My Gram died in September of 2013. I think of her often, but a few weeks ago I had an overwhelming urge to want to call her. She was the ultimate survivor, and sometimes she’d just say something so simple that it could shake me out of any mood I was in. Usually I wouldn’t even tell her that I was upset about something, just hearing her ask the simple questions she’d always ask me “how’s work? how’s Cassie-Moo? what’d you have for breakfast? when is the next play? how’s Billy? when are we going for a lunch date?” and always, particularly after hearing about the “theee-aye-terr” stuff, she’d always say “you’re going to make it. You work hard and people see it and I know it.” Sometimes that’s all I’d need to hear to make any other issues dissolve. Someone who unconditionally believed in me. Even if the topic wasn’t about my arts career. (Which she supported unconditionally, as soon as she realized that asking me if I still wanted to be a doctor every time she saw me just wasn’t in my dreams anymore.)

In the midst of a recent move and opening a really big and important show that I wish I could tell her about and some other Things That Felt Too Much, I posted on Facebook that I really wished that I could call her. My mom saw the post and called me later that evening, saying that her and my Auntie both had very strong urges for the same thing, and that she had been cleaning out a closet in the basement and found a bunch of Gram’s clothes that she’d brought home to wash earlier that day. Then my sister texted me to say that she was in a bad mood that morning so she wore Gram’s earrings to work to cheer her up. All in the same day, without consulting each other.

Hey, Gram. Thanks for floating through.

When she floats through, she floats through. Makes no bones about it. Clear as crystal, just like when she was physically here with us.

I wrote the entry below a few days after she died, after she’d floated through for the first time. She’s on my mind again today, so it felt appropriate to share.

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My gram loved English. I’m not sure how many language she spoke, but my grandfather spoke eight, and I know she knew at least three, even if not fluently. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I would lament to her “why didn’t you ever speak to us in any other languages!? We could’ve been bilingual!” I don’t remember if she ever answered that question, or if she’d just do her patented half-smile and nod. When I returned home from a three month stint in Moscow, Russia, she would ask me simple phrases in Russian with what I could only imagine was a Czech and Hungarian accent over the top. Her sister Pearl would ask me as well, and seemed to have a slightly stronger grasp on Russian, but for a few words I felt connected to my Gram in a whole new way. And eventually, to me, it was ok that they never spoke to us in their home languages. Her and Gramps were doing what they wanted to do and what they had dreamed about—assimilating into America; successfully and gracefully, and Gram Loved Speaking English.

She had special words and phrases that she’d only use with certain people, which I didn’t realize until after the second night of shiva, while my mom and auntie and I were sitting together talking in the living room, and I had mentioned that I had a voicemail on my phone of her singing me happy birthday (which she would do every year) and that she always ended conversations with me by saying “good luck in whatever you do and love you to pieces.” My mom and auntie’s eyes opened wide and said that they had Never heard her say “love you to pieces.” I’d been hearing it after every phone conversation of my life. Telling and hearing stories about her is like a treasure chest with no bottom in sight.

While I didn’t inherit another language from her, I did inherit a bizarre verb and sentence structure that had my first grade teacher scratching her head wondering if English was the first language spoken in our home. “I can have it, the crayon?” I imagine asking my little classmates. “You like it, my dress today?” Mrs. Brooks was informed that yes, we do speak English at home, but Sarah puts sentences together like her Gram. I’m a chip off the old block.

Despite her love of the language, there were still certain colloquialisms that escaped her. Certain phrases that weren’t used quite right, though to the Gram-trained ear made complete sense. The other day I was explaining this to my partner Billy, saying to him, “Gram would say things in such funny ways sometimes…she was always using misanthropes.” “You mean malaprops?” he asked, deadpan. “Yeah, those!” I said. We burst into raucous laughter. I’m a chip off the old block.

Many of these phrases were written down in what I’ll dub “The Book of Gram-isms”. There are a few other choice selections that have the honor of sitting in that book (Auntie Evie’s “it’s like a haystack in the ocean” comes to mind), but it’s mostly full of when Gram would fully and completely, without hesitation or shame, use a phrase that made perfect sense to her, and usually also, to us.

After a bad cold or illness: “It knocked me off the socks.”

After our turtle, Speedy, was done soaking in his bath and needed to be put back in his tank: “He had his day in court.”

