I met Lois in 1992, just a month after I met her #2 son, Ed. She was in her early 60s and remarkably independent as a divorced, single entrepreneur mom and grandma. She was Jewish, had grown up Orthodox and had relaxed into a more Reformed belief system. She was still reconciling herself to how relevant her faith and culture was to her personally. So when her #2 son introduced a Jesus-following Christian to his Jewish mom, she was kind and open. There was never a hint of judgment.
We discovered in our first conversation that we had more in common than we had differences. I was a divorced, single mom building a career, and she was a divorced mom and grandma entrepreneur. We had both lost our moms as teenagers, married soon after and struggled long and hard to grow up without our moms. We had both felt and grieved the loss of our moms as we celebrated each milestone in our own lives.
She loved her kids and would do anything for their well-being and happiness, and so would I. She appreciated cheap wine, a good cup of coffee and chocolate. Me too! We shared a love for piano music and bread, and fought to keep the extra pounds off.
Through the years, we bonded over the shared experience of loving and supporting Ed through his career, raising and encouraging his children and mine. Through recitals and graduations and weddings, we celebrated.
One of the things I learned from my mother-in-law is that Jews celebrate for days. Literally DAYS! Bar and Bat Mitvahs last from Friday through Sunday. Rosh Hoshanna (2 days) and Hanukkah (8 days), Passover (7 days). I was not conditioned for the celebration marathons.
In my family, Christmas is a season that culminates in a single morning. Easter was a new dress for church in the morning and a family Easter egg hunt after dinner. Nothing in my “shiksa” family holiday history prepared me for partying with the Jews. I could not keep up with them. The food was heavy, in never-ending quantities, and layered with flavors my palate had never entertained. My mother-in-law made her own chopped liver. Don’t even laugh at all the jokes you’ve heard (“who am I, chopped liver?”). You would be lucky to be considered chopped liver! Especially hers–she made hers with so much love and so much pride in her traditions–and so much ‘gribbenes’ or extra rendered chicken fat. She called her chopped liver ‘cholesterol heaven.’ And I would eat it and go directly there every Jewish holiday.
Lois was a listener. She asked questions, lots of questions. Sometimes she drove people (like her #2 son) crazy with her questions. She did not feel comfortable with silence in conversations. I learned early that dialoging with Lois was a full-time job. She expected affirmation, interest and interaction, but she also gave them back generously. In fact, if she made a statement and you did not respond, she would say “huh?” To prompt your response. It is the principle of Jewish “midrash,” or on-going sharing of ideas. This practice of considering and exploring differing opinions has been inculcated over thousands of years in the Jewish culture through the sharing of perspectives about the Torah. It has been going on for so many generations, first about the Torah, but later about so many other topics, that it is culturally involuntary now. Lois was the poster child for midrash. (The Burning Word by Judith M. Kunst.)
She loved to travel. She went on so many trips–many to my house when we lived in distant places–and many out of the country. She was fascinated by cultures and people, their foods and their customs. Another common interest we shared.
More than anything, Lois loved to brag. She loved to boast about her children’s success and her grandchildren’s exploits. She was such a stereotypical Jewish mom and grandma in this regard! Her family kept her in the business of impressing people for decades. In her eyes, no one could keep up with them. With us. Even us, her non-Jewish family.
Lois was a lover of life! “L’Heim!” she would say at every toast: “To life!” When it came time to choose whether to die or live without a leg, she said yes to life and had her leg amputated. She lived almost two years when the other leg suffered the same condition. She would have lopped off that leg too, just to continue living and bragging about all of us, but part of life is also death. All three of her sons stepped in to encourage her to face the end bravely. She was given three weeks to live and she parlayed that into three months.
We buried Lois two weeks ago today, on May 22. 2017 at the age of 85. Her first granddaughter held her hand as she breathed her last breath. Lois would have bragged so much about that! Her life was memorialized beautifully by a female rabbi and I think all of us were proud of how far the Jewish faith has come. We “sat shiva” or mourned her loss, not just for the day of the funeral, for TWO days! Her three sons sat in shiva chairs slung low to the ground. In Jewish tradition, they were to be as uncomfortable physically as they were emotionally while they grieved. There was a “minyan” or group of ten (or more) practicing Jewish people present for Jewish services in Hebrew each night. The rabbi came and led this group of Jews, practicing and non-observant, while we of other faiths looked on in respect and tried to keep up with the phonetic spelling in the prayer books.
For two days and nights we mourned. Of course. The Jews celebrate everything for days! Even funerals. Exactly how it should be for my mother-in-law.
Rest easy, Grandma Lois. Messiah is coming and you will rise to join Him.