September 16, 2019

What Grandparents Leave Behind

Photo from Pexels.

What is it about grandparents that melts our hearts? Is it simply that they love us so unconditionally, without strings? After all, we can quarrel with parents but who’s got the chutzpah to quarrel with a bubbe or a zayde? Certainly not me.

I think about my grandparents almost all the time. None of them is alive but their presence is still with me. As I weather hectic days, I can almost hear their whispers of wisdom.

After an especially crazy day recently, it dawned on me that this wisdom comes from four sources: that is, each grandparent taught me something unique. 

From my paternal grandfather, Clifford, I inherited my attention to detail, astute travel planning skills and a devotion to Jewish philanthropy. My paternal grandmother, Surella, taught me how to sit with good posture, be a devoted spouse even during challenging times, make gefilte fish from scratch (still haven’t dared to try it on my own) and host a dinner party better than Martha Stewart ever could. Goldie, my maternal grandmother, taught me to be wary of false friends, to enjoy the little moments in life, to take care of myself (now called “self-care”) and to be a life-long learner. Arnold, my maternal grandfather, passed on to me his love of laughter, games, the importance of showing affection and unconditional love, and a willingness to help anyone who asks, even when I am going through tough times.

So, when I am transfixed in the audience of an Israel Philharmonic Orchestra concert, I think of Clifford, who was a successful endodontist and then real estate developer, but at his core, was a lover of the arts. Some of Clifford’s greatest passions were poetry, literature and classical music.

You might think I’ve over-idealized my grandparents but there’s another important lesson they taught me: what not to do.

When I cook for the holidays, I think of Surella. When she was in her 90s, she said to me, in a serious tone during one of my visits back home to Vancouver, “At my funeral, don’t let anyone say I was a good cook.” I knew what she meant. Surella may have always had fresh flowers in a vase and baked daily from scratch, but the message was clear: I may be good at entertaining, but I want to be known for the home I created, not for the food I cooked.

I find that to get through my long days of meetings and mommy duties, a cup of tea and cream at 3 in the afternoon really does the trick. Something as simple as tea has become a sweet reminder for me of the importance of taking a break and savoring the moment. I learned this from Goldie.

When I hug my kids, I try to envelop them, probably because Arnold always gave the kind of hugs that felt strong, soft and safe at the same time.

You might think I’ve over-idealized my grandparents but there’s another important lesson they taught me: what not to do.

Clifford could be really tough on the people he loved. Arnold made unsound business decisions. Goldie had low self-esteem. Surella was a doting wife but had no professional ambitions.

The greatest lessons I learned from them weren’t from listening to what they said to me but by watching them live for all those years. Their strengths and weaknesses taught me, like the famous phrase by Alexander Pope, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Even my impeccable grandparents weren’t perfect. They loved me entirely,
just as I am, therefore I have learned to feel less guilt about my mistakes and shortcomings. What matters is, that I love my family with the same intensity and consistency I was raised with. The rest will figure out itself.

Danielle Ames Spivak is the executive director of the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Danielle, her husband and children live in Los Angeles.