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Bittersweet Journeys

Valerie Schneider

While we were still living in New Mexico, we had the honor of being invited by a friend to his home for a Passover seder. For us it was a cultural experience. The dinner is actually a history lesson, as it recounts the plight and flight of the children of Israel as they were released from slavery in Egypt and began the Exodus. It is an annual observance filled with poignant symbolism and important object lessons.

The seder plate is a main component to the Passover celebration. On it are placed ritual elements: a shank bone which stands in for the sacrificial lamb; salt water to represent the tears shed as slaves; parsley as a symbol of newness and springtime; a roasted egg denotes the burnt offerings brought to the Temple; bitter herbs (usually raw horseradish) indicate the bitterness of slavery; charoset, a sweet paste of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine, resembles the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves in Egyptian construction works, but it's sweetness also symbolizes hope and freedom.

During the seder, each element is discussed or consumed. At one point, participants put a spoonful of bitter herbs on a matzah cracker along with a spoonful of sweet charoset; the bitter and sweet are consumed together, symbolic that life is an equal mixture of both.

I was strongly reminded of this fact during our recent trip to the U.S.

The main purpose for throwing off our body clocks and making a journey across the ocean was to attend a wedding. Bryan’s nephew was getting married in Illinois and we had promised to attend. It was a great opportunity to spend time with Bryan’s family, who would all be together and spirited for the happy occasion. We looked forward to meeting the bride we had been hearing so much about. We have particular soft spots for our nephews and nieces, and wanted to share in the joy.

Other than awakening daily at 5:00 a.m. with the ferocious effects of jetlag, it all went off without a hitch. I shopped with my sister-in-law and niece, and found (gasp!) Affordable Pants That Fit, not to mention a couple of cute tops in 100% cotton that would help me brave the imminent heat wave so common throughout central Italy in the summer. Bryan spent some “testosterone time” with his brothers and nephews. His parents were looking fit and healthy, and it was wonderful to be in their company.

The wedding was well orchestrated for the many out-of-town guests, with thoughtful touches like a shuttle bus to transport guests to the rehearsal dinner and to the wedding and reception site, and back again. It was great to not need a rental car, and those partaking of the open bar could make merry without worry. A day-after picnic was held for the lingering family members and we were able to get acquainted a bit with the newest member of the family. A good time was had by all, as they say.

Weddings are always joyful events, and its fun to see the dewy faces of newlyweds. They are young and flush with all the possibilities of life stretching out before them. They are just setting their feet on the path.

Photo of the Newlyweds on a Bike

Newlyweds

Following the wedding weekend, we arrived in Ohio to find my maternal grandmother reaching the end of her journey. She had walked life’s road for ninety-seven years. Not bad for a girl who wasn’t expected to survive her first week.

Grams was born in August, 1910 and was christened Cecelia Elizabeth. At birth, she weighed only 3 ˝ pounds. She was so tiny that her mother’s wedding band fit over her entire wrist like a bracelet - and her mother, Josephine, was not a large woman. Josie cried when she first held the baby, certain that she would not see this child grow up.

The family lived on a rural farm and birthing was done at home with the aid of a midwife. Given the miniscule birth weight and potentially precarious health of this baby, it was felt that an incubator was needed. Ingenuity came to the fore, and a shoe box was lined with cotton 'wool' into which the baby was placed, and the box was settled into the open (unlit) oven to avoid drafts. Tender care, and maybe a touch of German stubbornness in her genes, ensured that she survived, and her petite stature belied the robust good health that Grams enjoyed throughout her long adult life.

My great-grandmother’s premonition of not seeing her daughter grow up turned out to be true, but not for the reason she had anticipated at the time. Josephine contracted tuberculosis and died when Grams was only twelve years old. Because of the infectious nature of the disease, the children were allowed only limited contact with Josie for a couple of years before her death. When her father remarried, my grandmother inherited an evil stepmother and two nasty stepsisters. She didn’t talk much about those experiences other than to say that they had made her life so miserable, she packed up and left home the day after her high school graduation. She took a job as a nurse’s aide and moved to a boarding house. She said she enjoyed her years there, and formed what would become life-long friendships.

My grandmother hated her name. No one knows why she had such antipathy for it, but at a young age she ditched “Cecelia” and began using her middle name, Elizabeth. That quickly got shortened to Betty, which is how nearly everyone knew her.

She married at the age of 29, what was considered “later in life” in those days. My soft-spoken but mischievous grandfather won her over quickly; they became engaged after a mere six weeks’ courtship. They had to wait a few years to marry, money being tight in the Depression years. She boasted that when she walked down the aisle they were earning $18.00 a week. She always said that grandpa fell in love with her because she could bake bread, but looking at youthful photos of her, it’s easy to see that he was attracted to a lovely girl with a ready smile.

