These are a few of my favorite things…

by Jessica Klein, Guest Blogger

This is a post about things. Things are just things. Until someone you love dies. And then those things are everything.

Today, June 13, is my grandmother’s birthday. She would have been 97 years old. But she is no longer here to celebrate with us, she passed away in April.

Three generations. Photo credit by Fred Klein.

While she was alive, if you asked me to describe my grandmother – Mama, as she was called by my sisters and I – adjectives like ‘vibrant,’ ‘warm,’ ‘genuine,’ and ‘strong’ all would come to mind. But in death, it’s the things that come forward. Things both tangible and things just beyond our reach.

Certainly, this past year, such a painful year for so many, was filled with things I’d sooner forget. Those heart-wrenching visits that became less and less frequent as it became more and more difficult to watch both her mind and her body wither to nothing. The rock-solid relationship between my mother and grandmother – which for my whole life was so intertwined, so co-dependent – went from give and take to just give. And the masks, the things that were both the catalyst of her confusion, “who are you, and why can’t I see your face?” to ultimately her doom. After all, it is not easy to keep a thing such as a mask securely fastened to the face of a person who cannot comprehend why it’s even there.

My childhood memories are filled with things too. Fond, joyful memories of things. The basement stocked with enough food and sundries to last three lifetimes, where my sisters and I played “office” every weekend with the borrowed supplies Mama took from her job as a bookkeeper. Highlighters, stickers, notepads and staplers led to hours of creative fun. The coupons – so many coupons – used on the shopping sprees as my grandparents drove around to 4 or 5 stores each Saturday looking for the best prices. The heavy Hungarian accent, which told horrible, yet inspiring stories, about life under Nazi occupation and then Communist rule. The “person I admire most” projects that my sisters and I each made about her for school. A beaming smile and an enthusiastic cheer as she attended every milestone event big or small – track meets, soccer games, birthdays, visiting day, bat mitzvahs, graduations, and weddings.

More recent memories are thing-filled too. The weekly trips to Brooklyn with my Mom to visit my children when they were small. And at each visit the boasting, the pride of how no other child could possibly be so smart, so talented, so special as my two children. The admiration from my friends and neighbors who exclaimed how impressed they were with my grandmother who in her late eighties was so intelligent, energetic, and full of so many interesting stories. She always came with her needlepoint in tow – the beautiful creations she made for anyone who asked (and even sometimes for those who didn’t ask.)
And now, all we are left with is things. After she passed, it fell to my mother, my sisters, and I to sort through her apartment and decide what to do with her things. A heart-breaking, exhausting process to be sure but also one of discovery. We found she had multiple address books with notes in the margin to remember who was who (“funny beard,” “stupid man” were some gems). We found that all of her finances and records were meticulously kept and tracked – not to anyone’s surprise – so that it was very easy to handle the paperwork and her estate. There were photos everywhere – photos in frames, photos in boxes, photos still in the old school one-hour photo envelopes – ranging from my mother as a young girl in Hungary to hundreds of all five of her great-grandchildren.  

And there were the clothes. Mama was not a fashionista by any stretch – her clothes were practical and simple. She enjoyed lavishing us with the latest trends, but not herself. There was the puffy vest she loved (she was always cold), and the hand-me-down purses from my mom (why should they go to waste?). I immediately gravitated to her sweaters – she loved cashmere – her one luxury. It occurred to me that they were the ultimate metaphor for Mama: vibrant colors, warm and cozy, authentic and genuine, strong and durable.  I took them all and dropped them with my friend Nancy Sinoway, who I knew was the only person who could do justice and turn these things into a lasting tribute.

Nancy worked her magic and turned my grandmother’s vintage cashmere sweaters into a wearable hug. I gave one jacket to my mother and kept one for myself. Because it’s the things that we can hold on to that make our memories last. And  now I have a lasting keepsake that someday I can pass to my own grandchildren.