Three weeks ago I flew up to Seattle with my family to celebrate and honor my Grandma Emerson who passed away in October. The truth is those three weeks feel like 3 months ago. I wrote this after her service on the plane ride home, but I am just now getting around to posting it. I don’t think she would have minded that it’s a little late : )
My grandma Bettina Meyerhof Emerson was a strong woman– in every sense of the word. She was born in 1918 in Kiel, Germany, daughter of Otto and Hedwig Meyerhof. Her father had arranged for her to go nursing school in England, but she opted for medical school in the US. When your father is a Nobel Prize Winner for Medicine you think she might have respected his educational choices for her, but she didn’t. And I kinda like that. She was determined.
In the 1930s when it was longer safe for Jews to live in Germany because of Hitler’s growing anti-semitism, she escaped through France and came to the United States. She started a new life on her own, in an entirely new culture and language at the age of 18. She embraced challenges.
In 1943, she graduated from John Hopkins Medical School as ONE of nine women in a class of seventy-five. She defied social norms and expectations.
Later, she got married and moved to Seattle, where she raised 5 daughters to value education, learning and being resourceful. She was apparently part-homemaker, part-handyman and part-doctor. My grandma would knead homemade bread for the girls and sew handmade clothes for their dolls. When the washing machine or the fridge failed to function as needed, she would take it apart and try to fix it. And apparently when you grow up and your mom is a pediatrician, there is no need to visit the doctor’s office, because the doctor’s office (and all the medicine and injections you could need) come right home to the kitchen table. She was a woman of many talents.
As a Grandmother she paid attention to each of us six grand-kids. She diligently sent handwritten birthday cards to each of us. It didn’t matter what state or country we lived in, she sent them. And if you were lucky, sometimes Grandma would also send cutout newspaper articles that reminded her of a place you had traveled to or some interesting new development in your field of study. She had had an amazing ability to remember details.
My grandma was incredibly wise, (some may say frugal) with her resources. Many of the handwritten cards and letters I just mentioned above would sometimes arrive on previously used envelopes, with a label covering the former address. I remember the first time I stayed with my grandma for a weekend by myself and I opened up her kitchen cupboard to help make lunch. Inside were plastic take-out containers that most people would have thrown away, but not Grandma. She had washed, saved –and labeled them! The first thought that crossed my mind- so, this is where I get it from. She saved and re-used what she could and gave away what was very important.
She gave me the opportunity to go to college. She financed an education that my family or I would not have been able to afford. It’s another story that involves war reparations from Germany, stolen property from the Nazis, IBM, and a lawyer. But the point is that instead of choosing to live a lavish and fancy life with the large sum of money, she gave it to us grand-kids. She understood what it meant to be generous in ways I can only hope to replicate.
Later in her life, my Grandma reconnected with her Jewish roots and started attending a local synagogue in Seattle. At the age of 77 she started studying Hebrew and the Talmud. (I think to start learning anything at 77 years of age is just plain impressive.)
Now, I don’t claim to know a lot about Judaism, but I have come to respect many of the aspects of the Jewish faith- especially the tradition for mourning. In our fast-paced, quick-fix kind of society we often value efficiency over process and don’t know how to make space and time for the seasons of grief. But the Jewish faith challenges those ways of being. In the Jewish faith, mourning and bereavement are a discipline and practice done in the company of others.
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At the end of my Grandma’s service we prayed the Kaddish- a Jewish prayer in Aramaic- led by the rabbi. I find it interesting that Kaddish is one of the Jewish prayers that must be said in a community of believers. You are not allowed to say it alone. In Lauren Winner’s book “Mudhouse Sabath” she explains:
“Tradition says that for a year after the loss of a parent, the mourner is to say this prayer twice a day. With other people. This was not a solitary act, it was a communal event.”
And I think its one of the reasons why choosing to gather for a memorial service is so important. As a community of friends and family we choose to gather, to honor and remember a loved one. We could individually remember my grandma, and mourn separately, but we choose to gather together. And I think this is significant.
On Sunday morning January 8th we said Kaddish for my Grandma.