Old Wives’ Tales

Old Wives’ Tales

From A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Old Wives’ Tales

The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see it.

Rabbi Harold Kushner

I always loved going to visit my grandmother. She lived in New York City, and we often took the train up from Washington, D.C., for a weekend. I got to sleep in her huge old four-poster bed on sheets that always smelled faintly of lavender. And I was awakened by the smell of Grandma’s specialty—blintzes, a delicate golden crepe-like pancake filled with a cinnamon-laced creamy cheese mixture. I loved those blintzes, and my grandmother tried to teach me to make them myself. But no matter how closely I watched her and imitated her technique, I could never get those pancakes to turn out like hers. But she told me not to worry. It was all in the kind of pan you used, she told me, and one day, she said, she would give me hers, thus ensuring my success.

I suppose my grandmother tried to teach me other things when I was a child besides how to make blintzes. I don’t remember now. What I do remember, and what has ultimately been most important to my happiness in life, are those lessons I learned from her when I became an adult.

My mother—my grandmother’s daughter—died ten days after I was married. I was twenty-two years old. I felt lost and abandoned, and I did not want to see my mother at the end in the hospital. I did not want to discuss funeral arrangements and last wills. But my grandmother insisted. She wanted her daughter to die peacefully, knowing that the people she loved would be taken care of. And she wanted me to have the closure that comes from being able to say good-bye. She knew I’d need it.

She didn’t dwell on her own grief. Instead, she set about the business of helping her daughter’s child see that even if I was dissolved in chaos, losing a parent was the natural order of things. There was a small comfort in this. Even though grief washed over me in huge debilitating waves, I believed somehow, sometime, there would be symmetry again in my life. There was an order, and I could have faith that once again I would feel joy and calm. Grandma, who had already lived close to eighty years, had a perspective of a bigger life picture than I did.

She knew where to find joy.

When I met a man I loved, my grandmother was the one to tell me that marriage should be joyful and fulfilling both spiritually and physically. I could maintain my sense of self even while I cultivated my life as part of a couple. Equality, mutual respect and loving kindness were what a happy marriage was built on. Nothing much had changed in this regard in the sixty years since she had been a bride, she maintained.

At the time I married, in the mid-1970s, the feminist movement was well under way. Women of my generation felt tremendous pressure to build careers first and to defer, if not marriage entirely, then certainly children. But my grandmother had been an original feminist, building a career outside the home not by choice but by necessity. She had been in both arenas—home and work—and knew where her joys had been found. So she encouraged me to have children.

My grandmother felt that true feminism was about having choices, not pressure. And she let me know that creating a loving family was as worthwhile and valuable and just as fulfilling as any job could ever be. When the voices of feminism were at their most strident, telling us we must have it all, my grandmother counseled me to listen carefully to my own inner voice. She said that any woman who did not admit to the innate desire to love and nurture a child was either an aberration or kidding herself. And she foresaw the pain that childless women would experience when they let their biological clocks run down while they were busy pursuing other things.

And so I had my children—four daughters whom I struggled to give the kind of love and support that I’d had. If I doubted my mothering skills, my grandmother gave me confidence.

When I had trouble nursing my first daughter, well-meaning friends had plenty of advice. Only my grandmother waited to be asked. Then she told me to take my cues from my baby—to let her tell me how much she needed and when. She felt that being guided by the baby’s instincts and my own would make us both happy.

That philosophy has continued to work as my daughters have gotten older, too. When I follow their leads, they still let me know just how much intervention they really need from me.

The result has been that I learned to trust my own instincts, and my daughters have learned that they are capable of making good decisions for themselves. All of us are women empowered by confidence in our own good judgment.

Toward the end of her life, my grandmother taught me about friendship. She lived in a home for the aged where the attendants were kind and the care was good. But what kept my grandmother’s spirit refreshed and happy was her friendship with her roommate. The two of them lived together for eight years until my grandmother’s death.

They knew each other’s families, what medication each should take and when, what special foods the other liked and what each other’s breathing should sound like when they were sleeping. Twice, when her roommate’s pacemaker failed in her sleep, my grandmother sounded the alarm and attendants got there in time. My grandmother said the silence woke her.

The two of them were more than friends, closer even than spouses. They met at a time in their lives when they each needed something that only someone in the same place and time in her own life could give. They shared a dependence and trust that grew into love and sustained them in the truest sense of the word.

But, having been my grandmother’s granddaughter, that friendship did not surprise me. It was typical of the way my grandmother conducted herself with those she loved—wholeheartedly giving the best of herself to bring out the best in them.

She set an example for me and taught me about love, marriage, children and friendship—the elements of life that make it worth living. And she taught me to draw on my own strength to get me through the sadness and pain that were inevitable in life. She caused me to have confidence in my own good judgment, and faith that life would hold good things for me and for those I loved.

I remember exactly where I was when I got the phone call that told me my grandmother had died at ninety-two, lucid till her last breath. I was standing in my kitchen.

And I remember clearly what I did then. I dug her old crepe pan out of the closet where I had stored it away. And, smiling happily to myself, grateful for having known her, I proceeded to make a batch of blintzes. This time, they turned out perfectly.

Marsha Arons

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