Authors note: We frequently push off expressing appreciation for others. We think that we have time. That we’ll be able to express it later. But recent tragedies combined with my grandmother’s approaching 90-somethingeth birthday have made me realize that it is never too soon to tell the people we love just how much we love them. How much they are valued. And that maybe, eulogies should be given at birthdays instead of funerals. So, Ouma, this one’s for you.
Notwithstanding my parents’ and grandparents’ South African heritage, I’ve only learned only a few words in Afrikaans. The single phrase I know is always directed at her.
“Jy is baie mooi.” You’re very beautiful.
To which my grandmother indubitably replies, “ach, sis,” and turns away. She does not think that she is beautiful. But I know that the world is reenergized in her presence.
Because some people, despite their youth, possess old souls. Others, despite their age, possess young ones.
Ouma is the queen of the latter.
When looking at the portraits I take of her, her hands rise to her face, “look at all of those wrinkles!” As her fingers slide down the crevices, she explains their origins, “these are from thinking. These are from worrying about you people. And these,” she points to the largest ones, “are from laughing.”
Ouma is over 90 but never tells her age. When asked her age by her doctors, she smiles at them and questions, “what did I tell you last time I was here?” When asked her age by my nephews, she always answers, “99”. When asked her age by her friends, she indignantly responds that it’s none of their business.
Because my grandmother is a Lady, and a Lady never reveals her birth year.
Ouma has firm opinions about what it means to be a Lady. A Lady mustn’t nag nor neglect her duties in running the household. A Lady must be supportive of her husband. And a Lady mustn’t ever get drunk. Because, “it’s bad enough seeing a drunk man, never mind a drunk woman.”
And, although a glass of wine or whiskey at the end of a long day is fine, she condemns excessive drinking. She has been known to say, “drinking is nice for the moment but then you must return to your troubles. They don’t disappear. They sit there waiting for your attention.” She has never been drunk and believes that a true test of character is whether one can be happy without alcohol.
But she acknowledges that people are human. And that, every once in a while, people mess up. Every time we say goodbye, she turns to me with a wink, “Be good. And if you can’t be good, be safe.”
Throughout my childhood and until today, Ouma has served as my partner in crime; my confidant. Once, when I was young, she caught me watching TV on Shabbat. “Please, PLEASE don’t tell mom!” She was my alibi, my late night conspirer, and my candy dealer. Even now, one drawer in her room is reserved for and forever supplied with dried mango, licorice, and chocolate.
All of which she can be found snacking on because, “I’m too old to worry about my figure. I must enjoy life now.”
If I were to commission a portrait of her, it would be set in the kitchen. She would be pictured in her nightgown and pearls and in the process of making a sandwich for my father’s lunch. She would be given a crown of perfectly coiffed hair and newly manicured nails. There would be a slight glimmer in her eyes and a slight sway in her stance. Because when there is music, she always dances. And wherever she is, there is always music.
There is Simon and Garfinkel and Frank Sinatra, and Barbra Streisand, and the Beatles.
And, when no music is being played, she can be heard singing to herself.
There are very few adults who can be depended upon to restore one’s faith in the world. Adults normally grow out of that stage. The hopeful one. The wide-eyed one.
But my grandmother is one of those adults.
When I want to be reminded that life is beautiful, Ouma and I go for a walk. Or a drive. Or to the mall. Our time together is spent observing the way the flowers are blooming and singing to songs we don’t know the words to and painting our nails different colors and trying on ostentatious pink glittery uggs (which are vetoed because we attract enough attention as it is).
And she actively tries to teach me about life. Her favorite lines are about the secret to joy. “Just keep smiling and be happy. No one likes to be with someone who is glum. So, even if you feel sad, pick yourself up, put a smile on your face, sing a song, and dance a little bit. It’s better to have wrinkles from smiling than from frowning.”
And she touches the lines upon her skin and sighs.
One day last year, Ouma discovered that the diamond ring which had adorned her finger for 40 years had disappeared. She was (reasonably) upset. We went for a walk together and I listened as she vacillated between expressing disappointment and comments like ‘well, whoever finds it should enjoy it.’
When we passed an elderly woman being pushed in a wheelchair by her daughter, my grandmother gasped, “my G-d. Here I am complaining about the bloody ring. I can buy another ring. See how lucky I am? See how much I have?”
She stopped walking and took my arm. ‘Rochel, you must always be grateful and focus on what’s important.’
And she made sure to teach me what was important.
One of the most important things in life is ensuring that people are fed. Ouma is of the opinion that if your guests say they don’t want second helpings at meals, it’s either because they don’t like the food or because they’re shy and haven’t been asked enough. Because she is an excellent cook, she assumes the reason that people refuse seconds due to shyness. So, she always makes sure to ask enough.
Because we’re growing people. And we need our strength.
My grandmother does not categorize herself as religious, but she and G-d are in excellent standing. His name is never far from her lips. “Good G-d!” is a favorite exclamation, as is “true as G-d.” And, of course, there is the ever present, “thank G-d.” I often hear her praying with a devotion that I can only hope to muster. I hear her praying for health. And for her family. And for a shidduch for her granddaughter.
Ouma has always taken interest in my dating life. Her first question to me is always, “so? Any new suitors?”
When the answer is no, she cheers me on. “You’re still young! Don’t worry. You just focus on your education. There will be plenty of men for you.” When the answer is yes, she follows with a stream of questions and advice and excitedly speaks about how I mustn’t rush things but I’d better hurry up, because she wants to be here for the wedding.
At which point I turn the attention to her and suggest that we sign her up for Jdate. But she refuses. “I don’t want to date an old man that I’ve got to take care of. I’ve been there and done that. He would need to be a younger fellow to keep up with me.”
And with that, she stands up, flattens her dress and turns to me:
“Come. Let’s go out.”
For all who wish to see my eternally youthful grandmother in all of her glory, check out this video I made for her 90th birthday from 4:00-5:30.