It has been one year since we lost my Grandmother, Elinor Jones Pettit. I feel like this year has been one where the chatter and movement of life slowed. I hear things I did not before. I see the world differently. Beyond my year without her, the world has gone through its metamorphosis. The passage of this sacred time has given me many moments of quiet contemplation, like the moments in the early morning before you are truly awake and are still lying in bed thinking of what the day will bring. Now it is time to get up, to begin again. In so doing, I remember her, and I remember her love.
Her Nephesh—Her Essence
My first memories of Grandma are not memories of her, but instead of her apartment on Columbia Heights in Brooklyn, NY.
I remember her apartment, almost like I remember a person.
It had a long hallway with bedrooms coming off the right side. In the bathroom was a large old-fashioned tub. There was a tall golden brown antique four-poster bed in the guest room where Rachel and I always slept on our visits. Her walls were full of artwork collected throughout her life.
Several pieces stood out. Halfway up the wall, wooden chairs were affixed. Later, I learned this was Uncle Add's emulation of a Shaker tradition. It wasn't until I was much older that I realized most Grandma's don't have chairs stuck halfway up their walls. I remember the bird's skeleton in a cage (another Uncle Add special), and of course, the magnificent "Hooray for the Bicentennial," the playful homage of larger-than-life beautiful, nude women celebrating life by dancing a jig surrounded by red, white, and blue.
Then Maxfield Parish's Daybreak was a gift to Grandma's mother from her father and passed down to Grandma after their deaths. I spent countless hours staring at it, the image serene and heavenly. Grandma's kitchen was centered on a bright neon Coors Beer sign, which sat above her fridge. (As you all know, my family home was wholly teetotaling, so this neon sign always gave me a zing of excitement and a twinge of rebellion blanketed by guilt. In my memories, Grandma is still there, in the kitchen, working on dinner. In this memory, Rodney, her beloved Corgy, sits nearby as guardian of kitchen and bowl, eyeing Rachel and me warily.
At the heart of the apartment was a large room with big bay windows jutting out towards New York Harbor. At night, I would sneak to the windows to look out at the Statue of Liberty lit up prominently in the bay. I would stare at it in wonder.
The statue somehow intertwined my young imagination with how I understood my Grandmother's essence- who she was deep down.
In my mind, she took on the qualities of that statue. She was larger than life, poised and grand, exciting, adventurous, and intimidating. This is not to diminish the warmth and empathy I felt from her. I did—always—know and feel her love. But, her apartment, this view of the harbor, even the city of New York, was who Grandma was to me in my early days.
A lone adventurer, courageous, and nearly all-knowing whose life was defined by her own choices and courage of spirit.
The Hebrew Bible speaks of a person's soul, or at least that is the English word we use. The Hebrew word is the word NEPHESH. It means throat, and it harkens back to the beginning and our collective first breath: the breath of Adam.
Genesis 2:7 says,
"And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul."
This word soul or nephesh is understood to be the part of oneself that is inward and intangible. It is who we most are, our core. In Jesus' lifetime, Judean royalty and wealthy aristocrats would prepare great monumental tombs to prepare for their death. Crafted by the finest artisans in the world, these monuments were known as nephesh. They were an outward embodiment of a person's internal qualities or nature—their essence manifest in form. Later, Jewish sages would eradicate this tendency towards self-aggrandizing by stating that a man's deeds would be their Nephesh.
Spaces often exposed Grandma's essence.
In the places she crafted and cared for in the homes she made for herself, she would agonize about the particular art placement. She would spend a year refinishing one piece of furniture, always happy to update me on incremental progress.
When I was a young, Grandma's house, the homes she made for herself, whether her apartment in Columbia Heights or eventually her place in Elmwood on Park Street, exemplified Grandma's soul, her essence—speaking to me about who she was through space and design.
But later, my understanding of Grandma moved from the monuments surrounding her to her actions and relationships with others.
I watched as she went out of her way to care for a hurting friend. I noticed when she intentionally uplifted the vulnerable and the marginalized. I remember Grandma thoughtfully considering how to support friends and family who were going through difficulty or a life crisis. She defended those who society would ostracize. She was stood firmly against racism in a time of segregation. If she felt any of us children were straying from this way of being, she would point it out and push us back that way. In many ways, she was ahead of her time. She was fair.
Once two people came knocking at her door, they proposed a view of the world that I didn't agree with or respect. She was kind, gracious even. Afterward, I took their literature and threw it in the trash with an attitude of scorn. She scolded me not to be disrespectful to them. I talked back to her, she said, we aren't that way. Even if we disagree, we don't act that way to other people.