Photo of Grams at a Picnic

"Grams" at a picnic

They were married for sixty-five years and they were very much a team. They both worked hard, lived simply, and had a common life philosophy: heart to God and hands to man.

The full fruit of this became fully evident to us in recent years. After my grandfather died, we moved Grams to a smaller apartment in the assisted living residence. In doing so we unearthed a stack of books, leather-bound diaries with “Year Book” proclaimed in gold lettering on each. I had not known that for most of her adult life my grandma wrote a daily journal of her day. They proved to be enlightening and interesting reading.

She wrote very dispassionately. These diaries were not a compilation of her thoughts, dreams or heart-aches. She wrote instead of her day. Every day, for years. The activities of the family members; what chores or pursuits she performed each day; where she walked; who she wrote letters to or received letters from; who visited. The picture that materialized of my grandma's life is drawn in bold lines, a black and white sketch, the color and depth of emotions are not brushed into the portrait.

The most striking thing that emerged as I read several years' worth of her daily activities was the fact that she did something for someone else every single day of her life. From baking bread, making cookies, and preparing meals to cleaning a house and writing letters. Cleaning the church linen, volunteering at the library, visiting invalid nuns, helping at the nursing home. She took meals to one family daily for more than six months. Having never learned to drive, she delivered her goodies on foot…”meals on heels,” as my uncle called it.

She looked in on another elderly lady and kept her company, washed her laundry, weeded her flower beds. She cared for an aged aunt who became senile and sometimes difficult and spiteful. Yet Grams continued as caregiver anyway. She recognized the needs of the person behind the facade. It upset her, yet she gave her all.

Grams wrote letters, thousands of them over her lifetime. Her poor handwriting was as notorious as her notes were welcome. She wrote regularly to far-away family and closer-by relations and friends. News of the area, words of encouragement, a few lines of poetry or an anecdote she found amusing told the recipient that she was thinking of them. She always included newspaper clippings and sometimes a couple of dollars. During World War II, she took great pride in confounding the censors when writing to a nephew who was a POW. She composed her notes in a tight circular pattern, starting in the center of the page and spiraling out. The nephew reported that his letters were the only ones in the barracks that were not blacked out even once. They were certainly difficult to read, but provided hours of occupation and precious news from home to the hapless soldier.

Grandma’s greatest joys were found in the simplest pleasures - a picnic, a phone call or a card received in the mail, a card game with friends, a visit to family members on a farm, a snowball fight. She loved a country drive and a stop for ice cream on the way home. She had us grandkids for frequent sleep-overs, for her amusement and ours, as well as to give my mom a break.

We spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house. We saw them at least twice a week, but sleep-overs were best. That’s when Grandma reveled in her role and let us eat Choco-Krispies, gave us root beer floats and homemade cookies by the dozen. She never wore pants in those days, but would still get down on the floor and play games with us, or take a turn down the slide at the nearby park. She’d throw the water hose over the clothesline for us to frolic in the spray on a hot summer day. Grandpa made us hand-fashioned skateboards that we’d scoot around on, with Grams calling after us to be careful.

She was an amazing lady who led a simple life. Simple, but not spare. Full. Well-rounded. Complete. Her actions were simply automatic…and they impacted her neighborhood, her church, and her community. She and my grandfather helped the underdogs, the under-privileged, the under-loved, and the undernourished. She influenced three generations of her family, leaving a lasting legacy she didn’t even know she was imparting. And maybe that is the most profound thing of all. She simply went about her daily life, and in doing so touched the lives of many others.

The child that wasn’t expected to live out her first week enjoyed ninety-seven years on this earth. She watched dramatic events unfold over the course of nearly a century. She liked to say that in her lifetime she saw mankind go from a horse and buggy to a man on the moon, and she was a witness to all the changes in between. She was born at the cusp of World War I, came of age in the Roaring Twenties, was shaped by the Great Depression, experienced The New Deal, was a member of the Greatest Generation, gave birth to Baby Boomers, watched the arrival of the Digital Age, and heralded the dawn of a New Millennium.

My grandmother passed away on June 5. She was just three months shy of her 98th birthday. I was so fortunate that I was able to spend some time with her before she died.

Photo of Grams in a Hat

"Grams" in a hat

We had planned our travels around a wedding celebration, but ended up attending a funeral. Nevertheless, this journey turned out to be perfectly timed, reminding us that “to everything there is a season…A time to be born and a time to die.” Grams experienced 391 seasons.

“A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…” As I learned at that Passover observance, life brings the bitter as well as the sweet…sometimes in the same moment.


Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2008

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