April was very hard for me. At the beginning of the month, my grandmother, Irene Givre, passed away at the age of 95. For those who know me, I lost my mother when I was 10 to a brain tumor and the subsequent years of my life were chaotic and tumultuous to say the least. That’s a story for another day. My grandparents really stepped up and took care of me during those times and as a result, I was closer to them than maybe most children are. As a result, I’ve always felt closer to people of that generation than my parents. For example, I grew up to the sounds of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Ziggy Elman and Glenn Miller instead of what most people my parent’s age listened to.
Let me tell you a bit about her. My grandmother was born in the late 1920s in Manhattan. I’m not entirely sure of the chronology, but I know she lived on the Lower East Side, in Harlem and in Hell’s Kitchen. Her parents, were immigrants from the old country. Her father came from a hops farming family and escaped from Poland around WWI. Her mother Sophie came from the area known as the Pale of Settlement, on the border between what is today Russia and Belarus. My grandmother was the first generation of that side of the family born in America.
Anyone familiar with history can tell you the story of her childhood. She came of age during the Great Depression. Then there was the war. Any family we may have had remaining in Europe were gone. After the war, my grandparents met, fell in love and were married. They were married for over 65 years and loved each other every day. Anyone who knew them would say that they had never seen any two people who loved each other like my grandparents. My grandfather was really a special person. You couldn’t be around him and not smile and laugh.
I’ll share a story about him. We moved to Arizona when I was about 4 and my grandparents would come for the winters but I hadn’t been back to New York. One summer when I was maybe 13 or 14, my Dad sent me to New York to visit my grandparents. At the time, New York City was not the safest place and when I was there, there were actually riots taking place in Washington Heights. But I digress… I arrived at JFK, met my grandparents at the airport and they took me to their apartment in Riverdale. It was night time, and as we got out of the car, my grandfather could see that I was really nervous being in the street in New York City at night. He put his hand on my shoulder and calmly whispered into my ear with a smile, “Everything you year about New York… is bullshit.” And with that, I knew that things were going to be ok.
Back to my grandmother… My grandmother did something that not a lot of women did during that time. She worked. She worked as a secretary and assistant to the dean of Yeshiva University in New York. I don’t know when she started, but she worked there until she retired.
Three Lessons I Learned from Her
What made my grandparents special to me, was their world view and way of life. I’ve met a lot of people from their generation and it strikes me how so many people of that generation shared these attributes. First of all, my grandmother had class. She never, and I mean never raised her voice in anger. Secondly, she also never, ever spoke ill about anyone. Ever. In the Jewish tradition we call gossip lashon ha ra which means evil language or evil tongue. It’s something to be avoided at all costs. Whenever my grandmother wasn’t happy about something or didn’t like something, she would always say something like “well… it could be better.” or something like that.
Don’t Stand On Ceremony
One of the things my grandmother used to say all the time was, “don’t stand on ceremony”. What she meant by this was let’s say that you have a friend with whom you haven’t spoken in a while. Many people take that as an insult or have the attitude that “I’m not calling them until they call me.” My grandmother would have none of that. It never mattered to her when the last time she spoke with someone was. She didn’t hold grudges and made it a point to always stay in touch with family, even if someone wasn’t so good about staying in touch with her.
Roll with the Punches
One of the characteristics that I’ve noticed in people of that generation is their toughness and ability to adapt when things don’t go your way. After all, my grandparents survived wars and the depression. My grandparents used to come to Arizona for the winters and one year, they wanted to take me to the observatory at Kitt Peak in Tucson. This was about a 2 hour road trip each way. So, we got in the car and headed down to Tucson. What happened you ask? As soon as we arrived at the observatory, it rained. You have to understand that it doesn’t rain all that much in Arizona, so it was a bit unexpected. So we drove home a bit disappointed. Not to be deterred, my grandparents decided to try again, and guess what happened? Yup! It rained again! Here’s the kicker. My grandparents didn’t get upset. They made a big joke about it. We had many other such adventures growing up and whenever things went wrong, they just laughed it off.
The Last Few Months
My grandmother suffered from dementia and over the last two years, it got really bad. I can’t begin to explain how hard it is to see a family member forget who you are. What was always incredibly difficult was when she’d ask me where my grandfather was. Sometimes she’d be concerned that maybe he found someone else. It pained me to lie to her, but it also was awful to tell her the truth and have her relive the loss. For anyone who may be going through this with a loved one, I think the best thing to do is be vague with your responses and subtly redirect the conversation. That way, you aren’t forcing your loved one to re-experience the pain and you aren’t being dishonest with them.
Her last few months were especially hard. In January she got COVID and it really seemed to cause a significant decline. After that, she pretty much would just repeat “help me” over and over.
In conclusion, I’ve really missed her these last few months. After witnessing her slow and steady decline, I thought her death would bring a sense of closure, but it honestly has not. I find myself trying to explain who she was to my children, who will never know her as I did. I’m glad that they got a chance to meet her.