Yesterday, we buried my grandmother. It felt remarkably final, in a way that burying my grandfathers had not, and I’m not really sure why. Maybe because I didn’t really contemplate my grandmother’s death. I didn’t really have time to process it. She was diagnosed with advanced, incurable, untreatable leukemia on Thursday morning. She passed away on Tuesday, at three a.m. Five days, from diagnosis to death. Even the hospice nurses and doctors said, “This is moving fast.” And yet, she barely moved at all. I hadn’t contemplated her death, because she hadn’t really been sick. Not for the time in which I knew and loved her. And even on Sunday, just 36 hours before she passed, she was making jokes with us and following along as we remembered stories of the family’s pet python who escaped in the house. My grandmother was quiet, determined, dignified, generous, and strong. She was all of those things in life, and in her brief illness.
My grandmother was born to two Deaf immigrants, one from Kiev, Ukraine, and one from Lithuania. My grandmother’s first language was sign language. She was finger-spelling and signing for her parents, translating medical appointments and the rest of the world for them, by the time she was four, along with her brother, four years older than her. My grandmother was born in 1927, so not only did she grow up the child of very poor disabled Jewish immigrants, but she grew up during the Depression. Her father got work where he could, and ended up on New Deal projects around New York, including Coney Island. He knew that the only way his daughter was going to be independent and stable was through education. When my grandmother was eleven, though they were very poor, my great-grandfather bought her a typewriter so she could learn to type. That skill allowed my grandmother a great deal of freedom and opportunity later where she might not have had any.
When my grandmother was in first grade, she won a school contest, a spelling bee or some sort. The reward was a pack of cards with different birds on them. Red birds, blue birds, green and yellow birds. My grandmother was amazed. She hadn’t known before that point that birds came in colors. She says that pack of cards kicked off a lifelong love of birds and colorful places and things, but I think it’s something more too. My grandmother had a hunger for knowledge that I’ve seen in few other people. She learned because she could. She never stopped taking classes (in fact, some of the stories I’m sharing in this post I learned after she took a memoir writing course and shared the results with us). She loved to travel, and just two months ago, flew to San Francisco to my cousin’s wedding. She wanted to see and know things beyond the boundaries of her world.
My grandmother broke glass ceilings in her day. In 1948, she completed her master’s degree in biostatistics and public health from Columbia University. She worked on the Salk polio vaccine trials as a young epidemiologist and later became an oncological epidemiologist for the National Institutes of Health. She worked thirty hours a week while raising four children, and when her last child went off to college, she bumped that up to forty hours a week. She published papers, insisted on the right to balance her family life and her work life, traveled, presented at conferences, and found people to work with who admired her and knew that she was an incredible scientist in her own right.
Later in life, my grandmother volunteered at the Smithsonian’s O. Orkin Insect Zoo. She specifically wanted to work with tarantulas, precisely because someone suggested that that wasn’t a job for women, especially of her age. I vividly remember grinning with pride as that was my grandmother, the one feeding the tarantula with all the schoolchildren gathered around, gasping and shrieking. I might not like spiders, especially hairy spiders, but it was awesome to see my 4’10 grandmother commanding such respect.
Once, I finally found a tarantula at the insect zoo that was an acceptable size, smaller than the palm of my hand. “You should feed this one. She’s much smaller,” I said to Grandma.
Grandma calmly looked over and said, “Oh her? She’ll grow to be the size of a dinner plate. She’ll be magnificent.”
On September 11th, my grandmother had arrived to the insect zoo early, before the chaos of the day began, and so when D.C. shut down, it was her, and her supervisor, hanging out in the insect zoo for the entire day, looking out over an empty National Mall on a clear, beautiful September day, until they were finally escorted out of the Smithsonian.
My grandmother’s doors were always open to her grandchildren and her favorite gifts to give were cookies and books. Every time she and my grandfather visited, they’d bring books for us. My particular favorites were Jim Arnosky books, which were all about animals and nature, brooks and deserts and pinelands. They brought us Hardy Boys books and Nancy Drew. They read books aloud to us, and loved nothing more than having their house full of quietly reading kids.
My grandmother read Second Position, and Finding Center (“Sex wasn’t invented yesterday, Katie”), and discussed them with her friends, and she was thrilled to hear about The Girl with the Red Balloon. The Girl with the Red Balloon has always been dedicated to my grandfathers, but now it is also dedicated to her. I am a better person because I am her granddaughter.
My grandmother was not a particularly religious person, though she observed holidays and strongly identified as Jewish. But perhaps Judaism would have been more than just a cultural identity to her had her parents been accepted into a synagogue, had Judaism been accessible to them as Deaf people. So for my Jewish friends reading this, I hope that in my grandmother’s memory, and in the memory of her parents, we all work toward making our Jewish communities, in religious ways and in cultural ways, accessible to disabled people.
And for my non-Jewish friends, if you’re inspired to do anything in my grandmother’s memory today, this week, or this month, support girls interested in science, math and technology. Never tell a girl that girls don’t build skyscrapers, or design hovercrafts, or break the code to a polio vaccine, or unlock a genetic code, or study tarantulas. Support girls who want to study STEM topics, not just online, but in real life. Donate time and money. Pay attention to your language. Instead of saying, “I’m surprised she’s studying that”, try, “That’s so awesome!” Don’t alienate. Lift up girls, especially girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. My grandmother was tenacious and determined, but she might not have followed the path she did without the support of people in her life who never said, “But you’re a woman” or “You’re a wife now.”
Me, crashing my grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary in the fall of 1987.