My grandmother Zena could not cook worth a damn. One of my fondest memories from childhood is of watching her stand over a stove in her chic Chicago condo, elegantly dressed and coiffed, cigarette in one hand, as she haplessly poked at a hunk of meat in a pan. Five minutes later we sat down to eat. The meat (and I could not now or at the time tell you what animal it came from) was nearly inedible; but the dining room was a work of art unlike anything in my pokey hometown. The same could be said of the conversation.
I didn't really get to know her until I was an adult and living in Chicago myself. We would meet for bitch sessions over tea and Thai take out. She loyally affirmed all my complaints against my seminary professors. We had the same exact opinions of Mayor Daley, of Bill Clinton, and especially of the whole Monica Lewinsky debacle (and we both read the transcripts with voyeuristic fascination). She was the kind of the person to whom I could quote George Jean Nathan's "Art is the sex of the imagination," and she would respond, "exactly!"
The village in Russia where both her parents were born was razed to the ground during The Great War (and then again in the next one). To her, that was the heritage of her Judaism. A staunch atheist from birth to earth, she nonetheless felt that her children deserved information and perpective on religion. So one day she marched into the office of Rev. Leslie Pennington at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago and announced, "I'm an atheist, but I want to bring my kids here so they can learn about religions." "Great!" he replied. "We need more atheists. We're a little low at the moment." And so began a lovely friendship. 50 years later I preached my first-ever sermon in that church, with my grandmother in attendance.
This week we celebrated Dia De Los Muertos in our household, "Day of the Dead". We sipped black tea in honor of Zena, and ate strawberries in honor of John's father. I showed my son pictures of the great-grandmother he never met. He won't grow up with Zena, but he'll grow up immersed in the pictures from her life, the books from her shelves, and the stories we shared. Her love passes through me to him, dripping into the future, like a river that seeks the sea.