By Todd R. Nelson
Exasperation over recent events summons fond memories of my wife’s Gramma Evelyn – and inspiration. She knew how to handle despair. It’s often the simplest responses, found in the examples of our elders, that prove restorative and energizing. Some of them have been here before, over and over. Ask a grandparent about the economic, political and social upheavals they’ve witnessed.
Though raised in Brooklyn of Russian immigrant parents, Evelyn had a lot in common with a certain Shaker sensibility: “Hands to work, hearts to God.” Her faith was practical, rooted in a kind of anecdotal Talmudic wisdom, borscht belt humor, cooking and simple generosity. I remember her as a philosophical, rather than a spiritual, person. I can’t remember Gramma without a smile on her wrinkled face or vitality in her voice or a cheery, positive response to any challenge.
For many decades, late in life, she lived at a great distance from her beloved three sisters back on the East Coast. They kept a weekly appointment to talk by phone, one by one, Gramma sitting in her dedicated chair. The “telephone chair” sits in our bedroom today. And when there were things that felt overwhelming, she knew it was time to bake. Out came the rugelach ingredients and her freezer would start filling with batches to mail to the great-grandchildren. “With love.” And a $5 bill. “Take the kids out for ice cream.”
I can imagine her in the age of Zoom calls. I see Evelyn, Estelle, Ruth and Annette – the Cohen sisters of Brooklyn – kibitzing with one another in their digital boxes and kvetching about the very technology that was uniting them. Distance was always Gramma’s nemesis, and she could often bemoan the time between visits. She was always the one getting on a plane for a visit back east bridging the gap. A little more visibility, seeing the family faces, would have been an intermediate balm.
As a family, they seemed cognizant of where they fit on the arc of history. “Escape” might qualify the journey from the old country. Then effort and industry in response to opportunity in the new country. They knew where they came from and the wherewithal it would take to persist and endure. What lives they lived. What events they witnessed – pogroms, Depression, discrimination. What trials they endured. What children they raised.
But, confronted with reversals, what could one do? There was always one’s control of behavior and attitude. For instance, Evelyn was “as tight as bark on a tree,” as we say in Maine. Thrift was an enduring legacy of hers and she managed to save a respectable amount of money from her widow’s mite. Seems like alchemy to me. She knew how not to spend; how not to fret; how to shop the bargains; how to fill the day with gratitude. Gramma was frugal in all things. One story goes like this. When she found an apartment down the street that was a few dollars cheaper, she moved the family. Her sons, Mel and Lowell, a doctor and an architect thanks to the value placed on education, grew up with these models.
But it’s her frugality with moments of succumbing to circumstances and letting setbacks get the better of her. She had a stoic posture, leaned forward at all times, took action, even sustaining a mental stance in resistance of aging, loss and indifference. She was all love and the embodiment of its efficacy. Simple as it was, I see hers as a life of protest.
She may have been 92 when she passed away, if one trusts the documents. She was always guarded about her age and took liberties with the facts; didn’t focus on the number of years she had spent in this life. On her grave marker, uncle Mel had inscribed: “Age: timeless.” She, and he too, eventually, were interred in Los Angeles next to Will and Ariel Durant, the authors of the famous history series “The Story of Civilization.” I can imagine them sharing rugelach over tea and discussing a tactic to stem the Visigoths or how best to promote the Enlightenment.
Todd R. Nelson lives in Penobscot. His book of essays, “Cold Spell,” will be published by Down East Books in October.