"We treat people with respect." I felt her rebuke and tucked it away.
I remember how she struggled through the hurt. When I was young, her divorce was fresh. I watched as she waded through that hurt—not quitting, but courageously and confidently working through her pain and making a new home for herself in New York. I sat in awe years later. Grandma relayed to my whole family that she had forgiven my grandfather and had made peace. This forgiveness, which seemed impossible to me, became a reality when Grandma chose to move forward.
Through watching her actions, I felt her guidance and support to be better, try harder, and always open my heart to love.
The older I became, the more she shared her story. Over morning coffee, she would tell me stories about her life choices, loves, regrets, and triumphs. I watched her, listened to her, and learned from her.
More than once, at a party or get-together with some of Grandma's friends, one of those friends would intentionally pull me aside and gently urge me to understand her value and heart. They would encourage me to visit frequently and cherish what we had in her. I soaked all this up, listening to her stories and sometimes her secrets as she passed them on to me during quiet summer evenings and crisp winter mornings.
Early mornings at Grandma's house, though, were my absolute favorite. I would wake early to the smell of dark, bold roast coffee. Slinking down to her kitchen table, I'd have a stack of New Yorker Magazines to read, a Bible in hand, and a pen and journal ready. This was all a facade. What I was after was a conversation. And oh, the conversations we had! Grandma and I would travel the world in dialogue. I'd ask a question. She would tell a story. I would open my Bible and feign reading it while she worked on her crosswords. She'd ask me a question about the inevitable Bible question that was stumping her.
Grandma constantly prodded me and was ready to nudge me in the right direction.
She loved to ask me hard questions about the Bible. I was her resident philosopher-theologian. We chatted about faith and life a lot. She would tell me stories about going to church when she was young and make sure to tell me how Sunday school hadn't been nearly as impressive as our conversations.
Grandma was a world of knowledge, but she always gave me the floor— encouraging me and asking me hard questions— open-hearted and ready to debate and learn. I ever tried to rise to the challenge. It was at her table where I learned another side of Grandma's soul.
As the years passed, Grandma and I would always connect on this plain of faith. Inevitably, it was intertwined with her feelings of home and identity. At our impromptu Bible studies, she was always ready to talk, ask questions, and encourage me to keep seeking. On my visits back from Israel, I would describe all that I learned with a pang in my heart that I had never shown her a place that had become a home for me. But, I knew she was with me in spirit, as she was one of the reasons I had gone there in the first place.
The monuments of the homes she made, her actions, and our many conversations revealed to me who Grandma was. A woman of deep, sincere love, curiosity, and openness, a woman full of wisdom and courage. She was a woman of faith. She always met people where they were at. She could be poised and elegant in one moment and goofy and hilarious in another. I treasure those conversations, those moments—those sacred times together.
Last year, on this day, as she lay dying, I sat next to her holding her hand. One last time, I told her a story. I did not know if she could hear me or understood what I was saying, but I knew I had had one last conversation.
Since leaving to go to grad school in Israel, I eventually transitioned from student to teacher. Now, I teach graduate and undergraduates a course that journeys them throughout the lands of the Bible. I take every class on field trips, and one of those is the Judean wilderness.
It is the land just across the Jordan River that the Israelites saw for the first time. And, it is a wilderness— a dry and thirsty land. This theme of the difficulty of trials and times in the wilderness is addressed repeatedly in the Bible. But, one passage, Deuteronomy 32:10, takes a different view and one I knew I had to share with Grandma.
"But the LORD's portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage. He found him in a desert land and the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the LORD alone guided him"
What is the Apple of His Eye? The phrase is a bit odd. In Hebrew, it means, "the little man in his eye…." What is the little man in his eye? When we get up close and look deeply into each other eyes, what do you see? We see a reflection of ourselves! And when God looks into our eyes, what does He see? He sees a reflection of himself. What did she see when she looked into His eyes? She saw a beautiful eternal reflection of herself.
It is impossible to separate our past events from who we are now. We all go through times when we are stripped down to our essence to our core— and it is there— in that space— where we see He was there all along. I miss my Grandmother, but I rest in her destiny. I rest in the promises and I rest in love. I know someday I will meet her again.
Credit: Rev. Dr. Paul Wright first introduced me to this lovely concept of "the little man in his eye," standing on a ridge looking out at the Judaean wilderness. I'm indebted to his insight and wisdom. Please enjoy his published works.