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In Memoriam, Anne Berner 1910–2011
We buried my grand­moth­er eight years ago today. She was 101 years old when she died–that’s her on her 100th birth­day at the top of this post–and while I would not want to be 101 like she was 101 (espe­cial­ly in the last six months or so of her life, her body failed in ways that made it hard not to hope for her to be at peace soon­er rather than lat­er), she lived a long, fruit­ful, adven­tur­ous, engaged and mean­ing­ful life. So her death, while very, very sad, feels nei­ther trag­ic nor unjust. Indeed, the time she was here, with us, is some­thing to cel­e­brate, to be grate­ful for, not just because the qual­i­ty with which she lived is some­thing to aspire to, but because her being here gave us a chance to be part of her life, to make it a part of our­selves in the inti­mate, com­pli­cat­ed, fraught and deeply pro­found ways that only come with being a fam­i­ly.

 

We used to laugh that my grand­moth­er would out­live us all, and while we knew of course that this could nev­er be lit­er­al­ly true, there was, there is, some­thing endur­ing about her. In part, this comes from her per­pet­u­al opti­mism. One way or anoth­er, she would always tell me, usu­al­ly over Hebrew Nation­al sala­mi sand­wich­es across the small table in the very small kitchen that was just the right size for her bare­ly five foot frame, things work them­selves out. She was most­ly right. Indeed, I can think of only one prob­lem that she con­front­ed over the course of her long life, or that she helped oth­ers con­front, that did not con­form to that prin­ci­ple.

In that very small kitchen, on the two or three occa­sions dur­ing the year when the whole mish­pocheh would gath­er together–Rosh HaShanah, Passover, Thanks­giv­ing, and occa­sion­al­ly oth­er times as well–my grand­moth­er would sin­gle-hand­ed­ly, and then, lat­er in her life, almost sin­gle-hand­ed­ly, pre­pare a feast. Some­times, when I was younger, there were as many as twen­ty peo­ple seat­ed around the table in her din­ing room, maybe more, and the food was always plen­ti­ful and deli­cious. Per­haps my most endur­ing over­all mem­o­ry of those meals is the gusto–I can think of no oth­er word for it–with which my grand­moth­er would eat when she was final­ly sure that every­one else had been fed and that all the food that could be put on the table had been put on the table. She enjoyed food, per­haps espe­cial­ly meat, and I owe to her my own habit of pick­ing off the bone–turkey, chick­en, lamb, beef or pork–every last bit of the ani­mal that can be eat­en.

My grand­fa­ther, when he was alive, always sat at the head of the table, and then after he was gone, I sat there, espe­cial­ly on Passover. It’s fun­ny what you remem­ber, but my two most vivid mem­o­ries from these fam­i­ly meals are from Passover seders that took place more than thir­ty years ago. First, I don’t remem­ber how old I was, is the time we were read­ing Chad Gadya, in Eng­lish of course, and every time I had to read the line in which the cat eats the goat, I butchered it, because in our trans­la­tion the cat did­n’t sim­ply eat, it devoured and I just could not get into my head that the sec­ond syl­la­ble in that word rhymed with hour. The sec­ond seder I remember–I had to be fif­teen or sixteen–is the one when my uncle Arthur showed up, and he and I read through the entire hagadah in Hebrew, some­thing I’d nev­er done before, and because I thought, at that point in my life, that I would be a rab­bi when I grew up, this made me very proud, espe­cial­ly when my uncle told me I’d done a good job.

Miss­ing from these fam­i­ly gath­er­ings for far too many years were my uncle’s chil­dren, who, through no fault of their own, were almost com­plete­ly estranged from us after their father died. The details of how that estrange­ment came to be are irrel­e­vant here. What mat­ters is that my grand­moth­er felt great joy that she was ulti­mate­ly able to build a rela­tion­ship with them, and it has been a won­der­ful thing for us as well–me, my moth­er and my sisters–to have them be part of our fam­i­ly’s life, for us to be a fam­i­ly. Iron­i­cal­ly, and sad­ly, as my cous­in’s estrange­ment from us has become entire­ly a thing of the past, my sis­ters’ estrange­ment from each oth­er has grown more and more deeply entrenched. Here, too, the sto­ry of how the estrange­ment came about and what sus­tains it now is real­ly not impor­tant. What mat­ters is that it would mis­rep­re­sent the last twen­ty or so years of our grand­moth­er’s life not to say that the fact of my sis­ters’ estrange­ment caused her great pain and, more, that one of her deep­est regrets is that she was unable to help them unrav­el the knot of anger, bit­ter­ness and resent­ment that keeps them apart.

I know this because, on more than one occa­sion, she told me so, most recent­ly right before she start­ed to lose her abil­i­ty to say clear­ly what she want­ed to say. We were sit­ting alone in the room in the apart­ment my moth­er had built onto her house in Hemp­stead that had, increas­ing­ly, come to define the bound­aries of the world my grand­moth­er lived in, and my grand­moth­er looked up at me from a moment of qui­et in our con­ver­sa­tion and said, “You know, I’m bored.”

What do you mean?” I asked her.

There’s noth­ing new. Not on TV, not in the news–even the sto­ries I hear from you and your sis­ters, and your moth­er too, are always more or less the same. There’s just noth­ing new and it’s bor­ing. Some­times I wish I could just go, but I can’t just wish it and make it hap­pen.”

