My Daughter’s Best Friend is the Best Gift

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Helen Rose Riis PArk 2017

I grew up 1.6 miles away from my Grandma Rosie in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. We lived in Midwood, and Grandma Rosie lived in Bensonhurst. I haven’t set foot in her old apartment since I was 9 years old, and yet here tonight, sitting at my kitchen table – thinking about what to cook for this week’s Shabbat dinner – I can still smell my Grandmother’s apartment building. I can see her at her own kitchen table reading the stocks and eating ginger snaps, as if she’s right in front of me.

As the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, came and went this year I thought a lot about Grandma. Perhaps this is because my own mother will turn 75 this month and she is my oldest daughter’s best friend the same way my Grandma Rosie was mine. Perhaps it is because every High-Holy-Day season I walk with my mother and my 4-year-old daughter to the synagogue that is across the street from Grandma Rosie’s old building. How many of us get to say we knew our grandparents, even just one grandparent, and that we knew them well?

When I was a child my father would bring me to Grandma’s house on Friday night and pick me up on Sunday. We would watch The Golden Girls, Who’s the Boss and Wheel of Fortune together. In the morning Grandma would take me to the nearest grocery store and let me pick out a sugar cereal, something we were never allowed to eat in my own house. My grandmother didn’t walk, she shuffled. This was due to her separated hips from childbirth and just her old age. As we shuffled back to the apartment with my cereal we would talk about musical theatre and our favorite songs.

Grandma Rosie, Riis Park 1952

Grandma Rosie never had toys; she had pots, wooden spoons and treasure. Because Grandma went into business in her mid-50s as a wholesale retailer after my grandfather passed away, she had all kinds of treasure in her drawers, under her bed, and in all of her closets. Sometimes if I went into her closet to rummage through treasure, I came out in one of her polka dot dresses and her white heels. Even though she shuffled, Grandma always wore low heels.

What does all of this have to do with faith, or even my interfaith family? So many people believe that faith begins with God. I’m not so sure that’s true. Faith, any faith, begins with the people we love and admire. Could my Grandma Rosie ever have imagined that I would have two daughters and a son on the way? Could she have fathomed that they would grow up Jewish AND Catholic, let alone Mexican Catholic?

She didn’t know who I would become as we sat in front of the TV and laughed at Betty White for hours. And it didn’t matter. She was my grandmother and that meant that she instilled in me a light that carried her soul, or as we call it in Hebrew her “neshemah,” forward into future generations.

Walking to synagogue with my own mother I realize that I have given my daughter, Helen, the same gift of friendship I had with my own Grandma Rosie. My mother, really, has given her this gift. If anyone asks Helen who her best friend is she says, “Grandma.” What’s even better is she calls my mother “MA” and I have become “Mami.” She tells my mother about all of the holidays we didn’t grow up with: Dia de los Muertos, Halloween, Guadalupe’s Day on December 12th, Three Kings Day. And my mother bends down to kiss my daughter’s head without judgement. “How smart you are!” my mother exclaims.

Sometimes the hardest part about having children is seeing how fast it all goes. As my children get older, so does my mother. That’s a difficult realization for me to face. As the black sheep of my family, the one who went her own way and did her own thing, defying religion only to come back to it, I have a hard time accepting what life brings. Sometimes I stare at my daughter when she’s coloring, or eating, or reading and I say to myself “remember this moment, remember this moment!” If faith teaches us anything it’s to let go and to let be. But even with my dual faith, this has been so difficult for me lately.

Two days before my mother’s birthday I call her in a panic. “I’m so afraid to lose you.” I cry.

“Well, where the hell am I going?” she asks in her very Brooklyn way.

“One day you will, you’ll leave us.” I am pregnant and my hormones have obviously gone crazy.

“Well, that’s life. That’s what happens,” she reasons.

“I’m afraid,” I say.

To which my mother replies, “But don’t you see? I’m with you always. I’m in you. I’m in Helen. It’s like that movie Coco that she loves.”

To be clear, Coco is a Pixar film about a Mexican family. The Grandmother in the movie is named Coco, and it’s all about her story, told through an adventure her grandson has on Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, in Mexico. It’s about living on after death.

My Jewish mother has just given me a Mexican Catholic example of the afterlife. I laugh hysterically.

“Yeah Ma, you’re right. I know you’re right.”

“Good now leave me alone, I’m going to bed.”

An interesting fact about my Grandma Rosie was that she never bought anyone anything for their actual birthday. But, if she was in a store and saw a set of dishes she thought you might like, she’d buy them for you. In death she hasn’t changed much. She never visits me when I call her, but sometimes when I’m at the beach, or in a Key Food buying sugar cereal, she’s there: a polka dot dress and white heels, singing a tune from West Side Story, or just shuffling along next to me, holding my hand.

Helen Rose and Grandma Walking to Synagogue Rosh Hashanah, 2019