Seeing a line of ants walk by on the sidewalk: “There must be a herd somewhere” (an ant hill)

The most famous of these phrases however, was one that came out of a conversation that she was having with my mom regarding my youngest sister “Lil’ Soph” being the last one at Niles North High School, after the three older siblings had been there for a ten year stretch (not all at once, of course.) My mom said “Sophie’s going to be the only one still at Niles North this year!” and Gram, without missing at beat (as it was always with her come back lines) said, “Yup…she’s the last of the Mohicans.” This, of course, is not the literal use of the phrase, but to her, and to us, it made perfect sense. If someone or something was the last of something, she’d always wax poetic with “yup, that’s the last of the Mohicans.”

I hadn’t realized that we were going to be given to option to speak at her funeral on Sunday, and I of course would say something, but knew that it wasn’t something that I could really sit down and plan. I knew I would probably say something about how funny she was; even up until the last few days of her life, if a nurse would ask her if she needed anything else she’d say, without missing a beat “a stack of hundred dollar bills.”

Or how clear and honest she was; when I was a young child and asked her why she had her phone number on her arm and her answer to me was “Sarah, there use to be some very bad people in the world, and someday I’ll tell you about it.” as I went back to reading a little blue book with a boy, dog, and tree on the cover. (Her tattoo, by the way, she outlived. Sitting at her bedside before she took her last breaths, by mom looked down at her arm and said that the number just looked like a blurry bruise or birthmark, totally unreadable.)

Or what an amazing public speaker she was, and that when people ask me how I can get up in front of people and perform, I say it’s probably because of her.

But these weren’t the stories that ended up making it into my eulogy.

On Friday, I was sitting on the CTA riding downtown for a “take my mind off the world” outing with my dear friend Ashleigh. It was the middle of the day, and there were maybe three or four other people in the car with me. I usually don’t listen to music or distract myself with my flip phone on the train, so I was just sitting, looking out the window. At some point three women boarded the same car, one CTA worker and two of her friends. They were talking about this and that, and I was only half paying attention it mostly was background noise. But then a few sentences rose above the rest. “Yeah….” said one of the women, “she’s been at that job for a long time…most of her friends left a long time ago…she’s the last of the Mohicans.”

My heart skipped a beat and I closed my eyes, thanking my Gram for telling me exactly what she wanted me to say at her own funeral. I’d never experienced her as controlling, but if she wanted something, she’d ask for it.

So, as the last day of sitting shiva comes to a close and our nervous systems begin the process of coming back together, I know that they are being repaired and reinforced with such love and grace. That the past seven days between her transition out of her body to the end of our shiva period has been blessed with some of the most intimate, beautiful, funny, heart-breaking, and authentic conversations that I’ve ever shared with my family. It has put so many things into a different perspective and I have a deeper feeling of Oneness with many things and an eagerness to listen to my intuition than I’ve ever experienced before. The quote “those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind” in relation to my own personal issues with people that I may have, or my fears or worry about appearing a certain way as I walk through life comes to mind. There’s too much that matters to worry about the stuff that doesn’t. I fully plan on needing to lean on my friends and family for a bit longer (as we all should, through our entire lives), and am so grateful that I have people around that are safe and willing to be those shoulders when needed.

Last night, as we were talking about, again, how “nice” Gram’s funeral was and how much she would’ve loved it, my mom remembered something that Gram had said to her after hearing about how hard it was for a friend of hers’ granddaughter to get through a eulogy. My mom told me that Gram had said to her, “Sarahla will say something.” My mom of course didn’t tell me this until last night, and told me that if I hadn’t said something at the funeral, she never would’ve told me that Gram had said that. I’m very glad that I did speak, and that she told me.

The last few years of Gram’s life were filled with speaking engagements about her life and her holocaust survival stories, and she would have people laughing, crying, and everything in between. She would always end her talks with schools by saying, “be kind to each other”, among other things. I have, and will even more consciously now, carry this as a mantra through how I live my life, feeling honored that I had such an amazing example of what that type of generosity and kindness looked like. In this way, I really do hope I can be a chip off the old block.

Gram“Gram” Helen Rappaport

Comments

  1. Katie McLean Katie McLean says:

    Beautiful and inspiring, Sarah. Thanks for this.

  2. Angela Devivo says:

    Beautiful Sarah. September 2013 was a difficult time for strong Grams… My friend Dee’s Grammy was a nurse stationed in the South Pacific, my friend Beth’s Gram was a WAC and my Granny was a war widow. I’d like to think they were in a heaven orientation class… Exchanging notes…

  3. Kelly Standing says:

    Sarah: As your amazing writing and performances so often do, this “knocked me off the socks.”

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