Monday, March 1, 2021

Tribute to Gloria Aisenberg z'l by Ethan Hammerman

Thank you all so much for coming to this shiva. I’m going to keep my remarks short and sweet as I know that if Grammy was here, she would want me to be brief.

Grammy and I had a special relationship, filled with hundreds of interactions that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I could talk about Passovers and Thanksgivings spent together, or all of the vacations where she would take care of me while my parents spent time on well-deserved breaks. I can still taste the many Friendly’s meals we shared on the tip of my tongue. Grammy has been such an integral part of every stage of my life thus far. The warmth and love that she maintained for me is something that I will always remember.

However, the moment that’s on top of my mind right now is the last time I saw her alive.

A few of us sought to call Grammy one afternoon last week, connecting with her on Zoom. As some of you know, the past few years have been difficult for Grammy, as dementia has reared its ugly head, impacting her memory. That being said, we wanted to reassure her as a group that our love, even if it’s coming from hundreds or thousands of miles away, was just as strong as ever, and we would buoy her as she fought for her life in the hospital.

I was a little bit late dialing into the call, but finally I showed my face on the group chat. I said “Hello.” Now, prior to my appearance on the call, Grammy had been fairly unresponsive. The ardor of the previous weeks’ battles had taken their toll on her, and while she was fully alert and fidgety, she was mostly unable to speak. However, upon my reveal, she sat up in her hospital bed, stared at the camera, and with perfect diction uttered three simple words.

“That’s my son.”

Now, I am many things, but one thing I assuredly am not is Gloria Aisenberg’s son.

Or am I?

And no, this is not a case of mistaken identity nor time-traveling DeLorean nor Time Turner paradox.

For, you see, my grandmother did often call me “her son.” Or some facsimile of that word.

Grammy had special names for each of her grandchildren. When in private, lovingly, she would always call me, her first grandson, “her sunshine.”

This realization made what happened on that fateful afternoon incredibly clear. The clouds of dementia that had muddled her consciousness parted for just a moment, and the rays of sun peeked through.

 Now, if this simple three-word phrase could just be taken at face value, that would have been enough. However, if you go one step further, I think not only did Grammy’s words provide counsel during the difficult present time, but also advice on how we must move forward in the future.

The Hebrew word for sun, of course, is “shemesh.” Shin, mem, shin. All it takes is a little tweaking of the vowels, and you end up with the word “shamash,” the candle that lights all others in the Hanukkiah.

This word, shamash, seems especially fitting for Grammy, for a couple of reasons. One, I have ample Hanukkah memories of seeing Grammy, eating her specially made latkes, and enjoying each other’s company by the flickering candlelight over the years. Hanukkah was one of her favorite holidays, you see, and she always took the opportunity to spoil me and my brother. Secondly, though, Grammy was the “shamash” for us all, in so many ways.

Grammy was a leader, bold and tenacious. She told me often about her trips to Lithuania, seeking to create a relationship with a community ravaged by anti-Semitism and post-Soviet fallout. I still remember the wooden dog bell Grammy brought me back from one of her trips. It stands on the bookshelf of my childhood bedroom. Grammy felt a compulsion to blaze a trail, connecting her Worcester community with Lithuania’s, four thousand and ninety six miles away. This was in her nature - a relentless urge to push the envelope, take chances, and mess with the establishment, even if those attempts got her rebuked by the arbiters of tradition. Despite her family’s Chasidic background, orthodox is one word that could never be used to describe Grammy. I know that Grammy’s attitude was a major factor in my own political growth, as I seem to have inherited her progressive leanings and distaste of the status quo.

Grammy’s risk-taking attitude was also prevalent when she was with her family. During all of our gatherings, Grammy’s voice was the loudest at the table, her mischievous spirit making holidays more fun and entertaining. Our entire family gravitated toward her. Grammy’s charm ignited everyone who she brought into her orbit. And I will miss that spark.

Grammy, I will always love and cherish the times that we had together. Most importantly, though, I hope to be a vessel for your spirit that has now left this earthly realm. I hope to carry on your tenacity throughout the rest of my life.

The world we live in right now is a caustic one. And while I’m filled with anger at those who did not take the Coronavirus seriously off the bat and still refuse to abide by common sense rules even a year after its commencement, the primary emotion that defines the past 16 months for me is profound sadness. I have not been able to see my family in person since November 2019, and the last time I saw Grammy in person was that spring. I could not physically be at the cemetery for the funeral of someone I loved with all of my heart.

All of this being, even as we mourn...I can’t help but let positivity seep into my thoughts. Grammy lived 89 and a half incredible years with a family that cared about her. Think about this: when she was born in 1931, the average lifespan for a woman was 63 years. She lived 41% longer than she could have ever expected to when she was initially born. That’s no small achievement - we got so much more time with her than we ever deserved, and anyway, life’s about the journey, not the destination.

I don’t think the Grammy I knew would have wanted us to wallow in sadness about her passing. She would want us to continue marching forward, the spark of her soul leading the way. We need to use her memory as a shamash and bring joy and light to the rest of the world, especially as we slowly unravel ourselves from the tight coils of this overlong pandemic.

So, to conclude, Grammy, I want to say it in as many ways as I can. Te amo. Je t’aime. Ai shiteru. Ani ohev otach. I love you.

I may have been your sunshine, but you were my shamash. Now, you can rest, and let all of us light a path to a more dynamic, more loving, and happier future, as you would have wished.

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