Grandma Lucille: Making of Life Something Fine

I turn every place and find you in me

Wherever I am,

I find me in you

And so we mesh one,

And thus are one

Although we were two.

 

And it matters but little

That one of us is

And one was before-

For while I still flourish,

Wherever I flourish,

You are all the more.[1]

 

I was hoping not to have to write this sermon. By mid-February I had completed my sermons for Days 1, 2 and 7 of Passover, as well as for Shabbat Hol HaMoed. I was unsure what lessons to teach for Yizkor. On Sunday March 5, I received three calls from my mother. In the first she mentioned to me that my grandmother was admitted to the ER. In the second call she said that my grandmother was stabilized, that all would be fine. It was the third call when she told me that Grandma was not doing well and that she was going to take the last flight of the day out to Arizona. I had an eerie feeling that my Grandma, who loved life so much and who wanted to live at all costs, was going to the next world after all 3 of her children were together.

I was still unprepared the next day, Monday March 6, when I received a call from my Cousin Max a little after 2 pm. He struggled to get the words out, but even before he said them, I knew Grandma’s soul had departed. I can’t use the term “die,” “pass away” or G-d forbid “expire” because Grandma would never use these terms. Instead she would say “became eternal.” She recognized that there is life after death-that no one is gone but rather that they live on through their legacy, their life example and the memories we share with them.

With this in mind, I want to share three things that Grandma Lucille taught me about life. She taught me so many more than just these three but these in my opinion are her central teachings, the third being most important. Grandma Lucille demonstrated how to live with integrity, having an ethical life. For her, one’s word was sacrosanct, and even two months ago she helped me recognize the importance of keeping my word. She made two vows which she kept throughout her life. One of the vows was never to publish any of her 50 plus years of poetry except for family because she felt that the quality of what you are writing losing something if a person is seeking recognition. Even when her views were challenged, Grandma Lucille remained steadfast to her core principles which helped her navigate life’s challenges.

One would think that as a rabbi I’ve learned how to live with integrity and keep one’s word. After all, this was the topic of my Kol Nidre sermon, and the psalm with which I begin almost every funeral, Psalm 14, contains the words “live with integrity, do what is right, speak the truth without deceit.”[2] However, the truth is it’s difficult to do so. Words are often based on what we feel at any given moment, and one’s feelings can waver from one moment to the next. The difficulty of having integrity, of one’s words conforming to one’s actions, makes me sympathize more with Pharaoh, who on ten occasions said he’d allow Israel to go and then reneged each and every time. To make and keep vows or promises for decades, even when one is tempted to turn in another direction, is one thing I admire that my Grandma was able to do.

My grandmother also demonstrated the importance of positivity and idealism. She followed the teaching of her mother, my Great-Grandma Rose, “There are always many ways to interpret something. You choose the one which is the most beautiful.” When people were going through hard times, even some of the leaders of the Milwaukee Jewish community, they would turn to my grandmother for words of wisdom, and her positivity and advice would help them. She had a gift in knowing what to say to people, how to motivate them to positive action and how to connect with them. People often talk about her beautifully written letters, and it was not just the tiny cursive print but what she said-she knew how to build up people. At our family Sedarim, Grandma Lucille would never say the parts of the Haggadah that spoke about the plagues, the drowning of the Egyptians, or any other form of negativity. She also refused to focus on any “negative” aspect of life, such as pain, suffering, or disappointment. It is far too easy to get bogged down in what might have been, to pity ourselves or to beat ourselves up over our situation, rather than appreciate all that we have. The last teaching my grandmother taught me Presidents Day Weekend was that the key to live is graciousness-the appreciation for all we have-rather than happiness.

The most important lesson my grandmother taught me is the centrality of family and to make each family member know that they had unconditional love from her. She would often say with pride that her life work was raising children and grandchildren, encouraging us to be close to one another and look out for each other. When one of us had an accomplishment and was told, “You must be so proud of him/her” she would always reply “I’m proud of all my grandchildren.” She would always caution us that no matter which career we were in, someone had to be there to take care of the children.

The importance of family togetherness has only gotten harder as fewer family members live near each other. The amount of families that were like the one in which I grew up, where almost every member lives within a five minute drive from one another, are few and far between. What this does is make times when the entire family can get together be of paramount importance. Unfortunately, families are often only brought together by a difficulty or tragedy, like a family member becoming eternal. However, the importance of family, in particular of multiple generations interacting with one another, brings me back again to the Passover story. After seven plagues, Pharaoh let the Israelite men go, but Moses said that was not good enough. He replied בנערינו ובזקנינו נלך, “we will go with our young and our old.”[3]

As we conclude this Passover holiday, remembering our loved ones as a congregational family, I hope we will take to heart the lessons taught to us by all of our loved ones. Though they might not be physically present, I truly believe they are here in spirit. Their actions, legacies and teachings continue to remain alive within us, strengthening our resolve and propelling us forward to do the good work we do each and every day.

I will conclude with my grandmother’s personal mission statement. This is from a poem she entitled Prayer.

Help me make of my life something fine.

Help me take of the gifts which are mine

And create days of meaning and worth.

Help me see that from moment of birth,

Life was given to me through God’s grace

With skills taught that would help me to face

Life’s adversity and its success

Let firm faith help transcend every stress.

Let me give to the world all my love

And absorb from the world only love.

Help me sight in mankind the Divine

Conscious that all world’s children are ‘mine’.

Let me say while existence is mine,

I will make of my life something fine.[4]

[1] Lucille Frenkel, “Generation to Generation” in A Biblical Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), Page 123.

[2] Psalm 14 as translated by Rabbi Rafi Rank in Moreh Derekh RA Rabbis Manual.

[3] Exodus 10:9

[4] Lucille Frenkel, Creation Wondrous: A Poetic Exploration (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 2013).

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