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Insert Comma • A Portfolio of Leigh E. Rich
Passing on

Words, of a ‘meshugah bubbe,’ to live by

By Leigh E. Rich

Passing down. Passing away.

Passing on.

All these things my grandmother has accomplished, even in her final moments this week when I, in a post-Advocate production night haze, joined my fellow journalists for a beer at the Boiler Room.

I had no idea that night the 98-year-old matron of the Rich family would finally let stubbornness subside and take death’s hand without a fight. Why would I? In the past year, our family has received the dreaded phone call countless times—“She’s on her deathbed, you’d better come now”—only to rush to her hospital bedside where she’d be holding court with her myriad descendants.

The hospital’s physicians would then shuffle my father and his nine brothers and sisters into a separate room—leaving sons- and daughters-in-law, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren in her midst—to discuss DNR requests if she were to become unconscious again, when all one had to do was ask my lucid grandmother herself. And every time, her response was the same: She’d choose life. Of course she’d choose life.

And then the next call would come from the hospital staff and the next. Frankly, we’d stopped believing them, these so-called experts in life and death. Which is why her forfeit on Wednesday came as such a surprise. My willful grandmother? She’d never yield.

But no one makes it to 98 without knowing her mind, especially with the route my grandmother had taken. Born in Brooklyn the only daughter of Jewish immigrants, Rivka “Rebecca” Boelen grew up in Denver, having to sell newspapers for pennies outside of the Brown Palace as a young girl to survive. She told us this story, how she and her mother eked out a living while her father lay ill with TB, the night of my aunt’s—her youngest daughter’s—wedding at the historic hotel in 1997.

That night, almost a century later, she slept at the Brown and in the morning the staff brought the paper to her.

No one exits at 98 without leaving a mind behind, either. Though I couldn’t have known of her departure that night after putting the paper to bed and uncannily lecturing my fellow Advocados to stop and smell the roses—or, in our case, stop and drink the beer—because “there’s no guarantee for tomorrow,” I imparted some of my Jewish grandmother’s worldview she has passed on to me in the course of our barroom conversation. In a silly discourse on the evils of carbohydrates, I quoted (as loosely translated from Yiddishkeit): “Fat noodles make for a fat tochus, skinny noodles a skinny one.”

Truly, words to live by.

But she had more. Oh, did she have more. And between her and my small phalanx of relatives, I’ve heard them all. Many times. Many times. These old Yiddish sayings, so simple though not always so sweet, are the life lessons my grandmother taught me. Though not an exhaustive list by any means nor in their lingua franca, these are the memories that swirl in eddies inside my head as I remember the life of a mensch, that special woman always so deserving of respect:

You look up you see better, you look down you see worse.

Whether you’re rich or you’re poor, it’s nice to have money.

The handle is never far from the pot.

Your hair is your crowning glory.

If the devil takes the horse, let him take the cart too.

My favorite: It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion.

Though, perhaps the most important: Choose life. Of course choose life.

Of all the euphemisms we have for death—all the ways we attempt to avoid inserting our proverbial feet-into-mouth—I’ll stick with “passing on” and hope, one day, I’ll have as much with which to depart.

Rich, L. E. (2002, February 6). Words, of a ‘meshugah bubbe,’ to live by. CU-Denver Advocate.

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