I let that state­ment hang in the air for a bit, and then I asked her, “So what are you hold­ing onto, Grand­ma?”

She turned her head to look out the win­dow. Her eyes focused inward, and her mouth was set in the thin, pursed line that char­ac­ter­ized one ver­sion of what my moth­er has called the Anne-Bern­er-look, and I knew my grand­moth­er was cal­cu­lat­ing how much to say and how much not to say, that she was weigh­ing what she thought the effect would be on me of what she said, what I might tell oth­ers and how it would effect them. “Well, I guess I still feel like I have things to teach them,” she answered wist­ful­ly, and it was clear in con­text that them referred to my sis­ters and that what she want­ed to teach them was how to let the anger, the bit­ter­ness, and the resent­ment go.

My grand­moth­er was a trained col­oratu­ra sopra­no when she was younger, though she nev­er, as far as I knew, per­formed opera. She did, how­ev­er, sing com­mer­cials on the radio, and from every­thing I know, she orig­i­nal­ly want­ed to be a per­former. Her par­ents, though, would not allow it. The val­ues they brought from the old coun­try jived very nice­ly with the image of female per­form­ers in the US that was cur­rent at the time, i.e., that they were “loose,” and so there was no way my great grand­par­ents were going to per­mit their daugh­ter to enter that kind of pro­fes­sion. My moth­er tells the sto­ry, though, of how my grand­moth­er’s singing did help to win over her future father-in-law. When she and the man who would become my grand­fa­ther were dat­ing, he would call her from the tai­lor shop his father owned and ask my grand­moth­er to sing to him. Then he would hand the phone to his father, who just loved to lis­ten to my grand­moth­er’s voice.

And it was­n’t as if my grand­moth­er gave up all con­tact with the world of artists, writer, singers and musi­cians that she want­ed to be part of. I have on my book­shelf two vol­umes of poet­ry by Hen­ry Bel­la­mann, Cups of Illu­sion and The Upward Pass, each one very affec­tion­ate­ly inscribed to my grand­moth­er. Bel­la­mann is best known for his nov­el King’s Row, which was made into a movie in 1942. My grand­moth­er hint­ed to me once that there was a sto­ry about her and a writer, but she would­n’t tell me what it was. When I asked, she said, “Maybe some oth­er time,” but, no mat­ter how often I asked, “some oth­er time” nev­er arrived. Then, last sum­mer, after I came across Bel­la­man­n’s books on my shelf, I asked her if she remem­bered him. When I said his name, her face lit up, and there was such hap­pi­ness in her eyes, it looked like she was reliv­ing what­ev­er had been between them, but she either could­n’t or would­n’t (though I think by that time it was more could­n’t) tell me the sto­ry behind her joy.

I have often won­dered if my grand­moth­er regret­ted not defy­ing her par­ents to become the per­former she’d want­ed to be, and I’m sor­ry now that I nev­er asked her. To be hon­est, though, I don’t know that she would have giv­en me a straight answer. At least with me, my grand­moth­er rarely talked can­did­ly about her­self. She pre­ferred, I think, to let her actions speak for her. By the time I was old enough to under­stand that she was a per­son unto her­self and not sim­ply my grand­ma, she had been for a long time a solid­ly prop­er, mid­dle-class, Jew­ish wife, moth­er and grand­moth­er, and she had man­aged to chan­nel her con­sid­er­able cre­ative ener­gies very suc­cess­ful­ly into that life. My moth­er talks about the force my grand­moth­er was to reck­on with when she was grow­ing up, and I can attest to the dri­ving force she was behind both the Jack­son Heights Jew­ish Cen­ter and the co-op where I now live with my fam­i­ly, for which my grand­moth­er served as the first man­ag­er and board pres­i­dent.

Every time I deal with the co-op’s attorney–and he has been rep­re­sent­ing the co-op now for about 30 years–he tells me how much he learned from my grand­moth­er; and when the cur­rent man­ag­er of the co-op came to pay a shi­va call, she told us about the ven­dors who still remem­ber my grand­moth­er as a remark­able woman to deal with. The Jack­son Heights Jew­ish Cen­ter which, when I was grow­ing up, was the cen­ter of a still thriv­ing Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in this neigh­bor­hood, would not have been what it was with­out my grand­moth­er, and the peo­ple who knew her back then still talk with a kind of awe about the exam­ple she set through her ener­gy and deter­mi­na­tion, her imag­i­na­tion and her com­mit­ment.

As I sit here in my liv­ing room, I am think­ing that there is a lot more I could say about my grand­moth­er, but those four characteristics–energy, deter­mi­na­tion, imag­i­na­tion and commitment–informed by a deep and abid­ing love for the peo­ple around her, and for the insti­tu­tions that mat­tered to her com­mu­ni­ty, cap­ture for me who she was at least as well as any oth­er sto­ries I could tell. They are the lessons I have learned from her and, togeth­er, they con­sti­tute the exam­ple I hope to live up to in my own life. My grand­moth­er, Anne Bern­er, was a remark­able woman. The world may seem small­er with­out her, but it is def­i­nite­ly a bet­ter place for her hav­ing been here. I love her and I miss her.

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