Reflections written and shared by Rebecca Marci Goodwin, founder & cultivator of the Grandmother Garden.
Today is my Grandma Florence’s birthday. Today and always, I carry her in my heart.
In her own words, here is the blessing she gave for all of us at her 91st birthday party, in November 2010:
The following is a tribute I gave for her on May 9, 2012, at a Seniors Speak Out Forum in Maryland, adapted from the eulogy I gave at her memorial service on May 12, 2011.
Florence, faced with your passing from this life on this earth, I find myself wondering when people start to think of of their loved ones in the past tense. But your presence is palpable, and I continue to hear your voice in my heart, and feel your hand squeezing mine. Florence, you are my Grandmother. And you are also my teacher, friend, mentor, counselor, motivational coach, role model, cheerleader and inspiration. You always choose to fully “inhabit your days” and help others to do the same.
The biggest sunglasses in the world could never dim the brightness of the often naughty and always playful twinkle of your eyes. Eyes that are especially bright when you put your hands on someone’s cheeks, pull his face in close to yours, and say “Darling, tell me who you are. Let me look into your soul.”
Through your life as an activist and peacenik, you have befriended, been inspired by, and helped to shape many luminaries. Eleanor Roosevelt, Janet Reno, the Dalai Lama, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go to outer space, with whom you became friends when you and Michael traveled to the Soviet Union as citizen diplomats. And then you exchanged holiday cards with Ms. Tereshkova, much to the giddy delight of a young girl who was making a timeline for school of the history of people traveling among the stars, and discovered one of her cards to you taped up on your kitchen cabinet collage, when I recognized the name…
Florence was given the Giraffe Award (for sticking her neck out) by an organization of women activists in South Florida. The following year, Florence was asked to serve as their ambassador to accompany and introduce the winner – Janet Reno. I will never forget spending that day with my grandmother and the former Attorney General of the United States.
But celebrity was not the element about the people in your life that excited you. You delighted in building relationships with people whose names will never be in history books or pop culture. You delighted in listening to and learning from their stories, helping them change their lives, and reveling in the way they changed and shaped your life and your character. I’ll never forget the joy you relived when you recounted the experience of discovering a Jewish man in the USSR, poor and persecuted, desperate for freedom, and when you offered to buy him a coat to help him survive the winter, he asked you to buy him books instead.
Over lunch a few months ago, you offered me this advice, a reminder of the power I have to choose my own destiny. You said:
“Take a chance. Risk. Explore. Be fearless and courageous. Ask: Why not? Just dive in. Say to yourself, ‘I’m worth it.’ Live joyfully. Be your own advocate. Be your own doctor. Be courageous. You’ve got to listen to your own gut. But then you’ve got to ACT!”
Florence, you laughingly described yourself as sometimes naughty, but always nice. You proudly called yourself a “pin up elder!” I count myself lucky to have a grandma who once started a conversation with my husband and me by telling us about a talk she’d be giving in a few weeks to a group of elders about the importance of practicing safe sex!
Whoever saves one life, it is as if she saves the entire world. Wise words from the Talmud, and they seem to have been written about my beautiful grandma Florence.
Of course, Florence, you were never just a distant inspiration. You did typical grandma stuff with me, my sister and brother, and my cousins. We played dress up in your closet. I remember one hot summer day, when my sister, brother and I were at your house, and you suggested a dip in the pool, but we didn’t have swimming suits. As always, you were unfazed and undaunted, you herded us into your magic closet, and pulled down a variety of things, including scarves and halter tops, and with a bit of creative knot-tying, you fashioned them into bathing costumes.
You baked cakes…. Creative cakes — one particular chocolate cake is especially memorable. We sat around chewing and chewing and chewing…wondering why there was cardboard in the cake, and started catching each other’s eyes and then laughing at the realization that instead of orange zest, it was filled with orange rind.
You made matzoh ball soup, too not only for our family, but also for a few hundred people when you were a traveler, student and teacher celebrating Passover in the middle of the ocean at Semester at Sea. One year, when we spent Passover together, you passed around a wood slab with the picture of the last supper – which was Passover seder – painted on it. With scotch tape, you had added pictures of our family members. In the same fashion, you made “kitchen cabinet collages” year-round – every square inch of your kitchen cabinets plastered with photos and mementos of your extended family …people you embraced with love who you drew into your family circle: by blood, marriage, “adoption,” desire and love. Instead of burying the photos in an album or a box, you literally kept your dear ones where you could easily see them in a room of her home where the light shone bright, and you actively nurtured your relationships with your friends and family. On my wedding day, inspired by Grandma Florence, my husband and I covered a wall of our house with photos of our dear ones, and seeing their faces reminded me of that Passover seder, and Florence’s kitchen cabinet collages – every square inch of those cabinets plastered with photos and mementos of her extended family …by blood, marriage, “adoption,” desire and love. We still have family photos on our refrigerator and walls.
