My grandmother, Marge Torontour Mintz, was named for Miriam. This seems appropriate to me as I can picture her dancing in wild colors with tamborine or drum along with Miriam and the women in the desert. My grandmother loved to dance. She loved life. When Miriam died, everything stopped. The very water that had sustained the Israelites ceased to flow. My grandmother, who died last week, was a constant source of love in my life. She has always been there. Her absence leaves a great hollow in my heart. It feels like the very water, the life source of our family, has stopped flowing. I grieve the emptiness her passing leaves. I miss her.
At her advanced age, her passing was not a surprise, yet I had come to believe in my grandmother’s indomitable spirit. I thought she would stay with me a while longer… I wanted to be able to place my daughter in her arms…. She died just two months shy of her 95th birthday. My daughter, still waiting on her US citizenship papers never made it to Toronto to be held by her great grandmother. I am grateful my grandmother lived to see our adoption complete, to meet Eliyana by skype and to rejoice with me. I am blessed that my grandmother was such a large part of my life, that her influence and teaching, her stories and art, are an intricate part of my soul today.
My grandmother clung to life with both hands. At 93 she insisted on the surgery needed to repair her broken hip and though she was confined afterward to a wheelchair, she continued to work towards walking again. We should not have doubted her. A year later she was walking. She was stubborn and demanding… and she was fabulous. I loved her in her entirety. She was a force to be reconned with. A spitfire some called her, her spirit lit the room.
In the deaths of Nadiv and Abihu, Aaron’s beloved sons, the Torah gives no hint that Aaron was allowed time to grieve. Instead, immediately following their deaths, God gives instructions to Moses for Aaron on appropriate sin offerings. Traditionally we have explained that Nadiv and Abihu sinned in giving inappropriate sacrifices to God and died for their mistake. The Chassidim reject this interpretation. According to one Chassidic text, Nadiv and Abihu entered the holy of holies in a heightened spiritual state, cleaving to God. They drew near to God with such passion that their souls left the mundane earth and did not know how to return. The Chassidim see the story as a cautionary tale to remain grounded in life even as we reach for heaven.
My Bubie Marge was incredibly grounded in life. She wanted to be here, to see the next adventure, to be surrounded by family, and rejoice in their life steps. As a little girl, my grandmother was diagnosed with a congenital lung defect. She remembered the “great doctor” telling her parents, “this child will never live to see adulthood”. But my grandmother did live, and would tell the story with glee, adding that she was still alive and that the famous doctor was long dead. In the 1920s, the only course of action available to her parents was to send her away to live in a convent in the country. It was a very lonely existence for a little Jewish girl from Montreal. She survived, learning to embroider and crotchet, and telling her grandchildren stories of ribbons won for her good work there. After returning to her family, life was not much easier: They were poor. In fifth grade my grandmother left school to go to work and help support her family. A few years later she met Ben Mintz, they courted and he asked her to marry him.
My grandmother tells a fantastic story of the pajamas she and her mother crafted for my grandfather as a wedding gift. They could only afford leftover scraps of material but found a good solid stripe print. They spent hours matching up the bits and pieces of fabric so the striped would align and my grandmother, a young bride presented the pajamas to her husband. My grandfather smiled quietly as my grandmother finished the story: “they were awful, I don’t know how he wore them.” And I smile now, remembering the joy of sitting with my grandparents listening to my grandmother weave tales of her history, her life. Matching up scraps to create something entirely new, this is a good metaphor for my grandmother’s life.
Bubie was an artist. I reveled in visiting her to see the wonders she would pick up at flea markets and rework into incredible creations. If she found a wool sweater at a garage sale she would spend the next weeks unraveling it to store and make something new of. If she found a jacket with bead fringes she would bargain the seller down to the ten cents she claimed it was worth then remove all the beads to reuse in her next art project. In her 60s Bubie went back to college and got her bachelor of fine arts from York University. While there she continued to pursue her dreams with her own unique flare. If the assignment was an essay, my grandmother was just as likely to hand in a book of collage with poetry and research interspersed with original art and pictures cut from magazines. If the assignment was a bust, she made fiber art in three dimensions, rather than the usual clay. She graduated with honors, proud to walk in graduation with hat and gown. Amazingly, she stayed in contact with her young University friends into her 90s by joining facebook.
After University, my grandmother applied for and received multiple Canada Arts Council grants which she used to make documentary movies about early Canadian pioneer women and the needlework tools they brought from the old country. She had collected incredible needlework antiques, researched them, and would lecture at museums on their use. She was very involved in the Older Women’s Network which acted for social and political change. She organized senior trips to Stratford for afternoons of Theatre, educational workshops on con artists, and established senior classes on computer and internet skills. She was a model of industry, working to make tikkun olam in her corner of the world.
My grandmother filled my life with love, stories, art, and adventure. My sister and I would often spend the day at Bubie Marge‘s and she always had something special planned. Sometimes it was pressing and arranging dried flowers, or picking raspberries, or watching old black and white movies with full commentary on the actors from my grandmother. She taught me to love Charlie Chaplin and Shirley Temple. She taught me to savor fresh fruit, good quality yarns, and solid shoes. She taught me to crotchet and knit, to embroider and bead, and to stop by the side of the road if there were interesting wild flowers to be picked. She made me giggle with her stinky sock routine. She took me out to high tea. We sang “Tea for two”. She ended every conversation with “have I told you lately that I love you.” She built herself a a wondrous hat and covered it with beach glass… the drive down here for my wedding tired her but when the music started she danced enthusiastically, wowing everyone.
My grandmother was at her core an artist and a student of life. She loved to learn, to philosophize, to create. She was always at the library, researching and happily embraced the internet when it became a source for study. She would research for months on a particular topic before turning it into her latest art creation. When I visited Bubie, it was not to make cookies but to tie dye handmade paper that we would make into fabulous puppets. She would regale me with tales of her trips to Spain, Italy and India. She would speak at length about the role of unions, women’s empowerment, and socialized medicine in ending poverty.
Unlike Nadiv and Abihu my grandmother was rooted in the solidness of life. She often felt this left no room for spirituality. Her life was children and grandchildren, art and craft, everything held solidly hand and heart. In truth all of us felt her spirituality in her zest for life, her enthusiasm, her stories, and her art. Her hip surgery at age 93 was her third. Her second was at age 91 and I spent a week then in the hospital with her awaiting surgery. It was an incredible time. She was in excruciating pain. We waited. The room was stuffy and depressing, with an elderly women dying the bed next to us. We waited. Finally I told the nursing staff I wanted a wheelchair… I was taking her outside. The nurses were horrified. I insisted. We left. We sat just outside the front of the hospital in a small patch of grass under a tree watching the birds and listening to the traffic, pretending the cars of the highways were really the crash of waves against the beach. My grandmother told me she didn’t know how to pray. I assured her all she had to do was stand before God and speak what was in her heart. While she was recovering from that hip surgery, she wrote this prayer. It says everything.
Hineni means simply Here I am.
Here I am God, waiting for your command.
Here I am an elderly person and God has called on me to let go,
to let others, who are more capable, do for me.
I love to look after myself,
to be responsible for making my own decisions.
Of course I appreciate being loved,
but I don’t want to be taken care of.
God please I don’t want to be old.
I have been told by God that it is time to let go,
to wait for others to help me.
But Dear God,
I have always been the one who was capable.
I made so many cakes and so many cookies.
Everybody came to my house.
There is going to be a big dinner for Rosh Hashanah
and I will only sit and smile.
That makes me lonely.
Will You hear my prayer?
Have I nothing left to give?
Will You hear my prayer?