When I was a kid, I was always disappointed when my parents told me that my Grandma Riggle was going to babysit. She wouldn’t let me watch TV or eat junk food. Instead, she’d take me to boring church or make me sit down at her dining room table and learn Catholic prayers with a creepy portrait of Jesus watching me from behind.
I distinctly remember a time when I was 14 and depressed, and my grandmother came over to check on me. She walked into the computer room, where I spent most of my time, and looked at my screen, which had a picture of the piano player Ben Folds on it. In the picture, he seemed contemplative, perhaps even a little bit melancholy.
“He looks depressed and sad,” my grandma said. “You need a picture of happy, smiling people. Take that off.”
“Um,” I said, not quite knowing how to respond.
“Do you feel like crying?”
“Well, you should really change that picture to a happy one.”
At the time, I was incredibly angry, as evidenced by the expletives I wrote about the incident on my online diary, my Deadjournal. I just didn’t understand my grandma. So what if I was sad? I was punk rock. An atheist. At least I wasn’t like her, believing in a G-d that didn’t exist. Once she said she tried to baptize me in the sink when I was a baby, and it “didn’t work.” What did that even mean? Did I splash the water away because I was some kind of heathen?
When my other grandma, Grandma Wakefield, and her husband, my grandpa, died when I was a teenager, Grandma Riggle became my only living grandparent left. She was never the stereotypical grandmother like Grandma Wakefield, who loved to bird watch, make Christmas cookies and spoil me with all the craft supplies and coloring books I could ask for.
However, as I grew up, I learned to appreciate Grandma Riggle for who she was. Whenever I came home from college, I’d visit her and she’d ask me if I was going to church. I was still an atheist and would dodge the question because I felt guilty that I wasn’t living up to her standards.
As I grew up, I learned to appreciate Grandma Riggle for who she was.
By that point, I didn’t want to let her down. She was always encouraging. She told me how good it was that I was majoring in journalism. No matter what I did, she said it was good. I got an internship? Good. I made the dean’s list? Good.
“You’re smart,” she said. “You’re going places.”
She was the only family member to consistently give me a hug and tell me, “I love you” out loud. I came to truly see her as a grandmother, that source of warmth and comfort I craved and needed.
Years after I graduated college, I converted to Judaism and began living an Orthodox Jewish life with my husband, Daniel Lobell. I never got the courage to tell my grandmother that I converted — not that it mattered so much since she started getting dementia and wouldn’t remember it anyway. When she asked me if I was going to church, I said, “Yes,” counting shul as church.
“Good,” she said with a smile.
Every year, Daniel and I would visit our families on the East Coast around Thanksgiving, and one of our favorite parts of our trip was visiting my grandmother. I’d cry when I left her house because she was getting into her 90s and forgetting my name. I wasn’t sure if I’d see her again the following year.
This past Thanksgiving, Daniel and I visited my grandma and took Sophie, our 17-month-old daughter, with us. Sophie walked around my grandma’s house, following her up the stairs and picking up all sorts of knick-knacks to play with. The sight of this baby thrilled my grandmother.
“I can’t believe it!” she kept saying, watching Sophie walk. “That’s a baby! She’s good.”
A little over a month ago, my grandmother fell in the night. After hip surgery and a bout of COVID-19 in a nursing home, she was sent home. The outlook was not good. It was all too stressful for her. Her condition got worse and worse.
I flew home to see her as soon as I could, praying on the plane that she wouldn’t pass before I got to say goodbye. Thankfully, she held on.
While I was there, I spent one of the best days of my life with her. I knew it was the best as it was happening. It’s strange because it was such a sad moment, but I was just so happy I could be there at the end. That I could take care of her, if only for a day.
I fed her melted ice cream, one little spoonful at a time. I played Catholic songs for her and brushed her hair. I Facetimed with Daniel and Sophie so my grandma could hear Sophie’s voice. I took some photos with her and told her to hang in there and that I’d see her again. I prayed to G-d I’d see her again.
Exhausted, I cried myself to sleep on the plane ride back home.
She died a few days later.
As a kid, I misunderstood my grandmother. I didn’t know the tragedy she had gone through, losing two siblings and a son and ending up divorced with five children to take care of.
But when I became an observant Jew, I felt a special kinship with her. We were both the most religious people in our family, even though we were of different religions. In a way, maybe all of her teachings worked. I inherited her passion for spirituality and G-d. It was the greatest gift she could have given me.
Because of her, my life is meaningful. My life is fulfilling. My life is good.
Kylie Ora Lobell is a writer for the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, The Forward, Tablet Magazine, Aish, and Chabad.org and the author of the first children’s book for the children of Jewish converts, “Jewish Just Like You.”