Although I lost my grandfather, my mother’s father, Norman Molomut, when I was only a few months old, the memories you shared with me, and your deep love for him, have also made him an inspiration and legacy for me. His beaming face and twinkling smile encourage me to dare and experiment and discover. When I encounter bureaucracy and red tape, I see Norman, alive through your stories and photographs, treated as a dignitary in Ireland because of his kilt, smuggling artwork out of Czechoslovakia by calling it psychiatric tests, or stamping his visa whenever the customs officials did.
Norman told you that if he won the Nobel prize, you should wear a green dress to the ceremony so he’d be able to spot you in the crowd. As I was preparing to deliver a presentation at a scientific conference a year ago, you told me to imagine myself standing on your shoulders and my grandfather’s, and to picture you in the audience, wearing your green dress. Florence, you have always championed my creativity. You cheered me on during speech and debate tournaments, and encouraged me to recite poetry and stories I wrote at your dinner table and in your living room.
Moreover, Norman is only one of three amazing grandfathers you have brought into my life through your stories and love. Michael, was an extraordinary presence in my life. An amazing grandfather. A special, beautiful, peaceful, loving soul, who romanced you as you traveled the world just after you met him. With him, you demonstrated and taught me the beauties of a loving marriage between two devoted and infatuated partners, and the truth and compassion of vows of in sickness and in health.
And Andy, I can’t say enough about him! The tenderness the two of you have shared over so many years together, holding hands and smooching…Actually, Florence, I think it’s better to quote your own words to me, last year, about your “lover,” Andy:
“Isn’t snuggling wonderful? I’m not ashamed to say it – when your grandfather and I snuggle, I adore it. Like yesterday, I had some guests and I was sitting on the couch with him, and he has his arm around me, and I’m a little bit embarrassed because we’re sort of talking back and forth with these guests, but he doesn’t let go. He keeps his arm around my shoulder and he says to me just sit there! Anyway I love it I love it and I wish it for you. There’s nothing better than to feel secure and to feel very little pressure from your mate.”
And then you sighed deeply and exhaled and said: “Ahhh, what a delight!”
Florence, the love that you have given to these grandfathers to me, and partners to you, has taught me so many important lessons. I bask in your deep and unending love for all the members of your family, who became your family by blood, marriage, adoption or sheer force of will! You’ve taught me how to nurture relationships with other human beings, how to revel in my own glow and sparkle, how to build and belong to a community of friends who I cherish.
You have always taught me, by the example of the way you live, act, and embrace all who cross your path, that love is a unique commodity: the more you spend, the more there is.
Florence, I know that this gathering today — to have so many of your loved ones celebrating your life and the impact of your life on all of our dreams and actions — is a party that you love!! And I can almost see you nestled in the middle of the room, in a green dress, basking in all this love.
Florence – the year before you died, at your 91st birthday party, you said: “What more can we ask of life than celebrations such as this? This is unforgettable for me and i cannot thank everyone adequately…I want all of you to feel the joy that has come into my life as a result of knowing all of you, and what i want to share with all of you is that life is a party! Make sure that you take every opportunity to celebrate, no matter what, celebrate! Make it a good time. Because what I have found out on my sleepless nights is that what i remember from my life are all the good times. The hell with the rest of them! Also, what I find so rewarding is the kind of love that pours out into whoever you are, when you need that love, when it becomes palpable and you are able to stick your fingers into it and say “Okay, i am ready to accept. It’s good, thank you.” Take advantage of all the love that you’re accumulating throughout your life. It comes in handy. Look at this party! How could it have happened? At any rate, I feel blessed by all of you. I feel that my life is a blessing because of all of you.”
Ten and a half years ago, the day before your 81st birthday, you told the people at a conscious aging conference: “We in spiritual elder-ing will never die. Our immortal spirits will live on in everyone we touch.”
Florence, your light shines on, and I carry a twinkly bit of your light in my heart, head, body, soul and actions. I know I am only one of many here, and around the world, who kindles that bright flame.
Grandma Florence, I love you always.