, and so on.

You’d think I’d be sad and drained. But I’m not.

Certainly, I’m sad to have lost my dear grandmother, especially for her wretchedly slow demise in the end. My eyes welled up just a bit as I sat at my computer today and just breathed for a few moments. But I am happy. The funeral was good. Everything is okay.

My three sisters, cousins, and a handful of remaining friends and family came to pay tribute to a beloved and incredible woman. We sat around and told stories about my grandma and laughed.

Laughter and stories are what she was best known for. It was time for her to go, but her laughter still rings. It makes me want to be a better person. It makes me happy.

I got a breather between dropping my younger sister at the airport before dawn and my evening departure. My best friend, Linda, had come to be with me and my family, and we had time to walk along the beach and pick up seashells before our respective flights home. The ocean was one of my grandma’s favorite things. It was the perfect way to say good-bye.

Sunrise on the Atlantic, February 28, 2012, Hollywood, FL

She was born March 2, 1914. She was the last of her generation. Here is the eulogy I read at the funeral:

I wrote these musings about our amazing Ruth Lichtenstein on the airplane on my way here to Ft. Lauderdale. I want to tell about how much richer we are for having had her in our lives for so long. Perhaps the best way to do that is to do the thing she did so well: Tell stories.

In the summer of my eighth year, Mom put me on an airplane, and I got to fly by myself to Florida to spend a few weeks with Grandma Ruthie and Grandpa Archie.

I was a middle child. I was typically regarded as an indivisible part of the sibling pair known as “the two little ones.” Much of the time, I felt invisible.

That’s why, for me, being escorted to my seat by a flight attendant was VIP treatment. The plastic, golden airline wings she pinned to my top made me feel special. Having my grandparents greet me on the other side – at the very airport I nostalgically landed at just hours ago – was beyond compare.

Adventure awaited.

That was my eternal summer. Every day seemed to be all about me. Every thing was an adventure.

An outing to Kmart was an extravaganza. Grocery shopping at Publix meant picking out all my favorite foods and treats. For my birthday, we took a special trip to select my cake.

Every night, I had the privilege to ring that prized string of dinner bells that had moved with Grandma and Grandpa from the eighth floor in a Brooklyn high-rise to their dreamy Sunrise Lakes Phase 1 condo and ultimately to their place in Delray Beach.

Rainy afternoons were spent glueing shells and plastic beads to a felt-lined cigar box: an eight-year-old’s treasure chest!

Grandma took me for my first manicure. She paid attention to details and ensured I felt included. She asked about my best friend back at home; she always remembered Linda’s name. She and I dressed up and got to dance with Archie at condo night dances. We played Bingo.

There were hours upon hours of swimming with new friends while Grandma played cards and smoked poolside with the old ladies. As always, she introduced me to every one of her friends with swollen pride.

Daiyenu! I was over the moon.

The July heat intensified and my sisters came down to the Sunshine State, too. That’s when all the other Florida summers of my youth begin to blur together. That’s when I learned, but didn’t realize it then, that Grandma treated each of us girls, as well as Cousins Michael and Stacey, like we were each the most important person in the planet.

That was her gift.

Being with Grandma was entertaining, like being at a party. She made everything fun.

When she got old, and the countless books she’d read in her life and her 90 some-odd years of experiences melded and tangled in memory, her tales became unintelligible streams about people and places – all punctuated by the random, “Oy!”

She was still fun.

And always funny, especially when telling it like it is.

Last summer, Linda and I road tripped from Virginia to South Carolina to see Grandma and have her meet her newest great-grandchild, Raphael.

Aunt Judi pushed Grandma’s wheelchair to the front sitting room at Harbor Chase Assisted Living. For a bit, Grandma rambled on in her odd, disjointed way, while Raphael flailed about happily in my arms, making sounds and faces in his peculiar way. It was awkward. Grandma had been living in Memory Care and seemed to go in and out of lucidity. I couldn’t quite tell whether she or Raphael were really aware of the other.

All of a sudden, Grandma blurted, “Well, he’s an odd fellow, isn’t he?”

Well…. yes, in fact, he is.

I put my boy on the floor, and he proceeded to speed around on hands and feet, his tushy sky high. (The kid has a mean bear crawl.)

Grandma looked over and blurted out, “Look at him with his asshole in the air!”

Yep, telling it like it is.

When people describe Ruthie, they say she personified the old adage: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

Her life was not an easy one. She didn’t come from much means. Not everyone regarded her with the dignity she deserved. But she routinely turned the other cheek and used her life struggles, not just to punctuate but rather to heighten, her unbridled optimism.

So I don’t care to say “She made lemonade.” More so, I think Grandma Ruth sucked the zest right out of the lemons.

Ruth’s zest for living is her legacy.

She lingered on after old age and after broken bones as if to cling to something else, as if there were something more to enjoy.

She didn’t play by the rules of her day and did as she pleased. Traveling abroad on her own, trying skiing for the first time in her ’50s, getting her license when Grandpa died, getting a new suitcase for her 83rd birthday to prepare for future trips, and driving herself around at an age most never reach (nor at which seniors should really be driving).

Recently, I watched a 1950s home movie that Cousin Greta Garber posted to Facebook.

It was of Cousin Charlie’s wedding. In it, Grandma and Grandpa are gorgeous – seated at the reception table, dressed to kill and looking like an A-list Hollywood couple. Grandma is laughing, of course – and daintily stuffing her face.

Yep, sucking the zest of every moment. Spreading her joy for being alive to everyone else at the table.

Ninety-eight years hold a lot of memories.  I could easily go on.

I could tell the story about the time Cindy, Sue, and Dad picked up Archie for a ball game and left me behind with Grandma in her Brooklyn apartment. Debbie must have been home with Mom.

I was young, maybe five or six, I don’t know. But, I remember Grandma decided she and I would take an impromptu bus ride to the beach.

She taught me how to pull the string to signal the driver to stop. She convinced me, despite my modesty, that my little girl panties with tiny yellow flowers could double as a bathing suit bottom. She wanted me to pretend I was a boy and go shirtless, but I wouldn’t have it. So Grandma had to do what she did best: She made do.

With a smile, she held up her towel and ripped a two-inch strip right off. She tied it around my nonexistent breast to improvise a swim suit top. We bounced in the waves together, I in her embrace, and chatted up friends she bumped into (of course!) on the crowded beach. As always, she introduced me and made me feel beautiful, and special. Like I was the most important person in the world.

Every year on my birthday and Chanukah, Grandma sent me a card, usually with a little cash tucked inside, and she addressed me as “My dearest, darling grandaughter.” I was her Bubbelah, her little darling. We all were.

And she, ours.

Me and my Grandma Ruth, August 2011, Rock Hill, SC

About elizamom

Colorado mother of two small boys. One happens to have Down syndrome.
This entry was posted in Family time, Joy and Pain, Loss and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to End of an era

  1. Patty Love says:

    What a wonderful tribute, Elizabeth. So sorry for your loss–but it sounds like you gained much from her, so she’ll never really be gone. ❤

  2. Pam Mellskog says:

    Hi, Elizabeth.
    I wish I could have met your grandmother. Thank you so much for writing about her this month and for reminding me what it takes to make kids feel cherished.

    Cold and flu season is almost over! Hurray!

    Pam Mellskog Vanden Berg 🙂

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